I have in my possession two tiles from a prototype of the game that would become Scrabble. They were crafted by architect Alfred Butts circa 1938. They are made of plywood with the letters stenciled in India ink. Their point values are handwritten on tiny squares of paper and glued beneath the center of each letter. My Q is worth 10 points. My X is worth six.
Any Scrabble player can tell you that the X is actually worth eight points. But as Butts was creating the game, in a fifth-floor walkup in Queens, he tinkered—with the layout of the board, with the total number of tiles, with their distribution, and with their respective point values. “It’s not hit or miss,” Butts said long afterward. “It’s carefully worked out.”
Seventy-five years later, Butts’ carefully worked out point values are under attack. Late last month, a University of California–San Diego, cognitive science postdoc and casual player named Joshua Lewis conducted a computer analysis to recalibrate Scrabble’s letter values based on the game’s current lexicon. Lewis reposted his findings to Hacker News, and they were picked up by Digg and went viral. Around the same time, Sam Eifling, writing for Deadspin, asked a programmer friend to do the same. Both were inspired by the fact that while the language had changed dramatically from the time Butts performed his calculations, the game of Scrabble had not...
If you've got time to read a fairly exhaustive article about the point value system of Scrabble tiles, this is it. Although it took me a minute or two to move on after stumbling on the paragraph that says you can actually score points in Scrabble for the "word" Za (short for pizza).