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Man of Letters, continued

 

    Still, he kept tinkering. He tried a 14-by-14 grid, a 15-by-15, a 16-by-16, a 17-by-17. He placed the “star”—the starting point for the game—in the upper left-hand corner. He placed it in the center. He placed it five columns in and five rows down. He put a quadruple-word-score square in the lower right-hand corner. He tried four triple-word-score squares. He tried six. He increased and decreased the number of double- and triple-letter-score squares. He changed the colors of these squares. He tweaked the letter distribution. He included a blank. He tried two.
    Perfection isn’t arrived at overnight, and the more I play, the more Alfred’s game seems perfect. I think he was like Alexander Cartwright’s Knickerbocker Base Ball Club laying the bases 90 feet apart or James Naismith setting the height of his peach baskets at 10 feet. The distances and location of the premium squares are just right. The game is a carefully choreographed pas de deux, a delicate balance between risk and reward.
    The first player is rewarded for making a five-letter word, since the value of the first or last letter is doubled; but five-letter words are pretty difficult to find when you have just seven letters on your rack. The first player also benefits from a free double-word score, the star; but laying a tile on the star means the second player can reach a triple-word score, which is seven squares away. Butts wanted scoring to increase as the game progressed away from the center, with the most lucrative plays on the fringes. On the board’s second interior row or column, a five-letter word can hit a triple-letter-score square and a double-word-score square simultaneously, one of the juiciest spots on the board; use it, however, and you are likely to give your opponent access to a triple-word score. On the board’s perimeter, a word can start on a double-letter square and reach a double-word; but that creates a lane for the game’s holy grail, hitting two triple-word scores at once, a triple triple.
    “The arrangement of the premium squares took a long time,” Butts said years later. “It’s not hit or miss. It’s carefully worked out.”
    When I think of Butts, I imagine the ancients in India deciding that the knight should move two squares over and one up or one up and two over. I think of the Greeks or Egyptians determining what to do when a black backgammon chip landed on a space occupied by a white one. Because Butts lived in the 20th century, his game had to be protected legally; it couldn’t just exist. Just as war begat chess, the advancing state of communications in America all but mandated creation of a language-based strategy game. Butts invented a game that filled a void in the hierarchy of games, and in the culture.
    Butts started selling Criss-Cross Words as before: filling word-of-mouth orders from his living room, waiting for someone who could help to notice. For $2 a set and 25 cents for shipping, Butts satisfied customers in Washington, D.C.; Bryn Mawr, Pa.; Hagerstown, Ind.; Louisville, Ky.; Oshkosh, Wis.; and Oneida, N.Y. He mailed about a hundred sets in all, and complained. “I have found it practically impossible to get a patent on any game,” he told one buyer. “The commercial houses do not want games unless they have been proven successful, but if a game is successful there is no protection for the idea.”
    He was tired of making the pieces, hunting for boxes in five-and-dimes, mimeographing the rules. So he just gave up. If an interested partner approached him, fine. In 1947, someone did. He was James Brunot, who worked for a New York state welfare agency and had served as executive director of the President’s War Relief Control Board in Washington. Brunot was living in Newtown, Conn., not far from Danbury, and getting tired of his two-hour commute to New York City. He wanted to start a small business that could keep him at home, where he and his wife, Helen, raised Dorset sheep.
    Brunot later said he was given a copy of Criss-Cross Words by a New York social worker who was one of Butts’s guinea pigs, and he played the game with his wife when they lived in Washington. When Brunot returned to New York, he learned that no one was manufacturing it. He contacted Butts, who figured he had nothing to lose. No one else wanted his game. Why not let this guy have a shot?
    Brunot hired a lawyer who said they could manufacture the game without infringing on any patent. Brunot played down the potential of the business. “It seems apparent that … there is no marketable proprietary interest” in Criss-Cross Words, he wrote Butts. But “we do consider that it would be reasonable and fair in view of all the circumstances to have at least an informal understanding.” He offered Butts a small royalty on sales, which Butts accepted.

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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