Alfred Butts Remembered
by John D Williams, Co-Author of Everything SCRABBLE
It was the summer of 1983, and I had just become involved as a public relations consultant to what was then called SCRABBLE Crossword Game Players, Inc. The organization was a subsidiary of the game’s manufacturer, Sechow & Righter Company. I had just arrived at Chicago’s Drake Hotel for the 1983 North American SCRABBLE Championship, where thirty-two finalists from all over the continent were going to compete for a $5,000 first prize and a considerable amount of glory in the game and word subcultures.
On the plane from New York I had tried to memorize all the material I had received about both SCRABBLE and the fledgling tournament scene. Among the sheaves of information was a press release describing the upcoming event. One of its highlights was that the championship would be visited by Alfred Mosher Butts, the inventor of SCRABBLE. Interestingly, this would be the first time Butts would see firsthand the kind of worldwide enthusiasm his idea has spawned.
After checking into my room, I headed down to the tournament room, where officials, press, executives, and players had already convened. After making the rounds, I noticed a frail man, clearly in his eighties, sitting unassumingly in the corner. He was surrounded by several people, but he seemed to be doing more listening than talking. Seconds later, one of my associates informed me that the gentleman was Alfred Butts and asked if I could keep him company for a while.
When the group around Butts dispersed, I walked over to introduce myself. I had not noticed before, but there was a SCRABBLE game in progress on a small table beside him. We had been talking for a few minutes when Alfred asked if I wanted to finish the game with him.
I was stunned. For openers, I had just started to reacquaint myself with the game as part of my new assignment. Second, the prospect of playing SCRABBLE with the game’s inventor was more than just a little intimidating. I felt as if I were about to shoot baskets with Dr. James Naismith or change a diaper with Dr. Benjamin Spock.
“I’m really a terrible speller,” Alfred told me as we began. I looked at the crush of reporters around the room. “Maybe you shouldn’t advertise that fact.” The father of SCRABBLE shrugged. “People find out soon enough.”
Adding to my sense of intimidation was a prop that Alfred had casually left on the floor beside him. It appeared to be an everyday plastic shopping bag. It contained, however, the first hand-rendered prototype of the SCRABBLE board from decades earlier.
“Shouldn’t this in the Smithsonian or something?” I asked him.
“You really think so?” he replied.
People still ask me how well Alfred Butts played that first day. Frankly, I can’t even remember. I’m not sure it really mattered. The next opportunity I had to spend any significant time with Alfred was at the 1985 National SCRABBLE Championship in Boston. It was the largest event in organized SCRABBLE game history, with 302 word experts from dozens of states and several foreign countries competing.
Alfred was even more overwhelmed than he had been at the Chicago tournament a few years earlier, but he loved the attention and VIP treatment he was afforded. He was also introducing a new product, Alfred’s Other Game. It was basically a solitaire version of SCRABBLE, roughly conceived by Alfred and fine-tuned by the people at Selchow & Righter. Each contestant and staff member received a copy of the new game, and Alfred must have signed each one personally during the course of the event.
Happily, there was extensive press coverage of the championship, and Alfred was a focal point of much of it. Although he was an extraordinarily unassuming man, he sat through dozens of interviews and photo sessions, answering the same questions over and over again. It’s important to remember that Alfred Butts had no prospect of financial gain from any of this. He had long since stopped receiving royalties on SCRABBLE; and Alfred’s Other Game, while certainly playable, never threatened to become a classic. Mostly, he was a man in his mid-eighties who was enjoying an unexpected opportunity for some fun and recognition.
It was during the Boston trip that I really spent a lot of time with this American genius. My chief memory was of our visit to a Sunday-morning radio program. We were appearing on a show hosted by a Boston radio legend who called himself “the Culture Vulture.” Each Sunday morning he interviewed a featured guest, then opened up the phone lines to his listeners.
It should be noted that WBCN was one of the most famous rock and roll stations in the United States. It’s safe to say that many of the listeners were not what you’d characterize as typical SCRABBLE game enthusiasts and that a good portion of them had been awake since the night before.
But Alfred sat there and answered their questions, no matter how outrageous. One caller wanted to know the weirdest word he’d ever played. He couldn’t think of any for himself, but he repeated a story about his wife’s playing QUIXOTIC against him years earlier. Later, the family had presented her with a custom-made T-shirt with the word emblazoned across the front. Another asked what, if he had to change the SCRABBLE game, he would do. Nothing came immediately to mind, Alfred said. He was sure, however, that his late friend James Brunot would probably have a slew of ideas. An M.I.T. student wanted to know the most points that could conceivably be scored in a SCRABBLE game. Alfred said he had no idea, that it might be too subjective even to figure out. Alfred added that he was happy whenever he scored 300 points.
