Fatsis C85 admits that his interest in the late Alfred M. Butts
Ar24, the creator of Scrabble, quickly evolved into a full-blown
obsession. In Word
Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World
of Competitive Scrabble, he describes how that obsession led
him to the rural hamlet of Stanfordville, N.Y. There, in a house
built by Butts great-great-grandfather, rests a modest collection
of memorabilia that Fatsis refers to as the Scrabble Archives.
Butts and his wife, Nina, had bought the house as a summer home
in 1954 with some of the royalty income from Scrabble, and after
he died in 1993, house and archives passed into the hands of his
nephew, Robert Butts.
Fatsis, the three boxesone of which holds the original boards,
tiles, and blueprints of the evolving gamerepresented far more
than just historical research.
like being allowed to touch Edisons first drawings of the lightbulb
or Frank Lloyd Wrights sketches for Fallingwater. So when I see
the bankers boxes piled on a sideboard, it seems a little sad:
Alfred Butts created an enduring piece of American popular culture,
and here it is reduced to a few boxes in an aging house in the
it also seems to fit. Bob describes his great-uncle as humble
and self-effacing, a thin gentleman no more than 5-feet-6 who
was proud of his invention but never boastful, a regular guy who
happened upon something that wound up amusing the millions.
in 1899 in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Alfred Mosher Butts graduated from
Penn in 1924 with a degree in architecturehe designed that years
Ivy Stoneand joined the New York firm of Holden McLaughlin and
Associates. Less than a decade later, with the Depression in full
sway, he was laid off. After trying his hand at writing, painting,
and illustratinghalf a dozen of his Vandyke prints of New York
scenes are in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts permanent collectionButts
found himself with more time on his hands than money. In that,
he had plenty of company. Realizing that people needed distractions
during hard times, his mind turned to games. He studied three
types: men on a board games, numbers games that used dice or
cards, and letter games. And though he hadnt been much interested
in words before deciding to invent a word game, he was meticulous,
and had the organized, mathematical mind of a games player.
Allan Poes short story The Gold Bug, in which the character
William Legrand solves a cipher about a hidden treasure by comparing
its symbols to letters in the alphabet, provided Butts with a
Butts noticed, observed that in the English language, the letter
which most frequently occurs is e.
that word games should be played not with a jumble of letters,
wrote Butts, but with a mixture so proportioned that the individual
letters will occur in the same frequency as they do in normal
the proper proportion, Butts pored over newspapers and magazines
counting letters and words. On October 5, 1933, for instance,
Butts underlined in green and brown ink all of the words of nine
letters or more on page 21 of the Herald Tribune, the obituary
page; the notice of the death of Earl Cadogan, the British representative
to the International Olympic Committee, included landowner,
hereditary, succeeded, assisting, lieutenant,
commandant, secondary, and viscountcy. There
were 125 nine-letter words in all, and Butts wrote them down in
long columns in block caps on the left side of a page, then tallied
up the frequency of their letters in a column on the right.
have mattered to the success or marketability of his game whether
there were 10 or 11 or 15 Es. But Buttss perfectionist
mind insisted that he figure it out. That the game be right was
called his first letter game Lexiko, from the Greek lexikos,
of words. It had 100 tiles, and the object was to make a nine-
or 10-letter word. Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers, and the publisher
Simon & Schuster all rejected it, and by August 1934, Butts
had sold 84 sets himself. Receipts: $127.03. Expenses: $147.46.
Lexiko didnt find a manufacturer, he decided that the fault lay
in the game itself. It needed a board. Butts made blueprints of
various designs and pasted them onto a checkerboard. It needed
better scoring. Butts assigned the letters specific values that
corresponded with their frequency; the more frequently the letter
appeared, the less it was worth. He reduced the number of tiles
on a players rack from nine to seven, which was easier to manage
and, based on his word-length studies, offered more chances to
use all of ones letters. To enliven scoring and strategy, he
decided that placing letters on certain squares on his board would
result in doubling or tripling the value of the letter or word.
kept toying with letter distribution, his primary passion.
he told a would-be customer, I do not make the Lexiko sets any
more as I am now working on a game which I believe will be an
improvement over Lexiko. I expect to have this new game ready
in a few weeks and will let you know the details and price as
soon as I am ready to take orders.
by his architectural firm in 1938, Butts regained financial security,
but he still wanted to market his game. For a while he called
his creation it, until finally settling on Criss-Cross Words.
Though he didnt have a clue about product distribution, he was
convinced that this time his game was a winner.