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Illustration by
Kris Hargis

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Man of Letters    
Illustration by Kris Hargis  

 

Stefan Fatsis C’85 admits that his interest in the late Alfred M. Butts Ar’24, 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.
   
For Fatsis, the three boxes—one of which holds the original boards, tiles, and blueprints of the evolving game—represented far more than just historical research.

 

BY STEFAN FATSIS

It’s like being allowed to touch Edison’s first drawings of the lightbulb or Frank Lloyd Wright’s 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 country.
    And yet 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.
    Born in 1899 in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Alfred Mosher Butts graduated from Penn in 1924 with a degree in architecture—he designed that year’s Ivy Stone—and 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 illustrating—half a dozen of his “Vandyke prints” of New York scenes are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection—Butts 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 hadn’t 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.
    Edgar Allan Poe’s 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 “eureka moment.”
    Poe, Butts noticed, observed that in the English language, “the letter which most frequently occurs is e.”
    “It follows 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 word formation.”
    To determine 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.
    It wouldn’t have mattered to the success or marketability of his game whether there were 10 or 11 or 15 E’s. But Butts’s perfectionist mind insisted that he figure it out. That the game be right was paramount.
    Butts 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.
    When Lexiko didn’t 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 player’s rack from nine to seven, which was easier to manage and, based on his word-length studies, offered more chances to use all of one’s 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.
    And Butts kept toying with letter distribution, his primary passion.
    In 1938, 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.”
    Rehired 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 didn’t have a clue about product distribution, he was convinced that this time his game was a winner.

 
 
 


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Sidebar:
Passion Play
with Words
and Numbers

 
continued

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Reprinted from Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. Copyrightę2001 by Stefan Fatsis. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2001 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 8/24/01