Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Intermediate Scrabble Strategy: A Helpful Little Primer

Q: Why Intermediate?
A: ‘Cause I’m an intermediate player. I can’t give expert advice. Those people are nuts.

Q: Wow, this is pretty esoteric, even for THIS blog.
A: Whatever.

I: First Things First: Basic Scrabble Strategy

1. Scrabble is not a word game. Oh, sure, it’s a fun game for people who like words. And, I hope you never lose your appreciation of cool and interesting words as a nice adjunct of the game. If you persist in trying to come up with the most interesting, innovative, or esoteric word, that’s your choice. But, you are going to lose. Badly. Always.

2. Scrabble is a game of spatial relations. What really matters in this game is where you put your tiles in relation to (a) the bonus squares, and (b) other words.
Bonus Squares. When I was a little kid, I thought it was smart to put low-scoring letters on the letter bonus squares, because that made them less worthless. I almost had it right.

Listen: double and triple letter squares double and triple the value of a letter. Double and triple word squares double and triple the value of the whole word. These are not bonuses you can afford NOT to have. Here's a general principle for you: Every word you play should either be on a word bonus or have a high-scoring letter on a letter bonus, unless there is a damn good reason why not.

Other Words. Why would you want the points from one word, when you could have the points from two or more words? You should always be looking for opportunities to modify the words that are on the board to your own advantage. This is what makes the four S’s so very, very precious. More precious than gold. Stick an S on the end of most nouns or verbs, and you’ve got a perfectly legit word; meanwhile, you are running a new word with an S in it perpendicular to the one you just modified. Sweet. D’s and R’s are good for this, too.

3. Scrabble is a two-player game. It’s a fine three- or four-player pastime. But two things happen when you pull more than two chairs up to the table. First – and this can be shown mathematically – the luck factor goes up enormously. With every additional player, there are fewer turns to sort out the statistical noise of tile selection and board placement. So, whereas the two player game is almost a pure game of skill, four-player Scrabble is all but a game of chance.

Second – learned through much experience – the winner in four-player Scrabble is not likely to be the best player. It is likely to be the person who plays immediately after the weakest player, who constantly sets her up for killer plays (see #1, below). So, enjoy multi-player Scrabble, but don’t get too concerned about the score, which is basically meaningless.

Several years ago now, I made a quilt Scrabble board. The letters are pieces of juvenile fabric, bonded to little scraps of wood. It's fully playable. WHAT!?! WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME LIKE THAT FOR?!?

II. OK, Now Let’s Get Intermediate

1. Never give your opponent the red squares. For to do so is suicide. If you make it easy for your opponent to use one of the eight triple word bonuses, you are essentially saying “OK, I took one turn, now you take three!” If she’s got some high-value letters, you may have just handed her the game. General Principle: Never make it easy for your opponent to get to the triple word bonus, unless you have a damn good reason for doing so.

2. Exchange your letters. If you’ve got crap on your rack, trade it in. It’s better than playing just one or two tiles, after which you will likely still have crap. It’s better than playing some weakass 9-point word that gives your opponent access to bonus squares. Remember, you can hang on to good letters (never turn in an S or a blank!) and exchange the others.

3. Know thy two-letter words. To have the most flexibility in where you can place your words, you need to know the list of allowable two-letter words. Many of these are frankly bullshit words (“xi,” “em,” “ti,” “ed”). Get over it. To be honest, it took me many years to get over the ridiculousness of the list and just start using them. But, it has made the game more fun, and me a more competitive player.

Why does knowing the two-letter words make you more flexible in word placement? Well, it simply opens up more “hooks” that you can hang a new word on. I’ll let MyDogIsChelsea show you with an extreme example.

4. Mind the leave. The leave is what is left in your hand after you’ve played your word. Often times, it is worth it to play a word that is worth four or five points less, if it leaves better letters in your hand. Partly, this is just to combat the accumulation of crap letters – if you are holding three I’s, a big priority is for you to play a word with at least one, preferably two I’s in it.

More importantly, you always want to be grooming your rack towards playing bingos. Bingos (which are when you play all seven letters) are worth a 50 point bonus, which is very often enough to make the difference in a game. At the Intermediate Level, Scrabble is largely all about the bingos.

So, if you’ve got E, R, S in your rack, you should be looking at the rest of your letters to see if you can make a seven- or eight-letter word out of them. If not, you might want to hang on to them, to see if you can put together a bingo next turn. Similarly, I N G is a powerful combo. In general, the letters in the (bogus) word “starline” are said to be the ones that are easiest to combine into a bingo, although I like O’s as well. So, all other things being equal – or, if it’s just a matter of a few points – err on the side of keeping those letters in your leave.

III: Want to play?

I love this game. If you want to play, I do too. Get the "Scrabulous" ap on Facebook, find me (or Email me, whatever), and challenge me!

Mrs.5000 celebrates a triumph. The paper she is holding says "438." Yoyo the Cat probably helped.


Rebel said...

