July 20, 2008 4:58 PM   Subscribe

Scrabble anxiety

I'm going out with a new lady who is very good at Scrabble. I am hopeless. My word scores are single figures and consist of CAT, DOG, BALL, etc. I just don't seem to have the facility for this. Will practice help or am I wasting my time?
posted by A189Nut to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (65 answers total) 182 users marked this as a favorite
Practice does help. I was very lame at Scrabble before the advent of Scrabulous on Facebook. Now I am much better at strategizing and looking for the high-point words and squares and things. I'm sure you can find friends to practice with so next time you play your lady, you're more of a champ.
posted by leesh at 5:04 PM on July 20, 2008

Practice helps. Learn the two and three letter words, so that you have more opportunities to play off of other words. Read Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis, or watch the movie Scrabylon to see how the Scrabble-obsessed approach the game. Play Scrabulous on Facebook, which allows you to look up words before playing (not necessarily cheating, but close). Scramble on Facebook also allows you to search for words, and increase your recognition of and repertoire of words. Also, take a look at to look for words when you are practicing. The more you play, the more words you will know.
posted by Roger Dodger at 5:10 PM on July 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Practice definitely helps! For instance, I found learning some of those obscure 2-letter words can enable you to rack up higher scores by making it possible to place your words parallel to existing words. Also, tactics are important- e.g. try to avoid setting up easy points for your opponent by steering clear of triple word score squares etc...

Good luck, remember only a bad workman blames his tiles ;)
posted by Rufus T. Firefly at 5:13 PM on July 20, 2008

Speaking as someone who is just starting to claw my way out of Scrabulous ignominy . . .

First of all, she's going to beat your ass. A lot. Hopefully that won't be a problem for either one of you, as I'm sure she's seeing you for your other qualities.

Second, remember that long words are not always the highest scoring words. A well-placed QATS or JO can get you a decent score, especially if you put them parallel to an existing word.

You can also go to the Scrabulous site and play practice games against the computer. It won't be as fun, but it will get you used to seeing patterns in your letters.
posted by bibliowench at 5:15 PM on July 20, 2008

Practice will help, so will figuring out some techniques. Focus on suffixes and prefixes. If you can make an "ing" "un" "ous" "er" "ough" etc in your rack then it is easier to make works. Also, learn how to play using the small 2 letter words so rather than always having to play perpendicular to existing words, you can play parallel and make a bunch of smaller words.



instead of


There are lots of playing strategies like this, and lots of books and sites written about it. You'll be able to compete well before long!

Good luck!!
posted by gwenlister at 5:16 PM on July 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Practice helps a LOT. There are a few things you can apply yourself to learning early on that will really help you out.

1. two letter words - this seems sort of extraneous until you realize that lot of players make a lot of points by doing two basic things 1) making a lot of teeny words in one turn 2) using all seven letters. It's easier to learn to do #1 than #2. So you can do something like this


and you've just made four words in one turn: OPE, MO, OP and BE. That gets you more points. It's hard to remember all these little words, but you can remember two things 1) you can spell letters of the alphabet 2) do, re me, fa, so, la, to. Start remembering which two letter words you can use and look for ways to play BALL where it makes three words, not just one.

2. Power letters: Q, X, J, Z all have a lot of points. Try hard to play them where you're multiplying those points [on double or triple letter spaces, preferably more than one]. Learn the two letter words that have these letters: QI, XI, XU, AX, OX, EX, ZA, JO. Then you can do things like this


3. minimum standards: a lot of newer players make a move when they see ANY word that looks decent. Try to not make your move until you can hit a minmum point value, like 20 points or something. This will encourage you to look for things like in #1 and #2.

You didn't mention if you're playing online or not. Sometimes online playing is better because you can look up words in the dictionary and you can take a while to comtemplate your turn and don't feel like someone is staring at you, waiting for you. Facebook has a Scrabble application called Scrabulous which you can also play via email at its own site. Playing a lot of games where the stakes aren't as high as they might be with your new friend can help take the edge off.

And above all, have fun. If the game isn't fun for you, be upfront about that. Don't just suffer through it because you think it's a rite of passage. I'm currently 1 loss and 1 win with my new fella, but if he didn't like Scrabble I'm pretty sure I'd still like him anyhow.
posted by jessamyn at 5:18 PM on July 20, 2008 [25 favorites]

Practice, Miss Bennett, practice. You can't get enough of it.
posted by turgid dahlia at 5:24 PM on July 20, 2008

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.


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 5:26 PM on July 20, 2008 [93 favorites]

Funny, and true story.

A friend of mine (who is a school teacher, no less) was playing Scrabble with me. I'm a wordsmith and love scrabble and generally beat him whenever we play. The reason why is about to become obvious.

The game was coming to a close and the scores were unusually close for a game between us. The board was tight... not much room to move. It was my turn. I was scanning the board for ages, looking for a spot to use my letters. Then I found it. There was a T with room for a W and an O. I placed down the word TWO, added up my score and sighed with relief that the burden was now my friends.

I looked up at him and he had a quizzical expression on his face. He looked at me and said "What the hell is T, W, O?" I chuckled, thinking he was joking and said "I dunno, what is T W O?"

"I don't know!" he exclaimed. "You tell me or I'm challenging!"

At which point both I, and his wife who was watching television nearby, burst out laughing. "What???" he cried. "What's so funny?"

I explained to him that the word TWO was the number 2. At which point he realised why I generally beat him at games, and why I never want him to teach my kids (should I ever have them).

The point of the story is this. You may make a silly mistake playing Scrabble, but it's a game. You're meant to have fun! And yeah, every time my friend and I have a social gathering, either I or his wife remind him of the T W O incident and he takes it in good strides, but he still plays and we still have fun. Practice makes perfect, and as you play more you will get better and better.

