Scrabble is the world's best selling word game, sold in 121 countries, in 29 languages. The original English is in play this month in Philadelphia, which is hosting a series of city-wide Scrabble matches.
As he adds up the final score of a competitive match at the city's Independence Branch library, Matthew Hopkins comments, "The triple-triple would have got me back in the game, but there's no way you weren't gonna block it at that time!" His opponent agrees with a laugh. Hopkins is the director of the Philadelphia Scrabble Club, a member of the National Scrabble Association Advisory Board, and one of the city's top competitive players. "Scrabble is my life," he says, "and it is a great life. I have a ball. I have a blast. I didn't think life would be this much fun after 60!"
Hopkins began playing as a kid with his mother, growing up in an impoverished neighborhood of Philadelphia's inner city. He says learning to play Scrabble opens doors for low-income kids. "One of the things that the game of Scrabble does for young people is it gives them a love of learning, a love of words and a love of literacy. And these are tools which are essential to any level of success in any given field that a young inner-city person would need."
That belief is behind this month's initiative called Philly Plays Scrabble. Throughout October, 55 libraries around the city are opening their doors to Scrabble players age 9 to 90. Game maker Hasbro has donated 600 Scrabble sets and dozens of dictionaries. Local businesses and organizations are also providing support.
Marciene Mattlemann is the president of the After School Activities Partnership, one of the sponsoring groups. She saw how a board game could get students excited about learning when Philadelphia's first after-school chess club opened four years ago. Today, there are more than 200 clubs around the city, and now Mattlemann is focused on the possibilities of Scrabble. "We really want to get them thinking about words, thinking about language, and spending their time in safe places, and spending their time learning."
Among the kids spending time with Scrabble this month are Caleb Hill,14, and his brother Dashaun, 13. They started playing the game on the computer three years ago. When they learned about Philly Plays Scrabble, Dashaun says they signed up right away. "I went to the after school program at the Germantown Beacon [Recreation] Center and they said something about the Scrabble tournament and I thought it was really interesting and I decided to join in." Caleb says he enjoys the challenge of Scrabble. "I like it because it is very similar to a word search. Like when you see a word I just cross it out and put it down."
Nikita Shidani, 9, has already been playing Scrabble for two years with friends and against her older sister. She only plays for fun, not competitively, but she still comes out a winner. She explains, "I think that if you build up words, you'll be creative, [imaginative]. That's why I play."
So far this month, about 200 players have participated in the daily Philly Plays Scrabble games. The city's electric company has promoted it with a scrolling banner on their high-rise downtown office building. Local news media are encouraging people to head to the library to play.
Matthew Hopkins has been so inspired by Philly Plays Scrabble that he has already come up with a plan for the next Scrabble event. "I am going to grab some of these youngsters and some of the people that have played in this and let them play in one of my so-called professional tournaments," he says.
"We are going to set aside prize money to award to them, that none of the people who have ever played in an event can qualify for, so that one of these young people, somebody from that environment, will win a prize and we'll give them publicity and what not, just as kind of an impetus, a reward for their effort."
But even kids who don't play competitively get a reward from Philly Plays Scrabble: sharper academic skills, new friends, and the excitement of playing with words.