The Tel Aviv Scrabble® Club

Club Director: Evan Cohen

Tips and Strategy

Basic Principles

There are three basic principles in competitive Scrabble. Balancing these three often-contradictory principles with one another is what Scrabble is all about.

1. Score - You want to score as many points as possible. Outscoring your opponent is the primary objective (though playing nice words can be fun too...). This can be done by aiming for the premium (coloured) squares, especially trying to place your high scoring tiles there. Of course, playing all 7 tiles in a single move - a bingo - is the best way to score well, as you’ll get a 50-point bonus!

2. Leave - Otherwise known as "balancing your rack". You want to leave yourself with manageable letters (VVGC are not considered manageable…) so you’ll be able to score well on your next move. A couple of principles to follow: the more a letter is worth, the quicker you must get rid of it (don’t hold on to Qs and Vs…). S’s and blanks must be “saved” for good moves, allowing you to “hook” words off words on the board and, possibly, to play a bingo. Try to keep an even number of vowels and consonants - too many of either is not a good thing. Also, don’t hold on to duplicate tiles, if possible.

3. Opening - This principle refers to what you "give" your opponent by playing your move. Though scoring well is important, it's also important not to give your opponent good scoring possibilities. What’s the use in scoring 20 points if you give your opponent a potential 50-point play? Remember - the objective is to score more than your opponent, not merely to score well.

Of course, these principles are only the basics. Many other finer points can easily be mastered in order to improve your game. The following are just a few:

1. Managing your rack
2. Managing the board
3. Managing your opponent
4. Word knowledge
5. Miscellaneous

 

Managing your rack

1. Rack balancing: Vowels and Consonants: Try to maintain a balanced rack. This means keeping a consonant/vowel ratio of approximately 4/3 (or 50% each). Play off excess vowels/consonants if possible, reducing your chances of having a vowel-heavy or vowelless rack, which would be much more difficult to score with on your subsequent turns.

2. Turnover: Your “turnover” means the number of tiles you place on the board. If the S’s and Blanks (and perhaps a specific letter you’re waiting for) have yet to surface, you should maximize your turnover (i.e. play as many tiles as possible) in order to increase your chances off getting them. If you play one or two tiles per move, your chances of drawing good tiles decrease.

3. S’s and Blanks: S’s and blanks are not to be thrown around for too few points without good reason. Try to keep them for high-scoring plays (some say 30 for an “S” and 50 for a blank – but this depends on your rack and the situation of course).

4. The Q: How does one manage the Q? Don’t hold onto U’s “waiting” for the Q, unless it’s right at the end of the game and the Q is still not out. Even then, QI, QAT and other weird U-less words will allow you to play off your Q, possibly for many points, even without a U.

5. Ws and Ys: Bad tile or not? – Y’s and W’s are really problematic tiles when it comes to looking for bingos (fewer than 10% of the bingos have them). Be sure to check all premium squares (triple letter, double word etc.) which are adjacent to vowels when you have one of these mini-monsters on your rack. It’s very likely that you may find a 30+ point play for either of them – even on a blocked board.

6. RETINAS: Certain tiles are more bingo-prone than others. The 7 letters in RETINAS are considered “above average”. Assuming your rack is balanced, holding onto any of these 8 may increase your chances of getting a playable bingo.

7. Premium Tiles: Do not fall into the trap of thinking that you are not scoring enough for your high-point tiles. Very few of them, the X for example, are worth the effort. Play them off as quickly as possible to increase your chances of drawing bingo prone tiles which are usually 1-pointers. The higher their face value, the quicker they should leave your rack!

8. Blanks and Blocking: Don’t block the board if you have a blank. Keep it open to allow for possible bingos. On the other hand, if you know your opponent has a blank (because of a phoney challenged off the board or for some other reason), try to block the good bingo lanes.

9. Exchanging Tiles: If your rack is really tough and there is nowhere to score and if your only near-to-decent play opens the board up beautifully for your opponent, it may be worth your while to exchange letters. When exchanging, keep the following in mind – (a) you want to keep a manageable vowel-consonant balance on your rack. ; (b) you want to keep the good tiles and dump the bad ones (see: RETINAS tip). ; (c) if there is a great spot for a “B”-hook for example, you may want to keep a “B”. Also remember, the more tiles you exchange, the greater your chances are of picking up the remaining good tiles (S’s and blanks, for example).

