I have two B's, an S, a A, a C, and an E ... what do I do now?
August 14, 2009 12:12 PM   Subscribe

How do I become a better Scrabble player?

On my vacation, I got my ass handed to me by a really expert Scrabble player. Her tip for me was to play on a specific on-line site, which I've started doing. But my problem is still the same: I see the letters but can't make words out of them. The website offers me one hint per game, and that's all. And so I'm getting frustrated and not really any better.

Other than memorizing the list of two letter words, what can I do to become a better scrabble player?
posted by anastasiav to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (24 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Previous epic scrabble thread
posted by Zaximus at 12:16 PM on August 14, 2009

Play more. Honestly I feel that much of games like Scrabble is teaching your brain to work in ways it normally doesn't. It's looking at things in a way you don't in day to day life. But as you do this more it will become more second nature.

Also I highly suggest reading. Even as a 35 year old, whenever I read a book if I find a word I don't know (or am not certain of the meaning) I stop and look it up, and with this technique I find I remember words better. This has helped increase my vocabulary immensely in just the past 3 or 4 years I've done it.
posted by arniec at 12:16 PM on August 14, 2009

Crossword puzzles and jumbles might also be decent practice and Weboggle should be great for this.
posted by caddis at 12:17 PM on August 14, 2009

This book gave me a lot of insight into the way better Scrabble players think -- things like memorizing lots of two- and three-letter words, for example. It's also a pretty fun read. I hate playing Scrabble (particularly since I'm terrible for an ex-English major), but I enjoyed it quite a bit.
posted by Madamina at 12:21 PM on August 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you don't want to practice just by playing more Scrabble, but are instead trying to get better at putting those seven letters into words, get yourself a Facebook and play some WordTwist. It's improved my Scrabble game epically.

(If you do decide that's what you want to do, MeMail me; I'm always ready for a game!)
posted by WidgetAlley at 12:22 PM on August 14, 2009

Treat the letters not as individuals, but as combinations. -ion is a great combo to have, for example. The general idea is to build individual letters into groups that still have value in making different words. When you have 2-3 groups of 2-4 letters, you start to see a lot more options then before.

Shuffle your tiles continuously.

Playing defensively, especially against a better player can be a big help. Try to block off any possibility of a bingo and play multiple words. It's frustrating to both sides but can pay off.

Remember that the best players are the ones who just memorize the entire scrabble dictionary and pity them. Part of the joy of playing scrabble to me is laughing at the arcane/nonsense words that are in the scrabble dictionary and almost no other. Words like zoon & qiviut remind me that this game isn't about natural vocab as much as rote memorization of nonsense.

A blank and an 's' are your ticket to ride. If you get one early enough in the game, usually staring at your tiles and the board long enough will cough up a bingo.

After every move I make I'll look up my letters on a scrabble helper and see what I miss, this helps with future games & I don't consider it cheating.
posted by Dmenet at 12:28 PM on August 14, 2009 [3 favorites]

My game improved greatly when I stopped thinking of Scrabble words as words with meanings, but as strings of numeric values with no meaning. The letters only dictate what numbers you're allowed to place next to each other to get an optimal score.

Seconding Madamina's recommendation of Word Freak.
posted by Prospero at 12:30 PM on August 14, 2009

The first rule: Memorize every 2-letter word.
The second rule: Memorize every 8-letter word.
posted by General Malaise at 12:35 PM on August 14, 2009

The best tricks for becoming genuinely competitive in Scrabble aren't (I think) doing more crosswords, reading more, etc. Scrabble is a very specific ecosystem, relying on specific tactics to succeed. It's telling that many world champions aren't native English speakers - there's an important aspect of sheer math, odds, spatial reasoning, etc.

