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Why I dabble in Scrabble

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An unemployed American architect in the 1930s spotted a gap in the games market. Though card, board games, and chess were popular, Alfred Mosher Butts realised that there were no word games for sale. Building on the popularity of crossword puzzles, he invented Scrabble.

The game has now sold an estimated 150 million sets in more than 30 languages. There are World Scrabble Championships in English, French, and Spanish, and thousands of clubs all over the world. Countries like Nigeria, Pakistan, and Thailand have become Scrabble powerhouses in spite of a rather poor standard of spoken English. There are many Jewish connections in the Scrabble story too.

No-one is quite sure if Butts himself was Jewish, but Scrabble was given its big break when Jewish businessman Jack Straus, the chairperson of Macy’s department store in New York, played the game on holiday. He insisted that it be stocked and promoted in the early 1950s. There have been four Jewish world champions: England’s Mark Nyman, American Joel Sherman, Canadian Joel Wapnick, and Australian David Eldar. There are flourishing Scrabble clubs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and the Israeli Open is a feature on the global Scrabble circuit. Arab and Jewish players famously wore gas masks during the 1991 Gulf War at the Jerusalem club.

In South Africa, Jewish women did wonders for the game. The late Gwen Heiman was the mother of the competitive Scrabble circuit. She formed the first club in the 1960s in Anstey’s Building in the Johannesburg city centre. She was the driving force behind the Johannesburg Scrabble Club (JSC) and the formation of the South African National Scrabble Players Association (SANSPA, now Scrabble SA). At its peak, more than 50 players would congregate at the JSC on a Monday night at the Paterson Park Recreation Centre to pit their wits and words against one another. There was even a smokers’ room in those days, and some would play into the wee hours of Tuesday morning. The late Lynn Roff, an ex-teacher, chaired the JSC for nearly 40 years and was instrumental in nurturing the newbies. The late Sandra Meyberg did the same for her Windsor West Scrabble Club for decades. Anita Kassel built up the Cape Town Scrabble community for many years as well.

International Relations lecturer Larry Benjamin was instrumental in growing Scrabble in South Africa, and the current president of Scrabble South Africa is attorney Andrew Goldberg, who puts his passion into promoting the game. The JSC now meets at Beit Emanuel Progressive Synagogue in Parktown.

My own Scrabble journey started in 1980. When I was eight, I started playing with my late mom, Arlene Fine, who had always loved words and wordplay. In 1984, Transvaal champion Roni Witkin offered Scrabble as an extra-mural activity at Houghton Primary School, and my talent was spotted and developed. I entered my first tournament, and returned with an armful of prizes. I was hooked. Sandra Meyberg nicknamed me “Boy Wonder”, and called me that until I was well into my forties. My wife was “Mrs Wonder” to Sandra.

As a rather introverted teen, I recognised that to get good at the game, I had to study words. In those days, there was no internet, anagramming apps, or online Scrabble Go. I compiled my own lists by hand using anagram books. My mom and I joined the JSC. I spent many a sleepless Monday night with anagrams and board positions whizzing through my head for hours after leaving the club.

There are many Yiddish and a handful of Hebrew words playable in English Scrabble. You can play “PLOTZ”, “SCHVITZ”, or “NUDNIK”. You can play “MAZELTOV”, “BIMA”, and “TREYF”. You can play all the Hebrew letters, from “ALEPH to “TAV. There are lots of South African words too, including “BRAAI”, “BOEP”, and “NAARTJIE”.

In a recent controversial move – following the Black Lives Matter Movement – about 400 apparently offensive terms were expurgated from the Scrabble lexicon. These included to “JEW” (meaning to cheat or swindle), “GOY”, and “KIKE”. Most players were against messing with the lexicon, but fearing a loss of support from Mattel, the game’s copyright owner, the removals have been grudgingly accepted. Some countries like New Zealand and most of Australia have rebelled, and are continuing to use them in competitive play.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person tournaments were halted, but we arranged online test matches with countries like England, Pakistan, and New Zealand. Apps like Scrabble Go are extremely popular, as are websites like the Internet Scrabble Club and Woogles. Words can be learned using apps like Ulu or Zyzzyva (literally the last word in Scrabble, a tropical American weevil). There are numerous Scrabble groups on Facebook and WhatsApp.

Scrabble has opened up my world. I’ve won five national championships and have been privileged to represent South Africa at World Scrabble Championships in New York, London (where I came sixth), Washington DC, Melbourne, Las Vegas, Kuala Lumpur, and Warsaw. I’ve played in the African Scrabble Championships in Nairobi, Cape Town, and Lusaka. I came a slightly disappointing 41st out of 86 in this year’s event in October in the Zambian capital.

But most importantly, Scrabble has helped me find my tribe, my community, my world of word nuts. I’m honoured to share a passion with people from all walks of life, from teachers and students to lawyers, doctors, mathematicians, interior designers, police officers, and travel agents. One of our national champions was a contestant on South African Survivor. Our Scrabble family comes from across the rainbow nation, and we share one another’s joys and challenges. I’ve become friends with such a diverse group of amazing people that I simply wouldn’t have encountered but for my irrepressible, obsessive love of words.

  • To find out more about competitive Scrabble in South Africa, contact Andrew +27 83 260 7530.

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  1. Patrick Gitonga Nderitu

    Nov 3, 2022 at 3:44 pm

    Nice piece to read. Thanks Steve. Oh by the way, ZZZS is the last word in the CSW 2021.

  2. Steven Gruzd

    Nov 3, 2022 at 4:49 pm

    Thanks Patrick – you are 100% correct. Rats! I think when Zyzzyva was created, it was the last word at the time.

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