Gasp! First new Scrabble rules since 1948?

By By Laura T. Coffey
|  Tuesday, Apr 6, 2010  |  Updated 5:00 PM CDT
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Scrabble Rule Changes Spell O-U-T-R-A-G-E for Fans

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On Tuesday, toy and game company Mattel announced plans to release a new version of the popular word game in Britain. That version, to be unveiled in the next few months, will allow celebrity names and other proper nouns to garner points.

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Can you spell O-U-T-R-A-G-E?

That’s the sensation that gripped wordsmiths and language lovers everywhere when news began trickling out about the beloved game Scrabble getting a facelift for the very first time since 1948.

On Tuesday, toy and game company Mattel announced plans to release a new version of the popular word game in Britain. That version, to be unveiled in the next few months, will allow celebrity names and other proper nouns to garner points.

Other planned changes may strike diehard fans of the game as even more radical: Scrabble players will be able to spell words backwards and even play words unconnected to any other words on the board.

But Scrabble purists in the United States and Canada have nothing to fear. Hasbro, owner of the Scrabble game in North America, said the new edition of the game will not be lapping up on these shores.

“The rules of Scrabble as you and I and 50 million other Americans know them will not be changing, and this game will not be available in the United States or Canada,” said John D. Williams Jr., executive director of the National Scrabble Association and the official spokesman for the game in North America.

“We don’t even know if this is going to work,” Williams continued. “The thing with Scrabble ... is that the game is so brilliantly simple just the way it is. ... You could just buy a regular Scrabble game and [change the rules]. I absolutely understand why they’re trying it, but really, who knows whether it will take off?”

Intense reactions to rule changes
In Britain, many Scrabble lovers took to their computer keyboards to decry the coming rule changes.

“This is an outrage,” wrote one message-board poster on the Web site of British newspaper The Times. “I will gladly vote for any political party which will have the good grace to ban this sick filth.”

“Now it can sell to the stupid as well,” wrote another Times poster. “Huge market there.”

But even in the UK, Scrabble traditionalists need not get their knickers in a twist. Mattel, owner and distributor of the Scrabble game in Britain, stressed that the new rules will apply to a special edition of the game only, and the original Scrabble game — with its original Scrabble rules — will remain completely intact.

“The makers of Scrabble have confirmed that they are making plans to change the rules for the first time to introduce new challenges to the game for a special edition,” Mattel said in a statement. “The final details of this new take on the classic will be announced later this year.”

The revelation that celebrity names could be used to earn points in the new edition sparked heated online discussions over whether monikers such as “TomKat,” “Bennifer,” “Brangelina” or “Speidi” would count as “proper names.”

Hundreds of people sounded off about the possible changes on Twitter — and generally described them as “reckless,” “dumb” and “wrong wrong wrong” — although not everyone was opposed.

“I love this,” one man tweeted. “Jennifer almost always beats me at Scrabble. Not anymore!”

A rich history
Williams, the spokesman for the game in North America, said he is not at all surprised by the passion — and the vitriol — being triggered by the notion of changing Scrabble at all. Even the removal of offensive words and ethnic epithets from the Scrabble dictionary in the 1990s sparked its own share of controversy at the time, Williams recalled.

Created during the Great Depression of the 1930s by a mild-mannered architect named Alfred Mosher Butts, Scrabble has remained unchanged since it was officially trademarked in 1948.

As envisioned by Butts, the game gives players the opportunity to make the best possible use of seven individual letter tiles on a game board. Each tile is assigned a point value based on that letter’s frequency in the English language. To determine letters’ frequencies, Butts carefully scoured the front page of The New York Times and counted, and counted, and counted.

For years, Butts tried unsuccessfully to get the game patented and picked up by major game manufacturers. He finally found support from a fan of the game, James Brunot, who agreed to manufacture it and give Butts a royalty whenever a copy of the game sold.

They got the game copyrighted and trademarked — and it took off. Today, more than 150 million copies have been sold all over the world.

Butts continued to play his original version of the game with family and friends until his death in 1993 at age 93.

“I knew him,” Williams said. “I played Scrabble against him. You know what he said to me? He said, ‘I’m not a very good speller.’ ”

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