A New Way to Play Scrabble

One of Bobby Fischer’s few non-crazy ideas after retiring from chess was a format in which the arrangement of the pieces in the back row was randomized at the start of each game. Fischer was trying to make chess less a game of memorization (of openings and subsequent board positions) and more about on-the-fly reasoning.

There’s an analogous problem with Scrabble, which is that players even one notch above “casual” have memorized dozens of obscure words that appear in most dictionaries. For those of us still in the “casual” category, playing with these people can be a frustrating experience. Words like “pht” (an interjection) can seem almost unsportsmanlike. But they’re not, of course. These people are just playing by the rules. The problem is that the rules of Scrabble reward memorization (or prior knowledge) of words that no one would ever use in another context. How can we fix this?

Here’s my proposal: a word is legal if (a) the New York Times has used it, (b) without defining it. Of course, the usual dictionary rules apply: if it appears as a proper noun, as an abbreviation, or in quotes, it doesn’t count. How can you check on this? With the paper’s searchable online archives. And you don’t need to be a paid subscriber or even logged in to the site — the clip of the article that comes up in the search results usually provides enough context to show whether the reporter defines the term.

The idea, of course, is that the average New York Times reader is a decent proxy for a literate American adult. If a reporter feels they can take it for granted that someone like this will know a term, there’s a good chance that everyone around the table will see it as fair. Although it’s a small change, this rule creates a whole new game — one that will usually be more evenly matched, since differences in vocabulary and Scrabble experience will be less of a factor. And by adding an element of uncertainty to challenges, it can make them more exciting and more frequent — and therefore more important to the outcome.

More importantly, it captures the intuition that most of us have about Scrabble: that it’s not about having memorized odd words, or showing off an extensive vocabulary, but about skill with anagrams and the creative use of words that everyone recognizes. Think about the times when you’re really impressed with an opponent’s move. It’s generally not when they use an esoteric word that no one knew (this is more likely to produce groans around the table), but when they use words that you do know that you don’t think you would have seen.

It’s also flexible — you can adapt it to a different language, country or age group (or your own tastes) just by choosing another publication. Of course, not every publication has an online archive search that works this way, but the list will only grow over time.

Finally, note that you can use just (a) and not (b) to be less strict — so as long as it appears, it counts, even if it’s defined. This would allow words like “rya” (a type of rug) or “oud” (a musical instrument) — words that a reporter would explain, but still legitimate words that could appear in a newspaper and that a non-Scrabble player might know. And it also opens the door to a lot of specialist vocabulary, like lesser-known medical terms. (But these are often still a gamble. “Adenitis,” for example, only appears once in the Times archives as of this writing.)

There’s one obvious disadvantage: you need a computer at hand, or at least a smart phone. But given the increasing ubiquity of smart phones, this shouldn’t be much of a problem. You probably already have a friend or relative who constantly checks their phone during board games, right? Here’s a good way to put them to use.

Another disadvantage: the search function is occasionally fooled. For example, “et” (a non-standard past tense of “eat”) turns up hundreds of results for “ET” (eastern time) in bylines, and “ain” (a Scottish variant of “own”) returns nothing but “ain’t.” With these non-searchable words, the other players can just vote (“would i define this if I was using it as a reporter?”), or they can simply be allowable by prior agreement, cancelling the challenge without the usual one-turn penalty to the challenger.

So it’s not perfect. But some people will hate this rule for another reason. For them, Scrabble is supposed to test your vocabulary and your experience with the game. And that’s fine — they can go on playing the standard way. In fact, for most of the history of the game, there was no other practical way to play — a dictionary was the only objective source. But now the Internet has given us an alternative. Why not give it a try?