The Meaning of Scrabble
Listen to Slate’s show about how much language really matters in the hugely popular word game.
Listen to Lexicon Valley Episode No. 6: A Meditation on Scrabble
Does Scrabble in fact celebrate language? Or does it merely reduce English to a set of mathematical symbols and probability calculations? In the final episode of our first series of Lexicon Valley podcasts, I talk to Word Freak author and competitive Scrabble player Stefan Fatsis about how a math game disguised as a word game nevertheless unlocks the essential beauty of the English language.
Lexicon Valley will be back with more new episodes in the spring. You'll find a list of all Lexicon Valley episodes at slate.com/lexiconvalley, or in the player below:
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Below is a transcript of this episode:
MIKE: Bob Garfield is away this week, so it's just me. And I thought since our first handful of episodes were all relatively academic—you know, touching on grammar and etymology and linguistics and lexicography—I thought that we would in this episode lighten it up a bit and talk about language and gaming. I've always been a really big fan of word puzzling. I had a subscription to Games Magazine when I was a kid. I'm a longtime crossword and cryptic crossword and diagramless crossword and acrostic solver. I moonlight as a sort of proofer or test solver for a puzzle magazine company. I love all of that stuff. That said, I've never really been much of a Scrabble fan because, well, I have a very specific critique of the game that I think is not uncommon and we'll get to that in a bit. But it so happens that one of the guys I work with on one of Slate's other podcasts, “Hang Up and Listen”—which is the antidote to the kind of grousing, sports-talk shout-fests that I grew up on in the New York area as a Yankees fan—“Hang Up and Listen” is thoughtful and probing and smart, and one of the regular panelists on the show is Stefan Fatsis. He's a former sports reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the author of a couple of excellent sports books. He also happens to be a competitive Scrabble player and he wrote a book about his own deep-dive into the game, a book called Word Freak with the subtitle Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players. He just published an updated 10th anniversary edition in this past year. I thought that if I wanted to gain more of an appreciation for this game, and I honestly do, then he's the guy to talk to. So, thanks for being on the show, Stefan.
FATSIS: Hey Mike.
MIKE: I think we should establish first that competitive Scrabble and the sort of living-room variety of Scrabble that many of us play with our friends and family, although essentially the same game, they're really very different. It's sort of like, you know, major league baseball versus T-ball or something like that. So explain for me what the difference is.
FATSIS: The difference is how you approach the game. I think in the living room for people it's, it's a word game. It's who can make the cutest word, the cleverest word or the highest-scoring word. In competitive Scrabble, it's much more a strategic game. It's a mathematical game. It's about probabilities. It's about knowing what letters are left to be played that are still in the bag versus what's been played on the board. It's about trying to build a rack toward making a seven- or an eight-letter word or a longer word, using all of your letters at once, making a "bingo." It's about understanding board geometry and strategy, trying to outthink your opponent and balance the risk of opening something up versus the potential reward for you being able to capitalize on that with the same frequency in most cases as your opponent.
MIKE: It becomes a kind of chess game and, just like in chess where you sort of practice gambits, in Scrabble there's a kind of training regimen as well.
FATSIS: Yeah, in the book, in Word Freak, I compare it to memorizing thousands or hundreds of openings in chess. In Scrabble you memorize thousands and thousands of words. What you're doing is essentially arming yourself with an arsenal of language. The only way to play this game to its fullest potential is to understand the rules of the game and the rules are the words. I mean the words are strings of letters that you have at your disposal because using them at the appropriate time will maximize your chances of winning the game. It's a very limited use of language. In order to maximize those chances you have to know as many of those words as possible. That's Step 1, and there are many players that have memorized every playable word in Scrabble in North America and some who have memorized every playable word in international Scrabble, and those are two different things that I think we'll talk about later. Part 2, then, is being able to retrieve the words from your brain at the appropriate time. It's performing under pressure.
MIKE: But it's not just words because you also have to memorize what are called "stems," like six letters that don't necessarily form a word but, when you add a seventh letter to them, they do form a word. And there are many different seventh letters that you can add to them to form any number of words. And so you have to memorize what these multiple, common six-letter combinations are or seven-letter combinations to which you can add an eighth letter in hopes that you get rid of all your tiles and you get a sort of 50-point bonus for that. It's called a "bingo," as you mentioned.
