Magazine article The Spectator

Of Zyzzyva and Syzygy

Magazine article The Spectator

Of Zyzzyva and Syzygy

Article excerpt

LETTERATI: AN UNAUTHORISED LOOK AT SCRABBLE AND THE PEOPLE WHO PLAY IT by Paul McCarthy ECW Press, £12.99, pp. 240, ISBN 9781550228281 £10.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Make no mistake: Scrabble is a brutal game. Given a chance to foil an opponent, the dearest friend will turn sly and dogmatic. No surprise then to discover that in North America Scrabble is a cutthroat business, in which computer-generated word-lists, strategy and money have come to dominate the game. For Paul McCarthy, whose account of the North American circuit, Letterati, is a celebration of professional Scrabble, the 'parlour players' (sometimes known as 'kitchen-table players') who spend lazy Sunday afternoons munching snacks and debating the spelling of arcane words are just so many dinosaurs.

In 1938 an unemployed architect from New York called Alfred Butts had the idea of combining his two passions, anagrams and crossword puzzles. Using the front page of the New York Times, he calculated the number of letters needed to make up a board. For a while he called his game 'Lexico', then changed it to 'Criss Cross' words, but in 1948 it was marketed as Scrabble (from the Dutch schrabben, to scrape or scratch, a meaning curiously appropriate to the new spirit of the game) and by the 1970s Scrabble was regularly being played in public games room in New York. At the Fleahouse on 42nd Street, a sleazy joint off Broadway, Scrabble fiends lured dim-witted parlour players off the streets in order to fleece them.

But it was in the Game Room in the basement of the Beacon Hotel on 75th Street that Scrabble came of age. A first tournament attracted 500 players, clubs were formed and serious play began, so serious that players were not always sure that their opponents were using English. Pre-printed tracking sheets made their appearance, so that players could know precisely what letters were left. Soon, there were Scrabble magazines and newsletters, competitions and a rating system. The double challenge was introduced, whereby a player can put down a word he knows does not exist: if challenged and found wrong, he loses a turn; if right, the challenger forfeits his go.

And, inevitably, scams and ways of cheating followed, with special hidden pouches for letters, a way of dextrously fondling the tiles to find the blank and what is known as coffee-housing, distracting your opponent by coughing, humming or whistling.

More interesting, however, and more worrying to the sad old parlour players, is what competitive Scrabble threatens to do to the English language. …

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