- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 7, 2008

People on at least six continents are bonding over words like “zyme” (18 points) and “schizy” (23 points). They are honing their competition, literacy and strategy skills at all hours.

They are playing Scrabulous, a free online game that resembles the old-fashioned board game Scrabble. Scrabulous, which has seen its popularity snowball the past few months, can be played at Scrabulous.com or by registering for the application on Facebook.com, the social networking site. The Facebook application allows Scrabulous players to have ongoing games with other Facebook friends.

Sarel Kromer, a retired lawyer in Chevy Chase, has a running game with her grown son, Philip, who lives in Texas. He signed her up for Facebook to get the game started, she says.

“It is a great way to stay in touch,” says Ms. Kromer, noting that she also is involved in games with a George Washington University student and a relative in Dayton, Ohio, while Philip plays against a friend in Shanghai. “I left a game with my son in the middle, went to India, and came back two weeks later and resumed the game.”

Scrabulous was developed and released in its current format in 2006 by Jayant and Rajat Agarwalla, two college-age brothers from Calcutta, India. The Agarwallas were fans of other online games but were disappointed they had to pay to play.

After they developed the initial software, response to the early site was “good,” with a couple thousand users, says Jayant Agarwalla. They built a database of more than 60,000 legal words. When a player logs on to the site and plays against the computer, esoteric words such as “Qat” and “mythy” serve as foils for even a great player.

When the Agarwallas started Scrabulous as an application on Facebook in June 2007, Scrabulous became a triple-word-score household name. A month later, there were 20,000 users.

“Initially, we wanted to get 2,600 users, or .01 percent of Facebook users,” Mr. Agarwalla says by phone from Calcutta.

Six months later, there were 2.4 million Scrabulous players on Facebook, making it among the most popular applications on the site. More than 600,000 players play every day. Mr. Agarwalla says he and his brother are earning about $25,000 a month through advertising and other sponsorships.

Mr. Agarwalla credits the social nature of playing Scrabulous through Facebook for the game’s popularity.

Executives at Hasbro, which owns the rights to Scrabble, are not among its fans. The toy company has sent cease-and-desist letters to Facebook and Scrabulous, stating that Scrabulous infringes on the copyright of Scrabble.

Neither Mr. Agarwalla nor Hasbro will comment on the legal situation. In 2005, Hasbro shut down a similar game, EScrabble.

The possibility of Scrabulous meeting the same fate has led to several communities on Facebook organizing to save Scrabulous.

“A piece of me will die if Scrabulous is taken away,” posted one Canadian fan on Facebook.

Other fans say Hasbro should see the site as good for business and add that they have purchased a Scrabble board to go with their Facebook application.

Stefan Fatsis of the District, a competitive Scrabble player and author of the book “Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players,” says this is a modern example of technology meets old-school business.

“Scrabble is a game that appeals to everything that makes us human,” he says. “It is strategic, competitive and involves language. That is an appeal that the Scrabble people have never understood. They treated Scrabble like an evergreen — meaning they knew they were going to sell a certain number of copies every year.

“What Hasbro never understood was the basic and intense intellectual appeal of this game. It is addictive. They underestimated that living room players wanted to play constantly, and they didn’t appreciate that there was money to be made [with an online game].”

That said, Mr. Fatsis understands Hasbro’s view as well. He says he thinks Scrabulous clearly is broaching a trademark.

“Regardless of how much we want it to be free and on the Internet, certain things are owned by certain people,” he says. “The reality is that this is a board game owned by a very large company.”

Susan Orlins of Northwest is among the thousands of players who hope Scrabulous and its Facebook application are allowed to stay.

“I am 62 years old, and I joined Facebook so I can play with my daughter in New York,” Ms. Orlins says. “I understand Hasbro’s position, but I don’t want to see Scrabulous disappear. It is maddeningly addictive.”

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