FATSIS: Right, so when Scrabble became popular in the early 1950s, very, very quickly players figured out that you're gonna maximize your chances of winning if you play the words that appear most frequently in the game or the letters that emerge most frequently from the bag of a hundred tiles. There are 12 E's for a reason. There are four S's for a reason. The guy that invented the game, Alfred Butts, was very deliberate in his creation of Scrabble. He wrote down thousands of words and calculated the letter frequencies that appear in the English language, basically by writing down words and letters that appeared in pages of newspapers and magazines in New York where he lived. So the earliest players discovered that, yeah, if I realize that I'm gonna pull out a lotta E's and R's and N's and T's, and those are the most commonly occurring letters in the English language and they're also the most commonly occurring letters in Scrabble, they will be the ones that I can play the most. So players very quickly realized that I gotta go through the dictionary, write down the stuff I need to use a lot—the two-letter words, the three-letter words and then these very common seven-letter words and learn them. So, yes, one way of studying is to take these "stems"—SATIRE, TISANE, RETINA, those are the three most common stems—and learn all of the words that when you add a seventh letter combine to make words. And just those three stems combine to make around 200 words. So Scrabble players then figured out that if I create more stems and create more methods of memorizing those stems and the words that are contained in them, you'll have more words in your brain, and those are the words that'll appear more frequently in the game.
MIKE: So, for example, if I were to say SATIRE, a six-letter stem, and say F, they'll be able to tell me all the bingos ...
MIKE: There you go. If I were to say TISANE and T.
FATSIS: SATINET, INSTATE.
MIKE: Okay, so apparently you've done this. Now, at its core Scrabble is a game of anagrams then, and that's a big part of the practice regimen. It's not just memorizing these stems and these words. You also have to train yourself to see words in an otherwise random sequence of letters.
FATSIS: Right. And one technique that Scrabble players use is laying out their tiles in alphabetical order. That's called an alphagram in Scrabble. And just the trigger of seeing a pattern that you've seen before triggers something in your brain to say, oh, I know the words that are contained in that group of letters. Or I know that there are no words contained in that group of letters. I have found that some players like to learn definitions, parts of speech ...
MIKE: Learning a definition helps them to tether the word in their mind and not forget it.
FATSIS: And transfer it from short-term to long-term memory in your brain really is what's happening. I found that definitions were too much. Definitions are fascinating. I love looking up words. Whenever I come across a Scrabble word that I've never seen before I look it up. When I teach kids how to play Scrabble, which I do a lot of, we open the dictionary constantly when they find something that's unusual or I suggest a word that's uncommon. But ultimately the goal is the same. How many of these words can I cram in there and extract at the proper time?
MIKE: And how many strings of letters can I then sort of decode into an actual, playable word. And these are sort of games that Scrabble players play with each other. They will call out a string of letters, as an alphagram in alphabetical order, and the other person will have to try to form a word from it. And we're not talking like a string of three or four or five letters. We're talking eight, nine, 10, 11, 12 letters.
FATSIS: Thirteen, 14, 15. Yeah, and it's a fascinating thing to watch. It was my indoctrination into Scrabble in some ways. At the very beginning of Word Freak, at one of the first tournaments I played in, a couple of the guys that ended up becoming main characters in the book would play this game and sort of drag me into it to sort of test my linguistic manhood. And it felt like an initiation rite for me. When I realized like, oh, I can do this, not like they do it—sort of both on the front end, thinking of a word and then mentally rearranging the letters in alphabetical order and spitting them out instantly, and then on the back end, solving the riddle instantaneously—but I had some facility for doing that. I mean I had a math brain but not a math brain like the super experts.
MIKE: Now, the problem I think some people have with Scrabble is its reliance on these thousands and thousands of very obscure words that have really no place at all in the everyday vocabulary of most people, of any people really. These words sort of sit somewhere outside of the practical lexicon. And I'm sympathetic to this complaint, though I guess I would describe it a bit differently. I mentioned earlier that I moonlight for a puzzle company and a type of puzzle that I test-solve is called a Logic Problem. I usually describe for people who don't know—for people who ask, which is pretty rare—I usually describe a Logic Problem as a math problem disguised as a word problem. And that's sort of how I think of Scrabble. It reduces the language to a series of mathematical symbols that fit together in select patterns. Am I wrong to think of it that way?