So the key is to play more! Perhaps not against your partner, if that gives you anxiety. Go to the Internet Scrabble Club and download and play the online version of scrabble. You'll likely loose a lot of games, but it's the internet, it's largely anonymous, and best of all you can set parameters for who you want to play against (skill level, games won etc).

If you own a Nintendo DS, as I do, you can buy Scrabble DS. I play it almost daily these days and you'll be happy to know that your computer opponents range from pathetically easy to players not even I can beat (and I'm good at Scrabble!) If your partner has a DS of her own, you can play the game wirelessly anywhere, with just the one copy of the game.

Also, invest and buy the Scrabble Players Dictionary (available at most good bookshops) so that you can learn all your words when you've got nothing better to do, and so you can challenge your partner when she tries to put one over on you! If you're really serious, there's a book called 'How to Win At Scrabble' which you can buy, which is probably harder to find but not truly necessary if you want to just play with your partner casually.

One last tip; when you play with her, agree that there should be a challenge with no penalty house rule, at least until you get better. This way you'll be more likely to challenge a word you think she just made up, and with the Scrabble Players Dictionary at hand, you'll be able to figure out with ease if she's trying to use your inexperience to her advantage or not.
posted by Effigy2000 at 5:37 PM on July 20, 2008 [4 favorites]

If you own a Nintendo DS, as I do, you can buy Scrabble DS.

Be warned that Scrabble DS uses the British/International word list, so if you live in the US, Canada, Thailand or Israel you'll be learning the wrong words playing it. (For example, EE, CH, JA and ZO are legal in Britain but not in the US).
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 5:42 PM on July 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Playing Scrabulous helps because you can have all day to think about your move. That really helped me to start thinking strategically.

I don't think so much about what words I can make with the letters in my rack so much anymore. I might see what letters I can lay alongside the high-point word my opponent just played (e.g. I can put the M or the P in front of the A, I can put the A in front of the X, etc.) and see if that spells anything. Or maybe there's a triple letter score a few spaces away from an existing word -- if I put the J on the triple, what letters can I use to connect it up?

Also, play defensively, especially with regards to triple word score spaces. If at all possible, avoid laying down a word so that it's possible that your opponent could use the triple on the next turn, even if it means getting fewer points on your turn -- I usually work on the assumption that giving away the triple means giving away 20 to 30 points (this may be adjusted depending on the opponent). Similarly, if it's my turn and possible that a word could be laid on the triple, I'll look for any way I can do it, even if it's not the highest-scoring move (again, it's worth 20 to 30 points off the opponents score).
posted by winston at 5:53 PM on July 20, 2008

seek games with the "void" setting where the computer won't allow you to play fake words....which means you can experiment to learn new words.
posted by availablelight at 6:33 PM on July 20, 2008

Practice is good, but you have to go about it the right way. Losing at Scrabble to superior players will improve your game much faster than winning against inferior players. Go to and download the Scrabble client, and choose games with people who are rated higher than you. Your ego may suffer, but your game will benefit.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 6:49 PM on July 20, 2008

My scrabble game totally turned around after I got inspired by the documentary Word Wars. I highly recommend it.

After that, I was totally focused on getting the bingo (laying all your letters in one word). Easier said than done, but once that became my focus, I became strides better.
posted by Flying Squirrel at 7:18 PM on July 20, 2008

Sometimes online playing is better because you can look up words in the dictionary

Jessamyn -- that's totally cheating!!! :)
posted by Flying Squirrel at 7:20 PM on July 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

My word chops. Let me show you them.

In school I was always three grade levels beyond my peers in reading ability. I read the World Book Encyclopedias in the sixth grade. I am a published writer and poet (haiku). I hold a master's degree in communication. I was a newspaper editor for a decade and a half. I now run my own writing and editing business.

And to save my immortal soul I cannot win a game of Scrabble.

That was a big hit to my pride at first. Now, not so much. I just can't see the words when the letters aren't in order. And somehow, life goes on.

The folks above say practice helps, so listen to them. But as regards time spent with your lady, just relax and enjoy and give your ego the night off. And maybe take up Othello.
posted by bryon at 8:01 PM on July 20, 2008

Practice helps a lot. But I think it has to be regular practice. It has taken me a while to become a different kind of player. And you have to like it. I got a copy of Scrabble for my Treo phone and play all the time when I have a casual moment - in bed as I go to sleep, in bed between alarms in the morning, on a break at work, in the waiting room at the doc's office, in the bathroom, whatevs. It's good for anytime and the game is always waiting for the next time you're ready. If you don't have/want that, play online. Play by yourself at first, but then play in timed games against real people so you really have to work for it.

QATS, SUQ, TAJ, HAJ, RAJ, JO, XU, XI, ADZ, and ZA are lifesavers. There are others, but those help me all the time.

Points, not pride.
The temptation for Scrabble noobs, which is hard to resist, is to make impressive words because they are sitting there in your tray and you want to show off your fancy skills. But you can make a very impressive word and still only get a handful of points if all your tiles are one point tiles and you don't hit any bonus squares. You have to shed your ego and become a ruthless point hog. Swallow your pride and go for ugly, stunted, weird, high-scoring words.

All your tile are belong to us. A related issue is focusing only on the letters in your tray and not the letters on the board. You try to make whatever word you can on your tray and then try to find a place to plug it in on the board. You need to be thinking about both at the same time to have the most options. Be scouting ahead on the board for potential zingers if you should get the right tiles later. Every tile is there for you to use.

nthing parallel placement - that's the key to true ass kicking.

Get greedy about points.
I'm not truly happy with a turn unless I score above 20. I'll settle for 18 and consider it respectable, but I want POINTS. Work those bonus squares. Weigh a triple letter bonus against a double word bonus and see which would be the higher point move.

