A Scrabble tourney isn't just T-r-i-v-i-a-l

As 302 of the world's top Scrabble players stare at their boards, shaking bags of tiles and drawing little wooden letters, the Sheraton Boston Hotel feels more like a rattlesnake's den than a game room. Someone calls out ``Challenge!'' and a ``word authority'' armed with an Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary scurries to his side. The bluff doesn't work: There is no such word as ``eloquist.'' The woman who tries to pass it off loses her turn and, ultimately, the game.

Which is no laughing matter. The winner of the North American Scrabble Open will get $10,000 this afternoon and a trip for two to Hawaii.

Indeed, this is serious business, not the least for Selchow & Righter, the company that makes Scrabble. It's good publicity for the game, which is enjoying a rebound on its 50th birthday, and for the company, which is riding on the heady profits of another game it distributes, Trivial Pursuit.

In line with the competitive level of the tournament, there are some strict rules. No ``coffeehousing'' (distracting your opponent with chitchat) or smoking. No ``Braille-ing,'' feeling for the certain letters in the bag of tiles, even if that turns up something as horrible as an ``Old MacDonald'' rack of letters (E I E I O).

Of course, people find more in Scrabble racks than just words.

Jan Jarrell, the No. 2 ranking female Scrabble player, found romance. This accountant from Wilmington, Del., went to a tournament in New York and there met one of the nation's top players, Chris Reslock, who has since moved from Michigan to Wilmington. Ms. Jarrell beat him the first time they competed, but concedes that he usually wins. ``He uses a lot of fakes, and he's one of the best come-from-behind players there is.''

Sam Kantimathi, an engineer from Arlington, Va., who came to the United States from India in 1977, has expanded his vocabulary by 18,000 words. He has programmed his home computer to find at random new possible combinations for his word lists. Like many a Scrabble devotee, he's in for the long haul: ``I'm looking at the late '80s or early '90s'' to reach his competitive peak, he says.

Still, the longevity of Scrabble pales in comparison with the profits of Trivial Pursuit.

The five-pound wonder turned the whole board-game industry around after a small slump in the early 1980s, when video games cut into sales by about 5 percent. Trivial Pursuit caught the imagination and purse strings of baby-boomers and roped in more than $700 million in retail sales last year -- twice the amount spent on all board games the previous year.

In fact, video games helped their more traditional cousins. ``People had been programmed to spend $40 on video games,'' says Richard Selchow, president of Selchow & Righter, ``so all of the sudden Trivial Pursuit [which retails at around $35] was a bargain.''

About 100 trivia games sprang up in its wake, although most quickly perished. Harold Vogel, an analyst at Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, predicts sales of Trivial Pursuit will drop below $200 million this year.

Board games -- both inventing and buying them -- thrive on economic downswings. Scrabble's inventor, Alfred Butts, was an unemployed architect during the Great Depression when he came up with Scrabble. Trivial Pursuit was created by two Canadian journalists in 1979, during the worst economic downswing in half a century. And Monopoly -- which was not invented by Charles Darrow in 1930s, as is commonly thought, but by Elizabeth Magie in 1904 and patented under the name ``The

Landlord's Game'' -- first became a hit during the depression.

``Board games, especially strategy games, do well when the economy is weaker, which may be why they're more popular in Europe'' at the present time, says Wayne Schmittberger, senior editor at Games Magazine.

``If you think about the number of dollars spent on a board game vs. the number of hours spent playing it, it is cheaper than any other form of entertainment.''

What's the next craze?

Murder in the living room, says Mr. Schmittberger. Party games are sweeping in such mystery pleasers as ``Murder to Go'' (by Ideal/CBS Toys), ``Who Killed Roger Ellington?'' (Just Games), and ``How to Host a Murder'' (Decipher Inc.).

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