How to Keep Scores High and Tensions Down:
Scrabble Under Quarantine
Greek and Roman Studies
Hello, everyone! As some of you know, I was scheduled this spring to provide through the Meeman Center a few sessions devoted to learning about the game of Scrabble. I intended that we would learn a bit about the history of the game but spend the majority of our time learning some strategies and techniques to become better players so that anyone who wished to do so would be prepared to play in a series of sanctioned tournaments we were going to hold locally last month. Unfortunately, world events thwarted our plans, and neither the class nor the tournaments ended up being possible. However, partially as a substitute for those missing classes and tournaments but also in honor of National Scrabble Day, which occurred last month (on April 13, the birthday of Alfred Butts, inventor of Scrabble!), I thought it might be fun at least to write just a bit about Scrabble instead.
Why? Mainly because Scrabble has been sort of important to me, and there’s always the chance that it could become that for you as well. Back in 2007 I just wandered into a bookstore where there happened to be a local Scrabble club playing some games, and as they saw me lurking, they invited me to participate. These kinds of clubs quietly exist in many cities and towns all over the United States, and they are always very open and accepting to newcomers. This one ended up being so inviting that a mere two days later I was somehow playing in my first tournament, and I’ve been kind of addicted ever since. I’ve played tournaments in something like sixteen different states and even in two other countries, including once at the World Scrabble Championship where I got to help represent the United States against players from all over the world. And a couple of years ago, a friend (who is just as obsessive as I am) and I even set a Guinness world record for scoring the most points while playing Scrabble over a 24-hour period.
But sadly no one is traveling to tournaments these days. On the other hand, you may have seen the flurry of articles in the popular press about playing board games with your family or others with whom you’re isolated. And board game sales have been been jumping up the best-seller list at Amazon accordingly, with Scrabble of course among those that have become extra popular these days. And since the estimate is that one in every three households in the US already has a Scrabble set anyway, it seems there might be a lot of people playing the game while hidden away in isolation.
But one thing that seemed to be missing from those articles was how tensions can sometimes run pretty high while playing board games with the same people over and over again. While Scrabble might not quite be Monopoly, which I’ve seen destroy the atmosphere at more than one holiday gathering of extended family in the past, I thought I’d at least mention two things that might make your home Scrabble games go more smoothly. First, I know that the most frustrating part of Scrabble for many people is when an opponent is taking way too long to come up with a word and make a play. And if you’re stuck with a very slow playing family member, I could envision a game taking hours or else ending suddenly in a not so pleasant manner.
In tournaments, we have a simple solution for this. We have special clocks that are modeled on chess timers. (You’ll see a couple of examples on this Scrabble merchandise page.) During a game each player has 25 minutes total to make his or her moves. And if you run out of time at the end of the game, there are point penalties. And since tournament games always involve only two players competing at a time (except for in school Scrabble where you have two pairs of students playing against each other instead), every game is pretty much ensured to last well under an hour. You yourself may not have a special timer to use at home, but as a substitute, you might consider limiting turns to a set amount of time, even if you’re just tracking it with a clock or your phone. And this idea will work even in games where you are truly risking domestic tranquility by having more than two people playing at the same time.
The second thing that tends to matter and raise blood pressure is whether or not the words that get played are real words or not. And depending on when your Scrabble set was made, most of the time the rule s that came with it say you just need to agree on a standard dictionary before you begin play. But different dictionaries have different words. And so th e choice matters. (In college I once had a friend who would use his dictionary, but he would write his own words in the margins so that he could use them later and claim they were “in the dictionary.”) But there is actually an official Scrabble dictionary. Actually, there are different official dictionaries, depending on whether you’re playing overseas or in North America or in a tournaments for kids still in school. And these dictionaries get updated every few years in order to add new words. (For instance, EMOJI was a recent and welcome addition.) But the most widely available dictionary is this one, put out by Merriam-Webster. It is basically the same as the North American tournament dictionary, but it has all of the offensive words taken out. So it might be the best choice for family game night. Also, Hasbro’s website has a tool where you can quickly check to see if any word is considered valid. And there’s even an iPhone app called ULU if that’s your preference. In any case, using the official Scrabble dictionary should help keep disagreements to a minimum.
OK, so now you might be able to play a game at home without tensions rising, but you still want to crush all of your family members or housemates. Or at least I would. So here are just a couple of tricks that could help you along the way to household domination.