10. Fishing: Fishing (i.e playing off a tile or two hoping to draw a specific tile) is very often not worthwhile. If, for example, you have a J and there is an excellent JO spot, you may ask yourself whether you should fish for an “O” or not. The answer of course depends on your chance of drawing an “O” (how many O’s are left, how many tiles are left?) and whether you are ahead or behind and by how much. Generally speaking, don’t fish.

 

Managing the board

1. Vowels and Premium Squares: Avoid placing vowels adjacent to the premium squares (double/triple letter/word). An unwary player could easily have his/her opponent scoring over 50 points with a simple XI/AX play.

2. The Opening Move #1: There are several things to take into account when playing the opening move in a game (and, indeed, any move in a given game). Placing high-scoring tiles on the double-letter squares (re-doubling their face value), maximizing turnover to fish for blanks, S’s and other goodies, and minimizing the openings you give your opponent (especially by avoiding placing vowels adjacent to the double-letter squares) are just three.

3. The Opening Move #2: If you are the first to play, do your utmost to play something (don’t change or pass unless absolutely necessary). Some say that the further to the right you play, the more blocked the board will be later on in the game. All things being equal, if you’re playing a superior player – play to the right (to keep the board blocked) or open with something like VAC to avoid a magnificent comeback play. If you’re playing an inferior player, it’s probably better to keep the board open – so play to the left. Pay attention to the openings you are creating (Double-Word squares etc.). In short, don’t rush your opening move. It could mean the game!

4. Blocking: Just because a TWS (Triple Word Score) is open, doesn’t mean you have to block it. Try to see what the worst thing your opponent could possibly do there is and then try to see whether it would be worth your while blocking it. It may be too costly. For example, you may open up a spot for your opponent to play a bingo on an otherwise blocked board. Also, you may have to use your best tiles for very few points.

5. Set-ups: Often the opportunity presents itself to set up the board for a high scoring play. Take note if you have the last of a particular tile and use to your advantage. If  you are setting up a play, what is happening on the rest of the board? Does it stand out? Set up if you are behind or set up the obvious to distract opponent from a bingo line elsewhere.

 

Managing your opponent

1. Scrabble Psychology #1: The most important thing when sitting opposite an obviously superior player is to function as well as possible. Nothing less will suffice. You have to do your best to ignore the identity of the opponent and play against the board. Remember, even excellent players get bad tiles and make mistakes. What's more, if your opponent knows you're intimidated, s/he will probably take advantage of it by playing obscure words or trying words s/he isn't sure off, quite sure you won't challenge. Don't let this be off-putting and focus!

2. Scrabble Psychology #2: A courtesy rule – NEVER discuss your thoughts on a word played in order to draw a challenge from your opponent or to intimidate your opponent. Also, if your opponent plays a word, say nothing until his/her move is over and then, and only then, can you decide whether to challenge. It’s considered extremely unethical to mislead your opponent by saying or doing things which could affect the game.

3. Scrabble Psychology #3: Reading your opponent’s play is extremely important. Of course, your opponent may be trying to mislead you, but what your opponent does might reveal the rack s/he has. For example, if your opponent changes 7 tiles – s/he probably had rubbish. But if they exchange 1 tile, they’re probably leaving themselves with a superb rack. If your opponent plays an ‘S’ for very few points, they may have another. And so on. So remember to look at your opponent’s play very well before deciding what to do.


 

 

 

Word knowledge

1. Finding Bingos – Prefixes and Suffixes: “I can never find bingos” is often said by players. How do you find all those lovely bingos hiding on your rack? Try playing around with the tiles, arranging prefixes (OUT-, RE-, OVER-, DE- etc.) and suffixes (-ING, -ED, -ERS, -OUS etc.). But first and foremost – look at the board and check out all the potential hooks and bingo spots. That way you can focus on what to start/end your bingo with and you won’t take forever looking for a bingo when there’s nowhere to put it!

2. Finding Bingos – Compounds: Try forming compound words by forming two, three or four letter words. Many words are formed precisely like this. Over 300 words begin or end with “HEAD”, almost 700 words end with “MAN” and over 500 end with “LIKE”. There are several “FISH”s, “BOAT”s and “BIRD”s too.

