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Alfred M. Butts, invented Scrabble

Published Oct. 9, 2005

Alfred M. Butts, who as a jobless architect in the Depression invented the enduringly popular board game Scrabble, died 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, N.Y., 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 she "beat me at my own game," literally.

Mr. Butts tried naming his game 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 enterprise still lost money, producing a few dozen sets a week.

In 1952, a Macy's executive saw Scrabble played at a resort, and the store began carrying it. Orders started pouring in.