Don't mug yourself. Don't ever set up a triple word bonus for your opponent. That is, don't lay out a word that your opponent can connect to and hit any of the red triple word bonus squares in the corners and around the perimeter. They will take it as soon as they can and it will likely hurt.

Starve thy foe. Conversely, take the triple word score bonus squares whenever you can, even just as a blocking maneuver. Maybe you only get 12 points out of it, but if it keeps your opponent from getting 42, it was worth it.

Double Dip. Let's say you can make the word SQUINT if you want to. Why not lay down QUINT instead, saving that S, which would have only gotten you another point or two, depending, and then come back the next turn and take advantage of that delicious Q again and make SQUINT or QUINTS, and string a second word off of the S. You risk letting the other person ruin the word for you, but even if they do you've only lost a max of 2 points unless the S would have landed on something to further multiply the whole word. So I think it's worth the risk.
posted by Askr at 8:02 PM on July 20, 2008 [7 favorites]

Forgot to say - something I find useful to limber up my word brain is playing Fowl Words at the Merriam Webster site or at other locations around the web. It makes you think about all the different words you can spell from the same set of 7 letters. And it's timed, so you've really got to pump them out to reach the minimum number of words per turn. If you don't find enough words, you lose. And while you can spell lots of three-letter words if you want to, you know that each set of 7 letters can be used to spell at least one 7-letter word. So it makes you stretch your brain and focus. Plus the chickens make funny noises as you submit your words and there are bonuses and blinking lights and stuff. Very fun.
posted by Askr at 8:07 PM on July 20, 2008

When you play against someone you want oral sex from in the near future, it's all about playing with style and not about being a point-obsessed douchebag. "ten pounds of inedita"'s advice on tactics is very good. Also remember to play cool long words whenever possible, even if a dull play would score slightly higher. It looks good and opens up the board, which makes the game flow better. Don't be obstructive and block the triples because it makes you no fun to play. If you follow Askr's advice you might never get laid again.
posted by w0mbat at 8:16 PM on July 20, 2008 [17 favorites]

You could try suggesting this variation on the game. Sometimes my husband and I start the game by dividing all the letters in half. So you get your tiles all at once. This gives you both the chance to come up with several clever words and ample opportunity to impress one another.
posted by i_love_squirrels at 8:53 PM on July 20, 2008

Let's say you can make the word SQUINT if you want to. Why not lay down QUINT instead, saving that S, which would have only gotten you another point or two, depending, and then come back the next turn and take advantage of that delicious Q again and make SQUINT or QUINTS

However, QUINT also takes an E back-hook for QUINTE, making it a particularly dangerous play. The point stands, though.

Also remember to play cool long words whenever possible, even if a dull play would score slightly higher.

This is a reasonable point. A board full of parallel three-letter words that looks like a great big X on the board is derided among serious players as "the widow's game". It's about the surest way to make the game not fun at all. Play defensively, but don't play too defensively. I have no problem opening up the triple lane if the play was worth 30-odd points to me.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 8:58 PM on July 20, 2008

w0mbat makes a good point. I forgot we're talking about the girlfriend here. Use my plan when you're playing someone other than her. With her, have your basics down, and do things cleverly enough to impress, but not to win or frustrate. Plus, see if you can spell ORAL at some point. You can both pretend like you're not both thinking about it, but you will be. Score!
posted by Askr at 9:13 PM on July 20, 2008

Also look for tiles in your rack that can be grouped into useful prefixes and suffixes:

Whenever I have any of these, I assume they can help me make a longer word than I might have been able to otherwise. Plus, they often help you build off what's already on the board.
And like other people have said, don't waste your S. I'm no expert, but it drives me bats when people use their S to get one more point, when it could have been a pivot letter to get them 20 or 30 more points on a future turn.
posted by bassjump at 9:23 PM on July 20, 2008

Practice does help but, speaking as someone with an SO who's been better at scrabble than me for ever, it doesn't help enough. If s/he's had all that historic practice, you won't catch up. Use it as a way to learn to be good-natured in defeat. Also, watch Word Wars, and you'll feel much better about not winning.

(Having said that, I've found the best response to making a collection of crap 3 and 4 letter words is simply to take your time. Don't allow yourself to be rushed, and you'll often see that your letters aren't that bad after all.)
posted by pompomtom at 10:38 PM on July 20, 2008

Yes of course practice helps and Scrabulous might help you also, although I find solitary play against their computer quite challenging despite being a fantastic Scrabble player myself. Their dictionaries also lack certain words whilst including others which aren't words.

In a strong game of scrabble, you'll note lots of 2- and 3-letter words. The trick is to place words parallel to other words, so that each letter creates a new word as well as spelling a word in a row. This means you'll need to memorize lists of two-letter words. Luckily, there aren't many.

So try to get some practice in making words parallel to one another. Your Scrabble score will increase dramatically.
posted by MaxK at 11:05 PM on July 20, 2008

Very good advice here, and I have little to add except seconding most of it (especially, reading Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis, and everything ten pounds of inertia said). One minor point: you already know over 90% of the two-letter and three-letter words. So you don't need to bother memorizing the ones you know, providing you can avoid Effigy2000's friend's mistake of thinking of "Scrabble words" as a separate class of thing from the words you ordinarily read, write, speak and hear each day. Definitions are nothing more than memory aids; on the other hand, they are very good memory aids.

Repeatedly writing out the twos is an easy way to learn them. Just list them all out in your own handwriting, and write them out like a punished schoolkid "doing lines" (this task's association with punishment is unfortunate, as it is an excellent means of memorizing simple facts). Then turn the page, and write them out from memory, and then turn it back, and correct your errors, and do it again.

