Entertainment & Sports Law

LA Lawyer Seeks Revision of Scrabble Word-Score Rules

The rules of the game in Scrabble haven’t changed since 1948. But it’s about time they did, a Los Angeles lawyer argues.

A classic board game in which players are awarded points based on fortuitous word placement in a crossword pattern and the number of times rarely used letters can be included in a single word, Scrabble puts top value on the letters “Q” and “Z.” As new words such as “za” and “qi” have been added to the English-language lexicon, however, it’s easier than it used to be for less-skilled players to rack up high scores, reports the Wall Street Journal.

So plaintiffs attorney and Scrabble aficionado Matthew Butterick of Los Angeles is arguing for a change. In a letter to the New Yorker earlier this year, he calls for scoring to be recalibrated so that luck, once again, takes more of a back seat to skill, the newspaper notes.

“If the scoring was recalibrated to the current word lists, we might get to play Scrabble with the finesse of its original points system,” Butterick writes in the New Yorker letter.

“In the old days, you had to make big words to get big points,” he explains in an interview with the ABA Journal. Now, however, experts who play to win score more by using and reusing a high-points letter as they build up a small word—say from “ax” to “tax” to “taxes.”

Butterick’s lawyerly suggestions were not well-taken by the executive director of the National Scrabble Association. John Williams said in a responding letter that the issues raised by Butterick are “some combination of irrelevant, meaningless and impractical for 85 percent or 90 percent of people who play Scrabble,” reports the Numbers Guy in a Wall Street Journal blog post.

Those who complain that his proposed scoring revisions change the classic game, though, ignore the fact that the classic game already has been significantly changed—by including new, short words containing high-points letters in the official Scrabble dictionary, Butterick tells the ABA Journal.

Like the rules of civil procedure in litigation, the rules of Scrabble are intended to provide a level playing field, Butterick says. But, in the game as it has now developed, knowledge of what he describes as “weasel words” is the path to victory.

“The people who know them are the haves,” he says, “and the people who don’t know them are the have-nots.”

Related coverage:

New Yorker (reg. req.): “Spreading the Word”

Updated at 8 p.m. to include comments from Butterick.

We welcome your comments, but please adhere to our comment policy and the ABA Code of Conduct.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.