The Orlando Scrabble® Club celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2017. In the following brief essay, we reflect on the history of the game's invention, its organization, and its connection to Florida and Orlando.
The game now known as Scrabble® was invented by an out-of-work architect named Alfred Butts in the 1930s. His early names for the game included "Lexiko" and "Criss Cross Words," and Butts also tinkered with the rules, tile distribution, and other features for many years. A businessman named James Brunot partnered with Butts in the late 1940s, making additional improvements and helping to market and sell the game. By 1948, Butts and Brunot had established the now-familiar board configuration and rules.
Scrabble® was slow to catch on at first, selling only a few thousand sets per year. But it exploded in popularity in 1952, when Scrabble® suddenly become a top seller. More than three million sets were sold in 1954 alone, and the rest, as they say, is history.
More than 100 million sets have been sold since then — not to mention the millions of games played online or against computer programs.
Organized Scrabble Play
Organized, competitive Scrabble® play began in New York City game rooms in the late 1950s and early 1960s, alongside other games of skill, such as chess, backgammon, and bridge. The first regular Scrabble® clubs and tournaments also took place in or around New York City in the 1960s and early 1970s.
The first sanctioned tournaments and clubs were organized under the auspices of the Scrabble Crossword Game Players, Inc., an offshoot of the Selchow & Righter, the game company that owned the rights to Scrabble® from the early 1950s until the mid-1980s.
By the late 1970s, tournaments and clubs were spreading across the nation. The first North American Scrabble® Championship was held in New York City in 1978, and by 1983 there were more than 200 sanctioned Scrabble® clubs in the U.S. and Canada.
Scrabble in Florida
The first official Scrabble® clubs in the Sunshine State began in Miami and other south Florida locations in the early 1970s. The first official tournaments also occurred in that part of the state in approximately 1974.
Clubs were started in other parts of the state in subsequent years, with the first documented Orlando-area club being founded in 1982, under the auspices of the National Scrabble Association (NSA). The club met in members' homes, as well as at the downtown public library, under the leadership of co-directors Garry Rathman and Richard Lazaro. A 1987 Orlando Sentinel article covered the club: "Words Are More Than Game for The Lovers of Scrabble" (January 11, 1987). Several tournaments also took place in Orlando or Kissimmee in this era.
Unfortunately, that first Orlando-area club folded in the early 1990s, and central Florida began hosting fewer local tournaments. On the national level, corporate ownership of the game also underwent big changes in this era. A toy company called Coleco bought the game from Selchow Righter in 1986, but its ownership was short-lived. The toy and game company Hasbro acquired the rights to the game in 1989, after Coleco went bankrupt.
Meanwhile in Orlando, play continued in informal settings and players' homes for a few years. The scene was ripe for a new club to take shape....
Orlando's Scrabble Club #438 was first sanctioned by the National Scrabble Association (NSA) in approximately early 1997. The founder and first director was Judy Segall, a local artist and longtime player. Judy had also played in a club in California and served as a director at a club in Hollywood, Florida, before moving to central Florida, and she brought with her many ideas for effective club administration. The new Club first met at a Jewish Community Center, before moving to bookstores and private homes for a time in the late 1990s.
Club attendance in the 1990s frequently exceeded 20 players per session. Cumulative statistics from those days do not survive, but each session's games were tracked with a then-common method: "I brought an easel with me each week, and placed a large pad with newsprint on it where we published the scores for the evening," recalled Judy. Statistics and other tidbits were then compiled and published in hard copy newsletters. The Club also occasionally hosted unrated tournaments, with trophies for prizes. The Orlando Sentinel published an article in 1998 that captured some of the fun and spirit of the club in that era: "Scrabble Fans Mind P's, Try To Use Q's" (September 7, 1998).
By approximately the year 2000, the Club had started meeting at the Casselberry Recreation Center and came under the directorship of Carl Warner, with assistance at various times from Paul Haverly, Jay Jacobs, Judy Segall, and Tim Bottorff.
In the early-to-mid 2000s, Paul revived the tradition of producing weekly statistical updates in hard copy, featuring club standings, statistics, records, and other accomplishments. By 2007, Tim took over the statistical updates and soon started issuing them online. (Current and existing historical club statistics are available from our Stats page.)
During the 2000s, the national Scrabble® scene also flourished, buoyed in part by the publication in 2001 of Stefan Fatsis' excellent book Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players. Many tournaments took place in Florida in this era, and Orlando served as the host city for the 2008 and 2012 National tournaments.
In February 2010 the club moved to the Wirz Park recreation building. The Club was by then sanctioned under the auspices of the North American Scrabble Players Association (NASPA), which remains the current governing body for competitive play in the U.S. and Canada.
Later in 2010, Art Moore and Brian Miller assumed primary directorship, with assistance from fellow directors Jill Heffner and Tim Bottorff. The Club also went live with its first website in 2010.
Since our club's first games in 1997, we estimate that we have played more than 17,000 games and totaled more than 12 million points at the Orlando Scrabble® Club. That's a lot of scrabbling!
Most importantly, more than 20 years after its founding, the Orlando Scrabble® Club #438 is still going strong!
Our club remains the only official club in the Orlando area sanctioned for competitive play, and our club continues to evolve. Our website underwent a major renovation in late 2016, incorporating a new logo, new colors, and a more modern and responsive design. We also established our Facebook page in early 2017.
In March 2017, we celebrated the club's 20th anniversary. The Orlando Sentinel published a short article a few days beforehand: "Scrabble Club Racks Up 20 Years of Words" (March 24, 2017). During the special anniversary session, we looked back, thanked everyone involved, and then... played a lot of Scrabble!
Since then, the club has received attention in a number of media:
In July 2018, several members of the club participated in a unique "Words with Fans" event at a minor league baseball team in Jacksonville, which included a tournament, a simultaneous games record attempt by top player Will Anderson, and other Scrabble-themed promotions.
The club was featured in the media again in November 2018, this time in a story in the local Altamonte Wekiva Springs Life magazine: "Never at a Loss for Words."
In August 2019, codirector Art Moore was profiled in a segment on the local Spectrum News 13 TV station. The club venue and many of its members are also prominently featured in the segment. The video, and a short write-up, was posted online: "In His Game, You're Only as Good as Your Word."
Overall, the future looks bright for our club!
Edley, Joe, and John D. Williams. Everything Scrabble (3rd edition). New York: Pocket Books, 2009.
Fatsis, Stefan. Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.
McCarthy, Paul. Letterati: An Unauthorized Look at Scrabble and the People Who Play It. Toronto: ECW Press, 2008.
Various Orlando Sentinel newspaper articles, most notably: "Words Are More Than Game for The Lovers of Scrabble" (January 11, 1987), "Scrabble Fans Mind P's, Try To Use Q's" (September 7, 1998), and "Scrabble Club Racks Up 20 Years of Words" (March 24, 2017).
Recollections of Orlando-area players, including Tim Bottorff, Judy Segall, Carl Warner, Linn Wheeler, and many others.
Written (and updated when necessary) by Tim Bottorff © 2016-2021