Scrabble Tile Points System Challenged

PHOTO: Scrabble board and tilesPlayPhotofusion/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
WATCH National Scrabble Championship Player Disqualified for Cheating

The days when "za" was the killer double-letter threat in a Scrabble game may be over if Joshua Lewis' new computer code gains traction.

Lewis, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Diego, has developed a system that would change the value of certain letters and up-end the strategy of players devoted to the 65-year-old word game.

It's a suggestion that would be even less popular than when they changed the colors of the bonus squares on the board in 2008.

"There are still people who are reeling from that," said John Chew, the co-president of the North American Scrabble Association.

But Lewis claims his new scoring scheme provides advantages over the current methodology of calculating Scrabble letter value.

"I updated the statistical analysis … to reflect the changes that happened in the words for Scrabble," Lewis told

"You play those (two-letter) words and people get a little annoyed at you, and I think they're justified at getting annoyed," he said. (By the way, za is an Arabic letter. It's also slang for pizza.)

Lewis' new method, developed with the program Valett, recalculates letters' values based on three things: the letter's overall frequency in the English language, its frequency by word length and the ease with which you can transition in and out of the letter in a word.

A "Z" would go from 10 points to 6, an "X" from 8 to 5 and an "F" from 4 to 3. Some letter values would bump up, like the "V" from 4 to 5 points.

Lewis wrote the code and published it on his blog a few weeks ago. The page got over 10,000 hits its first couple days, he said, and has since attracted worldwide attention.

Not all of it has been positive, said Chew.

"This guy seems to have done a better job than most of making a good case for how the game could be improved, but he's got a few flaws in his reasoning," Chew said. "In part, he doesn't understand what it is about the game that makes it popular."

Developed during the Great Depression by architect Alfred Butts, Scrabble's letter values were originally determined by their frequency on the New York Times front page.

The language used in the 1930s and 40s is much different than that spoken today, Chew admits, but changing their value would take a lot of the randomness out of the game.

"What I like about the game of Scrabble is it has the right amount of luck. It's a game where it's quite obvious if you study the words, you can play the game better," Chew said. "Someone who knows all the two letter words is going to beat someone who doesn't know all the two letter words probably three games out of four."

"There's enough luck to the game that people who have the misfortune to be married to such people or who just want to pick up a board or an app for fun can still think, 'I have a chance of winning.'"

Lewis said his code's most appropriate use would be for tournament players to take out a certain degree of luck, but admitted it was a hard sell.

Philip Nelkon, Scrabble UK's representative, said fairness is not paramount in the game and changing the tile values would garner a lot of "flak from traditionalists."

Lewis said he does not have plans to take the code to manufacturers, but has abstractly thought of shopping it around on Kickstarter, a platform used to gain funding for creative projects.

Hasbro owns the Scrabble game in the United States and Canada, while Mattel owns it in the rest of the world.