Here are my 4 biggest tips for singlehandedly improving your game:
  1. Learn Scrabble's goofy two-letter word list, paying particular attentions to the ones using high-scoring letters (Z, Q, X, K, W, Y, etc).
  2. Play to achieve seven-letter words (or "bingos"). These receive a 50-point bonus. That means that within reason you want to keep tiles that will help you gain bingos, and play tiles that are in the way. If you have two K's, probably get rid of one. If you have four I's, get rid of two. If you have the letters: ZIDINGS, try to only play (or trade!) the Z.
  3. Use the S and [blank] tiles wisely! These two tiles are perhaps the most valuable in the game, because they are the easiest to use in a bingo. Unless they are garnering you at least 30 more points, don't spend them except on a bingo.
  4. Cherish high-value tiles. Lots of amateur players hate getting "harder to play" high-scoring letters (Z, Q, X, etc). But these are in fact the key to winning the game. Once you learn the two-letter or three-letter word lists, they become pretty easy to play. Try to play them on double- and triple-letter tiles, and try to use them twice. That is, use them in plays where not only are they on a double-letter tile, but they are being used for two words. Learning the two-letter word-list makes this much easier. eg:      T      RIDE      I OX      C      K  (By playing "OX" in this way, you use the X twice (also gaining points for "EX"). If the X was on a double/triple letter/word score, its tile alone would garner at least 32 points.)

posted by Marquis at 12:39 PM on August 14, 2009 [8 favorites]

Seconding most of this advice, but Dmenet's in particular. Shuffling tiles, even randomly, will really help you to see more patterns.

Also, it might help to play more abstract games. Abstract strategic thought is an enormous help in Scrabble, and it's a side of the brain which a lot of word-people don't use as often. For me, it was PC games (I swear I only started to beat my intense Scrabble family, after years of coming in last, when I started playing a lot of Half-Life 2 and Thief 2). For others, it might be something more complex that doesn't involve graphically simulated crime -- like chess, say.
posted by thesmallmachine at 12:58 PM on August 14, 2009

I don't know what works (I'm a terrible scrabble player, and hate the game -- sometimes I get so annoyed playing it that I cheat just to see if I can put things over on the other players). But I do know what does not work: neither having a large vocabulary nor lots of abstract reasoning skills helps (quoth the formal modeler/semicompetent chess player with an 800 verbal GRE score who may well have never won a game of scrabble in his life).

One thing that might be worth looking into is spatial/visualization skills. I say this partly because I've always been bad at them, and also at scrabble... and partially because it seems like one major issue is just going through the combinatorial space of the letters before one -- and being able to rearrange them in your head might help with that. So whatever trains that skill...

For that matter, perhaps someone could apply one of those efficient search algorithms to scrabble letters and boards?

Wow this was a rambling and useless answer. Oh well. Time to click post anyway.
posted by paultopia at 1:15 PM on August 14, 2009

I'd suggest getting Scrabble.app for the Mac (you play against the computer at whichever level you choose) or whichever game is similar for a PC, and using this site:
to discover new words. When you see in action the use of all the two letter words, it makes it easier to learn them.
posted by sugarbx19 at 1:16 PM on August 14, 2009

Best answer: I have two B's, an S, a A, a C, and an E ... what do I do now?

Pick another tile, you need 7!
posted by ian1977 at 1:28 PM on August 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, hope for an R....I bet scabber is a word. :-P
posted by ian1977 at 1:33 PM on August 14, 2009

Nthing Dmenet. Prefixes and suffixes are your best friends. -tion, -ing, -er (or re-), -ed (or -de), pre- (or per-), etc. are some of the best. Hold them if you can. Say you have ijnottu. It may be a good idea to play 'jut' even if the J isn't doubled or tripled and you only get 10 points, because you will be left with 'tion' which can lead to any number of bingos on your next turn. Always be thinking 1-2 turns ahead, not just about your current turn.

If you don't want to memorize all the 7 and 8 letter words (understandable), try just going through the common ones. For instance, learn all the bingos you can make with the most common combinations, such as aeinst*. There's no need to memorize a crazy 8 letter word with a k and a j in it, since the odds of you actually being able to play it are so miniscule.

Also, after you learn all the two letter words, start on the three letter words. It's a manageable project, and it's a big help.