At the time I did this, I had a very boring call centre job; I would do this between (and often during) calls. It took two days to memorize them initially, then I waited a few days and then went through the exercise again, and I've had them ever since. You can do the same with the threes in subsets by initial letters. Take about twenty, fifty or a hundred or so at a time, depending on how your individual memory works.

Scrabble is about one-third rack management, one-third tile placement, and one-third luck. On the subject of balancing your rack, the magic word of Scrabble is SANTIRE. If you're ever forced to dump, always keep the letters in SANTIRE. It forms more bingos than any other combination.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 1:13 AM on July 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh! On the subject of "not allowing yourself to be rushed", unfortunately for some reason the Scrabble online sites are primarily populated by persons indistinguishable from hyperactive schoolchildren, who like TEN MINUTE GAMES and will constantly nag you to "hurry up".

This elevates luck over strategy. Depending on your personality and skills, this may be fun for you, or it may be extraordinarily annoying; in either case, it is not real Scrabble. Real Scrabble takes about an hour. (Yeah, I'm being an elitist. Score over 350 under conditions of minimal time pressure, and I will listen to your contrary opinions. ;) )
posted by aeschenkarnos at 1:19 AM on July 21, 2008

If s/he's had all that historic practice, you won't catch up.

Usually, but don't get discouraged, A189Nut. Only two years ago at the club where I play there was a group of us (guys in our 20s and 30s) who were all pretty equal. I have about 15 years of club and tournament experience and a tourney rating in the mid 1300s and had a bit of an edge over any of them. But one guy in his mid-20s got it into his head to study hard, and his rating is now over 1600 -- officially, an "expert". In two years, he's gone from a guy who I could beat regularly and who had much less experience than me to a guy whom I might beat one game in four. It is possible to become competitive against better players, and even to surpass them, and it needn't take years.

I agree with the point made earlier that while you're learning you should ask your ladylove if you can get free challenges. It'll help build your game something fierce.

it is not real Scrabble. Real Scrabble takes about an hour

You'd hate to play me in real life; I am notorious locally for playing very quickly. Using the standard 25-minute timer, I rarely use more than eight minutes and my club and tourney average score is 380. I recently beat the aforementioned expert with a score of 442 and used less than four minutes on my clock.

Many people who play both in clubs and on ISC will play games online with 9 to 12 minutes on the clock. Because you don't have to track tiles*, keep score or draw from a bag of tiles you don't need as much time for actual gameplay. I consider a twelve-minute (per side) online game to be pretty much the standard, and equivalent to a 25-minute (per side) live game.

It's the people who want to play THREE minute games that I don't want to play. For the average player, it becomes a game of luck. Against the hardcore players who can easily score 400+ in three minutes, I'm gonna lose over and over again.

Matt Graham, one of the players who is the focus of both the book Word Freak and the documentary Word Wars, is infamous for having shown up late to a tournament to find his clock had been started, as is the rule. There was less than two minutes left on the clock when he sat down. He won the game with a score of something like 463, having used a minute and a half of his playtime. But he's a freak of nature.

In any case, if you're going to play online, find a time limit that works for you.

* 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.

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.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 2:29 AM on July 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

Recycling my own bits:

Scrabble is much more of a strategy game than a word game. While having a good vocabulary is the base of a solid player, effectively managing the board is the easiest way to improve your play. Here's 6 simple rules that will have you beating your family in no time.

1. Don't open up high-value bonus cells unless you have to
This is the biggest mistake people make. When your play allows your opponent to play one of the triple-word or triple-letter bonus cells, you're sacrificing a ton of points. Do something else if at all possible. If you're ahead, consider making a move that just blocks new moves from being made rather than opening up a triple bonus cell.

A similar error is playing any vowel next to a double-letter cell, or worse, a triple-letter cell. Playing an I next to a double-letter can let your opponent play an easy QI double-triple for 40+ points - ouch. If you play the first move, play the vowel of your word in the center square with the consonants to the left and right.

2. Know the two-letter words
This is an easy way to get an extra 50+ points per game, especially if your vocabulary is otherwise good. The biggest sets of unexpected valid 2s are musical notes (DO, RE, MI, ...); 'spellings' of the letters of the alphabet (notably EF, EL, EM, EN, PE, AR, ES, EX); high-value nonsense QI, ZA, XI, and the non-pluralizable XU and JO; finally high-vowel nonsense AA, AE, AI, and OE.

As a shortcut, C and V do not appear in any two-letter words. These are good letters to put next to bonus cells since your opponent won't be able to play strictly parallel to your word.

3. Play parallel, not perpendicular
Many beginners play their words like they're building an easy crossword puzzle - one new word that goes straight through an existing word. This is almost universally a bad play. By using the two-letter words you just learned, you can almost always construct a word that plays parallel to an existing one, effectively doubling (or more) your score for a word.

The exception to this is when you can 'hook' on to an existing word by adding on to the beginning or end of it in addition to the orthogonal word you're spelling. Pluralizing an existing high-scoring word is a good start; sometimes you can find unexpected prefixes like LOVE -> CLOVE.

4. Save your high-value tiles
Never, ever, ever use an S for an additional 2 points. They are extremely valuable. In general, don't use an S for less than an extra 10 points and don't use a blank for less than 15. If the board is 'open' (lots of wide open spaces and words to hook on to), hold on to these tiles even more tightly while you manage your rack trying to form a bingo. If I start with a blank or a good base like EST, I'll often spend the first four or five turns just getting rid of letters trying to balance my rack to form a bingo. If you can manage your rack down to a leave of EST?, you'll have very good odds of drawing three letters that let you bingo on the next turn (assuming the board is open enough that an S lets you play whatever you want).