3. Extending Words: Don’t only look at the places you can “hook” onto (i.e. extend an existing word by one letter while playing another word across it). You can score quite a few points by extending existing words, especially as the game nears its end. This requires word knowledge, of course, but also quite a bit of imagination. Look at words ending or beginning a couple of spaces away from a triple/double word square. There are, of course, the obvious UN-, RE- or –ING extensions. But there are cases where you might easily miss a possibility. For example, if your opponent opens the game with JUDGE (with the “J” on the double letter), you could extend it leftwards to the triple word square with MIS-, FOR- or PRE- for 57-60 points or extend GRAVEST by adding –ONE to the end (think about it…).

4. Learning Words: During the game, write down any words and letter combinations you’re not sure of, whether they were played or whether you just thought of them for no apparent reason. Check them after the game.

5. Hooks: Hooks are very important to know. Whenever a word is played, pay attention to all the letters which can be played before or after it. Make a mental note of them – you may need the “hook” spot later on. Sometimes, hooks are not obvious. For example, and “I” in front of SLANDER or a “T” after GRAVES aren’t the first things that spring to mind. Of course, there are several obscure hooks. For starters, you should be familiar with all the possible 2-to-3 hooks. In time, you’ll pick up some of the weirder ones like T-AKIN or ZINC-Y.

 

Miscellaneous

1. Challenges: Don’t be so quick to challenge a word you don’t know. When your opponent has announced his/her score and you’re considering a challenge, just say “hold” or “wait” in order to prevent him/her from drawing new tiles. If you’re 100% sure the word is wrong, a challenge is probably your best bet – though not always (the phony might allow you to place a bingo you couldn’t have otherwise placed). So examine your rack, considering your options with and without the word in question. Either way, consider the fact that you might lose the challenge. If you can definitely win without challenging and you might lose if you lose the challenge, you should probably let an almost-definite-phony go. But above all, remember you should never challenge a word, but rather challenge the whole play (all the words formed) because one of them may be wrong while the others may be right – you don’t want to challenge the “wrong” word!

2. Changing Strategy: Although many decisions are clear-cut in a game, your opponent’s identity and the point in the game may (and should!) affect the way you play. Whether or not you open or block the board depends on who is sitting opposite you (among other things). When playing a superior player, you may want to avoid opening up the board too much, especially if your opponent is known for their bingo skills. Being versatile – in other words, being able to change your style of play when necessary – is a key element in winning.

3. Low Scoring Plays: What should you do if you can’t score well in a given situation? In principle, one should minimize the number of low point plays made. Some set the lower limit at 15 points (roughly) – but it’s really a personal decision. There are two major reasons for playing a low point play. First of all, a dramatic rack improvement. For example, if your rack is AAAENRS, playing off the two A’s for a measly 3-4 points is worthwhile (as the rack leave is excellent). Secondly, opening/blocking the board at a crucial moment. For example, you’re way ahead and there is one bingo spot left where your opponent can catch up to you – block it, even if you only get a few points. If you can neither improve your rack nor open/block the board to improve your situation – then you’re probably better off changing.

4. Endgame: Many a game is lost because of a poor endgame. When there are extremely few (or no) tiles left in the bag, there are several things which you need to take into account. First of all, if you have a sure win – take it! Don’t take chances. Play defensively and make sure that there is nowhere for your opponent to score well. Block any open bingo spots (if you think your opponent might have a bingo). Check to see which high scoring tiles are still out and make sure to block any juicy spots for them. For example, if there is only one “Q” spot on the board and you know your opponent has the monster, block it! Last but not least, remember that whatever you have stuck on your rack will be doubled and added on to your opponent’s score. So it’s not only important what you get for you play, but also what your opponent is going to get off your rack if they go out. In general, try to go out in as few moves as possible.

5. Tracking: Many players track, that is, they keep a record of all the letters that have been played (this is what the “letters” at the top of your score sheet are for). Tracking takes a lot of getting used to and there is no doubt it’s worthwhile. If, however, you don’t want to track, you should at least keep an eye on the “Big Ten” (J,Q,X,Z, blanks and S’s). Furthermore, always check to see which tiles could potentially use high-scoring spots and then check to see if they have been played.