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Scrabble's dirty secret

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Scrabble, the 85-year-old crossword game loved by wordsmiths everywhere, has been in the news recently. Apparently its rules are out-of-step with modern life. Time to upgrade, Scrabble. You're doing it wrong.

I am a graduate student in English Literature. It's a bit rich to say that I love the language -- such a declaration, usually from hardcore grammarians, incites a heavy eye-rolling session in me -- but it's true there's a lot to love about words. I don't mean perfectly formed sentences which strictly adhere to this or that style manual (although those have their place). I mean the way language gets used -- in all the concupiscent connotations possible when we think of "using" rather than "usage."

Tobias Wolff's very short story "Bullet in the Brain," often taught in first-year literature or creative writing classes, describes a jaded, elitist Hollywood film reviewer who gets shot in the head while waiting in line at the bank by a cliché-spouting bandit. As the bullet makes its way through his brain, the narrator's final memory, a baseball diamond of his youth, flashes before him. A boy from Mississippi the narrator doesn't know announces, beautifully, sensuously, that "Shortstop's the best position they is." It's the echo of this special phrase -- "they is, they is, they is" -- that rings in our head as the narrator's final thoughts try vainly to outrun the bullet.

That's what I mean when I say that language can be loved. Love can include words like, say, "concupiscent" (see what I did there?) and "irregardless." Perhaps the latter invites a debate too expansive for this blog post, but the point I want to make is not about grammar or usage, but, as a scholar of beautiful utterances, about my nemesis: Scrabble.

Obviously, I'm Scrabble's target audience: bookish, elitist (shhh!) and competitive. I like board games and I like words. I happen to be competent at Scrabble, but it's not a game for book-minded, or even word-minded people.

If you need proof, you need only look at the recent slew of blog entries and articles who are asking to re-evaluate Scrabble's immemorial tile value scheme. Deadspin ran an analytic on letter frequency in the Official Scrabble Dictionary.  Another, by Cognitive Science PhD Toby Shaw, who appeared on CBC's As It Happens, ran a similar study but took into consideration word-length. Both studies have about as much literary charm as the Chicago Manual of Style.

Here's Scrabble's dirty little secret: the game is really about maximizing points and space to yield the highest return. Someone who has memorized all the acceptable two-letter words in the formalized dictionary will do much better than someone who knows how to use 'paletot' in a sentence. You can forget about neologisms like "eponysterical" or archaic remnants found only in the OED. Scrabble rewards efficiency, memorization and fortune, while remaining ambivalent to creativity, imagination and verve. Maximize property value, minimize artistic expression.

It's about capitalism, basically.

Once Scrabble's clandestine motivations become clear, its easy to see how these studies are completely correct in their claim that the rules could do with an update. This isn't your Cold War capitalism. This is the world of subprime mortgage lending and securitizing toxic investments. Risk -- from financial to environmental -- is managed by probability tables rather than holistic thinking. Why shouldn't these processes govern Scrabble too?

So go ahead, join me in writing a letter to Hasbro and Milton Bradley, insisting they change its rules. We don't want capitalism leaving Scrabble behind.

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