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7 Incredible Things You Didn’t Know About Professional Scrabble

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Word Nerd: Dispatches from the Games, Grammar, and Geek Underground, by John D. Williams, is a merry exploration of the intriguing, eccentric, and sometimes brutal world of professional SCRABBLE play. Few are better qualified to tell the story than Williams, who was a key figure in establishing the World Scrabble Championship, and who helped move the game from living rooms to ESPN. Here are seven things Word Nerd reveals about the pitiless game of Scrabble.

1. Scrabble is the one time when you hope the NSA is listening.

The National Scrabble Association (previously, Scrabble Brand Crossword Game Players, Inc.) was responsible for oversight of hundreds of official clubs dedicated to the game; scheduling tournaments and tracking player ratings; and promoting the game in general. Perhaps its most visible role was in maintaining the Official Tournament and Club Word List—the words considered fair play in the game (which sometimes differs from the Scrabble dictionary, especially as it relates to profanity, which is officially allowed; if you can think it, you can probably play it). Today, the NSA is organized as the North American Scrabble Players’ Association.

2. Everyone at a Scrabble tournament knows what an umiaq is! (Even if spellcheck doesn’t.)

Archaic words such as “umiaq” (an Eskimo canoe) and “qiviut” (the wool of a musk-ox) aren’t useful in casual conversation, but are extremely valuable on the Scrabble board. Moreover, such words occasionally have alternate spellings, making them doubly valuable to a professional player. (An Eskimo might also ride on an umiak, an oomiac, or an oomiack.) In Word Nerd, Williams brings up the word “rei,” noted as “the most indefensible word in the game.” Its meaning: “An erroneous English form for a former Portuguese coin.”

3. Facebook has complicated the creation of words.

As Williams explains, there’s a long journey before a word becomes a word. It begins with “reading and marking,” in which dictionary editors scour magazines and journals ranging in quality from The New Yorker to People. They are searching for “good examples of words used in context.” New words, new inflections, and new spellings of old words that are discovered are entered into a citation database. Once a word logs enough usage, it becomes eligible for consideration by dictionary editors. (A word’s reach is long; the database has been going for over a century now, and contains more than 16 million words.) The growth of social media has complicated things. Words proliferate at a much faster rate; where they generally had a dictionary inclusion lag time of 10 to 20 years, words are now formalized in as few as five years.

4. Words are purged.

Through the second edition, the Official SCRABBLE Players Dictionary contained profanity and racial slurs. “After all,” Williams writes, “lexicographers cannot pretend a word does not exist just because someone doesn’t like it.” When the Anti-Defamation League accused Hasbro of “playing games with hate,” the company’s CEO capitulated and ordered the dictionary scrubbed. Deleting words, however, isn’t as easy as one might think. What is a slur, after all? Aside from the obvious ones, lexicographers explained that such words as “Jesuit” (“a scheming person”) and “papist” (“a Roman Catholic”) were considered slurs for centuries. Likewise, a word like “welsh,” which has “the same connotation as ‘Jew’ used as a verb.” To the outrage of many, the third edition of the dictionary removed roughly 175 “offensive” words. A compromise was reached with the National Scrabble Association, allowing the purged words to remain in official play by establishing the Official Tournament and Club Word List.

5. Hollywood is a mixed bag.

Jack Black is a confirmed Scrabble devotee, as is Martha Stewart, who joked that while in prison she had a lot of time to improve her game. Jimmy Kimmel has won charity tournaments, and every year invites the winners of the National School Scrabble Championships onto his show, where he plays against them on television. (He plays to win, vowing not to stop “until every child in America has been destroyed.”) It’s not all good news in Hollywood; Scrabble players were disappointed by the movie The Wedding Planner, whose depiction of Scrabble tournaments was connected to reality only in that tiles were used.

6. Scrabble tournaments are serious business.

Williams describes professional Scrabble players as a cordial bunch, but as intense as the athletes of any sport. By the game’s peak in 2004, the National Scrabble Championship had grown from 32 players to over 800. That kind of meteoric growth is going to include some eccentrics, from the champion who practices tai chi between rounds to the experts scoffing at the “lesser” competitors “playing up.” The winner of a national championship will take home $10,000 and possibly end up on television morning shows. Outside of the national and world championships, however, the game can be taken just as seriously. The National Scrabble Association once received a letter from a prison inmate asking for an Official SCRABBLE Players Dictionary. It seems a dispute over the admissibility of a word resulted in an inmate being stabbed in the eye with the pencil used for keeping score.

