In rediscovering a love of Scrabble, I’ve noticed distinct patterns developing in my game play. And as along as no one reading this sage advice plans to use these wise words against me, I hope these bon mots make all winners. . . .
Eleven Keys to Victory
- Two Letter Words—Memorize them. There are 102, but if you break them down by first letter and initially remember the key ones—QI, XI, XU, and ZA—you’ll be very well prepared for immediate success.
- Saving—There is only one Q, X, and Z. Use them judiciously. If you don’t have a great play—triple letter score, triple word score, or high-end double word score—save them.
- Siphoning—I like to employ this tactic when my opponent utilizes one of the triumvirate of letters mentioned above. Say she plays ‘qwerty’ in a downward direction. Most likely, the Q will now be open horizontally. If I don’t have a U—thereby preventing me from playing a longer word—I would be pleased to play ‘qi’ or ‘qat’ to siphon off double digit points with single value letters. Such a practice helps lessen the effect—dampen the deficit—of those potent letters.
- Seeing—Part and parcel of saving and siphoning is seeing. By this I mean looking ahead—in most instances preparing for a time when you will have the Q. For instance: if I have a choice between playing the word ‘sun’ or ‘son’, I will invariably opt for getting rid of the O, if the Q’s whereabouts are unknown. This stratagem also can be applicable to the letters X (Is and Us) and Z (As), although with less frequency.
- SSSS—There are only four Ss in the game. Don’t waste them. Unless it’s near the end of the game, the use of an S should garner you no less than 40 points on that turn. They are best saved for triple word scores or—far less employed but of extreme potency—combining a triple letter and a double word bonus. So if you played ‘zesty’ on a double word score with the Z on the triple letter spot, you would earn 74 points. Played on just a double word score, only 34 points could be tallied. Forty points is a huge margin for utilizing the exact same tiles. (Unlike triple word scores, these bonanzas are also extremely tough to guard against.) Ds—with their ability to convert words to the past tense—are also more valuable than most realize.
- Triple Play!—There is a compelling duality to triple letter and triple word scores. On the one (aggressive) hand, whenever you have an opportunity to utilize them, you must. Whether that means playing ‘id’ for a measly point total to eliminate a triple word score, so be it. With only nine on the board, even playing a low scoring word prevents your opponent from playing a much more lucrative mot. Adjacently, always guard against your opponent taking this advantage by limiting how close to them you make words. Ditto for triple letter scores. You can earn 62 points for playing ‘qi’ or ‘za’ on a triple letter score—hence the importance of Rule #2. These three letter words will also wow your opponent: ‘adz’ and ‘suq’.
- Blankety Blank—A brilliant combination of all the above mentioned tenets is the proper utilization of blanks. Like the letter S, they are in short supply. There are only two. They should only be used to make a bingo (playing all your letters at once allots you a 50 point bonus) or to secure a dual triple letter (getting points both way, as in ‘qi’ above) or a more conventional triple word score.
- Beach Blanket Bingo—Using all your letters at once is never a bad idea. Or is it? The only time I would caution against it is if you use both blanks and an S for a word like ‘iodines’. Depending on whether or not the D was an actual tile or simple a blank, you are earning at most 54 points, 50 of which came from the bingo itself. Now if you could make that word sans blanks, that is a huge coup, because not only do you get an excellent point return for such low-valued letters, but you also get seven new tiles.
- CV—No: I am not referring to your curriculum vitae. C and V are two of the worst letters you can have. Why? Because they are the only ones that have no two letter word associated with them. So often they can be difficult to use, especially at the end of the game. My advice: even if you don’t get great value for them, use them almost immediately. A double letter score for either is well worth avoiding the headache they invariable cause when you are trying to . . .
- Go Out Quick— . . . if you are winning that is. Or tied. Or trailing by less than 10 points. It’s key to remember that the first player to go out avoids all penalties. Those who do not finish first have the numeric values of their tiles get added to their opponent’s tally. So say you are losing by six and you know your opponent has four tiles. And that one of them (by process of elimination) is a dreaded V. Since that is worth four points, it doesn’t matter what the other three tiles are: you go out on that turn and you have a minimum of seven points added on to your current score, thereby securing victory. This strategy is even more effective when playing against multiple opponents. Go out quick when all players still each have a handful of tiles and a close contest quickly turns into a rout.
- Don’t Be Afraid—The worst thing you can do in Scrabble is panic. It helps nothing. If you don’t have anywhere to put that bingo, simply pass your turn, hoping for your opponent to open up a spot for it. This is especially sage if it is early in the game or are you are ahead by a comfortable margin. Ditto for exchanging tiles. Does it really make sense to continue making small gains with one point letters when you can swap all seven and hope for the coveted Q? (If you have an I or a U among those tiles, its wise to hold on to those two in case you do get the Q with your letter swap.) It’s good to think of Scrabble as tantamount to an extended (and wordy) game of Chess. Looking ahead—setting yourself up for your next move; putting your opponent in an untenable position—always lends itself to success.
An aside to those who play Lexulous via Facebook. It’s Scrabble but with a few twists, all created solely to avoid additional legal action over copyright infringement. (RIP Scrabulous!) Subtle changes to letter values (Q and Z are now 12 instead of 10, T is two points instead of one) don’t affect game play; the addition of one extra tile in your rack (and 10 less total tiles, 90 down from 100) does. There is also one fewer S. To compensate, the creators also widened and lengthened the board by one column and row. The reason I bring this up is because there are now two types of bingos: a 40 point bonus for using all seven letters and 50 points added to your total for an old school use-all-your-tiles play. And with this new rule a new stratagem has emerged.
An eight letter bingo begun from the center square will secure you both a double word (given to all first played words in a game) and triple word score, netting you a minimum—‘sonorous’ is an example of an eight point word played absent of any bonuses—of 98 points. This is derived by this formula: (8*2*3) + 50 = 98.
I, however, like to take a bit of risk when I only have enough to make a seven letter bingo. If the word can be made plural by adding an S or render it past tense by adding a D, I will place it so it gets within one space of the triple word score. Though I risk my opponent having the requisite letter (thereby securing her a robust first play), I am counting on the probability that she won’t—and that I will secure what I need with my seven new tiles. And if it does come to pass that my opponent does use the triple word score immediately, I generally then am able to capitalize on the double letter scores opened up with the third tile played across, usually a vowel.
Actually forget what I said at the top . . . please challenge me to a game!
Overheard at the Office
GOPer #1: ‘You know who I want the next president to be? Dick Cheney.’
GOPer #2: ‘I completely agree.’
GOPer #1: ‘That’s why they [the Democrats] all hate him—he’s very smart and is always right.’
Reading Now: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918.
Immersed but On Hold: A History of Rome, Undaunted Courage, and Guns, Germs, and Steel.
Recently Finished: Game Change and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Up Next: At Canaan’s Edge, the final book in Taylor Branch’s epic trilogy on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. and book one (chronologically, not in order of publication) of David McCullough’s finest works on American history: 1776.