FATSIS: No, not at all. I mean, I think that's what it is at the highest levels. Ultimately, this is about a board that is 15 squares by 15 squares. There are numerical values assigned to both the letters, and there are mathematical values assigned to the playing squares, some of them. The goal of the game is to find the right solution mathematically, the optimal solution that will allow you to win. I'm keeping track of how many vowels are left. I'm keeping track of how many consonants are left. I'm aware of which consonants and which vowels are unseen to me. So I'm performing a sort of mathematical balance. If I look at my rack and I decide, oh, I need to get rid of these seven consonants in order to maximize my chances of winning, I can then look and say, oh, there are 16 vowels left and there are only eight consonants left. I should probably keep two or three of my consonants—the ones that are most likely to yield a bingo, to allow me to use all seven of my tiles at once—rather than getting rid of all of the consonants because I know that I'm likely to draw a preponderance of vowels the next time.
MIKE: And yet, despite all of this math that you're describing that you need to do to be a competitive Scrabble player, it somehow releases the beauty of the language for you. Make me understand that.
FATSIS: From a purely language orientation, what Scrabble does to my mind is, for players who have devoted the time to learn as many of the acceptable words as possible, it has given these words a second life. You have to accept in Scrabble that it is not a game of who knows more words in a daily sense, who's got a broader vocabulary. That's not what it's about.
MIKE: Completely irrelevant.
FATSIS: Irrelevant. It's about who knows more words in a purely pile-driving sense. If you view the words as tools, which I do, then you are inherently accepting their legitimacy as part of the language. I think you just have to accept that the language is broader and it is deeper, it is more diverse and it is more challenging than you or I are accustomed to thinking of it. It's a way of considering language that is beyond communication, beyond writing, beyond speaking, beyond daily usage. So, for Scrabble players you may think of it as sort of brute force assault on the language. How many of these words can I ingest indiscriminately? Or you can look at it as, wow, it is really cool that there are so many words in English that don't get used every day and I have an opportunity to do that by playing this game. I think of it as liberating words from the prison of dictionaries.
MIKE: There's another kind of cognitive dissonance, then, that I find really interesting in Scrabble. It's this realization that although there is a precise probabilistic best play, presumably, for any given turn ...
FATSIS: There is.
MIKE: Yet, there's this sense among even competitive Scrabble players who know that, that there's something to do with those seven tiles that's in some way transcendent possibly with any given turn.
FATSIS: When I play Scrabble, I am forever hoping that something transcendent will occur, and it is that possibility that keeps you playing game after game after game after game for years and years and years. Because you know that something magical could happen. And that magic can be in a Scrabble sense, you know, I can lay something very pedestrian down where seven letters go on top of seven more letters. And that's beautiful.
FATSIS: But it might also be something magical that happens linguistically: a beautiful word, a beautiful string of letters that look unusual set one against another, or a play that requires the sort of mental dexterity that elicits something unusual on the board. Finding a word through three disconnected. Extending one word into something longer that has a completely different meaning. Meaning is intrinsic to native speakers when you're playing Scrabble because you can appreciate the second sense of what you're doing.
FATSIS: From a purely Scrabble perspective, though, it's all about utility. The beauty is secondary.
MIKE: OK, back with Stefan Fatsis. He's the author of Word Freak, and before we talk about this current controversy over which word list to use essentially, which dictionary, I wanna talk a little bit about the words themselves. There's a guy you've written about whose attraction to the words of Scrabble is sort of all-consuming or was—he has since died—yet it's also detached, as you've said. Tell me about Joe Leonard.
FATSIS: Joe was not a Scrabble player, but he was a list-maker. He was a guy that lived reclusively in a small apartment in Philadelphia. At the dawn of the creation of the Scrabble Dictionary in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, Joe fact-checked the book. No one asked him to do it, but he started compiling lists of errata from the official dictionary and sending them in to the National Scrabble Association and then to Merriam-Webster, which was the book's publisher and still is the book's publisher. Joe never asked for compensation. He had some form of, I don't know, autism or Asperger's. He had thousands and thousands of pages that comprised his life's work, essentially.
MIKE: And he had an impact on the sort of lexicon of the Scrabble world, right?
FATSIS: He did. He fixed it, in some ways. I mean, what was ironic about Joe's involvement was this was a guy that was sending in these single-spaced, typed pages of corrections, and they were accepted by the Scrabble Association and by Merriam-Webster without so much as double-checking some of his work. He actually at one point sent in some corrections. They were added, but nobody followed up with him, and then only later did he say, oh, I just sent those in because that was the beginning of my work. I wanted to see if you wanted the rest of it, so I only got up to the letter K.
FATSIS: And yet nobody followed up with him. Joe's approach to language was something more holistic in many ways. He really cared about etymology. He really cared about the history and the origin and the beauty of these words, but he also, because of his nature, was concerned that the Scrabble dictionary be correct. Whether anyone asked him to or not.