Of course, the first thing is that you need to be able to know and find words. So an increased word knowledge is really important. But it’s not the kind of word knowledge that most beginners think they will need. You don’t actually need a huge vocabulary to get going in Scrabble. It turns out that in this game all words are not created equal, and some are much more important than others. In fact, the vast majority of the words played in Scrabble are only two or three letters long. So learning the short words is definitely going to help. Especially the two-letter words. There really aren’t that many. Just 107, many of which are pretty common:
AA, AB, AD, AE, AG, AH, AI, AL, AM, AN, AR, AS, AT, AW, AX, AY, BA, BE, BI, BO, BY, DA, DE, DO, ED, EF, EH, EL, EM, EN, ER, ES, ET, EW, EX, FA, FE, GI, GO, HA, HE, HI, HM, HO, ID, IF, IN, IS, IT, JO, KA, KI, LA, LI, LO, MA, ME, MI, MM, MO, MU, MY, NA, NE, NO, NU, OD, OE, OF, OH, OI, OK, OM, ON, OP, OR, OS, OW, OX, OY, PA, PE, PI, PO, QI, RE, SH, SI, SO, TA, TE, TI, TO, UH, UM, UN, UP, US, UT, WE, WO, XI, XU, YA, YE, YO, ZA
When I was first starting out as a player, one test I would give myself was to see whether or not I could just write all of the two-letter words out alphabetically. You probably don’t want to be so obsessive yourself, but it’s still a very good idea to become familiar with the less common two-letter words in that list. For instance, QI or ZA can be game changers. And if you know your twos and have some familiarity with the three-letter words, you’re going to be well on your way to Scrabble glory. It also doesn’t hurt to learn weird words like those that involve a Q without needing a U, or ones that use lots of vowels. For lists of all these glorious words and more, here’s an excellent cheat sheet.
But after word knowledge, it’s also great to think about word placement. Many people are pretty good at finding words on their rack. And then they try to find ways to add them at the ends of other words. Or they can incorporate a tile already on the board to make a longer word. But the really powerful plays are the ones that are placed parallel to a word already on the board. For instance, let’s say your opponent has started the game by playing OWE as shown here:
With the tiles you have, you could play BOYS at the end for 18 points:
Or you could play OBEY through the E and score slightly less (16 points) but keep your valuable S tile:
But the better play here is to position BOY above OWE, keeping your S but still scoring many more points (36!) than the other plays did.
So keep those kinds of plays in mind.
Also, remember that you get a 50-point bonus if you use all seven of your tiles for what in North America is usually called a bingo. Overseas they tend to call it a bonus. But how do you find these longer words? Well, one trick is to look for common prefixes or suffixes. So if you can pull an ING out and then use your other four tiles (with or without another one from the board) to make a short verb, then you just throw -ING on the end and you just made a huge score! Or -ED or UN- and many more.
Most starting players are lucky to get a bingo at all in a game, but an expert player will often get three or four. Part of that is because they have learned a lot of obscure words through study, but the much more important reason is that those players have become very good at what is called rack management. Each time you make a play, you’re of course trying to score a lot of points. But you want to weigh each of your high-scoring options against each other in a couple of ways. A first (but in the end smaller) concern is that some plays might make it easier or harder for your opponent to have a high-scoring comeback play. But the main thing is to consider what you yourself are going to have left over on your rack after you make a play. You want tiles that are more likely to help you form good words on the next turn as well. So try to leave a good balance of vowels and consonants—especially consonants that are only one point since they are usually easier to mesh with other tiles. Try to avoid having two or more of any tile. And don’t just use your blank to score a couple of extra points! Make sure you’re going to score a lot more points than you otherwise would. Many experts, for instance, won’t usually use a blank unless they’re going to score an extra 25-30 points by doing so. For beginners this number might be closer to 15.
Finally, maybe you are one of the unfortunate souls without a Scrabble set in your house. No worries! You can play online. If you dig around, you can find other options, but recently Scopely just introduced Scrabble Go, an app that will allow you to play on pretty any Android or iOS device. In my opinion, the user interface is a bit wonky and overdone, but the app will still allow you to connect with friends or family to put all of these new skills to use.
Or if you have even more time to fill, you could read Stefan Fatsis’s book Word Freak, which details the world of competitive Scrabble and some of its more eccentric players. The book is a bit old now, but it is still an enjoyable read and a pretty accurate description of the tournament Scrabble scene as it still exists today.
Or if you are REALLY bored, here are a couple of links to the 24-hour long video of Marty Gabriel and I setting our world record. Over the course of 24 hours we scored 216,439 points, averaging a complete game about every six minutes!