Scrabble Overview

The game of Scrabble celebrates its 75th birthday next year. (It’s having some friends over for a few rounds.) Scrabble was invented in 1938 by Alfred Mosher (Scrabble word value 11) Butts (Scrabble word value seven), an architect, who called the game “Criss-Crosswords,” because of its 15-by-15 square game board and the crossword format of laying down lettered tiles.

In devising the game Butts assigned values to all the letters of the alphabet, based on frequency studies he conducted. From reading newspapers, for example, he determined that the letter E appeared most often, followed by the letters A and I (about even); and, at the other end of the spectrum, the letters Q and Z appeared least often. Out of the 100 lettered tiles used in the game, then, he made 12 of them E’s, followed by nine I’s and A’s, eight O’s, six N’s, R’s and T’s, four D’s, L’s, S’s and U’s, three G’s, two B’s, C’s, F’s, H’s, M’s, P’s, V’s, W’s and Y’s, and one each of J, K, Q, X and Z. The two remaining tiles he made “blanks,” which players could use to represent any letter they wished.

Butts also assigned values to each letter (based again on its frequency in written English), ranging from one to ten. Common letters, like E, I, R and S, have a value of one point, while the most uncommon, Q and Z, are worth ten. The point value of each letter appears on the tile.

Another of Butts’ inspirations was the creation of “premium” squares on the board, which multiply the value of the letters or words placed on them. A Scrabble board has eight triple-word squares, 16 double-word squares, 12 triple-letter squares, and 24 double-letter squares. The board’s center square, commonly marked by a star, is another double-word square.

Scrabble is usually played between two people, although more than two can play and there are team competitions. The player who goes first is determined by drawing one tile apiece out of the bag: whoever draws the letter highest up in the alphabet goes first. Each player then blindly draws seven tiles from the bag and places them on his “rack,” which he keeps turned away from the other player(s). Player 1 must form a word of two or more letters, either horizontally or vertically, with one of his tiles covering the center square. Player two then must make a play in response, in one of the following ways:

– Adding at least one letter to his opponent’s word to make a new word (example: adding TROT to his opponent’s word DOG, to make DOGTROT);

– “Hooking” his opponent’s word and making another word perpendicular to it (example: playing the word FLAGS perpendicular to DOG, hooking it with the S to form the new word DOGS);

– Playing perpendicularly “through” his opponent’s word (example: forming the word RADIUM, using the D in his opponent’s word DOG);

– Playing a word parallel to his opponent’s word to form several acceptable words (example: playing the word OHO underneath and parallel to DOG, to form the words, DO, OH, and GO).

After each play, a player announces his score and then replenishes his rack from the bag by drawing enough tiles to give him a total of seven. On any particular turn, a player may choose to pass his turn, scoring nothing, or to exchange a number of tiles on his rack for an equal number in the bag, thereby losing his turn and scoring nothing also.

The game continues in this fashion until all the tiles have been drawn and one player goes out by playing all his tiles.

Scoring is done by totaling the points awarded for each play. In the examples above, assuming Player one plays his opening word DOG with the G covering the center square:

– Player 1 would count 12 points for DOG (D=2 + O=1 + G=3) = 6 multiplied by double-word square = 12;   

– Player 2 would count 20 for FLAGS (F=4 + L=1 + A=1 + G on double-letter square=6 + S=1) = 13 for FLAGS, plus (D=2 + O=1 + G=3 + S=1)) = 7 for DOGS = 20 total points. Note that Player 2 gets credit for the S twice, because he has formed two new words, but that he does not get to count the value of DOG doubled, but only the face value of the tiles in DOG.

– Player two would count 13 for RADIUM (R on triple-letter square=3 + A=1 + D=2 + I=1 + U tripled=3 + M=3) = 13.

– Player 2 would score 26 for OHO (OHO = 1 for O + 8 for H doubled) + 1 for O) = 10, plus (DO) = 3, plus (OH = 1 for O + 8 for H doubled) = 9, plus (GO) = 4, for a total of 26. Note that Player two does get credit for the H doubled twice, because he has formed two new words both using H.

The value of being able to hook words together is illustrated in these examples.

When a player is able to play all seven of his tiles on one play, he is awarded a bonus of 50 points. In the parlance of Scrabble, using all one’s tiles is called a “bingo.” (Useful tidbit: the plural of “bingo” can be both “bingos” and “bingoes,” which in itself is a bingo.)

After a player makes a play, his opponent may “challenge” the legitimacy of his word, based on the dictionary or word book both players have agreed to use as an authority. If the word is not legitimate, the player must remove it and loses his turn; if it is, the challenging player loses his turn.  

The beauty of Scrabble is in its endless variety. Over its 75-year history involving millions and millions of games, the chances are undoubtedly infinitesimal that any one game has been duplicated. Chess masters can recall moves and positions from their and other players’ recorded games, but every game of Scrabble presents it players with, as it were, a blank slate.