Obama and the British Royal Family play it, and its fans are some of the world’s most devoted. So why did the word game almost fail to take off? Hephzibah Anderson has the answer.

Fancy a game of Lexiko? Or how about Alph? Appropriately enough for a word game, it was only when Scrabble acquired the name millions now know it by that it really started to take off, spawning special sets for kids and travellers, tournaments with fat cash prizes, a television show – even a dirty-word version.

Today, more than 150 million sets have been sold in 29 languages. It has found its way into one in three American homes and an estimated 30,000 games are started around the world every hour – which is an awful lot of rainy afternoons and otherwise congenial family gatherings ruined by spats over whether ‘za’ is a legitimate word or not.

The game also formerly known as It and Criss-Cross Words acquired its lasting moniker in 1948, but its story begins 15 years earlier, when a 32-year-old architect named Alfred Mosher Butts joined the millions who’d already lost their jobs in the Great Depression. Inspired by Charles Darrow’s success as the nominal inventor of Monopoly, Butts sat in his apartment in Queens, New York City, pondering the board games market. There were three types of game, he determined: move games like chess, number games such as bingo, and word games, of which he could think of just one example, Anagrams.

With characteristic diligence, he typed all this up on a document titled Study of Games, which, along with many other artefacts and ephemera from the history of Scrabble, now belongs to Butts’s great-nephew. The hoard also includes a front page from the New York Herald, one of the papers used by Butts to assess the frequency with which each letter in the alphabet appears. This information helped him decide how many tiles a letter should appear on how many points it ought to carry.

Cross words

It’s been suggested that he also drew on a story he’d read as a child, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Gold-Bug, in which a pirate’s treasured map is decoded by matching symbols to letters based on how often they appear in the English language. Either way, the upshot was to limit the role of chance and allow knowledge and strategy to play a part, resulting in a blend that’s crucial to Scrabble’s enduring popularity.

Butts was fond of chess, crosswords and jigsaw puzzles, and the influence of all three can be seen in Scrabble. His first pass at designing the game set players the somewhat daunting task of forming nine- and 10-letter words. It was also missing a crucial component: a board. As the game evolved, Butts added blank tiles and premium-score squares, and moved the game’s start from the edge of the board to the centre.

Every major games manufacturer turned it down

His guinea pig was his wife Nina who, in a twist that would seem scandalous today, had been his schoolteacher growing up. Was it her fault that Butts always claimed to be a terrible speller? Invariably, Mrs Butts beat him at his own game, reportedly once playing the word ‘quixotic’ across two triple-word scores, notching up close to 300 points in a single turn.

Soon, they were gathering friends and neighbours to play in the hall of the local Methodist church but the game remained a stubbornly local hit. By mid-1934, he’d sold just 84 handmade sets at a loss of $20. Every major games manufacturer turned it down, and his application for a patent met the same fate. Eventually, the economy perked up and Butts was able to resume his old job at the architectural firm.

The tipping point

The story may have ended there were it not for one James Brunot, an aspiring entrepreneur who owned an early set of Criss-Cross Words, as the game was known at the time. When he retired from his day job in 1948, he approached Butts offering to make and sell the game. Brunot also came up with the name Scrabble, lodging a successful copyright application that same year. The game’s tipping point was still four years away, and until then Brunot, like Butts before him, lost money producing a few dozen sets each week. But it was on its way, and in 1952, the president of Macy’s department store happened to see a Scrabble game in progress while holidaying in Florida. The store began stocking it and was soon shifting 6,000 sets weekly.

Scrabble is played in jail and by the British Royal Family

Over 60 years later, it’s still being played avidly by amateurs and pros alike. It’s played in jail and by the British Royal Family (the Duchess of Cambridge says that she and the Duke are so competitive one of them generally flounces off midway through). President Obama plays with his sister and Jennifer Aniston, Oprah and Dustin Hoffman are all said to be keen.  

Little wonder it’s also found its way into pop culture. Scrabble pops up in episodes of Seinfeld and The Simpsons, and in lyrics sung by Kylie (who grumbles in Your Disco Needs You about ‘Desperately seeking someone willing to travel; You’re lost in conversation and useless at Scrabble’) and Sting (‘IQ is no problem here; we won’t be playing Scrabble for her hand, I fear’ he announces in Seven Days).

