For a man who commanded the Allied Expeditionary Force in WWII and then became the 34th president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower still valued his leisure time. His affinity for the links made golf the official sport of postwar suburbia. But the first lady didn’t play golf, which is possibly why a July afternoon in 1954 found Ike and Mamie sitting on the terrace at Camp David with studied looks on their faces.
The president and his wife were playing Scrabble.
In 1954, they were just two of millions of Americans who were. Of course, coonskin caps and Dragnet were popular that year, too. But Americans have never stopped playing Scrabble, which (after Monopoly) remains the bestselling branded board game of all time, with north of 150 million sets sold. That number is even higher now, thanks to the lockdown period triggering a 22% surge in sales of toys, including board games.
But no pandemic can explain the endurance and cult-like popularity of this deceptively simple crossword game, especially with countless video games and streaming services to divert us. So what is it about Scrabble that keeps us playing? There’s no single answer to that question, but Stefan Fatsis, author of the bestseller Word Freak, has a few ideas.
The game, he said, is the perfect synthesis of skill and luck. Intellect and vocabulary play a role, but so do mathematics, strategy and—when it comes to drawing seven of those lettered tiles—simple chance. And while any jaunt across social media will demonstrate that spelling and grammar might not matter as much as they once did, English is a living language that Americans never tire of playing with.
“To me,” Fatsis said, “Scrabble reflects our love for language. There’s something fundamental about our need to use and play with and mold and shape and twist and change English. Scrabble is the perfect embodiment of that desire.”
For all this, we have two men to thank. Alfred Mosher Butts was a New York architect left jobless by the Great Depression. Reasoning that listless Americans needed something to keep them busy, he developed a crossword-style game that he first called Lexiko and, later, Criss Cross Words. Butts tinkered with the idea for years, but his pursuit stalled until entrepreneur James Brunot joined the venture.
It was Brunot who developed a color palette for the board, added the 50-point bonus for the player who uses all of his letters and—most significantly—changed the game’s name to Scrabble. But Brunot had sold only 2,400 sets in 1949, and the story might have ended there were it not for Macy’s chairman Jack Straus who, legend has it, began ordering them en masse. Sales were so brisk that in 1953 Brunot sold production rights to Selchow and Righter, which had bought the game outright by 1971.
These days, Scrabble is part of the immense toy stable of Hasbro, which refers to the brand as a “beloved … cultural icon,” even though it’s not exactly the cash machine that Marvel and Star Wars toys are.
“To me, [Scrabble] has always been an annuity for Hasbro,” Fatsis said. “They don’t need to advertise because it’s ubiquitous. It’s as iconic an American brand as Coke.”