MIKE: And so let's talk about this lexicon that Scrabble players use. This is sort of the source of the current controversy among North American Scrabble players. There is this dictionary that contains all the acceptable Scrabble words. And then there is this other sort of dictionary that international players use that has a whole host of additional words.
FATSIS: Right. So there are two books, and the history goes like this. In 1978 there was the publication of the Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary, the First Edition. At the same time, Scrabble was being played overseas using a British word source. And the reason for that initial schism is that Scrabble was owned by two different companies. Hasbro owns the game in North America. Mattel owns the game and the rights to the game in the rest of the world. For international play, and the World Championships were first held in 1991, they merged the two books into something called SOWPODS, which is a combination of two acronyms of the OSPD—the Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary—and Official Scrabble Words, which was the international word book. The rest of the world gradually in the last two decades has adopted the international lexicon, this broader book. There's about 270,000 words playable in international Scrabble of two to 15 letters long. In North America, the official word list, which is two to 15 letters long also, is about 178,000 words, so it's a big difference.
FATSIS: International play has grown in popularity. Southeast Asia has become a hotbed of international Scrabble. Big prize money. Government-sponsored tournaments. It's fascinating to see how this has evolved. It's bizarre.
MIKE: Why Southeast Asia?
FATSIS: I don't know exactly. Thailand is one of the most unusual places. This is not an English-speaking country. Scrabble was brought as a game that was used in schools to help teach kids English, and over the years it evolved into something that became very central to teaching kids. So there are tournaments in Thailand where thousands of schoolchildren play Scrabble. It's fascinating. But in other English-speaking countries in Southeast Asia and Australia and other parts of the world, it's viewed as something culturally accepted, something that governments have been willing to kick in money for. There have been giant tournaments with $50,000 in first-prize money. The consequence of this is that the North American-only players, who used to dominate international Scrabble, have fallen behind.
MIKE: Because they don't know all of these extra words that are in this combined international dictionary.
FATSIS: Or if you learn a lot of these extra words in the combined international dictionary, you then have to segregate in order to play Scrabble in North America. You have to effectively forget all of these other thousands of words that you have learned in order to play domestically.
MIKE: Not only do you have to know which words are now eligible for play in international play, but then when you play here at home you have to know which words not to play, which words if challenged will be thrown out.
FATSIS: Correct. The very best players in the world can do that. The top player in the world now and possibly ever is a guy named Nigel Richards, who's a New Zealander who lives in Malaysia now. He has the ability to segregate the words. He has won the North American Scrabble Championship three times, including the last two years—2010 and 2011*. In order to do that he has to come over here, play against the very best North American players, who also have a full command of the North America Scrabble word list, and then know not to play the other 80,000 words that he's assimilated in his brain.
MIKE: So the controversy is that there are a significant number of North American players who want North America to adopt this international lexicon. And then there are a number of North American players who don't and think, for whatever reason, that things should stay as they are.
FATSIS: And the reason that they think things should stay the way they are is largely a reluctance to learn new words. The second reason that is articulated by players and in opposition to adopting the world book is that that dictionary is even more flawed than the book that we've created over the last 30-plus years.
MIKE: Flawed, meaning what, exactly?
FATSIS: Too permissive, too many words that shouldn't be words, too many obsolete words. There's a lot of Scottish and Welsh. There's archaic stuff in there. There are additions from dialects and countries that are not North American.
MIKE: Well, I wanna read a little passage from a guy name Brian Cappelletto, who wrote a manifesto on a Yahoo listserv. He was a kind of child prodigy in Scrabble. He's now in his 40s, and he, I imagine, remains one of the best players in North America, if not the world. And he is an advocate of North America adopting this expanded lexicon. And in this manifesto, he wrote: "People at home often object to the words in Collins because they don't fit their own perceptions of the English language. The Maori entries are often cited, as are the more archaic entries. I think English has a rich 2,000 year history, and Collins does try to capture that ... . English is not limited to the last 200 years at home. It has undergone many changes, whether in England, the places that England colonized, or the internet. Just because we have never seen a particular Collins entry word spoken or written on our soil does not mean that it has no right to be part of a lexicon that represents the English language." That's a pretty, I think, eloquent defense of cultural inclusion in adopting this larger dictionary.
