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Tips for More Advanced Players
- Rack Management

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord. Napoleon's Foreign Minister. One of history's greatest figures. He spotted a clerk who had been doing some good work in the back office. He had a mind to promote him.

"Thank you, Sir, thank you!" said the clerk profusely. "That's the first piece of good fortune I've had!"

"What?" said Talleyrand. "Qu'est ce que c'est? You are not lucky? I can't promote a man who is not lucky!"

And promptly demoted him again.

There are few Scrabble players who never complain about their luck. I have even had Mark Nyman grumbling at me. Though I suppose the 280-odd points in 4 moves that I'd just hit him with was a bit hard to take. "Still he's had more than his share..." What's that? Me now? Well there you go, then.

Are some people lucky? Perhaps. Are some people unlucky? Probably. But do more people actually make bad luck for themselves? In Scrabble, definitely.

And bad rack management is where it all starts. Whether you are hoping to save your letters to give you a bonus-word, or simply wish to maximise your chances of properly exploiting the higher-scoring tiles, you must learn to manage your rack. This means knowing which tiles to play now, and which to hold-back, in the hope of better scores to come.

There are some basic rules to learn, but remember that these are merely "rules" of thumb. They are not "rules" in any literal sense. When all things are equal, they will usually constitute sound advice, but all things are seldom equal, and most moves demand compromise. It is how you learn to make compromises which will often make the difference between your winning or losing games.

  1. Try to keep back a healthy balance of vowels and consonants.

    There are roughly 2 vowels to every 3 consonants in the bag. If you play a 4-letter word, and hold back 3 consonants, you should not be too surprised to discover that 3 of the 4 tiles you pick-up are also consonants. You may get 2, or you may get none, or you may get 4, but the chances are that you will get 2 or 3, with a definite risk that you will get the latter. Therefore, you will only have yourself to blame, if you find that you are now staring at a rack on which there are 6 consonants and only 1 vowel. Your options will be severely limited, and you may find yourself playing just a 3-letter word, and using your only vowel. The road to having 7 consonants on your rack may be quite a short one! The trick would have been to compromise a little on score, in the first place, and find another move that does not leave you with only consonants.

  2. Avoid keeping back duplicate letters (and Iís!).

    Generally, your options are greater, the greater the variety of letters on your rack. If you keep back pairs of letters, or worse, then you cut down on your options, and, of course, you risk picking up even more of the same letter. Every Scrabblerís worst nightmare is a rack full of Iís. So much so, that many Scrabblers will avoid keeping any Iís at all on the rack, for fear of picking up a second. This may be an extreme reaction, but it can be worth keeping a wary eye on the number of Iís still to be played, just to check that they are not ganging-up, waiting to ambush you!

  3. Avoid keeping back too many high-scoring tiles.

    The high-scoring tiles are high-scoring precisely because they are the least- commonly used letters in the English language. It is tempting to save them, to use in future high-scoring moves, but do not let this policy get out of hand. Naturally, the more of the less-commonly used letters in the language, that there are on your rack, the fewer will be the options you will have on how to use them.

  4. Save blanks, Sís, Tís and Eís (in that order!).

    The first step on the road to a big-scoring move, is the delightful discovery that you have just picked-up a blank or an S. As a general rule, you will hope that an S enables you to make a score of 40+, and a blank, a score of 50+ (more often than not a bonus-word). Apart from the S, the T is, perhaps, the most commonly used consonant in the language, and is present in a huge proportion of bonus-words. The E is (obviously) the most useful vowel. There are, however, a very large number of them in the game. Whether or not you keep one back will depend on how many have been played, and whether or not you think you need to keep back a vowel, in line with Rule 1. Note that a second S can be a handicap, just as we mentioned in Rule 2. The trouble is that dumping one on the board without good reason, is apt to set your opponentís alarm bells ringing!