At the end of the game, play intelligently and with an eye towards defense. If you count tiles (Internet Scrabble Club, my favorite place to play, does this automatically for you), you should know your opponent's rack at the end of the game, so if he/she has the 'q' and there is only one place to play it, block that space, even if it means that you get fewer points than you could have.

Also, at the endgame, if your opponent is stuck and has to pass on each turn, maximize the points you can get over all your remaining turns: there's no longer any reason to play all your tiles as fast as you can. I've won a few games actually because my opponents have not realized this.
posted by notswedish at 1:34 PM on August 14, 2009

In addition to what others have suggested, I have a few ideas:

1. Look for parallel plays, where you lay a word alongside another word, creating several two-letter words in addition to your long word. It seriously increases your point value for many plays.

2. Think not only about the tiles you are playing, but also those you are leaving behind on your rack, which you will have for your next turn. Leaving two I's and a V, for example, is bad. Leaving an R, an E, and a T, is good. In general think of leaving some combination of the letters "STARLINE," because it is easy to make bingoes with those tiles.

3. I disagree with the advice not to think of them as words. For the Twos, obviously, some of them aren't words you would ever use. But for longer words it is helpful to think in phonemic syllables and put those together into word-like objects, then see if they form real words.
posted by mai at 1:34 PM on August 14, 2009

Another quick thing...memorize the q words that don't have the letter u.

ie qat, qoph etc
posted by ian1977 at 1:42 PM on August 14, 2009

I'll recycle what I posted in the other thread:

You can only get so good at Scrabble by playing kitchen-table style. If you want to improve your game, you have to work on improving your game. Think of it like softball: if you play every weekend, you can get OK at it. But you're not going to get good at it unless you practice with an eye towards improvement.

1. Buy a copy of the Scrabble Wordbook by Mike Baron. It's ten bucks. C'mon.

2. Learn all of the 2-letter words. There are only about 100 of them.

3. Start learning the 3-letter words. Study them. Seriously; start writing them out in alphabetical order, checking to see what you've missed, writing those down and repeating the process a couple of times a week.

4. While learning the 3s, start looking at how you can work on balancing your rack; this is the easiest way to improve your play without learning any new words:

A key strategy in Scrabble play is to keep a balanced rack. What does this mean? Consider how few words you know that have two As or two Is. Think about how few words have both a W and a U in them. There aren't many five-letter words with one consonant, and only a few three-letter words with no vowels.

So try to keep your rack balanced:

i. Strive to hold three vowels and four consonants any any given time. Most seven-letter words hold that balance.

ii. Try to avoid holding two of any letter except for the E and the S, and three of either of those is not good. Especially avoid holding two of the following: A, I, U, V and W. Play off any extras as soon as you can.

iii. I like to get rid of A, I, U, V and W when I'm only holding one of each because of the risk of drawing another.

iv. The letters most likely to make a bingo are found in the word CONTAINERS. Note that except for the C, these are all one-point tiles. Use your high-point tiles to score, but hold your low-point tiles for bingos.

5. There are three primary ways to make big points: parallel plays, making good use of the bonus squares, and by making 'bingos' (using all seven of the tiles on your rack in one turn). By learning the 2-letter words, you will able to make more parallel plays.

So the next step is to use the bonus squares. There's little more to say than "try to use them, and use them effectively". You've got the X and there's a Triple Letter Score square open? Try to play AX, EX, OX, XI or XU as a parallel play for 50 points or more. Try to play words that use multiple bonus squares; QUIZ, played with the Q on the double-letter square near the center-right of the board and the Z on the center-right Triple Word Score can be worth 96 points or more. Pay attention to the layout of the board and play where you can score the most points. Find a good play, then take a minute to find a better play.

6. Don't waste the S. Don't waste the blank. Your S is worth about ten points in equity value, so don't use it unless you can get about ten points more than you would from a play that doesn't use the S.

The blank is worth about 40 points in equity value, similarly. Me, I will never use a blank unless I'm getting at least 55 points out of it. Generally, that means playing a bingo. I'd sooner hold onto it until the end of the game than fritter it away.

