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As others in the room minded their P’s (4) and Q’s (10), John Williams joked that the 1997 World Scrabble Championships, held over a long weekend at the sumptuous Mayflower Hotel, made him nostalgic for the days when people just played the game for fun.
“The big-money era in Scrabble is here, and that changes everything,” said Williams, a lifelong player and the executive director of the National Scrabble Association (NSA). Williams is the overseer of the biennial four-day competition. Eighty-two skilled lettersmiths from 36 countries flocked to D.C. hoping to out-crossword each other all the way to the $25,000 first prize, an endowment twice as large as any ever offered in a Scrabble competition.
Like most of the competitors, Williams devotes his life to Scrabble; the only difference is, he gets paid for his devotion. Because he has been top dog at NSA for 11 years, promoting the evergreen board game is a full-time job in addition to being an ever-present obsession. Under his leadership, NSA has gotten Scrabble out of the family room and into the Mayflower’s chandelier-laden ballroom, a stately chamber that has hosted presidential inaugural balls for every chief executive since Coolidge. In this first-class setting, he deserved the right to describe himself as “the David Stern of Scrabble.”
Williams is the first to admit, however, that he didn’t get Scrabble to these regal environs all by himself. NSA, you see, isn’t merely an educational nonprofit or sanctioning body, though that’s what its name suggests. The group is in fact a subsidiary of Hasbro, which is the parent company of Milton Bradley, the Massachusetts toy giant that now produces Scrabble in the U.S. and Canada. The parent outfit kicked in $250,000 so the global shindig could be held at the Mayflower and offer such a sizable purse.
“We’re making a statement here,” said Milton Bradley spokesman Mark Morris, who flew down from the company’s Springfield, Mass., headquarters for the tournament. “And that’s that we don’t think our game belongs in a VFW hall.”
Hasbro paid Coleco an estimated $82 million for the rights to a number of that company’s board game holdings (including Scrabble, Parcheesi, and Perfection) in 1989, after the Cabbage Patch kids fad had died and caused Coleco to go belly-up. Americans now buy more than a million Scrabble boards, priced from $10 to $25, each and every year, so the acquisition looks brilliant.
According to Hasbro, as many as two-thirds of 1997’s supply of Scrabble boards will be moved over the next month, and the lion’s share will go to casual players. So if you believe that it’s at all coincidental that the world championships are being held in an international media center the week when everybody’s getting their Christmas lists together, well, then you’d probably believe the word “gullible” isn’t in the Scrabble Dictionary.
“To put it in crass terms, this [tournament] will get a lot of press for Scrabble in the fourth quarter,” said Williams. “That’s a good thing.”
Since Scrabble can be counted on to bring in silly money each year without a backbreaking amount of promotion, Hasbro is understandably wary of letting its cash cow slip into the public domain. At the Mayflower this weekend, it was clear from the signs and posters for the tournament that just about everything about Scrabble is either trademarked, copyrighted, patented, or all of the above, including: the game’s name, its traditional packaging, the 100 letter tiles, the 15-by-15 square board, all the nonblank squares on the board (double-word, triple-letter, etc.), and the layout of the board. It’s amazing there isn’t a tile with the included in the game.
Economics, and not patriotism, gave the Scrabble tournament a nationalistic bent. Turns out that shortly after unemployed New York architect Alfred Butts (a seven-point surname, for those keeping score at home) invented and then trademarked Scrabble in 1948, he made licensing deals with two different toy makers, one for domestic production and one for overseas. And though those rights have changed hands several times over the years, the intercontinental divide remains in place to this day: Hasbro’s licensing rights extend only to the U.S. and Canada, while on all foreign soil the game is manufactured by Mattel.
Toy marketing is generally thought of as one of the retail realm’s most vicious areas, and Williams admitted there is a rivalry between the world’s two Scrabble marketers.
“We’re like Ford and General Motors,” he said. “At Hasbro, we sneer at Mattel. We think they’re all too busy with their Barbie redesign to deal with Scrabble, now that they’re trying to make her less of a bimbo. We think that the best way they could accomplish that is to come out with a ‘Tournament Scrabble Barbie.’”
Hasbro, in a big show of support for the players who buy its tiles, subsidized all the Americans’ trips to D.C.
As if the language barrier faced by the fuzzy foreigners weren’t enoughScrabble is still an English-only game come tournament timeMattel told the non-North American players they had to come on their own nickel. And, if only under their breaths, Williams and his fellow tournament organizers from NSA chanted, “U.S.A! U.S.A!” as if the Mayflower Ballroom were the hockey pavilion at Lake Placid.
“I am rooting for the Americans. Oh, yeah,” Williams chuckled.
The fiscal and moral support and the home field and language perks showed in the end: By Sunday night, the field was whittled down to just two Scrabblers, both red-white-and-blue boys from Team Hasbro: Matt Graham, 31, a stand-up comic from New York, who paced the Mayflower hallways listening to death metal on a Walkman when he wasn’t playing; and Joel Sherman, a 35-year-old from the Bronx who sported a “G.I. Joel!” sweatshirt throughout the competition and, after 21 games, had bags under his eyes that might not fit on a luggage rack.
Neither appeared to be having any fun. Then again, in Scrabble, fun is only a six-point word.Dave McKenna