Back in the days of "High-Score Scrabble", it was considered to be a crime of the first order, not to use every blank, and S in a bonus-word. Now, the decision has to be based on broader considerations. If it is late in the game, and you are some 50 points behind, a bonus-word may be your only hope. On the other hand, if you are ahead, and you have the board reasonably under control, you may be far better off using your S, or even your blank, just to keep the pressure on your opponent, and to take off the openings that he/she might be making. Generally, early in the game, though, when there are plenty of openings on the board, a blank, or an S should trigger in your mind a more subtle level of rack management. This will usually result in greater compromises on score, and the holding back of more and more letters. In the extreme, when you play off just one tile for very few points, often making an extra opening, it becomes known as "fishing", and your opponent will usually realise what you are up to. Depending on the circumstances, fishing might be dismissed as bad practice, resulting in far too much of a compromise in score. If you are not 100% sure of what you are doing, and your bonus does not turn up in 2 or 3 moves, you may well find that you have lost out, whilst your opponent cashes in on your self-imposed tentativeness. More covert fishing, on the other hand, playing 2 or 3 letters, and making much less of a compromise on score, can be the difference between an average, and a good player, and can be less easy to detect.

Suppose, for example, you have succeeded, by the application of the more basic rules of rack management, in acquiring the four-letter set ERST. This is the most powerful four-letter set that there is. There is something like a 95% chance that, amongst the other 3 tiles that you already have on the rack, or amongst the 3 tiles that you are about to pick up, there will be one of the letters in the mnemonic "OUTALPINE"; that is, the P and all the 1-point tiles, apart from the R and the S, which we already have, and which do not double-up so usefully. Any one of these letters, taken together with ERST will make a promising five-letter set. The best of these five-letter sets is the AERST set, which has a better than 95% chance of making a good six-letter group with any of the letters B, C, D, E, G, H, I, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, U and W. Most of these groups of 6 letters will then make bonus words with more than 60% of the tiles that ought still to be considered. The best-known, for example is AEIRST, usually referred to as the "SATIRE" set, which makes seven-letter bonus-words with any of the letters of the alphabet, apart from the less-frequently occurring J, Q, U, X, Y and Z.

Most Scrabblers become familiar with the SATIRE set. But what happens when the 7th letter gives you, for example, the bonus-word FAIREST, and you cannot get it on the board, because you need a word ending in S? If you are only familiar with the SATIRE set, you may decide to dump the F, perhaps for just 5 points, hopefully somewhere where it can make a new opening. Meanwhile, your opponent is feverishly looking to see how he/she can either spoil the opening that you have just made, or else ensure that he/she takes as much advantage of your low score as possible. The covert fisher, however, scours the board for a good place either to play IF, leaving the still very useful AERST set on the rack, or FA, leaving EIRST, which he/she should also have learned makes very useful six-letter groups with A, B, C, D, E, F, H, L, M, N, O, P, R, T, U, and V. With a little luck, or, perhaps even carelessness on your opponentís part, this little two-letter dump will pick-up 28 points. Even if you cannot increase your chances of getting a bonus out by making a new opening, you will have scored enough points to keep things ticking over nicely, and to calm your opponentís suspicions. To continue with the example, perhaps you then pick the letters B and U out of the bag. Not obviously promising, except that, if you have armed yourself with the six-letter sets that arise out of the AERST five-letter set, you will know the ABERST and AERSTU sets, and you might spot ARBUTES which finishes with an S, just as you required.

Covert fishing, therefore, means being familiar with an, admittedly, larger number of six-letter bonus groups, some of which may not be as powerful as the SATIRE set, but which, when they are all taken together, form a very powerful combination, allowing you to make more compromises with rack management, and fewer compromises on score. In my own word-learning, I have developed this theme on the basis of 10 four-letter groups. These are:

TERS

TELS

AEST

EIST

AERS

EIRS

AELS

EILS

AENS

EINS

It is the discovery of these groups of letters on my rack which set me to thinking of bonus-word potential. But naturally, I would try and make some compromises to keep back three-letter sets such as EST, ERS, ELS and ENS.

Not all of the most useful bonus sets include these letters. In particular, the well-known RETINA set does not include the obvious S, although the power of the S is still noticeable when we see that their are no fewer than 10 other anagrams of the word RETAINS. There must be some room for learning words in these other six-letter groups, too. But the fact is that there are no powerful four-letter groups to trigger rack management, although there are a few five-letter groups, including, most particularly, EINRT, or the "INTER" group, as some Scrabblers call it. I have also found the AEINR, or "RAINE" set to be useful, even though it is a little heavy with vowels.

Learning Words