1. Steep learning curve
This is not nearly the most important reason, because many games and sports also are not easy to learn (in order to compete). Many games are easy to play on an amateur level – but comparatively, Scrabble, for a board game, is probably not as enjoyable at an amateur level, because there wouldn’t be much strategy involved (people can spend minutes discussing amateur chess strategy, but nothing of the sort would happen for Scrabble). Moreover, for a newbie, watching a tournament game will come with some “shock” value because one does not expect to see so many foreign words on a board! Games like poker or sports like badminton are on the other hand easier to grasp, on a basic level.
2. Insufficient publicity
Maybe the game is well-publicised, and quite a number of people know what Scrabble is – but nobody knows much about how the game is played in competitions, who plays in these competitions, or even where/ when these so-called tourney things are held (compare this to the World Cup or the Wimbledon). I’d figure that at least a third, half or maybe even two-thirds the English-speaking population would not know about big name Scrabble tourneys like the WSC or NSC?
3. Improper marketing
When I mention that I play competitive Scrabble to my friends, the first thing they assume is that I’m good with words. True enough, Scrabble is a word game, that is to say it is a game that involves words. However, playing competitive Scrabble says nothing about the expansiveness of my vocabulary. Scrabble is often marketed as “the most popular word game” – but playing the game competitively doesn’t make me a trained linguist or a word nerd, or anything in between. Competitive Scrabble at higher levels involves a more thought-out style of play rather than just plonking down words,
4. Multi-faceted gameplay, of which only a little is seen
… which itself is a problem. People don’t realise that there is a lot to competitive Scrabble. Many people “train” for Scrabble competitions not by playing many games with other people, but by poring through word list after word list. This makes it seem that Scrabble is just about knowing more words (but it is evidently not true, sometimes even at the top levels). It is rather difficult explaining strategy to the amateur especially when he does not have the word power to digest the information. Things like “keep your S, it might come in handy later” or “keep AEINRST in your rack, but try not to keep duplicates” seem too simple or rigid to the amateur/ mediocre level player, and they might be put off the game easily by these boring guidelines.
5. Difficult to find ways to improve oneself
If you’re not a player within a community (as I pretty much was when I started off), learning how to play the game well can be frighteningly difficult. You wouldn’t know what to study, you might not think much of strategy, or at worst, you might just rely on aid when you play your games (presumably online), which teaches you less probable words but not much strategy. People have noted that youths become good players as they grow within a community of players, and one reason why this is happening is because of the lack of learning resources online. Maybe one of the only useful things to read through for a newbie is Joel Sherman’s Newbie’s First Scrabble Lesson – the rest is just words and more words, without much direction.
6. Lack of youth exposure
The problem now is not that we do not have enough good youth players; it is that we do not have enough youth players at all. Many schoolkids are introduced to different games and sports as they grow up, but Scrabble is at most a childhood pastime, perhaps their parents’ test to see if they’re interested in words (my guess is, a lot of them fail). The solution would be a way which could bring the game down to the school level – perhaps by making the game more child-friendly (e.g. teaching basic or even advanced strategy using common words only).
Unlike chess, poker or other sports, there are a few things you need to learn before picking up English language Scrabble, and a few more things that you need to know before you enter top-level competitions. If you don’t know how a verb works, you’re probably doomed, even if you’ve studied the top 3000 7/8 letter words and the 2-4 letter words. In Singapore, it is difficult to get a person even slightly interested in the game when he is disdainful of the English language (undoubtedly, some are).
In general, Scrabble does not have as strong a presence as other popular sports and games. Speak of chess, and you would perhaps pick up the names Garry Kasparov, Bobby Fischer, Deep Blue (I know I’m outdated here). There are Wikipedia articles titled “Game of the Century (chess)”, but there is nothing like “Game of the Century (Scrabble)” around. Google “Chess”, and the first few links you get are online sites you can play Chess on. Google “Scrabble”, and you get to Hasbro/ Mattel. Hmm…
9. Lack of Groundwork
What challenge rule is the best? Which dictionary to use? What are the rules exactly? Why’s this word in the dictionary, and why isn’t this one in? Why do I have to learn a different way of playing the game when I travel? (To be fair, we are achieving something as time passes)
Perhaps exacerbated by the other 9 reasons (and also the catalyst for many of the 9 problems), the prize money for Scrabble competitions are infamously low. This is also a reason why people stop playing Scrabble, perhaps as they enter working age. This money issue dampens many other possibilities to do with the game, like Scrabble coaching (who expects respectable coaching fees when the prize money isn’t high enough, anyway?). In comparison, things like tennis lessons and swimming lessons are more commonplace.
Did you find any of these factors inhibitive when starting off in Scrabble? Or do you think there are other factors that stifle a new player’s learning? I’d like to hear more…