In film, its tiles have been used to hint at and decode evil, as in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, where a teenage murderess spells out the word ‘putrid’, or that scene from Rosemary’s Baby in which Mia Farrow, unknowingly impregnated by Satan himself, uses Scrabble to help unscramble anagrams.

It’s there in literature, too, referred to by authors from Garrison Keillor to Charles Bukowski, whose poem Pulled down shade ends with Scotch and Scrabble. In The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, the game becomes thrillingly illicit when the Commander has Offred play against him.

Word freaks

Vladimir Nabokov, it’s said, liked to lay down words in different languages but it’s a fair bet that most writers would be left in the dust by true Scrabble aficionados. Though words are its currency, it’s really a game about anything but. It’s a spatial game, a game of patterns and of memory. No wonder many top players have a mathematical rather than a linguistic background. You certainly don’t need to know what an obscure two-letter filler like ‘ee’ or ‘da’ means in order to play it, only that it appears on the endorsed word lists.

The highest single-play score on record is 392 points for ‘caziques’

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the cut-throat world of competitive Scrabble. English is very much a second language for some top players – the highest single-play score on record is 392 points for ‘caziques’ (ancient Mexican princes), as laid down by a Kurdish Scrabble buff named Dr Karl Khoshnaw at a match in Manchester on 1982. Not that the tiles on a board bear much similarity to the English we use in our daily lives. When Paul Allan became 2013’s British Scrabble champ, for instance, he did so with a string of esoteric words like ‘coniines’ (a poison found in hemlock) and ‘bandura’ (a Ukrainian lute).

They don’t drug test at tournaments but as Stefan Fatsis observes in his book Word Freak, if they did, some players would probably be banned for life. Other cheats are harder to pull off. The tiles used competitively, for instance, are specially manufactured to prevent competitors from ‘brailling’ – trying to feel what the letters are as they pull them from the bag. The bag itself, incidentally, must be held at eye level or higher – just one of the specifications in a rulebook that’s over 20 pages long.

The letterati, as Paul McCarthy dubs them in the title of his book about the scene, keep lists of the letters they’ve played to help them figure out what might be on their opponent’s rack. Their world has its own terminology, too – ‘coffeehousing’ is the frowned-upon practice of chatting during a game to throw your opponent off. A ‘bingo’ is when you use all seven letters at once for a 50-point bonus. A ‘phony’ is a word that isn’t a word – at least, not according to the official word lists, of which there are two – one for North America, another for the UK.

Meanwhile, the on-going evolution of the English language has changed the game – so much so that in 2013, it was suggested that the Scrabble tiles be revalued. Even in Butts’s day, the scoring system proved controversial, with players complaining that it favoured journalese rather than spoken English. Since then, a host of words like qi, xi, xu, ki, zo and, yes, za have invaded the Scrabble dictionary, and that’s left certain letters overvalued, argued researcher Joshua Lewis. To prove it, he invented a software programme named Valett that recalculated each letter’s value. It demoted eight-point X to five points and 10-point Z to six, with Q retaining its 10.

Scrabble fans are among the world’s most devoted

Needless to say, Lewis’s suggested revaluations caused uproar. Scrabble fans, it turns out, are among the world’s most devoted. Not that its manufacturers haven’t continued to underestimate the scope of the game’s appeal. Too slow off the mark with their own online and mobile versions, they’ve been trumped by the likes of the decidedly Scrabble-like Scrabulous and Words with Friends.

As for Butts, he received $265,000 in 1972 when Selchow & Righter, having turned down the game years earlier, bought Brunot out. Brunot himself walked away with $1.3 million but easy-going Butts apparently didn’t mind. He gave away a third of all his earnings from royalties and had enough to buy the farmhouse in upstate New York where he grew up, and where he died in 1993, aged 93. In his late seventies, he’d created a second game. It, too, was a word game, though its choice of name shows that he remained anything but a word man. Alfred’s Other Game he called it.

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