Rule change in Scrabble prompts purists’ ire

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To be a competitive Scrabble player it was once necessary to have an impressive grasp of the English language. Now, a player in Europe will only need to know who’s hot — or who’s not — in pop culture to dominate opponents.

In an effort to market to a younger, more pop-culture-oriented population, Mattel has announced it will release later this year Scrabble Trickster, a new edition of the classic Scrabble board game in Europe that will allow proper names to be used — a taboo notion in the original game.

So move over “quixotic” and “dharma.” “Beyonce” and “Madonna” are on their way.

Purists need not fret, however. The official rules will not change, and no version of the new edition will be sold in the United States.

Nevertheless, the announcement initially resulted in panic among loyal Scrabblists, who thought their traditional game play would soon cease to exist.

“I’m a fairly serious competitive Scrabble player (no, really) which is why I was seriously freaked out to read this morning that Mattel was changing the rules of the game for the first time in 62 years to allow proper nouns like ‘Jay-Z’ and ‘Shakira’ as playable words. The story has been enthusiastically picked up by British media outlets, including The Telegraph, the Daily Mail and BBC News,” Robert Quigley wrote Tuesday in a column for Geekosystem.com. “This would be a nightmare for a number of reasons, not least of which would be deciding which nouns are ‘proper’ … .”

Despite the unintended confusion, Mattel immediately clarified that allowing proper nouns, backward spelling and unconnected words into the mix will apply only to Scrabble Trickster. The original Scrabble game will remain unchanged.

“Rest assured, traditional Scrabble will still be around,” said Sarah Allen, a spokeswoman for Mattel UK. She said the new version of Scrabble is like an evolution of any board game with the addition of a new dimension, and the upset represents the passion fans have for traditional Scrabble.

Miss Allen said more details of the game, including criteria for determining acceptable proper names, will be announced in June. The new game will be available only in Europe because U.S. and Canadian rights to Scrabble are owned by Hasbro, which is not producing the game.

Scrabble Trickster will join Mattel’s list of other Scrabble variations, including Scrabble Scramble, Junior Scrabble, Dora Scrabble and Simpsons Scrabble. Hasbro also produces versions, including Scrabble Slam and Scrabble Apple.

The new version will “provide a great new opportunity for families to get involved in word play,” Mattel said in a statement. “New twists on the classic game, which has sold over 150 million copies worldwide, are set to include playing words backwards, or even playing words unconnected to any other on the board. Proper nouns will also be allowed. Celebrity wars of words could now take place on a new battle ground.”

Asked whether Scrabble might eventually allow pop-culture language such as textspeak, Miss Allen said, “Who knows?” adding that many players might already allow unofficial slang and text language.

“The truth is, people play it in their own ways. I think it’s that kind of game you can play in your own way,” she said.

Ted Gest, co-director of the D.C. Scrabble Club, said although it’s not officially known yet what proper nouns will be acceptable to use in the new game, the rules would be difficult to apply to Scrabble tournaments because acceptable proper nouns would be too complex to define.

“It would be complete chaos,” he said describing the vast possibilities of words that could be considered proper names. “It doesn’t sound very appealing to me.”

Mr. Gest noted that if celebrity names were acceptable, the word Obama might not have been allowed before President Obama became well-known, which raises the issue of at what point a person can be considered well-known.

He said proper nouns might make the game more interesting, but competitive play needs standards. “We have a pretty good system for standard words,” he said. “I don’t hear a lot of demand” for proper nouns.

Mr. Gest said the traditional process of adding acceptable words to Scrabble play is a drawn-out one. Generally, words have to appear in several standard dictionaries to be approved for Scrabble use. A list of new words is produced every few years.

The D.C. Scrabble Club is part of the North American Scrabble Players Association, formerly the National Scrabble Association. NASPA is a competitive association of Scrabble clubs in the U.S. and Canada that are bound by rules and code of conduct for game play and tournaments. NSA typically focuses more on casual Scrabble play.

The traditional Scrabble game has been around for nearly eight decades.

In the early 1930s, Alfred Mosher Butts of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who lost his job as an architect in the Great Depression, invented Scrabble, originally called Lexiko, to try to create a game that required both chance and skill, according to the NSA’s Web site.

The game was not an immediate success. Turned down by toy game giants Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley, he revised the game in 1938 to include a game board and renamed it Criss Cross Words. It was again turned down by game manufacturers.

Entrepreneur James Brunot eventually took interest in the game, renamed it Scrabble and registered its trademark in 1948. Scrabble’s popularity took off after 1952 - and the rest is history.

Butts lived to see the global success of his game as the first World Scrabble Championship kicked off in New York City in 1991. He died in 1993 at age 93, according to NSA’s Web site.

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