This also applies to X, Q, and Z, and to a lesser extent F, H, K, W, and J. Save these for a situation where you can get double their point value by either playing on a double-letter cell or playing in a parallel fashion. F and H are particularly easy in this manner since they are part of a large number of 2-letter words. Look for vowels next to double- or triple-letter cells when playing any tile worth 4 or more points.

5. Do something good every turn
Try to set a per-move goal like 10 points (reference point: I average 13 points per turn on when playing against similarly-skilled people). Keep looking until you find it. Often a very compact move is the optimal play - it's easy to get ~20 points playing something as short as EF in the right spot. If you're thinking about playing a low-value perpendicular move that just opens up bonus cells, consider changing out your tiles or doing a blocking move instead.

6. Remember the fundamental theorem of 2-player gaming
Your opponent's loss is your gain. Making a play worth 10 less points is worth it if denies your opponent an extra 15 points on their next turn. If you find yourself facing an open triple-word score cell but no valid word to play on it, consider just blocking it instead. Since the alternative is your opponent scoring it during their next turn, stealing that opportunity is almost as good as playing on it yourself.
posted by 0xFCAF at 2:42 AM on July 21, 2008 [6 favorites]

In the vein of "practice makes perfect" try out It's a Swedish site that added an English version a while back. Singlehandedly responsible for half my class not studying a good while a couple of years ago.
posted by monocultured at 5:29 AM on July 21, 2008

Lots of good advice above. Also, shuffle the tiles in your rack around too. I don't recall the study, but the result was that people who shuffled the tiles found more words than those that didn't. Pattern recognition >> recall.
posted by jasonhong at 7:36 AM on July 21, 2008

I just wanna say that I only recently started playing Scrabble again (IRL and Scrabulous), and this thread is great.
posted by turgid dahlia at 6:02 PM on July 21, 2008

I've had my ass kicked in Scrabble by my wife so many times that I just don't even want to play anymore. She's a genius Scrabble player and she gets me with something like gwenlister's example every time. That's how you make points to win (among other wonderful examples above). That said, practice and have fun. If it's a great time together, try not to be anxious about it. I know it's easier said than done, but sharing the game is better than solitary Scrabble-ing.
posted by sleepy pete at 9:50 PM on July 21, 2008

Sometimes it's a good idea to choose the word you will play, then before playing it ask your opponent to look at your tiles and see what they come up with. This is a good way of double checking your strategy and usually makes for interesting discussion.
posted by Vindaloo at 6:27 AM on July 22, 2008

What I would add to this already good advice is to view the board in terms of opportunities. Focus on each place where a vowel runs alongside a double letter or triple letter space. These can be great opportunities for easy twenty to thirty point plays even as you are clearing out your rack to make bingo opportunities.

The flip side of this is to avoid setting up opportunities alongside premium spaces. For example, if you leave an "O" alongside the double letter that is four spaces from the triple word, a simple play can gain a lot of points. WOLF, WO will pull in 51 points, almost as much as that bingo your opponent laid down with great pride.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:26 AM on July 22, 2008

Also remember to play cool long words whenever possible, even if a dull play would score slightly higher. It looks good and opens up the board, which makes the game flow better. Don't be obstructive and block the triples because it makes you no fun to play. If you follow Askr's advice you might never get laid again.

I can't echo this enough. Just play and have fun. Try to play cool long words - it opens up the board and your rack. This is how I play and I win or am competitive in 95% of the games, with it typically being a win.

But it's fun for me, because I make some 7 or 8 letter word and then the board is wide open. And then the people that I'm playing with have fun too because they don't feel like some overly motivated douche is acting like his life is on the line to win this scrabble game.

Have fun, make long words. Wanna practice? Play text twist online. That's fun too (and free), and it will help you see words out of letters.
posted by cashman at 10:06 AM on July 22, 2008

Here's a hint - NEVER play using the Scrabble dictionary. It contains all kinds of abbreviations and words that aren't words. For example, 'za' (as in "short for pizza") is considered a word in the Scrabble dictionary. Only use a real dictionary.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:23 AM on July 22, 2008

Here's a hint - NEVER play using the Scrabble dictionary. It contains all kinds of abbreviations and words that aren't words. For example, 'za' (as in "short for pizza") is considered a word in the Scrabble dictionary. Only use a real dictionary.
I have to vehemently disagree with this advice, if your goal is become a better Scrabble player. You should only use the Scrabble dictionary, because Scrabble is not, emphatically, about the words. It's about the score. The words are just a means to an end, and a dictionary doesn't help you if the word you're playing isn't Scrabble-legal.

You want to maximize your knowledge of Scrabble-legal words to get better at Scrabble: using a "real dictionary" will improve your knowledge of words, but it's a good way to wind up screwing yourself in terms of Scrabble strategy. There are thousands upon thousands of dictionary words that aren't Scrabble-legal, and playing one of them is pointless in a game.
posted by scrump at 11:32 AM on July 22, 2008 [6 favorites]

What a terrible way to play the game.

Scrabble should be about enjoying the English language and improving your vocabulary. If you play with the scrabble dictionary, all that you're doing is proving your ability to memorize a book of fake words.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:09 PM on July 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

Besides, using a real dictionary levels the playing field. Only obsessive players use the Scrabble dictionary. If you use a real dictionary, you're erasing their unfair advantage.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:10 PM on July 22, 2008

Scrabble should be about enjoying the English language and improving your vocabulary.
Kitchen-table Scrabble, maybe, but anyone who's even slightly competitive about Scrabble doesn't play this way, and will completely clean the clock of someone who believes this.

Tournament-rules Scrabble has almost nothing to do with enjoying the English language or improving your vocabulary, except inasmuch as improving your vocabulary means being able to memorize more Scrabble-legal words.