7. Flip through the Wordbook when you have idle minutes. Say, in the bathroom.

8. I didn't mention tile tracking. For now, it may not be useful to you, but consider downloading a scoresheet that includes a checklist of letters that you can mark off as they're played. That way, you can see at a glance how many Ss are left in the pool, how likely it is that you'll draw a bunch of vowels, and so forth. Unlike most club players, I don't always track; I will generally track tiles near the end of the game using my copious remaining time if the game is close. Then I can get a good idea of what's on my opponent's rack and make plays that will minimize the utility of his tiles.

9. Oh, yeah, another useful strategy: when you're ahead, close down the board. When you're behind, open it up. When you're ahead, you want to make it less likely that your opponent will be able to score big, so 'tighten' the board by making blocking plays, playing words that start with C or V (which form no two-letter words), playing words that don't take -S hooks, and so on. When you're behind, you want to keep the board open so that you have more scoring opportunities: a spiderweb instead of a brick.

10. I swap tiles when I can't make an 8-point play that will use at least three tiles and still leave me with no duplicate tiles. When I exchange, I will generally keep only the E or S or both. If I have neither, I swap them all. There are exceptions, of course. If I have the X and there's a potential big parallel play if I draw a vowel, I'd keep it.


Those are the strategies that beginners need to know. Any other hints will be for players above your level (learning bingo stems, learning lists of hooks, etc.)

If you have any questions, I'm a pretty serious player and am happy to answer them.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 2:27 PM on August 14, 2009 [8 favorites]

Also, don't try to see words on your rack, and then try to find a place for them on the board. Look at the board first, and find the most strategic places (triple words, triple letter, double words) for your play. As noted above, a couple overlapping two-letter words in the right place can be worth more than a 6-letter word, no matter how impressive your vocabulary.

You might find yourself slipping and automatically playing a word on the last word your opponent played instead of using, or blocking off the most strategic spaces.
posted by misha at 2:35 PM on August 14, 2009

If you have an iphone, get the facebook scrabble app. It has this really cool feature where after you play a word you can hit the 'teacher' button and it shows you what your best play could have been.

I get way too excited when I hit the best play on the board.
posted by sugarfish at 3:02 PM on August 14, 2009

Seconding Word Freak. It's not a how to get better at scrabble book but reading it was when I first started thinking about scrabble strategy. It's also a light/fun read.
posted by Wood at 4:26 PM on August 14, 2009

Word Freak was fun, and it also cured me of any desire to ever get too serious about playing competitively.

Playing Open Book Scrabble (where you and your partners agree in advance that it's okay to consult the official Scrabble dictionary or an online word finder) can be instructive.
posted by Ery at 5:28 PM on August 14, 2009

I agree with the advice upstream, especially learning to use the 2- and 3-letter words, the prefixes and suffixes and using what is on the board to make a word rather than fitting your word onto the board.
I'd add when you are out and about (or even in and not doing anything), think about words - read signs or the paper and listen for words base on their number of letters, especially those with seven or eight letters (a lot of common words are seven letters long - utensil, chicken, science, shelves, forgive, vinegar, freezer, etc.) and words with odd numbers of letters such two U (culture, usual, etc.) or three A (armada, caravan, anagram, etc.) or two I (iris, radii).
Also think of words that become a new word when you add one letter - overt > covert, rake > drake, etc. (Then you can place your word over top of the other word.)
And words with Q in the middle - I think a lot of people get locked on quit-quiet-queen-quick-quack and forget about marquee-marquis-squire-squirrel-banquet-bequest. By all this, I mean to train yourself into looking at words in your vocabulary for their scrabble-worth.
And someone upstream said something about visually looking at the board. I played with someone who liked to put their board on top of a lazy susan - but it drove me mad, I could not see the game grow because it was moving every turn. I would rather read the letters upside down and see the shape grow than to have it move around.
posted by philfromhavelock at 5:35 PM on August 14, 2009

EVERYTHING SCRABBLE book. It's a frickin bootcamp. And then find someone good and practice.
posted by bunny hugger at 10:42 PM on August 14, 2009

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