After the show we received a tour of the radio station, including a peek at what was said to be the largest collection of rock and roll music in the United States. It was a great juxtaposition: eighty-five-year-old Alfred Butts wandering around the bowels of a radio station being introduced to legions of people who looked as if they’d just staggered home from a Grateful Dead concert. People were thrilled to meet the father of SCRABBLE – as in every other setting I’d ever seen him in.
On the way back from WBCN, Alfred asked the driver to pull over when he spotted a huge and impressive example of trompe l’oeil (a photo-realistic mural) on the side of an old brick building. Though a trained architect and accomplished artist, he apparently had not seen that many examples of the form in person; indeed, they are still rare in North America. After we stopped, Alfred got out of the car and walked over to take a closer look. He stood there for a few minutes and admired it, then walked back to the car. “That was really something,” he told me.
“How long do you think it took to do that?” he wondered.
I told him I had no idea.
“Do you suppose they had real artists, or just regular sign painters?”
Again, I told him I didn’t have a clue. However, there was one thing I did realize: A mind like Alfred’s was as curious at eighty-five as it ever was!
My last memory of Alfred Mosher Butts is from June 1991. I was in a nursing-home parking lot a few miles outside of Poughkeepsie, NY. Just before we left the car, my host, Alfred’s great-nephew Robert Butts, opened the glove compartment of his car and pulled out a giant bag of M&Ms.
“Alfred is ninety-one years old,” he said, “and I think these things keep him going.”
“Whatever it takes,” I told him, hoping I’m eating M&Ms at ninety-one.
How ironic, I thought, that the man who invented the SCRABBLE game, Alfred Mosher Butts, was “surviving” on a candy named after a letter of the alphabet.
I had not seen Alfred for three years. He had been involved in an automobile accident while driving at the age of eighty-eight and he did not get around as he once had. Still, it would be a mistake to say he was just sitting around a nursing home and eating candy. As Robert Butts explained, “Alfred now listens more than he talks. But there is still a lot going on in that magnificent brain.”
I had hoped to actually play Alfred a SCRABBLE game that day. Robert had told me that his uncle still played an occasional lightning-fast game with nurses and other residents. But Alfred was a little tired that day. As a result, our visit was limited to a half an hour so, and the conversation, though warm, was mostly me talking and Alfred listening.
While an attendant was checking on Alfred, I experience a clear and acute sense of privilege just being in the room with him. As he and Robert spoke, I reviewed to myself the remarkable legacy Alfred Butts had created.
A SCRABBLE set was in 30 million American homes; 100 million sets had been sold worldwide. In the United States and Canada alone, there were more than seventy-five official SCRABBLE game tournaments every year and hundreds of official SCRABBLE game clubs. There was a biennial national championship. A typical American championship had 600-plus word experts from forty states and several countries, all of them battling it out for twenty-one rounds in just four and a half days. That’s about seven hours of play a day. A recent national tournament in Thailand featured 2,000 players, 95 percent of them school children.
But this day in 1991 I was delivering a particularly sweet message, a new statistic, to the inventor of the game. I had come to tell Alfred in person that the first-ever World SCRABBLE Championship was going to be held a few months later in London. After the dramatic events around the rest of the world at that time – the Berlin Wall and Lenin’s statue had both been toppled – all factions in the SCRABBLE universe had at last agreed on a way to get together and play.
Propped up in his nursing-home bed, Alfred Butts listened as I set the stage. Teams from twenty countries would compete. They would include experts from Sri Lanka, Kenya, Israel, Japan and Nigeria, as well as the more predictable United States, Canada, England, and Australia. Everyone would, of course, play in English.
However, we would be using both the North American and British dictionaries, which meant all players would try to learn an additional 30,000 words from the “foreign” lexicon. On the final day of the event, two players would battle it out on national television for a $10,000 first prize.
As I expected, Alfred was stunned at the scope and pageantry of this upcoming international event. That he had started it all six decades earlier – in his living room, in the middle of the Great Depression – was almost impossible for him to absorb. Finally, after processing this information for another minute, he looked at me.
“I wish I could be there,” he said.
I waited a beat, too.
“Believe me, Alfred,” I told him, “you will be.”
Alfred Butts died in 1993.