Back to the Scrabble FAQ

From: (Mike Baron)
To: crossword-games-pro@MIT.EDU
Date: Wed, 27 Mar 1996 00:48:50 -0500
Subject: Who invented Scrabble?
Message-id: <>

Though not during the Victorian era, and not "Royalty," another card word game emerged which may beg the question, "Who invented Scrabble?" Pardon the length of this post, and only Scrabble history aficionados may wish to read on.

In summer of 1983, I wended my way from Albuquerque, New Mexico, across the beautiful high desert terrain of mountains and mesas, with striated reds, oranges, and browns running through them, en route to Durango, Colorado. I would be meeting with Bobbie Sageser and her coterie of friends to talk about starting a tournament at the "lodge," which was managed by Bobbie's husband. (Little did I know then that the "lodge," which I had presumed was a ma and pa group of bungalos, proved to be the gorgeous Tamarron Lodge, where former President Ford, Johnny Carson, Rock Hudson and other celebrities have stayed. When my jaw dropped at its sight, I told Bobbie: "Scrabble players can't stay here! It's just too expensive." She assured me hubby would get a good rate for us. "A great rate would be over our heads." Hard to believe, but rates of $400 dollars a suite were provided for $40, for an entire family, including a sumptuous buffet breakfast! If you've not made it there before, the upcoming 13th annual, on Memorial Day weekend, may be the last, as Bobbie and husband are moving out of Durango. But I digress.)

One of Bobbie's friends generously presented me with a gift, "a little something I found at a garage sale," she said. The little cardboard box (about 3 x 4 inches) reads: "CROSS-O-GRAMS, The Crossword Card Game Sensation." On another side of the box: "Trade-Mark Registered 1932-U.S. Patent Office," and elsewhere: "American Newspaper Promotion Corp. 537 South Dearborn Street, Chicago, ILL." Within it are two side-by-side piles of very small cards (each about 1.5 x 2.5 inches). There are 54 cards (52 + 2 jokers), with a letter on each card and a value of either 10, 20, 30, 40, or 50, with each joker worth 100. [The Q is actually a "Qu" card " render the card more playable," say the sage instructions. Some excerpts:

"There are two Joker cards in each deck which may be used by the holder for any letter he himself designates. During the same game, the joker continues to represent only the letter originally designated."

"The dealer distributes one card at a time until each player holds twelve cards....The player at the left of the dealer begins the game by placing on the table, in the center, a word of three or four letters....If the player is unable to form a word, he must draw a card from the top of the pack in the center of the table, and must then await his next turn."

"The new word must include one or more letters of a word previously played on the table...." A sample layout was provided:

        D      A
        U      T
        CAB PASS
        T ATOM

[Not too shabby for 1932!]

"Proper names, abbreviations and foreign words are not allowed. Players may use the dictionary as a means of settling disputes. If a word is querstioned and is not found in the dictionary, the player must take back the word and lose his next turn. If the questioned word is in the dictionary, the one who disputed it must lose his next turn."

Game variations are provided, including AN-O-GRAMS ("...a fascinating new variation of the old parlor game") which, coincidentally, includes in one of its examples the word SCRAMBLE. Hmm. Mind you, there's no game board and no premium squares, but....

Meanwhile (summer 1983), as I was preparing for that summer's Nationals in Chicago, I had been in touch with then Association head Jim Houle and met John Williams at the Chicago event, when he was first brought in to assist with PR for the event. I'd have to confirm which, if not both, had told me that Alfred Butts, then about 82 or 83 years old, had conceded that 1983 was NOT the 50th anniversary of his invention of the game [I believe it having been a year or so later], which the Chicago event was being used to promote for the media, along with Butts himself being present for the event. Jim or John had quoted Butts as sidebarring something to the effect of: "But at my age, who am I to argue?" willingly accepting at that time the kudos bestowed for the game's (premature) 50th anniversary. All this is to say that Cross-O-Grams may have been out from one to three years before Butts's "Criss-crossword game."

Now, has anyone seen the movie, "Marathon Man," with Sir Lawrence Olivier playing a former Nazi and Dustin Hofman a Nazi hunter? Memory fails me a bit here, but "Is it safe?" was a code phrase which, if uttered to Olivier, would imply the utterer knew his (Olivier's) true identity. At one point in the movie, Hoffman meets Olivier, Olivier not knowing Hoffman's agenda, until Hoffman whispers to him, "Is it safe?"

In Chicago, having then met Mr. Butts for the first time, there was a part of me which wanted, while passing by him, to whisper, in Hoffmanesque fashion, "Cross-O-Grams?" I just didn't have the heart to do that, and he lived another ten years thereafter.