It is estimated that more than half of households in the UK own a Scrabble set, writes Brett Smitheram, the 2016 world Scrabble champion. How many of those sets have been brought out of the games cupboard — and been the source of family arguments — in the past few weeks? Most of them, I’d hazard.
SCRABBLE™ was invented by the American architect Alfred Mosher Butts more than 70 years ago. Could he have envisaged just how useful his creation would be in the present lockdown? I’m obviously biased, but for me there’s no better game for now.
Scrabble is classified as a sport by the government of Nigeria — and why not? Chess is recognised as a sport by 24 out of 27 member states of the European Union, and a healthy mind supports a healthy body. It can be used as an educational tool (did somebody say “home schooling”?) and the rules can be varied appropriately after a few glasses of wine if you fancy allowing only some of the fruitier words available. It’s accessible to anyone who can speak a language and perform simple maths, regardless of age or level of competitiveness.
I’ve witnessed games finishing with both players scoring negative points, as well as a one-on-one tournament game in which a player scored 830 and his opponent had to pick himself up from the ground. In 1985 Lieutenant-Commander Clive Waghorn and Lance Corporal Kerry Gill played it for five consecutive days while trapped in a crevasse in the Antarctic.
Scrabble is a source of so many stories (who last had a fight with their partner over chess?) and I’ve lost count of the number of people who are convinced that they will never beat their gran because she “always plays the X on a triple letter”. Keep the following tips to yourself — and well away from your next opponent — and victory should soon be yours.
The quickest and most effective way to improve your Scrabble is to brush up on the two-letter words that are allowed, writes Mark Nyman, the first British player to win the world Scrabble championship.
The most useful of these are the ones with the highest-scoring letters, Q and Z, both worth 10. Consequently, the four most useful words in Scrabble are: QI (meaning “life force”), ZA (short for “pizza”), ZE (a gender-neutral pronoun) and ZO (Himalayan cattle). So if an I, A, E or O is directly below or to the right of a triple-letter square, you could place the Q or Z on it and, if you can go across/down with the same word, a potential 62 points can be picked up, much to the consternation of your opponent.
S, C and P respectively are the most common starting letters. Words beginning with these letters together make up more than a quarter of the words in the dictionary. So when moving your rack around, it’s a good idea to put them at the beginning.
Apart from the blank, S is the best letter in the Scrabble set, since it starts and ends more words than any other. It should be savoured and ideally kept back to use in a bonus word, when you use all seven tiles in one turn, scoring a 50-point bonus. Try not to use it unless you can score more than 30 points.
The X is the best of the high scorers, largely because it goes with all the vowels to make two-letter words: AX (the American spelling of axe), EX (to delete), XI (a Greek letter), OX, XU (Vietnamese currency). Always aim to play it on the doubles and triples.
The blank is the best tile in the Scrabble set. If you’re lucky enough to get both during the course of the game, it will hugely increase your chances of winning, but you need to make the most of them. If you get a blank early on, try to save it until you can use it in a 50-point bonus word. Never waste it on a move scoring fewer than 30 points.
Too many vowels on your rack can lead to disaster. Generally, the ideal ratio of consonants to vowels is 4:3. So having four vowels is a slight overload, but fairly easily remedied; five or more and the alarm bells start ringing.
Here are some examples of lovely vowelly words to get you out of trouble quickly: AE (one), AI (a slow-moving shaggy South American animal), EA (a river), IO (moth), OI (shout for attention), OU (man), AIA (an Indian maid), AUA (a fish), AUE (a Maori exclamation), EAU (a river), EUOI (a cry of Bacchic frenzy), EUOUAE (a Gregorian cadence). It’s amazing how often EUOI comes up — those followers of Bacchus had some fun, didn’t they?
If you can play out all your letters for the 50-point bonus, you’ll enhance your winning chances enormously. Achieving this once in a game is good, twice excellent and three or more times will almost guarantee you victory. The art of bonus-finding is innate to Scrabble success — much of it is to do with rack-balancing, along with knowing some high-probability seven- and eight-letter words (that is, those with the most common letters) to help find that killer move.
Time for a Change
There is a great deal of skill in choosing the right time to change your letters, as well as which ones to throw back in the bag. The first, and most important, tip on this subject is: don’t be afraid to change. You may score zero on that particular turn, but if the alternative is to be left with a horrible combination of letters, you may get stuck scoring 10 points per move for several turns.