FATSIS: I mean, I'm with Brian. I think that our world has grown smaller and that our appreciation of language should grow bigger at the same time. You can make a case for a word that was 200 years old maybe not being part of a modern rulebook for a modern game. On the other hand, if you embrace the history of English and you also take into account that even at 267,000 some-odd words in the international word list, you're still only scratching the surface of the breadth of English worldwide.
MIKE: And if you subscribe to your philosophy, which is that part of the beauty of Scrabble is that it resuscitates these words from their kind of prison of these old dictionaries, then you might want to adopt this larger dictionary because, although you don't necessarily know the definitions or the etymologies of all the words you play, you might be inspired to look some of them up and be happily surprised.
FATSIS: But there's also a strategic argument that goes on, which is that the inclusion of all these words makes the game too easy in some ways. You know there was a great debate a few years ago when QI and ZA were added to North American Scrabble.
MIKE: QI being the word chi.
FATSIS: Chi and ZA being slang for pizza. And words are added, and I think this is important for people to understand too, words are added to a game like Scrabble not because some Scrabble player's sittin' there making up words but because they have been included in a more recent edition of the source books for the Official Scrabble Dictionary or the Scrabble word list. In this case, the most recent update used four standard North American college dictionaries. Pretty simple, if it was in there it got added. It's not as if words are being created out of whole cloth. But there is a separate strategic point that I was getting to initially. It's that if you add more "ways out"—you know Q used to be a complete albatross.
FATSIS: You'd get stuck with a Q. Very often games were decided because someone had a Q, an unplayable Q on his rack at the end of the game. QI has effectively solved that. So Collins can be the same way. It is a more liberal game, a more liberating game. It is a more open game. It is a higher-scoring game. And, if you like it, it is a much more fun game.
MIKE: Anyone who's ever played Scrabble knows that sometimes in a rack you have all consonants or you have all vowels. In the expanded Collins dictionary there's a six-letter Maori word that's all vowels. So it would allow you to get out of a jam if you happened to have, you know, seven vowels in your hand and you could sort of do what called a "vowel dump."
MIKE: And what does that mean?
FATSIS: I don't know.
MIKE: [laughing] So a Maori listener will have to tell us what that means. And, you know, this isn't the first controversy that erupted over the Scrabble lexicon. You alluded earlier to Scrabble sort of excising the dirty words, or not the dirty words so much as the offensive words, from the Scrabble dictionary. And competitive Scrabble players revolted.
FATSIS: They did. This was in the mid-1990s. A woman was playing Scrabble and she discovered that the word jew, J-E-W, was listed in the official Scrabble dictionary that you could buy in any store and it was cited as offensive, meaning "to bargain with." And ...
MIKE: As in "to jew down."
FATSIS: "To jew down." And she wrote to B'nai B'rith and the Jewish Anti-Defamation League. And Hasbro effectively capitulated to this letter-writing campaign and agree to excise a whole bunch of “offensive” words from the dictionary. And they weren't all just shit, fuck. They were jesuit, papist, uh ...
MIKE: What's wrong with jesuit?
FATSIS: These were considered offensive terms. These were insults.
MIKE: But, I mean, here in Washington, D.C., Georgetown is often referred to as a Jesuit school ...
FATSIS: Capital J.
MIKE: Capital J. Lowercase J, it means you're an asshole?
FATSIS: [laughing] I guess to be called a jesuit was derogatory.
MIKE: But also more sort of familiar racial and religious slurs like kike and spic and things like that were also excised.
FATSIS: Gyp was also excised. Fart was also excised, which my school Scrabble players think is incredibly amusing.
MIKE: But, those words are all still playable in competitive Scrabble.
FATSIS: Right, the compromise that was reached was that the National Scrabble Association would publish a word list—just the words, no definitions, from AA to, now, ZZZ—and that satisfied the competitive players, because competitive players don't care about meanings. Ultimately, the meanings are meaningless when you play Scrabble. It is about maximizing your opportunity to win a game, and you do that by laying down the letters in the sequence that you believe will allow you to do that. What that sequence is has no bearing off of the board.
MIKE: If kike works, it works.
FATSIS: It works. You gotta waste a blank, though, so I'm not sure that it would often work.
MIKE: [laughing] This has been great. Thanks so much, Stefan.
FATSIS: Thank you Mike.
MIKE: Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players. The book is out now in its 10th anniversary edition.
*Update, Sept. 7, 2012: Nigel Richard has now won the National Scrabble Championship four times, most recently in August 2012 in Orlando, Fla.
Mike Vuolo is a radio and podcast producer and the host of Lexicon Valley.