Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sustaining the Scrabble ecosystem

Posted by Brad Mills
According to the US Chess Federation, there are at least 200 active rated chess players in West Virginia. "Active" in this sense means the player in question has participated in a tournament or rated event within the last year. (The queries I'm doing against the USCF's website are limited to 200 returned lines, so there could easily be more than that.) Overall, the USCF claims over 80,000 members and 2000 clubs, and sanctions thousands of tournaments each year - which include over half a million games and 25 National Championships. (!!!)

An occasional debate topic on CGP is Scrabble versus chess. Both games are played on a board with a grid, strategy is a factor in both, the rating systems are similar, and some of the equipment used is arguably similar. In the tournament scene of both games, there are discussions of pairing theory, protecting one's rating, computer simulations of optimal plays, endgames, and sacrifices.

Clearly there are several similarities, and inevitably, the question arises: "Why doesn't club and tournament Scrabble enjoy the same popularity as chess?"

It's easy to make this logical leap. Chess is a game of pure skill and intellect, whereas in Scrabble, luck becomes a factor - and the unclean masses enjoy games of luck as much as, if not more than, games of skill and intellect. Scrabble uses the lexical units of language - words - as playing pieces. Chess uses "castles" which move sideways, "horses" which move in an L shape and can jump over other pieces, and "the little ones" which can move one space, two spaces, or diagonally depending on where they are on the board at the time and relative to other pieces.

Basically, if you can read and occasionally get lucky, you can play Scrabble. If you can memorize the moves for each piece (including en passant and castling), learn a few basic openings, and take early control of the center, you can play chess... though not very well. Sounds like a no-brainer, doesn't it? So shouldn't there be a lot more Scrabble players? Everyone has played Scrabble at one time or another. The game is found in one out of three American homes. I'm not so sure that can be said of chess.

There is the time factor, of course. Scrabble has been around for only 60 years. Chess, in its current form, has existed since about 1475 - so keep in mind there have been over 530 years for chess to grow to the level where it is today. With roughly one-tenth the amount of time under its belt, Scrabble enjoys roughly one-tenth the membership, tournament participation, and so forth when compared with chess. So one could say we're right where we're supposed to be.

The NSA is expanding via a School Scrabble program and reportedly doing so with some degree of success. Apple pulled this same stunt when I was in grade school and also had some success with it, at least until other parties took notice and did so with even greater success, no doubt by having much deeper pockets. Today's kids have various means of distraction at their disposal to compete with the NSA, also with deeper pockets. So while Scrabble as part of a school (or after-school) curriculum is definitely a good thing, it's questionable whether or not it will make the transition into a kid's chosen leisure activity.

A gentleman observing our most recent club meeting quipped to me that he enjoyed playing Scrabble until he read Word Freak. I replied that I didn't truly enjoy or appreciate it until I read Word Freak. Once you make that jump from the kitchen table to the club table, it truly becomes a different game. So perhaps that is the problem - we are playing a fundamentally different game than the one Hasbro is marketing. And we all know Hasbro has deep pockets.

So overall, is the Scrabble club and tournament ecosystem sustainable, and if not, what can we do - collectively - to make it that way?


  1. I think part of the problem is public perception. Chess is seen as a classic game of stragegy. Scrabble is seen as "America's Goodtime Game".

    And with Scrabble, one usually has to be exposed to higher level play, to realize the complexities and strategies that make Scrabble so addictive.

    I believe that positive press, on a large scale -like ESPN coverage of the Nationals, and on the local level - newspapers covering hometown tournaments, will go a long way toward giving Scrabble 'street cred'.


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