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The following message went out to our iContact list on 2015–02–15:

How NASPA Zyzzyva Came To Be

Thanks to Advisory Board member Kate Fukawa-Connelly for asking us to share some of the background about NASPA Zyzzyva with the community.

This month marks 35 years since I first got the nerve to call SCRABBLE Players, Inc., run at the time by Jim Houle, wondering where there might be organized SCRABBLE clubs and tournaments near Dallas, Texas.

I played my first event February, 1980, at the Walnut Hill Recreation Center and started playing at the weekly club that met on Saturday afternoons. My golf game was never quite the same!

The first Official SCRABBLE Players Dictionary (OSPD), a dictionary edited from multiple college dictionary sources by tournament players dissatisfied with the idiosyncrasies of the Funk & Wagnalls Standard College Dictionary, had been published two years earlier in 1978 by Merriam-Webster in a deal worked with the then owners of the game, Selchow and Righter, and was the word source for all sanctioned play.

When a challenge was called the director came to the board, one pointed to the contested play and the director then looked up the word or words and announced that the play was acceptable or unacceptable.

Challenge slips became the norm somewhere along the way. I played in a tournament in Australia in the late ‘80s that used the Chambers dictionary and the challenge rule there was what is called “single challenge penalty.” That is, if the challenged word was not good, the play was removed and the player of the bad word lost his or her turn. But, if the play was acceptable, there was no penalty for the challenger. FREE CHALLENGES! This meant that there were numerous shouts of “Challenge!” throughout every game in a roomful of contestants.

There were youngsters employed as runners much like at a tennis match racing back and forth to pick up and return challenge slips while 3 or so people at the head of the room were doing little else than continuously looking up words and marking the slips appropriately.

When international players got together in the United States for the World SCRABBLE Championship (WSC), things got even more complicated, as word judges would have to look up words in not just the OSPD and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, but in specially ordered British dictionaries too.

John Chew, a word judge at the 1997 WSC in Washington D.C., recalls that it was a difficult skill to master: to work quickly, you needed to know which lexicon a word was in, and you had to be careful about looking for the words where they would be found in the dictionary – EMALANGENI was found under the letter L.

Fast forward to about nine or so years ago.

A newish player, Michael Thelen, had developed a software tool for himself with which to study. He named it Zyzzyva and chose that name as “the last word in study.”

After consulting with his wife, he decided one evening to hit the “send” button to send an email to a Yahoo! Group comprised of SCRABBLE players. He assumed he would get about 4 people to try the program.

Today, Zyzzyva is used throughout the world by tens of thousands of SCRABBLE players. As a word study tool, it is considered one of the best; and as a word adjudication tool, it is the dominant market leader. Michael worked with NASPA and the NSA before us to make sure that it was as easy to use as possible, complied with tournament rules, and had accurate data.

Although there was some initial resistance to the use of electronic adjudication from traditionalists, it eventually became clear to everyone that a word judge that never made mistakes, and thanks to Michael’s generosity was available at no cost, was the way of the future.

In the summer of 2012, NASPA and Merriam-Webster met to set a timetable for the release of OSPD5 and our updated word list, since named the Official Tournament and Club Word List 2014 (OTCWL2014). We talked about licensing copies of the electronic lexicon for player use, and everyone agreed in principle that there was a need to do so.

The Dictionary Committee had already been at work on reediting the Long List, and we had agreed to also add two new source lexicons for this update: The Oxford College Dictionary (second edition) and The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (second edition). Canadian players rejoiced that, for the first time, a lexicon would be included that had wide coverage of Canadian regionalisms, making the word list a truly North American one.


NASPA bought copies of each for each of the committee members and the two-year process of laboriously going through them page-by-page, word-by-word, carefully identifying new candidate words and their inflections began. The NASPA Dictionary Committee submitted its work to Merriam-Webster on schedule at the end of January 30, 2014.

A couple of months later, we revisited the licensing issue with Merriam-Webster and Hasbro. NASPA’s concern has always been to ensure that its members have access to the word list with the least encumbrance; it is likely fair to say that Merriam-Webster is concerned mainly with this access not cannibalizing sales of their competing electronic or printed products, and that Hasbro wants to make sure that the SCRABBLE brand is treated appropriately in the process. It looked like the best way forward was to help our community’s software developers to negotiate content licenses with Merriam-Webster that would permit as open access to the word list as possible, while addressing Merriam-Webster’s and Hasbro’s concerns.

We chose Michael and Zyzzyva as our first test case, because of the importance of Zyzzyva to our community, and gave him our full support.

Michael is a husband and father of four, and his work on Zyzzyva was a labor of love, but he was willing to meet with the Merriam-Webster people and try to do what he could to make it all work.

John Chew and I had a meeting with Merriam-Webster execs scheduled at the 2014 National School SCRABBLE Championship, held in Providence, RI last April. To facilitate a meeting, NASPA offered to pick up all expenses for Michael to also attend that meeting.

As it turned out, Michael was interviewing with a company in the Boston area (for a position he ultimately accepted) and offered to save NASPA his airfare. He did spend two days in Providence and two of M-W’s reps, Michael, John Chew, his wife, Kristen and I had a friendly and more than cordial dinner together.

Over the course of the summer however, negotiations concerning the terms of the OTCWL2014 license for Zyzzyva faltered, then stalled. Michael was working on Zyzzyva as a hobby project, did not see eye-to-eye with the commercial attitude of Merriam-Webster, and eventually grew rightfully concerned both about his ability to continue to develop Zyzzyva throughout his move across the country (its development schedule had lagged recently, later leading to compatibility issues with iOS 8) and potential personal liability issues related to the licensing process.

Additional concerns arose when we learned that the current electronic version of the OWL could also be subject to copyright infringement claims, making it impossible to continue with the status quo.

This left NASPA in a difficult position. We did not feel that we could risk starting over with another developer, as there was no guarantee that things wouldn’t end the same way.

Our two options were to dive into the murky business of software development, purchase Zyzzyva from Michael, complete negotiations ourselves, and hope to find volunteers to continue its development, or to do nothing, let the chips fall where they might, and risk clubs and tournaments having to return to the bad old days of manual word adjudication for the foreseeable future.

With some trepidation, and in no small part due to the work that had already been done in the incomplete negotiations between Michael and Merriam-Webster, we chose the first option.

Now, we have finished producing NASPA Zyzzyva 3.0.3, a product that has satisfied the IP owners, and we are ready move on. We will continue to improve the product.

John Chew has written in our Zyzzyva FAQ:

“Zyzzyva is available for Windows, and should be available again for OS X and Linux very soon. Work is proceeding on bringing the iOS app up-to-date, but we do not yet have a timeframe for completion - when we bought the project, it was already two iOS updates obsolete, and the necessary changes are not trivial.”

NASPA’s leadership is committed to serving our members by enabling them to have opportunities to enjoy competitive endeavors playing the word game we all love. As part of that mission, we believe that it is important to provide our members with the means to legally acquire a word list for study and word adjudication purposes. The licensing agreement with Merriam-Webster accomplished that goal, and was, in our judgment, an important and valuable resource for us to secure for our membership.

See you on the circuit!

Chris Cree