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Are Those Blank Tiles Bad for Scrabble?

Chester Collins takes his Scrabble seriously, but there are some plays he won’t make. He says, for example, that he would never play “the famous F-word.”

You might think of this 65-year-old Canoga Park resident as a gentleman. But among Scrabble cutthroats, Collins is considered a bit of an eccentric, if not a fool. After all, a seven-letter conjugation of that verb could earn you 50 bonus points.

Next year, however, Chester Collins’ sensibilities won’t be a handicap. Reacting to complaints, Hasbro Inc., its subsidiary Milton Bradley and the National Scrabble Assn. have announced plans to banish up to 100 words--both vulgarities and ethnic and religious slurs--from the Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary.

But is the gentlemanly Chester Collins pleased and grateful? Hardly.

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“I won’t play it,” he says of the famous F-word. “But I would defend anybody’s right to play it.”

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Perhaps you never realized that vulgarities and ethnic and religious slurs are perfectly legal in Scrabble. Perhap you, like me, learned Scrabble from your mother, and your mother, like mine, was always telling sugary lies--about Santa Claus, about the Tooth Fairy, about Scrabble. Only later did I learn that the house rules differed from the official Scrabble rules. (I well remember how stunned I was when my aged grandmother, may she rest in peace, played the word orgy. )

Mom, I suspect, would applaud Hasbro, the parent company of Milton Bradley, for making her seem less of a liar and more of a prophet. But across the nation, thousands of tournament Scrabble players like Chester Collins and other members of the Dee Mandeson Scrabble Club in the Valley are signing petitions to protest the way that what they term political correctness has invaded their utterly apolitical pastime. They believe that Scrabble, like speech, should be free.

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To them, such an alteration to “the OSPD” is heresy. To them, it is “outrageous,” “absurd,” “awful,” “a terrible situation.” Ralph Crosby wonders whether it’s a plot to sell new dictionaries and the OSPD hand-held calculator, which sells for $49.95. To them, a word is simply a play. The comments of Nellie Sanders, a librarian at Harvard Westlake School, are typical: “‘Real Scrabble players don’t care about the definitions. These are words I don’t use in conversation, but I don’t want to take them out of the dictionary. I’m a librarian, so I have strong feelings about censorship.”

John Williams, the executive director of the National Scrabble Assn., finds himself in the middle of this dispute. The organization that sanctions Scrabble tournaments is funded by its 10,000 members and Hasbro. But it’s obvious that Hasbro is calling the shots on this one.

It’s interesting to note that the OSPD has been around a long time. The dictionary was published 20 years ago simply by cataloguing every two-letter to eight-letter word in America’s four most popular dictionaries. Only in recent years have complaints been an issue. In a March 22 letter, the Anti-Defamation League noted that the OSPD’s inclusion of “admittedly ‘offensive’ terms” like the use of jew as a verb . . . is “literally playing games with hate.”

A few weeks later, Hasbro Inc. Vice President Donald M. Robbins wrote back. He said the company agreed with “the ADL’s position that . . . hateful and demeaning epithets be retired to the recreational dustbin’ ” and promised to send a copy of the new dictionary in September.

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Playing games with hate?

“They are making a tempest out of a teapot,” said Deborah Sapot, who is better at Scrabble than at metaphors. That may be true from every perspective.

Sapot is director of the Dee Mandeson Scrabble Club, a group named in honor of a club founder who is playing in the great beyond. Sapot is Jewish, and so are many other club members. This is not surprising in a group that gathers every Monday night at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills. Yet players who routinely rack up 400-point games don’t hesitate to play J-words, N-words and F-words.

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And as Sapot points out, censorship is a slippery slope. If jew is banned as a verb, what about gyp ? Today, gyp is not deemed “offensive” in the OSPD, even though some Gypsies may not approve.

It all makes Chester Collins sigh. “I think that war is the most obscene word of all,” he says. “But is it the fault of those three little letters?”


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