7. The Internet ruined everything.

For decades, top players meticulously assembled lists of obscure but valuable words, and devoted countless hours to studying, if not memorizing, the Official SCRABBLE Players Dictionary. (No small achievement; there are over 100,000 words in said dictionary.) Building lists was an important strategy to compete at the highest level. The Internet made list building a matter of googling “words that end in ‘ck’” and reading the results. This undercut the game’s most devoted players. Apps made things even worse. As any player of Scrabble rip-off Words With Friends can attest, the easiest way to win is to arrange letters on the board until something works. Unlike in actual Scrabble, there is no penalty for playing a false word. An extraordinary play like MBAQANGA, then, is not the result of any particular interest or devotion to the game, but rather, a fortunate assembly of letters that happened to be accepted by the computer. (The official Scrabble app has the same shortcoming.) Scrabble’s online faltering had repercussions beyond that. In 2013, Hasbro (Scrabble’s owner) bought the rights to manufacture a Words With Friends board game. The reason? So that they might have a “Scrabble-type board game for the next generation.” As Williams wrote, “You already have one, man. You already have one.”

"American Mall," Bloomberg
Unwinnable Video Game Challenges You to Keep a Shopping Mall in Business
"American Mall," Bloomberg
"American Mall," Bloomberg

Shopping malls, once the cultural hub of every suburb in America, have become a punchline in the e-commerce era. There are plenty of malls around today, but they tend to be money pits, considering the hundreds of "dead malls" haunting the landscape. Just how hard is it to keep a mall afloat in the current economy? American Mall, a new video game from Bloomberg, attempts to give an answer.

After choosing which tycoon character you want as your stand-in, you're thrown into a mall—rendered in 1980s-style graphics—already struggling to stay in business. The building is filled with rats and garbage you have to clean up if you want to keep shoppers happy. Every few seconds you're contacted by another store owner begging you to lower their rent, and you must either take the loss or risk them packing up for good. When stores are vacated, it's your job to fill them, but it turns out there aren't too many businesses interested in setting up shop in a dying mall.

You can try gimmicks like food trucks and indoor playgrounds to keep customers interested, but in the end your mall will bleed too much money to support itself. You can try playing the bleak game for yourself here—maybe it will put some of the retail casualties of the last decade into perspective.

[h/t Co.Design]

Live Smarter
Why the Soundtracks to Games Like 'Mario' or 'The Sims' Can Help You Work

When I sat down to write this article, I was feeling a little distracted. My desk salad was calling me. I had new emails in my inbox to read. I had three different articles on my to-do list, and I couldn't decide which to start first. And then, I jumped over to Spotify and hit play on the theme to The Sims. As I listened to the upbeat, fast-paced, wordless music, my writing became faster and more fluid. I felt more “in the zone,” so to speak, than I had all morning. There's a perfectly good explanation: Video games provide the ideal productivity soundtrack. At Popular Science, Sara Chodosh explains why video game music can get you motivated and keep you focused while you work, especially if you're doing relatively menial tasks. It's baked into their composition.

There are several reasons to choose video game music over your favorite pop album. For one, they tend not to have lyrics. A 2012 study of more than 100 people found that playing background music with lyrics tended to distract participants while studying. The research suggested that lyric-less music would be more conducive to attention and performance in the workplace. Another study conducted in open-plan offices in Finland found that people were better at proofreading if there was some kind of continuous, speechless noise going on in the background. Video game music would fit that bill.

Plus, video game music is specifically made not to distract from the task at hand. The songs are meant to be listened to over and over again, fading into the background as you navigate Mario through the Mushroom Kingdom or help Link save Zelda. My friend Josie Brechner, a composer who has scored the music for video games like the recently released Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King, says that game music is definitely written with this in mind.

"Basically, successful video game music straddles the balance between being engaging and exciting, but also not wanting to make you tear your ears off after the 10th or 100th listen," Brechner says. Game music often has a lot of repetition, along with variation on musical themes, to keep the player engaged but still focused on what they're playing, "and that translates well to doing other work that requires focus and concentration."

If you're a particularly high-strung worker, you might want to tune into some relaxing classical music or turn on a song specifically designed to calm you. But if you want to finish those expense reports on a Monday morning, you're better off choosing a fast-tempo ditty designed for seemingly pointless activities like making your Sims eat and go to the toilet regularly. (It can help you with more exciting work responsibilities, too: Other research has found that moderate background noise can increase performance on creative tasks.)

These types of songs work so well that there are entire playlists online devoted just to songs from video game soundtracks that work well for studying. One, for instance, includes songs written for The Legend of Zelda, Skyrim, Super Smash Bros., and other popular games.

The effect of certain theme songs on your productivity may, however, depend on your particular preferences. A 2010 study of elementary school students found that while calming music could improve performance on math and memory tests, music perceived as aggressive or unpleasant distracted them. I was distracted by the deep-voiced chanting of the "Dragonborn Theme" from Skyrim, but felt charged up by the theme from Street Fighter II. There's plenty of variety in video game scores—after all, a battle scene doesn't call for the same type of music as a puzzle game. Not all of them are going to work for you, but by their nature, you probably don't need a lot of variation in your work music if you're using video game soundtracks. If you can play a game for days on end, you can surely listen to the same game soundtrack over and over again.

[h/t Popular Science]


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