I can understand that you think Scrabble should be a certain way, but your assertions are completely untrue for competitive Scrabble players (especially the part about only obsessives using the Scrabble dictionary). You keep talking about how Scrabble "should" be: those of us who are advising the asker to learn the Scrabble-legal combinations and, you know, practice like people who play the game competitively are talking about how Scrabble is played by people who play it seriously.

The asker has described his friend as "very good at" the game: that tends to mean, in most of our experience, someone who plays by tournament rules and takes the game seriously enough to have done memorization and to play by the official Scrabble rules and using the official dictionary.

I can't really tell if you're trolling or not, but you are at the very least demonstrating a complete lack of understanding of the nature of competitive, serious Scrabble play. Worse than that, your advice isn't going to help the asker, and may actually harm his chances of getting better at the game, which is what he wants to do.
posted by scrump at 2:52 PM on July 22, 2008 [5 favorites]

NEVER play using the Scrabble dictionary.

Yeah, maybe, Afroblanco, but then you get the question I got today from someone: regular dictionaries don't usually include plural forms, so should plural forms be allowed if you're playing Scrabble with a regular dictionary?

If you do allow them even though they're not specifically given in the regular dictionary, then what about other obvious words that are formed from conjugating verbs? What about adding obvious prefixes or suffixes like "un-" or "-wise"?

See where you're headed? You'll get to the point where half the words you use aren't in your regular dictionary, whereas of you stick with the Scrabble dictionary you know you can *only* use those words.

Also, regarding your comment that "it contains all kinds of abbreviations and words that aren't words," that's a load of malarkey. They are most certainly words. Just because you don't know them doesn't invalidate them. Every single one of them--all of them--have been used at some point or other by English-speakers.
posted by Mo Nickels at 3:03 PM on July 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

10lb You'd hate to play me in real life; I am notorious locally for playing very quickly. Using the standard 25-minute timer, I rarely use more than eight minutes and

Actually, I'd love to play you, because:

my club and tourney average score is 380.

which implies you (since my own average score is about 360) can give me a serious challenge from which I can actually learn. And as I'm sure you're well aware (but others reading this might not be), you have to play people better than yourself in order to better yourself.

That, and I don't actually care how long you take. Just don't tell me to "hurry up". Well, actually, I probably wouldn't mind if you did, face-to-face, as a player with the judgment to distinguish between necessary time for thought and panicked dithering.

What makes it even worse is, if I don't hurry up, and I exceed my time, jackass gets a free win anyway. I hate losing 320:110 when I'm the 320.

Afroblanco, for tournament/pro play, you're just plain wrong. This is equivalent to, say, refusing to use bid signalling conventions in bridge. Outside of a tournament, I don't dispute your right to do it; but the major point is, if you played a good Scrabble player under those conditions, they'd hand you your ass anyway.

There is one thing use of a simple dictionary (I recommend a early high-school dictionary-textbook) adds to the game, if you play with the American rule where the loser of dictionary challenge skips a turn: it makes bluff-challenge significantly more meaningful. But that's all it does. It's an inherently unserious variant, like Indian poker (forehead-displayed cards).

If you value an unmemorized but partially-known dictionary for play, use the surnames from a large city's telephone book as your dictionary. And I would bet you $50 that I would still hand you your ass. (That exact bet is subject to you coming to Brisbane, or me coming to NYC, which I'm not going to do for reasons I won't go into here. But I'm sure a similar bet can be taken up easily at your local Scrabble club. There are people there who could use the $50, and the point is the same: any 320+ averager will be able to beat you using a standard English dictionary.)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:27 PM on July 22, 2008

so should plural forms be allowed if you're playing Scrabble with a regular dictionary?

IMO, no. No word not specifically appearing in the dictionary of record (although appearances in the definitional sections of other words count) should be allowed. Again, this is to enhance the bluff element.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:29 PM on July 22, 2008

Just wanted to chime in that I also recommend reading Word Freak, but aside from having lots of good Scrabble tips, it's an interesting read and could be a good conversation maker for you and your new lady.
posted by geeky at 3:46 PM on July 22, 2008

I have to vehemently disagree with this advice, if your goal is become a better Scrabble player. You should only use the Scrabble dictionary, because Scrabble is not, emphatically, about the words. It's about the score.

Agreed. Suggesting that one learn to play Scrabble without the OSPD because it's full of "fake words"* is like suggesting that one learn to play softball (to reuse my metaphor) without using a bat or ball because it was originally played with a broomstick and a rolled-up boxing glove, and dammit, that should be good enough for anyone.

Besides, against a good player who knows what words will be found in Webster's Third but not in OSPD4/TWL (for example, ARTESIAN and INTERNET), you're still gonna take it up the ass.

Afroblanco, I think you have a misconception about what kind of game Scrabble is. It's not entirely a word game; it's actually more a math game. You can choose to play it solely as a word game if you like, but the OP was asking how to improve, and cutting off your arm isn't going to help you improve your pitching.

(* Fake words? The OSPD draws its word list from five major American dictionaries. Since they took dord out of the New International Dictionary, I'd be surprised if any of the words were fake.)
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 4:04 PM on July 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I can't really tell if you're trolling or not

Not trolling at all. In fact, I'm answering the question.

The OP wants to impress their ladyfriend with their Scrabble skills. Obviously, they're not playing in a tournament. Which is more likely to impress a non-tournament player? Superior grasp of the English language, or words like 'za'?

A game played using a real dictionary rewards intellect above rote memorization.

There's more to life than just getting a higher score.
posted by Afroblanco at 4:04 PM on July 22, 2008

The OP wants to impress their ladyfriend with their Scrabble skills. Obviously, they're not playing in a tournament.
There's a big difference between "playing in a tournament" and "playing by tournament rules". The first is something only a small fraction of serious Scrabble players do, but the second is something that serious Scrabble players, in my practical experience, do all the time.