OMG - I keep trying to get Jenn to read your blog, she'll love this. When we were roommates she would *regularly* kick my ass because typically I was looking for the interesting/unusual words. =P

Have you seen "Word Wars"? Those are some sad sad men. So much effort, so little glory.

Michael5000 said...

Jenn should read my blog. I'm sure she'd love it.

I haven't seen "Word Wars," but I've read "Wordfreaks" by Stephan Fatsis, which I think basically covers the same turf. A truly fascinating read for anyone remotely interested in the game, or by the psychology of games in general.

Get on Facebook! Play me!

Anonymous said...

This was great. It IS a two player game. I miss Scrabble. There never seems like enough time to play. maybe I can scratch up a game over Thanksgiving.

Your tips are perfect. I used to love to get the highest points possible with the fewest letters, but that strategy falls flat at some point.

To offset the withdrawal of not playing for so long I play this kid's game called Quizzy's Word Challenge on Webkinz. It's not the same but similar in many of the strategies for high scoring.

I have never met an expert and I do wonder how that would be. I know an Othello player that goes to world challenges and he is very unique. It's difficult to comprehend all the tiny subtleties.

Anonymous said...

Holy shit! That quilt is ridiculously AWESOME!!

How nerdy is this: I saw it and exclaimed, "Holy crap!" Then I said to Asa, who is IMing with someone on the computer next to me: "Look! Michael5000 quilted this Scrabble board! That is SO COOL." Sigh.

Bridget said...

I am . . . not even an intermediate Scrabble player. I love words so much that I lose sight of the actual strategy of the game and start trying to make words that are cool or can be combined with the other words to develop a theme . . . very easily distracted by shiny things, this one. But damn if that isn't one fine quilted Scrabble board with coordinating letters. Of course, I am also one of those people who uses photo transfers in my fiber art . . . so, really, can you trust my opinion?

Michael5000 said...

@Boo: The serious experts that Fatsis describes all seem a little nuts. But maybe ANYBODY seems nuts when you talk to them long enough.

You don't have to miss Scrabble anymore! Play me on Facebook!

@MyDog: Aw, thanks for the good words! A lot of people think that Scrabble board is really odd, actually.

Play me on... oh, wait, you are!

@bridget: Welcome aboard! It sounds like you saw my "Dogme" post at the quilt blog? I hope it was clear that those were my rules for me, not rules that I thought everybody should adopt. (Quite the opposite, actually -- I don't want my stylistic turf to get all crowded!)

Thanks for the nice comment about my Scrabble board! And, I don't care what level Scrabble player you are -- find me on Facebook! Play me!

Karin said...

M5K, thanks for the invite to play Scrabulous, but, and I know this will come as a complete shock to you, I am too much of a control freak to play Scrabble.

Like Bridget Benton, I get all distracted by the pretty shiny words and then get all pissed off when my opponent mucks up my ability to play them.

Skip the board and play Speed Scrabble and I'll be THERE. I'm all about speed, man.

blythe said...

what's this game scrabble you speak of? i can only play electronic games. is it for wii?

i joke, i'm just bad at it, therefore, refuse to play.

gl. said...

bridget & karin can come play "non-competitive scrabble" over at my place. i love the words too much to play competitively, and if you have a really awesome word you can even collaborate with the other players to reserve a space on the board or swap a letter or even, in one case, go over the edge of the playing space. but i LOVE the quilted scrabble board!

bridget, how did you end up over here? you're everywhere!

Bridget said...

gl - or I could say that YOU'RE everywhere, my dear - I saw Michael post on your site (he liked the chicken hat), and followed the shiny link (because who doesn't want to say "hello" to people who like chicken hats?), and ended up here, and then at Michael's quilty site, and then I got lost . . . wandering in Dorkfest '07 . . .and then there was this blog with a big doggie nose on it . . .it all get's a little confusing after that!

M5K - I did see the "Dogme" and actually thought they were really cool - in part because they are So Alien! And it made me wonder, "What self-imposed restrictions or guidelines or aesthetic principles am I operating under that I'm not even aware of?" yummy thinking.

Michael5000 said...

@Karin: It will be a good exercise in "letting go"! Play me!

@Blythe: You say you are bad at everything, but I do not believe you! Bring it on! Play me!

@gl.: If it weren't for competition, it would be logically impossible to be uncompetitive! Play me!

@Bridget Benton: Even guys with alien dogme like chicken hats. From scratching the surface at your blog, I think it's fair to say that your "rules" might be harder to pinpoint than my "rules." But I'm sure they are there. And, with no segue at all: Play Scrabble with me!

Izy Scott said...

i play alot of on line scrabble. And i notice that the "losers" tend to exchange. The question is when to exchange and when not to exchange. Does anyone have any tips or specific examples about exchanging letters in Scrabble. My theory is if you can play four or more letters, this is as good as exchanging and you will get a few points (provided you do not give away any big opportunities). Any thoughts out there ?

Nahnah said...

Question: I have been playing Scrabble on my iPad with the computer as my opponent. Occasionally, a window comes up which says I'm playing with a beginner computer player. Is there a way to have the computer become more competitive?

Thanks, Nahnah