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Subject: Archive: Alfred Butts, Apr. 4, 1993

Invented "Scrabble"
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Date Posted: Thursday, April 04, 04:48:57pm

Alfred M. Butts, who as a jobless architect in the Depression invented the enduringly popular board game Scrabble, died on Sunday at a hospital in his hometown, Rhinebeck, N.Y. He was 93.

Although its sales eventually approached 100 million sets, Scrabble languished for nearly two decades, rejected by major game manufacturers as unmarketable.

Mr. Butts was a fan of chess, crosswords and jigsaw puzzles. Working in his fifth floor walk-up in Jackson Heights, Queens, he designed the new game to be based on knowledge, strategy and chance. He lined the original playing board into small squares and cut the 100 lettered wooden tiles by hand.

The first players were Mr. Butts, his wife, Nina, and their friends. They took turns drawing tiles and arranging them into words. Scoring was based on points for each letter, multiplied when placed on premium squares.

Mrs. Butts was better at the game than her inventor spouse. Once she scored 234 for "quixotic." He admitted that she "beat me at my own game," literally.

Although Mr. Butts had invented a word game, he was stumped in naming it. He tried Lexiko, Criss Cross Words and simply It. But the big companies weren't buying It, under that or any other name.

The game was relegated to a novelty for a few hundred friends until one of them, James Brunot, retired from his day job in 1948 and volunteered to make and sell the game. He coined the catchy Scrabble label, but the little enterprise still lost money, producing a few dozen sets a week.

Suddenly, in 1952, a vacationing Macy's executive saw Scrabble played at a resort, and the world's largest store began carrying it. Orders started pouring in. Thirty-five workers hired to churn out 6,000 sets a week could not meet the demand. Finally the operation was turned over to Selchow & Righter, which had rejected the game years before.

The Scrabble craze led to a deluxe set with revolving turntable, a pocket edition for travelers, a junior version for children, foreign-language versions, even a television program. Gamblers played it for money and Hollywood had a dirty-word variant. There were books on strategy and international tournaments for devotees.

For many years Mr. Butts earned royalties, which he said were about three cents a set. "One-third went to taxes," he said. "I gave one-third away, and the other third enabled me to have an enjoyable life."

Mr. Butts was born in Poughkeepsie. He earned a degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania.

Among the buildings he designed were the Charles W. Berry housing project on Staten Island and the Stanford Free Library in Stanfordville, N.Y. He was a co-founder of the library. He was also an amateur artist and had six drawings collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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