Thursday, March 17, 2005

Today, I am proud to present a very special edition of I Am Prepared to Give Up at Any Time. As a means of giving back to the blogosphere, I am pleased to offer a lesson in Scrabble. For those of you who doubted my coolness, behold....

I won't go over the rules, because that would bore me. Instead we'll cover basic strategies and things to study. If you learn these lessons well, you'll be a decent tournament-calibre player.

Lesson #1 - Memorize the two-letter word list

Memorizing word lists is excruciatingly boring. It changes the game from something fun into a chore. That being said, this list is a great one and is worth your time if you have any interest whatsoever in winning Scrabble games. And, honestly, who doesn't?

So, here's the list:


(Note that this list is from the North American Official Scrabble Word List. The rest of the world uses the SOWPODS list which has quite a few more words on it. Your home dictionary probably has a slightly different set of words. If you want to know the meanings of these words, you can go here)

This is a good list to learn for a few reasons:

1) You'll use these words all the time. Knowing all the two-letter words make it much easier to fit your plays on the board.

2) It's a short list. It has only 96 words and you already know bunches of them. Among the words that you may not know, many of them are common sounds, names of letters, and musical notes. It's pretty easy to memorize them all.

3) Considering reasons 1 and 2, the effort to reward ratio is really low. This is a great list to memorize.

Lesson #2 - Bingo!

If you use all 7 of your letters in one play, that's called a Bingo and you get 50 extra points for your effort. This is a huge and potentially game-changing bonus. If you can get one of these per game, you will win a decent number of tournament games. Getting bingoable letters in your rack, and then subsequently finding the bingos, are skills that are learnable. Here are a couple of good tips:

1) Your first priority as soon as you fill your rack with letters, is to look for bingos. (This is best done while your opponent is making his/her move.) So as soon as you get your letters, immediately look at any common prefixes or suffixes you have. For example, if you've got "ING", "TION", "IER" or any other good suffix on your rack, move those letters to the end. Similarly, if you have "RE", "OUT, "UN" or any good prefix, move those to the front. Play with the rest of the letters, seeing what other common letter combinations you have. If you aren't used to looking for 7-letter words, it will take some practice.

2) If you've determined that you don't have any bingos, then you should keep in mind what letters you want to keep or get rid of on your turn. Let's say your rack is CGINOTW. Now, there's no bingo there, but there are some juicy letter combinations like TION and ING. Personally, the ING is my favorite. There are lots of bingos that end in ING. So, ideally you'd leave yourself with those letters, which means that you should get rid of COTW on your turn. That's kind of an awkward set of letters to play, so maybe instead you'd focus on playing the COW and leaving yourself with TING. TING is a great set of letters to leave in your rack.

The idea is that even if you can't bingo on this turn, try to give yourself a chance to bingo on the next one. This leads nicely into...

Lesson #3 - Rack Management

Rack management is the idea that you're not just trying to score as many points as possible on each turn. Although maximizing points is big plus, you have to weigh that against the letters you're leaving yourself with for the next turn.

If you've got a great play that scores 40 points and leaves yourself with II on your rack, ok, that's a crappy leave, but 40 points is pretty damn good and is probably worth it. Conversely, if you can score an extra 5 points, but it means leaving yourself with III on your rack instead of EST, then you're making the wrong move. Keep the EST and make the lower-scoring move. You always have to weigh the points you'll score against the letters you're leaving yourself for your next turn.

Even if you can't leave yourself with a great set of letters like ING, try to leave a reasonable vowel-consonant balance. If you're playing 3 letters, try to leave 2 consonants and 2 vowels behind, or 3 consonants and 1 vowel. I usually like to have more consonants than vowels in my rack, but even amounts of each is really good too.

Deciding when to go for the higher scoring move vs getting rid of crappy letters is a subtle art, but it gets easier with experience. I think we all can agree that a nice rack is a good thing.

Lesson #4 - Picking your spot

Anytime you're placing a word, bingo or not, you want to maximize the points you can get for it. For example, if you have a chance to play onto a Triple-Word-Score (TWS) spot, you should probably take it. Even if you might score a few more points somewhere else, better that you take the spot than leave it for your opponent.

One of the first things you need to do before making your move, is look at the board and see if there are any great spots. The TWS is a great spot and even the Triple-Letter-Score (TLS) can be worth a lot of points. For example, let's say this were the board:

The first thing we notice about this board is that someone has played an illegal word. No matter what that blank is supposed to be in FUC*TARD, that is not a legal play. Kudos to the player who got away with this. It is a play only slightly more plausible than KWYJIBO.

Anyway, looking at this board, a couple spots jump out. First off, right beneath BASTARD, there is a juicy TWS. Ditto for over on the end of S*IT. If you have a S, then you'll be able to make great plays in either of these spots. If, however, you have no S, then those spots aren't really playable for you. You should then notice the TLS to the left of the second A in ALBATROSS. Let's say your rack is this: AAHINTZ

Since you've got no bingo and no S, then what's your best play? Check out that TLS, If you play HA going down, with your H (worth 4 points) on the TLS, you'll score 28 points, which ain't half bad. You'll get rid of one of your A's (which is good because having two of them is a slight impediment) and you'll leave yourself with 3 consonants and 2 vowels, which is pretty much a perfect balance. I'm not positive it's the best move on that board, but it's a pretty good one. It also leads nicely into...