I've never played in a tournament, and neither has my wife, but we never play by anything but tournament rules against each other or any of the other "serious" Scrabble players we know. Frankly, playing by non-tournament rules kind of bores us, because comparing those games to tournament-rules games is like comparing apples and oranges.

You keep making an assertion that's dubious, at best: that a game played using a real dictionary rewards intellect above rote memorization.

This may be something that you believe, but it is far from a general truth. What most serious Scrabble players respect, in my experience, is the level of skill with which you play Scrabble under the restrictions of tournament rules. It goes far beyond rote memorization and into areas like obscure word knowledge, usage of difficult tiles in unorthodox or elegant ways, parallel playing, strategy and tactics, and general playing behavior.

You say there's more to life than just getting a higher score, but the whole point of Scrabble, as a game, is to achieve a higher score than your opponent. And, even if you don't reduce Scrabble to that proposition, for serious players, it's still about having the highest score, with modifiers like how elegantly you achieved that score, how many bingo plays you could achieve, how well you parallel-played, and whether you had fun so doing.

There are a lot of serious players commenting in this thread, and you keep trying to dismiss everything they've said as somehow not being true to the spirit of the game. The point I'm trying to make, and that you seem to not be getting, is that we are absolutely being true to the spirit of the game as it's played today, and your opinions are outliers. The advice you're giving will get the OP's ass handed to him by any serious player, and, in the event he starts saying things like you're saying here, is likely to get him dismissed as someone who doesn't really understand the game.
posted by scrump at 4:28 PM on July 22, 2008 [6 favorites]

Which is more likely to impress a non-tournament player? Superior grasp of the English language, or words like 'za'?

If she is in any way serious about Scrabble, she'll be more impressed that you know words like ZA. There's a bit of a divide between people that think words like XI and ZA aren't "real words" and people who think they're essential to the game of Scrabble and doing well at it. I am in the second category, as are most people in this thread. Those two types of people -- the ZA and no-ZA people -- do not enjoy playing the game together, generally speaking. There is a small chance that the OP's new girlfriend is in the first category but I suspect she is not.
posted by jessamyn at 4:58 PM on July 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

There's a big difference between XI and ZA. XI is a Greek letter, and can be found in most real dictionaries. ZA is slang. Even worse, it's BAD slang. So bad, that if one of my friends used it, I'd shove them.

Playfully, of course.
posted by Afroblanco at 5:47 PM on July 22, 2008

I'm going out with a new lady who is very good at Scrabble.

That sounds like she's good. That doesn't sound like she's a tournament obsessed diehard. It would be nice if the O.P. could clarify. I'm with AfroBlanco. It's like somebody saying their girlfriend is very good at basketball and people suggesting the guy workout with NBA players and study coaches manuals and go out on the court with his ankles taped, a regulation ball, block her shot, dunk on her and call every single foul, strictly according to the rules.

She's "very good". I don't think going buck wild like this is what's going to get him off death row is what OP is asking for.

I think the OP should alter his play slightly and then play with his new lady as much as possible and learn from her. As he progresses, I think he'll get a sense of how she likes to play and what is fun for her and what isn't.
posted by cashman at 8:01 PM on July 22, 2008

Inedita's* advice is solid, as are those who suggest reading Word Freak. More below.

Newbies first scrabble lesson by Joel ('GI Joel') Sherman. Tuscon scrabble club advice for noobs.

For getting hardcore, ditch scrabulous (not even a proper scrabble dictionary last I played - too many whiners - too many people with no tactical skills but were remarkably good at finding bingos using an anagramming tool), and play on

Jumbletime is good for practicing anagrams and crazy word lists.

Join the NSA. Start to track tiles - download a score sheet here.

If you get really good, you can tone down the skills you pick up to play with her. If she's really good, you've set yourself a challenge.

*While INEDITA has no anagrams, adding a blank gives you: IODINATE, INDICATE, IDEATION, IDEATING , DAINTIES, DAINTIER - VANITIED, CTENIDIA, ADENITIS and ACTINIDE. I saw about half of these within one minute. The rest came from a program. You have work to do my lad!
posted by lalochezia at 12:38 AM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

ditch scrabulous (not even a proper scrabble dictionary last I played

Minor quibble: as far as I can tell Scrabulous uses the unexpurgated SOWPODS (it allowed me LEZ recently), which is a perfectly proper Scrabble dictionary.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 1:48 AM on July 23, 2008

I can't stay away.

A really good source for Scrabble stuff -- quizzes, word lists, score sheets, puzzles, annotated games and more -- is the Ottawa Scrabble Club website.

For example, here's a list of words with lots of vowels in them. If you learn the 4s and 5s, you've got an edge over most players -- and it's a short list.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 2:22 AM on July 23, 2008

As mentioned above, hoard common prefixes and suffixes, to build seven letter words. But the worst thing is to sit there with a seven letter word in your tray, with nowhere to lay it. That's why I always try to keep an "s" on hand, it's the most flexible for tying to other words.

A blank, an ess, and a suffix should pretty much guaranty a seven letter word. I would skip a turn before I would break up that team.

If you have I,E,E,E,I,E,I spend a turn to exchange letters.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:32 AM on July 23, 2008

The first rule of scrabble is to select your dictionary. Then check if qi is in it. It's goes in and out of the "official" dictionary.

If you want to be tricky, go on ebay and buy an old set. Then strategically exploit the fact that there is no penalty for challenges in the old rules, and yes you play by the rules on the lid of the box at hand.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:36 AM on July 23, 2008

Start doing crossword puzzles. As much as you can.

