Scrabble in France: Tile Twins

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Scrabble in France: Tile Twins

Thousands of French families were hunched over their Scrabble boards this holiday season, as Scrabble is the most popular board game in France. But did you know that French Scrabble is different from the English-language version? And that its world champion doesn’t speak French?

A Bit of History

Scrabble was invented in 1938 by Alfred Mosher Butts, as a variation of an earlier word game he had invented called Lexiko. This new game was first called Criss Cross Words, before being renamed Scrabble, a real word that means “to scratch frantically.” The game didn’t sell well at first, but then (according to legend) the president of Macy’s became a fan and started selling it in all his stores. The rest, as they say, is history.

French-language Scrabble letter distribution

Less is More

There are 100 tiles in Scrabble, 98 of which have a letter marked on them and two are blank. The number of tiles marked with any letter, and their point value, is based on how frequently that letter is used. The more frequent the letter is used in a language, the more tiles there are with that letter and the less the tiles are worth. Conversely, the rarer the letter is in a language, the fewer tiles there are and the more they are worth.

This is where French-language and English-language Scrabble start to diverge. Vowels are common in both languages, so they both have lots of vowel tiles, each worth one point. But some letters are rarer in French than English and so are worth more. The letters W, Y, and K, for example, are only worth 4, 4, and 5 points respectively in English, while in French each gets a whopping 10. That’s why the most valuable seven-letter word in French Scrabble is Whiskey.

Scrabble competition in full swing © Christian Amet

Vive la Différence !

The more than 20,000 members of the International French Scrabble Federation come from all over the world, especially France, Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, and the French-speaking nations of Africa. They play two kinds of Scrabble because two different versions are popular in the French-speaking world.

The first, called Classic Scrabble, is the one we all grew up playing. Players draw seven tiles and take turns building words on the board. This involves an element of luck, because the tiles you draw can have a big impact on the words you are able to build.

Duplicate Scrabble takes away that luck. In this version, invented in 1970 by the Belgian Hippolyte Wouters, every player uses the same tiles. A moderator pulls the tiles and announces them to the competitors. Each then builds their best word using those tiles, writes it down along with its proposed location on the board, and turns in their entry. The highest-scoring entry is announced and added to the board, then more tiles are drawn. Each player earns the score of the word they submitted, even if it is not the highest-scoring word.

Duplicate Scrabble has never become popular in the English-speaking world, but is very popular in French competitions. One advantage is that a lot of people can play at the same time—there are sometimes 1,000 in a big tournament!

In the annual world championships of French Scrabble, both Classic and Duplicate are played. The Classic form is more popular in Africa, and so the champion is usually African. Duplicate Scrabble is more popular in European competitions and so the champion is usually European.
Except…

The Talented Mr. Richards

This brings us to the amazing Nigel Richards. Mr. Richards is a Scrabble savant from New Zealand, and is often called the best player in history. Having won the English-language championship multiple times—the only person to ever do so—he decided to turn his attention to French.

The only problem: he didn’t speak the language.

No problem! Richards got a copy of the official French Scrabble dictionary and started studying it. After a few months, violà! He had mastered the hefty tome, with its more than 400,000 words—twice the number in the English dictionary. He didn’t understand the words but no matter, he knew how to use them.

Armed with this knowledge, Richards stormed through the French tournament, winning both the Classic Scrabble title (once) and the Duplicate Scrabble title (three times and counting.) He is now the reigning world champion of both English and French Scrabble, a remarkable achievement.

It makes you wonder; how does Richards celebrate his victories? Maybe with a nice glass of Whiskey?

Lead photo credit : Buy your own French Scrabble game and get practising!

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Keith Van Sickle is a lifelong traveler who splits his time between California and Provence. He is the author of the best-sellers "One Sip at a Time" and "Are We French Yet?", both available from Amazon. His new guidebook, "An Insider’s Guide to Provence", was released in autumn 2021. Keith’s observations on life in France can be found on his website.

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