Lesson #5 - Parallel plays

In that last example, we played our HA word parallel to ALBATROSS. These parallel plays are your bread and butter for finding ways to fit your word onto a board. Not only do they allow you to place words that otherwise might be unplaceable, but they also let more of your letters count twice, once for each word they're in. Seeing and making these plays is an essential skill.

Let's go back to the previous board. This time let's say our rack is AAEIMNN. Once again, you've got no bingo and no S, so you're looking to maximize your points while leaving yourself a decent rack. Your rack is a little vowel-heavy, so it would be nice to play something with more vowels than consonants.

In this case I recommend playing LAME, down from the L in BOLLOCKS. You'll put your M (worth 3 points) on the TLS, scoring 9 points twice. All in all, the play is worth 28 points, and it leaves you with AIMN. That's a decent score and a decent leave. Solid play.

Lesson # 6 - When to exchange

Sometimes, it makes sense to spend your turn exchanging letters instead of making a play. I end up doing this about once every other game, but sometimes I'll do it multiple times in a single game. My rule of thumb is something like:

If I'm scoring less than around a dozen points, AND I'm leaving myself with crappy letters, then I probably should be exchanging letters instead.

So, for example, if my rack is AACIIEO, I might be able to eke out slightly more than a dozen points, but I'll be leaving myself with 4 or 5 vowels and no consonants, which is horrible.

On the other hand, if my rack is AAAREST, and maybe my highest scoring play is 8 points with AA, I'd probably make that move. I get 8 points for it and I get to leave myself with AREST, which is a nice set of letters. So, in this case, since I can leave myself with a great set of letters, I'll happily accept scoring 8 points instead of getting 0 for exchanging letters.

Lesson # 7 - The S and the blank

Some letters are so good that you want to save them. The S and the blank are these letters. If you are going to use an S, make sure that you're getting at least 10 more points for your play, than your best play without an S. Really good players will probably expect more like 15 points for an S. Regardless, the concept here is that the S is a very valuable letter and you shouldn't generally be using them unless you're getting good value for them.

The blank is even more valuable. Basically, you shouldn't be using a blank unless you're bingoing with it. I think the rule of thumb is that you should be scoring 30 to 40 more points with your blank than you would without it. It's that valuable. You should think carefully about any play that uses a blank that doesn't score at least 50 points.

The X should probably be listed here too, but it's a little different. Although I'd expect any X play to be worth at least 30 points, it's not a good bingo letter, so sometimes (but rarely) you just need to dump it.

Lesson # 8 - The Q

The Q is the opposite of the S and the blank for me. I regard it as a letter to dump. Often it's the main reason that I'll spend a turn exchanging letters, especially if it's near the end of the game. There are, however, a few good Q words to know that will greatly increase your ability to play this horrible letter. Memorize these words now:


There are only 4 words on that list (and one them even has a U after the Q), but I gotta say that I play one of those words about other game or so. You can find the complete list of funky Q words here.

Getting stuck with the Q at the end of the game is a kick in the nuts, so I strongly recommend dumping that Q as soon as possible. One of my favorite words up there, SUQ, burns one of my favorite letters, the S. If it's your only way to get rid of that Q (because the board is so tight, perhaps), then it's a good use of the S.

Lesson # 9 - Open boards vs closed boards

As the game progresses, it's important to manage the board. If you're ahead in the game, you'll want to shut the board down. Look around, are there spots where someone could easily place a bingo? If so, try to block those spots. Playing defensively is the key to holding onto your lead.

Similarly, if you're behind by 60 points near the end of the game, you want a wide open board so that you can place a bingo. If there isn't a good bingo spot, you'll need to create one. Try to put a word somewhere that opens up the board. Obviously you'll need to manage your rack at the same time, ensuring that you'll have both the letters and the board-space to bingo with.

Overall the general rule is that if you're ahead, shut the board down. If you're behind, open it up. Note that opening up the board is much harder than shutting it down. Good luck there.

Lesson # 10 - More lists

There are many many word lists out there. If you've mastered the two-letter word list, then the next one to memorize is probably the three-letter word list. There are just under 1,000 words on that one (many of which you already know). I'll admit that I still haven't hunkered down and memorized that list. Top players will also have memorized the four-letter word list, but that's totally beyond me.

You can find a bunch of great lists on the net. Here's one such page.

That's it! You are so welcome


Siôn said...

Wonderful Scrabble guide - but is a word that uses all of you letters really called a 'Bingo'? Sounds a bit lame to me...

Mike said...

Siôn, yes it really is a bingo. And, if you have a bingo on your rack, but there's no place to play it on the board, that's called a "nongo". Hey, I don't make up the words, I just educate the masses.

Vivian to Some said...

Great tips! My friend and I used to play just about every night, until I moved away. Thinking of playing online now - any tips?

Mike said...

Vivian to me, yes I do have tips. I'll follow up with you via email.

dolface said...

heh heh heh. rack.

(just figurd i'd get that out of the way)

Mike said...

Dolface, and the phrase "great overhanging juggy boulders" doesn't elicit similar chuckles? Puhlease.

amy said...

ah FUCKTARDS. a favorite word of mine. having such a shitty and sad weekend this actually perked me up. thanks. inky

Mike said...

Misfit, you're welcome.