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I used to play Scrabble competitively. I tried to avoid studying word lists or playing in tournaments, but I found myself slipping down that path. It was a riot. We describe plays with a special syntax. Lower-case letters are blank tiles. Letters inside parentheses were already on the board. Finally, a question mark is a blank that hasn't been decided yet.

My highest game score was 556, which I got in an amateur tournament. My largest play was 167 for triple-triple (S)TORMING, although I liked 165-pt EN(T)OMbED better. One time I saw a disconnected nine-letter bingo: BA(T)TEN(N)ING. One of my best plays was finding a bingo in AEIOLP? – try it – or an eight-letter play through an open D with EIODHN?. No, not HOI(D)ENED, the other one. As if we knew what HOIDENED meant.

While teaching informal sessions at Reed College, I adapted a short strategy guide for new players, also copied below. I hope it’s helpful. Pretty soon you will find the anagram in my first name.

SCRABBLE STRATEGY GUIDE

[Note: this guide was written in 2007. The official dictionary has changed several times since, adding words like ZEN, EW, etc.]

 · Know Your 2-Letter Words

There are a 120 2-letter words. If you are willing to learn anything specifically for playing Scrabble then these are the most important words to learn. They are useful to create parallel plays or for squeezing in a good play on a blocked board.

In fact you won't need to learn all of them, as 27 are everyday words like IT, IN etc., which leaves 93. Then there are interjections, contracted forms, tonic sol-fa and letter sounds which you will know but might not think are acceptable plays in Scrabble. See them here: http://www.wolfberg.net/scrabble/wordlists/twos/

· Don’t Always Go for the Highest Score

A good starting point to decide where to play, is to ask yourself; what is the highest score I can get? However, it's not the only consideration. You need to think whether you are getting value for the tiles you play and consider what letters you are leaving on your rack.

The best tile is a blank. It vastly increases your chance of getting a 7 letter word and collecting a 50 point bonus. As a rule of thumb a blank should be held unless it increases your best play by upwards of 25 points. Think about setting target scores for the other letters such as S, J, Q, X, and Z.

Try to keep a balanced rack i.e. a rack that has similar number of vowels and consonants. Try to play duplicate letters (if you have 3 N's you may take a few points less in score in order to be able to play one of them.) Try to keep the letters from the word RETAINS on your rack as these are the letters most conducive to making 7 letter words and getting those elusive 50 point bonuses.

· Hooks - Lateral Thinking

Always look at the board to see whether there are any opportunities to ''hook'' onto existing plays. A ''hook'' is a letter that can be placed on the front or rear of a word to make a new word. There are ''front hooks'' like P onto LATE to make PLATE or ''rear hooks'' like R onto LATE to make LATER. Some everyday ones which may not immediately come to mind are U onto PEND to make UPEND or Y onto GRAVEL to make GRAVELY. There are 100's more.

Some unusual ones include K on the end of NAB to make NABK (a prickly shrub) and E on the front of TEN to make ETEN (an archaic word for a giant). Also, it follows that it's useful to know which words do not take any 'hooks'. Most words will take at least an S, but examples of common words that don't have any hooks include FRY and SUCH, these sorts of words can be used to block in a tight, defensive game.

 · Changing

The occasional player never changes letters, arguing that it is a waste of a turn. However if you are continually scoring 10 points or lower because you have poor tiles then a change would probably be the best option. There may be various reasons for a change:

- You rack is not balanced. You have too many vowels or consonants and cannot score well because of this.

- You are in danger of getting stuck with the Q at the end of the game.

- The scores are close, the board is blocked and there are many useful letters left in the bag, which may, if you get them, win you the game.

· Anagramming

One of the real skills in Scrabble is spotting the 7 letter word from an unlikely looking rack of letters. It's difficult to do this when you are shuffling all 7 letters so try to see whether you have any common suffixes or prefixes. If you have UN, IN, RE etc. move these the left of the rack and then shuffle the remaining five letters. Likewise, if you have -S, -ED, -ER, or -ING move these to the right and play with the other tiles. You'll find it easier to find possible 7 letter words this way.

Some other good prefixes are OUT, OVER, FORE, UNDER. Other useful suffixes include -AGE, -EST, -FUL, -IEST, -URE, -ABLE.

