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Noel's Scrabble Tips

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Noel's Tips
Rack Management
Learning Words
Tile Turnover
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Possessing the Initiative
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Defensive Play
The Endgame

Tips for More Advanced Players
- Learning Words

By this stage you may be beginning to be overawed by the amount of word learning that you will apparently have to put in, to make the grade in Scrabble, so it is a good time to put this into some sort of proper perspective.

It is really up to you how far you wish to take this. If it gets to the point that it seems to be rather too much like hard work, and the game is losing its sense of fun, then you have obviously gone too far. If, on the other hand, you feel you are getting some satisfaction from improving your game by adding more and more to the weapons in your armoury, then, perhaps, it is worth continuing with it. There is a law of diminishing returns. The difference between a player who knows all of the words that could be at his/her disposal (and there are one or two players who claim to know them with, at least, some degree of certainty), and the player who knows half of the first player’s vocabulary may be quite marginal, provided only that the second player has concentrated his/her efforts on the optimum half. After all, at one extreme, what is the sense in knowing a word like ZIZZ? If it ever came up on your rack, it would portend an extravagant waste of blanks! On the other hand, not knowing QI would put you at an obvious disadvantage. The trick is to sort out the words which will deliver the speediest returns when it comes to improving your game. You want the maximum gain, for the least effort.

In the UK Scrabble scene we use the Official Scrabble Words International(OSWI) as our Bible. This book is published by Chambers, and is a resume, prepared by a number of the country’s top players, of all the allowable words in The Chambers Dictionary. By convention it is used as the final adjudication in all games of Club Scrabble. If a word is to be found in the OSWI then it is taken to be allowed, even if the OSWI is in error. If the word is longer than 9 letters, then it may not be in the OSWI, and the adjudicator might need to resort to the dictionary itself.

There are over 140,000 words in the OSWI. This compares with a respectable non-specialist vocabulary, in written English, of perhaps 30,000 words maximum. To embark on learning the rest would obviously be a huge task for anyone who does not have a photographic memory. When you first sit down opposite a Club player, you will be at an obvious disadvantage, if you are only armed with a normal vocabulary. At first sight the board will appear to be gobbledegook, and you will not believe that the game is being played in English. The fact is, though, that, with around a million words in the definitive Oxford English Dictionary, most of the English language is foreign to all of us. One man’s gobbledegook is another’s specialist vocabulary. We do not make up the words. We merely play with them. Once you give yourself the chance to get over the initial shock, you will soon learn that many of the words that you see, come up all the time, and learning them is not nearly so difficult as it first seems.

Take, for example, the 124 two-letter words. These form the basic cement which holds the game together. Most of the better-scoring moves involve running words alongside each other. In the process, lots of two- letter words are formed at the same time as larger words are laid. Nearly every player in any club will be comfortable with their two-letter word list, most of which will look very strange to a new player:

But are these words really so strange? Take out the everyday words (27):

Extract the English letter names (8). Yes, they’re allowed!

And all the interjections - the words you might never write, but frequently see in comic-strips! (24)

The musical notes, in the tonic-sol-fa scale - "doh-re-mi-fa-soh-la-te-doh", allowing for alternative spellings (6, in the two-letter list):

The Greek letters so beloved of scientists (that's 4 2-letter ones):

Now remove all the slang, or old words which you probably find quite familiar, but perhaps did not expect to be able to play (12).

That leaves us with 43 genuinely strange words, to learn. Not nearly such a huge task.

If you are of Scottish extraction, you will be able to cross off even more of these words! With a little imagination we might have ascribed our own meanings to one or two of these. If such things help you to remember the words then it hardly seems to matter whether or not you are remembering them for the right reasons!

Your first task in word-learning, then, is to learn some 43 unusual two-letter words. These are all-powerful, and their usefulness is not in any doubt. The two-letter words are the glue which holds everything together.

One point worth noting for later, is that there are no two-letter words which end in C, K, J, Q, V and Z. Perhaps you are not surprised by that, or perhaps nothing will surprise you anymore! The point, though, is that this fact can be exploited in defensive play, to prevent your opponent from playing words alongside these letters, and hence to "block" the board.

The next point of attack is the three-letter word list. This, also, is a powerful tool to have completely at your command, but, you will be relieved to hear that this is already a list which fewer players know well.

You can use the same tricks to cut down on the task of learning this roughly 1000-word list. Firstly, cross-out all the everyday words. Then cross-out any more that you can eliminate under general headings such as musical notes, interjections etc., which may allow you to remember them without being quite so rigorous. This should leave you with about 600 strange words. Now start to apply some techniques which become more and more useful as your word-learning continues. Prioritize the remaining words so that you begin by learning the most useful ones. For example, you will certainly find it useful to know the three-letter words which include one or more of the high-scoring letters, J, Q, X, and Z. This will amount to some 60 or 70 words, many of which you may have already crossed-off as "everyday words".