In my opinion, F, G, J, Q, U, V and W are the seven worst letters in the set. So, when changing, always get rid of these unless you have the Q with a U, a high-scoring place for the J, or a promising -ING combination. Even then, you might be held back, especially if the board is tight. You may be surprised about the inclusion of the G, but in my experience Gs are generally bad news. If you’re deciding to change, always throw back a V if you have one. V is the weakest letter of all, partly because it’s the only one that doesn’t form a two-letter word.
Hold On to Your RETSINA
As well as having 10 anagrams (you don’t need to know them all), RETSINA goes with more letters to make an eight-letter word than any other: ARTESIAN (a well), BANISTER, CANISTER, STRAINED, TRAINEES, FENITARS (European plants), ANGRIEST, HAIRNETS, RAINIEST, NARTJIES (tangerines), NARKIEST, ENTRAILS, MINARETS, TRANNIES, NOTARIES, PAINTERS, TRAINERS, STAINERS, NITRATES, URINATES and TINWARES.
As a general rule, American alternative spellings are allowed in Scrabble, so color, humor, neighbor and so on are OK — like it or not. Also, almost every –ISE verb can be spelt –IZE.
It’s interesting that Collins is recognised everywhere in the world as the English Scrabble bible, apart from America and Canada, where they use Merriam-Webster. Since Collins incorporates all of Webster’s and a lot more, you need to unlearn loads of words to play in North America, so don’t bother playing serious Scrabble over there.
Play to the Board
A common error among players is to spend all their time looking at their rack rather than the board. It’s all very well spotting great words with the tiles in front of you, but not much use if there’s nowhere to place them. You’re far better off spending 90% of your time focusing on the board and its possibilities, trying to keep your letters in your head simultaneously.
The triple-word squares — TWSs — are the most bountiful on the board. When one becomes available, it’s often the place to play, but don’t get transfixed. If it’s your move and a TWS is available, it’s the first place you look for, but if you can’t make the most of it, don’t be afraid to look elsewhere — your opponent may not be able to use it effectively either.
Think very carefully before playing a vowel immediately adjacent to a TWS, but placing a low-scoring consonant on the triple line isn’t as dangerous as you might think. (Though you might get unlucky and let them in for a big 50-plus score or, in the worst-case scenario, a triple-triple or “9-timer” — I once scored 311 with CONQUEST.)
Rise to the Challenge
You’ve got nothing to lose in UK Scrabble by challenging a word you don’t know. It’s surprising how often players feel too embarrassed or intimidated to check. As a general rule, challenge anything you wouldn’t be sure of playing yourself.
The Penultimate Is the Ultimate
In close games, the endgame is all-important, and your penultimate move is really the most important of the whole game, since it’s the only one in which you can decide your next turn as well. It’s amazing how many wins you can eke out from a seemingly forlorn position — never give up.
It’s Only a Game
There is nothing wrong with being competitive and wanting to win, but there’s no reason to be a bad loser. Sometimes it helps to learn from a painful defeat. When I played in the world championship final in 1999, I was beaten by just one point – it hurt badly and I didn’t sleep properly for a year afterwards. Whenever I lose these days, I look back and think, “It can’t be as bad as that”, and that makes me lose better. Nigel Richards, the world’s best player, says he actually doesn’t care whether he wins or loses, as long as he enjoys the game — nuff said.
I’ve Got WOKE on a Triple-Word Square
There’s no need to leave identity politics to one side when you’re opening the Scrabble board this weekend. In fact, having a working knowledge of its evolving vocabulary could help you score big: CISGENDER, GENDERQUEER, AGENDER, MISGENDER, BICURIOUS, TRANSPERSON, TRANSPHOBIA and the gender-neutral pronoun ZE were among the 2,862 words added last year to the 276,000 already in the Collins Official Scrabble Words dictionary. REMAINER and POSTTRUTH are now there too, reflecting our political landscape. You’d do well to get your tiles to spell out OMNISHAMBLES, but it would be allowed.
Hipsters and the yoof are also now well catered for, whether they’re eating BAO or ARANCINI with their BAE, listening to DANCECORE or OVERSHARING on INSTAGRAM. But Instagram’s a proper noun, you complain. It’s also a verb, comes the reply. Twelve points (at least), please.
The tips above are adapted from Collins Little Book of Scrabble Secrets, by Mark Nyman