· At the End of the Game Try to Play Out First

In a game where the scores are close, it is often vital to play out first, catching your opponent with tiles on his rack and thus garnering extra points. To achieve this you need to plan ahead when there are just a few tiles in the bag, thinking out how you can finish before your opponent.

Towards the end of the game make sure you know how many tiles are left. More often than not, particularly when you are ahead, it is a good idea to leave at least one tile in the bag. This means that: -

If you cannot go out in 1 move but can complete in 2, you will have 2 moves to your opponent's 1, giving you a much better chance of completing the game first. If your opponent plays a bonus word on his/her next play and takes the last tile you at least have 1 go to get rid of as many tiles as possible rather than giving your opponent the value of the 7 tiles on your rack as well as their bonus score. 

· Tile Turnover

The more tiles that pass through your hands the more chance you have of getting one of those really useful ones -S, blank, J, Q, X, Z. You will need to evaluate your rack; sometimes a particularly good combination of five or six letters is worth keeping, but generally, where you can, try to play four or more tiles on each move.

Evaluating your rack is a real skill that you pick up if you play regularly. Try to judge which consonants fit together. An obvious example might be to retain C and H, or S, H and R. Another example - N, L, and R are all good letters but if all are kept they need a hard consonant like a D, T or G to make them more usable. 

· The Q

The Q is the most difficult letter to play. 2 tips for dealing with it are: The word QI (Chinese life force) will come in useful in many games. Other unusual useful words include QAT (a tea-like drug) and QAID (Muslim magistrate). If you cannot play the Q consider changing it, particularly at the end of the game when opportunities tend to be more restricted.

When they draw a U some players put it aside in case they then draw the Q at a later stage. This is a bad idea. Firstly you only have a 50-50 chance of drawing the Q anyway, secondly if you're trying to score with 6 letters rather than 7 you are greatly lessening your chances of getting good scores each move.

· Premium Squares

The double letter, triple letter, double word and triple word squares are referred to as the premium squares. Concentrate on using these squares to maximise your scores. With the letter premium squares a good tip is to find the highest scoring letter on your rack and try to land it on a double or triple letter square. Utilising the 2 letter words you can often play that high scoring letter in 2 words simultaneously scoring 4 times its worth on a double or 6 times on a triple.

Also try to combine the double and triple letter squares with the double and triple word squares in one move; this is where the really high non-bonus scores are made. If you can put the Q on a triple letter square, for example, and then play a 5 letter word down to a double word, you are looking at a 60 points + play. You can get the same sort of score by combining a high scoring letter on a double letter square at the edges of the board and playing a 4/5 letter word stretching onto a triple word.  

· J, Q, X, Z

These are the highest scoring letters in the bag but they are not the only way of scoring. Don't waste them but try to play them as soon as you can. These letters have a high value because they are awkward; having them on your rack will cut down the variety of plays you make.

The X is the most flexible of the 4; you should aim to score around 30 with the X other than at the very end of the game where opportunities will be scarcer. Remember there are five 2 letter words containing the X - AX, EX, OX, XI and XU.

ANAGRAM CHALLENGE (answers below)

1:  ENRIGSA                                                                             

2:  RESTEAS   

3:  GHHIES-   

4:  TTNRIEU  

5:  LATRITU   

6:  TOILEES   

7:  LIHNUAS  


AGENDA

Introduction

Points

Challenge

Controversy of dictionaries

Discussion of key Scrabble strategy, including premium squares, hooking, and rack management.

Basic global strategy: open vs. defensive. Why? Advantages, etc. 

Brief discussion of how to handle particular situations: what is the best play? Why?


ANSWER KEY

1:  ENRIGSA      regains, searing, gainers  

2:  RESTEAS    staters, tasters, starets, reseats, seaters, tessera

3:  GHHIES-    heighTs, highesT, eighthS, more?

4:  TTNRIEU   nuttier

5:  LATRITU    titular

6:  TOILEES    etoiles

7:  LIHNUAS   inhauls, unhails

LINKS

Isc.ro  —  play here (my handle: brickc1)

Hasbro’s dictionary look-up  —  lacks some valid words

Word lists, anagrammers, and word search tools

Detailed guide to Scrabble resources, dictionaries, computer programs, and more