As you get more comfortable with them (and I'd suggest starting with one that you find you realy enjoy and keeping up with that one every day) you'll find yourself accurately expecting which words will complete certain lines before ever reading the clues. Sure, some of those words will be proper names (Anais, as in Anais Nin, comes up a lot in almost any crossword, for instance, for the same reason that Enid, Oklahoma is over-represented) but you'll also come away with a lot of instinct into things you may have never thought about before, such as:

"J" is very rarely used in the middle of a word, and almost never at the end of a word.

"X" is almost always either at the end of a word, or else the second letter, proceeded by "E"

Crossword editors will very often use either "DE" or "ED" when they need to expand their words for space and leave easy letters to work with.

etc. YMMV, and you'll surely come up with insights as you keep doing the crosswords.Think of it this way: you wouldn't want to try writing the Great American Novel without having read the classics first, but many people will try to become (and I'm sure some people do become) great Scrabble players without learning crosswords. Crossword editors are like obsessive scrabble freaks who are so good that you don't play against them, you can only play with them. If that's not a great tutorial, I don't know what is.

So make a mental note of each flash of crossword insight as it pops into your brain, and think think about how you'd use that knowledge not just as a defensive technique, but offensively as well. Extrapolating from the things I mentioned above:

1. Rare letters will tend to jog people's memories far more than common ones. Perhps expert Scrabble players have learned to assuage this instinct, but looking at a board, I know I'll still find myself more interested in the things I can do with the "J" or "Z" or "X" than with the "B" or "G." So first, you want to realize this trait and rise above it. Second, you want to lay out little "traps"which trip up your opponents brain into what they can do with the difficult situations rather than the easy ones next to them. If there's an "M" on the far right or bottom of the board, for instance, that would be the perfect place to lay "MAJOR" along the edge, leaving the "J" tempting her brain and distracting her from better opportunities.

2. Verbs are minefields. On the one hand, they're a great wealth of possible words, far more than nouns, but on the other hand, they can be almost endlessly amended into new words. Hold onto your "X" and keep an "E" by its side, or else use "DE" or "ED" every time you can. Your goal at this point is to make her want to shy away from the verbs which are at this point probably her greatest weapon against you (just because early Scrabble players will tend to envision nouns over verbs when faced with their letters.)

3. Once you've gotten good at the crosswords, try making some of your own, on an empty scrabble board. it doesn't matter if you complete them, just so long as you can start to envision ways to fill up a board like that. Once you can, you can play the game as tightly to the center as possible, and then play off of her having to branch out.

And obviously, don't act as Machivellian as I am here when doing this. You're still in it to have fun and charm her, so the goal is to just show her that you've picked up some chops. Don't worry, she'll still beat you, but at least now it will be competitive.
posted by Navelgazer at 4:21 PM on July 23, 2008

I must agree with Afroblanco to an extent. As I had always just played with 'kitchen-table' style with standard english dictionary and rules such as, No Slang, No Proper Nouns etc. With the idea that you can use any 'real' word - as in word that your high-school english teacher would consider ok to put in an essay.

I'd would occasionally play with people who would use the 'EN' 'EM' type so-called 'words', but I always felt they were cheating to an extent. that the words they use are really not really in the spirit of the game. (when you are just sitting around the table having a couple of glasses of wine with friends...)

I recently did get a scrabble dictionary and honestly can't believe some of the garbage that passes as acceptable! 'Tournament rules'. its just not cricket.
posted by mary8nne at 8:00 AM on July 24, 2008

Navelgazer's J & X rules have a few v. important exceptions

TAJ HAJ RAJ and HADJ (als SWARAJ and SVARAJ...but who's counting)



Mary8nne: Sigh: complain to websters and other dictionary makers about the state of your language. The scrabble dictionary is a compendium of other, 'legitimate' dictionaries. If you use other college dictionaries, you'll see 'garbage' too: the scrabble dict merely standardizes the garbage.

Yes, geeky I know.
posted by lalochezia at 12:22 PM on July 24, 2008

'EN' 'EM' type so-called 'words',
Both en and em dashes are commonly used typographical elements. Any moderately experienced writer, editor or publisher is familiar with them.
posted by scrump at 1:26 PM on July 25, 2008

I know they are scrump but it still feels wrong.
posted by mary8nne at 3:07 AM on July 28, 2008

If worse comes to worse, you may suggest playing in close quarters, conniving her that it is 'intimate', and balancing the board on your knees where the board may 'spill' when you're in danger of losing, yet, again. Just my two pence.
posted by TikiGiki at 6:12 AM on July 29, 2008

I think it's entirely possible that the OP's lady is a kitchen-table-style Scrabble player.
I know I am one. I enjoy making an impressive-looking word a lot more than I enjoy a zillion points for something like ZO.* I know this wouldn't get me anywhere in a Scrabble tournament, but I don't really mind, because I only ever play against friends and family who are also kitchen table types. My boyfriend has never, ever come even close to beating me in Scrabble and is convinced that I am some sort of Scrabble genius, but it mostly just comes down to a slightly better vocabulary and vastly better spelling abilities. I say all this because I can totally see him asking a question like this without even realizing that such a thing exists as tournament Scrabble with its own special rules and whatever.
I'd love to hear from the OP exactly what he meant by "very good at Scrabble" - several interpretations seem possible.

Whatever you do, A189Nut, don't play like my little (and by little I mean 21-year-old) sister, who whenever she realizes she is going to lose dramatically (e.g. about halfway through every game) swipes all the tiles off the board onto the floor and laughs.

* I favorited a bunch of the tips and tricks from you Scrabble gods, though - I could definitely use a little more strategy in my game.
posted by naoko at 9:59 PM on August 17, 2008

So, you great Scrabblers, when do you swap? Is there a threshold?
posted by klangklangston at 8:06 PM on March 18, 2009

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.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 1:43 PM on May 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

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