Because of the fact that there are no two-letter words involving the V, which is a nasty letter which you might well want to get rid of, at some stage, it is not a bad idea to learn all the three-letter words which contain a V. The K, being worth 5 points, is another letter that you might want to feel fully-armed to use. You might set a high priority on learning all the three-letter words which involve the K.

Hooks are now a major consideration. What three-letter words can be made by placing a letter either in front of, or after, a two-letter word? Just as it is important to know the two-letter words, so that you can place words alongside other words, already on the board, knowing the hooks which go on the two-letter words, will allow you to do the same with even more effectiveness. Just watch the way in which staircases seem to build-up on the board when both players know their hooks. It can be a nightmare if you are trying to get a bonus-word onto such a board, but it can also be a very profitable technique when you are simply trying to make the best of difficult letters. Of course, the best three-letter words to learn, are going to be the ones which can result from hooks both before, and after, two-letter words. For example, KAW could be made be putting a K in front of AW, or a W after KA. If you do not want to spend the time learning all the three-letter words, these would be just the sorts of words to pick-out with a highlight pen, and stick on the inside of the toilet-door!

The four-letter words, some 6000 of them, are another ominous-looking set. You may be provided with lists of two- and three-letter words when you join a club. How do you pick out the four-letter words? The "Official Scrabble Lists" (OSL), now in its International edition, and also published by Collins, has been compiled by Allan Simmons and Darryl Francis, who also played major roles in the compilation of Collins Scrabble Tournament and Club Word List CSTCWL). This invaluable aid to word-learning, provides useful lists of words from the CSTCWL. In particular it provides a complete list of the four-letter words. Small help, though, unless you really have difficulty sleeping at nights! However, it also provides lists, by word-length, of all the words that contain the higher-scoring tiles. It is well worth your while learning, for a start, the four-letter words that include the J, Q, X, and Z.

Other useful four-letter words might include all those that contain 3 (or more! - learn "EUOI" - it is invaluable!) vowels. These words will help you to resolve serious rack imbalances without your having to lose score while changing. Similarly, there are a few four-letter words which contain 2 Is or 2 Us. Being able to get rid of 2 Is without sacrificing a score is always a welcome option.

After that, you are in the same game that you were in before, with the three-letter word list. The hooks - four-letter words that result from adding a letter before or after an existing three-letter word, are the next most important words to learn. This is still a huge task. A little thought, though, tells us that these words are going to be less useful for building staircases, and rather more useful for getting bonus words onto difficult boards. Obviously, bonus-words will contain, vowels, especially Es, and usually the 1-point consonants, especially the S. Concentrate on learning the hooks which involve these additional letters, both before, and after the three-letter words.

You can extend this policy to the five-letter words if you so wish, but a measure of the task is indicated by the fact that the CSTCWL does not even include a complete five-letter word list. It does, however, include lists of those words which contain the J, Q, X, and Z, words which contain 4 vowels, and words which contain 2 Is, 2 Us, 3 As etc. It also covers all the hooks.

It is a better policy to move on to the bonus word sets. I have explained, in the rack-management section, why it is helpful to learn a large number of mutually-supporting six-letter bonus sets, so that you can build them up, with confidence, from four-letter sets. I provide a comprehensive list of the six-letter bonus sets which can be built up from the 10 four-letter sets listed earlier. I also provide a summary of all these bonus sets, and list, in brackets, for reference, the number of the list as it appears in the OSL. The OSL lists 250 six-letter bonus sets, and gives them a rather different ranking in terms of usefulness. This ranking is based on 1) the probability that the six tiles will turn-up at random, on your rack, and 2) the probability that the group will then make seven-letter words with the remaining letters in the bag. The value of the first of these factors is greater for the novice than it is for the seasoned player. Once you learn to start saving specific sets of tiles, the probabilities will change in favour of those six-letter groups which are favoured by the four- and five-letter sets that you choose to save. But for a first shot at the problem, you are probably better-off following the OSL, which, for example, lists AEINRT, or RETAIN, as the most productive six-letter group. The seven-letter anagrams in each set, will not all be unfamiliar, so that, once you have been through such a set, you may only be presented with between 10 and 20 new words to learn. Even these can be prioritised, so that, for example, you might choose to learn, first, all the strange seven-letter words which are formed when the six-letter group is matched with one of the commonly occurring vowels, A, E, I and O. Learning OTARINE, for example, allows you to cover the possibility of holding such a set as RETAIN, and picking up one of 8 possible Os which may not yet have appeared. This will clearly be 4 times as useful as learning that RETAIN with a B makes ATEBRIN. Running through the 10 or 20 highest-ranked six-letter sets should not be too great a task, and should provide you with a good grounding on which to build.

A further, intermediate step to next, extending this grounding could be to concentrate on the mutually-supporting six-letter sets that would arise out of the word "RELATIONS" when any 3 of the letters are removed, especially those groups which include, at least, an E and an S. These groups would serve you well whenever you start with any of the 10 four-letter sets listed in the Rack-Management section.

Tile Turnover