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Plugged In

How games got their names

Plugged In

Ever wonder how your favorite game got its name?

If your favorite game is Monopoly or Candyland, we’re guessing probably not. But many classic names have more interesting origins. Ancient Persian kings, boating, interracial marriages: it’s all here.

I'm on a Yacht, see?

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Commonplace and inexpensive as it is, the story behind the scream-it-as-loud-as-possible “Yahtzee!” begins in luxury, aboard a boat. A yacht, believe it or not, belonging to a well-heeled Canadian couple in the 1950s. The pair invented a simple dice game they’d play aboard ship with visiting friends, and named it -- what else? -- The Yacht Game.

Surmising they were onto something good, the couple sold the rights to an entrepreneur named Edwin S. Lowe (also the man responsible for the popularity of Bingo) who renamed it the catchier “Yahtzee” and filed a patent on it in 1956. Now owned by Hasbro, it’s perhaps less glamorous, but still just as timeless.

Chess, the game of shahs

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Chess is a complex game with an equally complex story.

Beginning on the Indian subcontinent somewhere around the 6th century, it spread to Persia and thence to Southern Europe, ultimately becoming something approaching the modern game by about 1500 AD. The origins of the name are somewhat murky, but it’s thought to be a corruption of the Persian word “shah,” which means “king.” The Persian language also gave us “checkmate,” which is derived from “shah mat,” or “the king is ambushed.” It’s also why the castle-shaped piece is sometimes called a rook: “ruhk” is the Persian word for “chariot,” which is what the piece originally symbolized -- and explains why a piece shaped like a castle can move so fast.

Scrabble around for some letters

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Look it up in the dictionary, and the word ‘scrabble’ means “to scratch or dig frantically with the hands,” which is what you do when you’re pulling fresh letters out of the bag. As opposed to scratching and digging frantically with the brain, which is what you do when you pull seven consonants and no vowels.

But it wasn’t originally called Scrabble: the game’s inventor, Alfred Mosher Butts, originally named it “Criss-Crosswords.” After failing to drum up much public interest in his new game, Butts sold it to a Connecticut businessman named James Brunot, who renamed it “Scrabble” -- and the rest is history.

Sudoku, for singles

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Everyone knows Sudoku is Japanese, right? Wrong. It’s the USA -- specifically, Indiana architect Howard Garns -- that has the greatest claim to the game.

Garns first sketched out the games on his drafting table and eventually published them anonymously in 1979, when they were called simply “Number Place.” They didn’t catch on until a Japanese puzzle monthly began printing them in 1984, naming them -- deep breath -- “Sūji wa dokushin ni kagiru,” which roughly translates as “the numbers must always be single.” Fortunately for tongue-tied Westerners, the name was quickly abbreviated by taking the first syllables from its main words: “su-do-ku.”

Othello's the thing, not the play

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A version of strategy classic Go, Othello, as Shakespeare scholars will probably have guessed, is a reference to the play of the same name.

You might not think a board game inspired by a notoriously difficult, centuries-old Japanese favorite would have much in common with a 17th-century tale of love and betrayal, and you’d mostly be right -- but the black-and-white reversible counters Othello uses echo two of the play’s themes: the two-faced personality of supporting character Iago, and the interracial relationship between Othello and his wife Desdemona.

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