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Scrabulous Fever

Posted by Joshua Glenn  December 26, 2007 11:22 AM

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I've only been playing Scrabulous -- the ersatz Scrabble game played by (among others) users of Facebook, the booming online social network founded in 2004 by a Harvard sophomore -- since November. It wasn't until I read a New York Times story about Scrabulous, earlier this month, that I realized how popular the game is. Half a million Facebook users play it every day!

It really is addictive. For example, I love revisiting my "bingos" -- words played that use all seven letters on the rack, earning a bonus of 50 points -- and gloating over them.

21-Dec-07 FOAMIEr 72
17-Dec-07 SEAWARD 87
16-Dec-07 DIGNiTY 83
08-Dec-07 REDUCiNG 63
04-Dec-07 qUIVERS 98

The fact that I had to employ a blank tile in most cases (those lower-case letters) is no reason to feel any less proud. It's more difficult to use blank tiles well than you'd think.

I should admit that I've lost more Scrabulous games than I've won, so far. My friend Tor, one of those brilliant grad-school refugees whom one first meets in a used bookstore -- everyone should meet this way; it makes Boston seem like an intellectual town -- challenged me to a game recently. He got a bingo (100 points!) on his opening move. I'm proud of my comeback, but this is going to be an uphill struggle. See below.


Jayant and Rajat Agarwalla, the Calcutta-based developers of Scrabulous, which cannot be confused for anything but a Scrabble ripoff, are careful to make the case that the popularity of their game probably helps sales of Scrabble, which is owned by Hasbro. According to the Times:

Through Scrabulous, "we have managed to reach a lot of people who have never played the game," said Rajat, who is 26. "Some even ask us questions about how to play Scrabulous because they're not familiar with it. Once we've explained it to them, they come back and say, 'It's a great thing and we have to buy the original version to play with our family offline.'"

I scoffed when I read that... but then, a few days later, while doing some Christmas shopping at the Harvard Coop, I picked up a Scrabble set. My kids unwrapped it yesterday.

We know exactly how popular Scrabulous is -- this is the upside and downside of the Web. I'm sure Hasbro can tell us how many Scrabble sets they've sold, too. But how popular is Scrabble -- I mean, how strong is its grip on the collective unconscious? One way to answer this question is searching for the word in Amazon's bestelling nonfiction books. After doing so for an hour this morning, here's what I discovered:

* Conservatives dig Scrabble. In "Ike: An American Hero," Michael Korda's 2007 biography of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces and later two-term (Republican) president of the United States, we learn that in his retirement, Dwight Eisenhower looked after a small herd of cattle, wrote prodigiously, golfed, and "played Scrabble with Mamie on her beloved glassed-in porch at Gettysburg." And in "Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription," a 2007 collection of National Review editor William F. Buckley's answers to particularly odd reader letters, Buckley (sometimes described as an "Eisenhower conservative") at one point settles an argument between two Scrabble players. "Whiter" is a legit adjective (even though "white" is the absence of color), but "jader" is not, because even though nouns like "jade" can be used as adjectives, they "don't let themselves go into comparatives and superlatives."

* Scrabble is a prime example of a leisure-time activity, in the ancient Greek sense of that concept -- i.e., an activity enjoyed during those rarest and most precious of moments when one is engaged in neither ordinary labor nor political activity and the business of the state (nor unwinding from one's labor, work, or actions, nor recharging one's batteries). In the acknowledgments for "Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook," coauthor Isa Chandra Moskowitz thanks the Post Punk Kitchen "forum mods" (it's an online thing) for "deleting spam and threads about honey and dating omnis [it's a vegan thing], thus freeing up my time to play Scrabble and write cookbooks." And in "The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate" (1995), author Gary Chapman urges husbands and wives to save their marriages by saying the following to one another: "Do you remember how we used to play Scrabble together? I'd like to play Scrabble with you on Thursday." How sweet!

* Did you know that "Scrabble" was a rival nickname for crack cocaine? According to "Freakonomics," the bestselling collection of essays by "rogue economists" Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, smokeable cocaine "came to be called crack for the crackling sound the baking soda [a key ingredient in the cooking process] made when it was burned. More affectionate nicknames would soon follow: Rock, Kryptonite, Kibbles 'n Bits, Scrabble, and Love." Hmm. This probably has nothing to do with the boardgame, unless it was more popular among crackheads than one might imagine; I'm guessing the nickname is derived from one of the meanings of the verb "scrabble" -- i.e., "to make or obtain by scraping together hastily." Never mind.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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