Evolution in Scrabble

OPINION: By Nick Ivanovski

I first started playing competition Scrabble at the age of 10. The year was 1982 and a qualifying tournament was taking place for a major final to be held at a later date.

It was a 2 game qualifier. But it was enough… soon, we were introduced to other players from a nearby club and, eventually, to regular tournament play.

Play evolved from 4 games to 6 games per day, clocks were introduced, winning went from aggregate to wins and spread. Dictionaries changed.

The rules of the game stayed constant but the nature of tournaments evolved over time, always focusing on the betterment of the game.

Eventually, with personal interest in the game waning, starting from around 1993 until 1998, where by then, my tournament play diminished to nil.

Only to be revitalised by another innovation: Facebook.

Online play from around 2008 to 2010 restored my enjoyment for the game as I found many people around the globe who shared my views and enjoyment. Even playing to CSW07, whilst unsatisfactory, didn’t matter when I knew I could log on to my laptop each day and play fellow “Scrabblers” in the UK, South Africa, NZ, Pakistan and Spain.

Facebook Scrabble remains one of the principal ways I maintain a “fix” of regular play a day, made much easier with another technological innovation; the ability to play by mobile or on tablet. Throughout, enjoyment of face to face tournaments has grown and not given way to solely playing online.

It is against this backdrop that it is not difficult to have an interest in the phenomenon that is “Tablet Scrabble”, something that provides tournament style Scrabble but using your phone or tablet to play.

Early Tablet Scrabble

First steps in an evolution

As Austin Shin, one of the founders of the Tablet Scrabble group “Scrabble International” explains, “There are a host of reasons why we think (Tablet Scrabble) is a step forward. Games can be played faster as there is no admin involved like writing stuff down, picking and counting tiles, rechecking scores, etc. So we use a 15 min clock instead of 25 min, which means capacity for many more games, increased actual playing time and greater value.”

“Scrabble has a long-running 'stigma' of being too old-fashioned and uncool, hence a big reason why most young people are not interested in the game. Playing on mobile devices would appeal more in that sense, but this also means there is no necessity for buying (and replacing) Scrabble equipment as most people nowadays already have a mobile device, thus making Tablet Scrabble much more accessible for everyone around the world. “

Founded with the current World Champion, David Eldar, Tablet Scrabble started with regular meet-ups in London and has expanded to Manchester; recently, Tablet Scrabble ratings were introduced.

Staying with the theme of innovation and evolution, there is a lot to like about it - taking this further, Austin continues “All in all, the main objective is to bridge the gap to non-tournament scrabble players and grow our community with new people that are simply unaware about us. As two of the younger players in the community, we are worried that the tournament Scrabble community may end up dying out because numbers are generally dropping worldwide.”.

In more recent times

Tablet play expands

Now, it would be easy to just casually dismiss this as gimmicky and not give it due deference - but dismissal is unfair and, in many ways, unjust.

Can innovation, as it has done time and again, be the key to continual growth in all aspects of the competitive version of the game? After all, such innovations as I mentioned above, certainly did lead to a growth and evolution that was for the betterment of the game.

The numbers don’t lie on this: usage of online versions of Scrabble and its many clones is in the millions. “Bridging the gap” as Austin puts it, even as little as 1% would add thousands to the game, especially in the traditional areas which are now experiencing a fall in numbers.

And, as the rules of the game don’t change - though there would need to be tweaks to rules of tournament play in this sort of format - it is merely an extension of what we currently play.

To look to grow the “traditional” tournament scene, you need something vibrant to add to it, almost to compete with it; for competition brings innovation and with innovation comes growth.

The thing currently missing for innovations like Tablet Scrabble is official recognition. It is time for WESPA to explore an international rules and rating system so that players around the world can be a part of the Tablet Scrabble revolution, pioneered with great devotion by Austin and David. You can also make the argument that the same applies to Speed Scrabble, a phenomenon that has been around for years and enjoys the occasional tournament around the world.

How that looks is not the purpose of this article but to inspire the way we can actually make this happen.

Tournament Scrabble as we know it, can only grow as a result of this sort of discussion - and there are many elements that the traditional scene has that are advantageous over Tablet play and vice versa.

All versions can grow and benefit each other: the time to discuss has started, and our outcomes will help shape the game to its betterment if we incorporate the new into official tournament scenes.

You can learn more about Tablet Scrabble in the Facebook Group Scrabble International.

Nick Ivanovski is Chair of Promotions in WESPA and a member of the WESPA Committee. The opinions expressed in this article are personal and not presented in any official capacity.