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Author Margaret Atwood contemplates her next word as she participates in a Scrabble tournament to raise money for Performing Arts Lodges, which is an advocacy group for aging or ailing arts professionals. (Simon Hayter/The Globe and Mail)
Author Margaret Atwood contemplates her next word as she participates in a Scrabble tournament to raise money for Performing Arts Lodges, which is an advocacy group for aging or ailing arts professionals. (Simon Hayter/The Globe and Mail)

Shakira for points? Scrabble says go for it Add to ...

That sound you just heard was tiny wooden tiles being angrily swept off a board. This isn't just shock. It's triple-word-score shock.

Plans to let Scrabble players use proper nouns and spell words backward have purists shaking their sdaeh in disbelief. Beyoncé? Donald? Why even bother playing the game when you can arrange your tiles any which way, they say.

"If anything goes, it wouldn't make any sense," said Emilie Henkelman, one of the directors of the Ottawa Scrabble Club, who believes the change will destroy the rigour of the game. "You could just make up any name," she said.

Mattel Inc., which owns the rights to Scrabble outside of North America, announced Tuesday that it will launch a new version of the game in Britain with rules that will allow for proper names, unconnected words and words spelled backward. Called Trickster, it is set to be released in July. A spokesperson for Hasbro Inc., which owns the North American rights to the popular game, said there are no plans to release Trickster in Canada and the United States. But that hasn't stopped devotees of the game from decrying the new version.

"We take our words seriously," said John Chew, co-president of the North American Scrabble Players Association, the governing body for officially sanctioned tournaments and clubs in Canada and the United States. When news of the change reached players across the interwebs (not an official Scrabble word) Mr. Chew's phone started ringing off the hook. Many of the people he heard from were incredulous.

"They assumed it was just an April Fool's joke," he said.

A Mattel spokesperson told the BBC Tuesday that Trickster will "introduce an element of popular culture into the game" and help attract a broader audience. "This is one of a number of twists and challenges included that we believe existing fans will enjoy and will also enable younger fans and families to get involved."

Invented in 1938 by American-born architect Alfred Butts, the rules of Scrabble have never been amended.

If Trickster proves to be popular, chances are the game will find its way onto North American shelves, says John Williams, executive director of the National Scrabble Association in Greenport, N.Y.

"Maybe if this thing does gangbusters in Europe, perhaps Hasbro might consider something similar down the line," he said.

Still, Mr. Williams dismisses the new version of the game as "a gimmick." The players and club directors Mr. Williams has discussed the new game with share that opinion.

"Most people think it's ridiculous," he said.

But for people such as John Williams, executive director of the National Scrabble Association in Greenport, N.Y., the new game isn't just a shock, it's practically a personal affront.

"I'm a tournament player," he said, "and this pretty much dismisses everything I've spent years learning how to do."

Serious Scrabble players are never far from a dictionary and will hotly debate words, but not everyone likes to play by strict rules, Mr. Chew said.

"I think Mattel has just been hearing that when people play for fun they like to play whatever words they want," he said.

Were either Mattel or Hasbro to ever change to rules on the traditional game to allow for proper nouns and words spelled backward, traditionalists would probably seize their little wooden racks like angry villagers wielding pitchforks, Mr. Chew said.

"I think if it ever actually happened there would be total outrage," he said.

But hardcore players need not worry.

"I don't think we're going to see a world championship where you can play Beyoncé or Shakira," Mr. Chew said.

Follow on Twitter: @Dave_McGinn

 

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