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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How to Play Scrabble (or Similar Word Games) Effectively

I’ve told myself I’d write a strategy guide for a while now. PhD life is ridiculously busy though, so I’m just now getting around to it. I’m pretty good at Scrabble. I’ve come in 1st place in a local Scrabble tournament. Being a doctoral student, the folks I tend to play are usually university graduate students and university professors, and I beat everybody. And so since it’s something I seem to excel it, I thought it would be cool to share a few of my strategies in hopes of helping folks improve their play.
I probably won’t give up everything, but that’s not because of selfishness. It’s honestly because it’s hard to think of everything when I’m not in the middle of a game. But maybe I’ll write a Part 2 if this one’s well-received.
If you already know all of this stuff, you’re probably already pretty good and can write one of these yourself.

Tile Placement
Once during a Scrabble game, I heard an onlooker state that the word that my opponent had played (GELATIN) was a very nice Scrabble word. Although that onlooker was a friend, I couldn’t help but look at her like she was an idiot. The only nice Scrabble word is the kind that scores points. Despite the fact that GELATIN has 3 syllables, and required six tiles (the G was already in place), 11 or 12 or how many ever points is not the result of a nice Scrabble word. Scrabble is ALL ABOUT TILE PLACEMENT, unless you’re one of those folks that doesn’t play to win. Placing an X on a triple letter score that has U to the right of that space, and an I below the space (creating the words XU and XI and giving you about 50 points) is far more valuable. While building words, the focus should be to get high scoring letters on double letter or triple letter tiles, and to get your words on double word and triple word tiles. If you’re just indiscriminately spelling out the first word you see, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Count Your Points Before You Play
This one is pretty self-explanatory. If you have several good-looking options, hats off. But before you play, it’s important to determine which would be most advantageous. Counting points beforehand is one way to do that. One option may give you 45 points, but the other may give you 54, so be sure to show patience, even when you have what you think is a surefire point-maker.

Also, when you have several options, it’s important to consider if one of those options may set your opponent up. Playing defense is almost as important as scoring. Your opponent usually relies on you to create an opening so that they can score. And so you must focus on limiting the amount of openings that you create. If the words that you are about to play will leave the letter S directly under and a few tiles away from the Triple Word Score, then you may want to rethink playing that word unless you are going to get a ridiculous amount of points from the play anyway. Also, if there’s a triple word score wide open, but all you have available to play is the word AND (giving you roughly 12+ points), it’s better to play it than leaving the triple word score wide open for your opponent to destroy you with. Once again, defense is all about limiting your opponents’ opportunities.

2 and 3 Letter words
If you read the paragraph above and didn’t know that XU and XI were playable words, you may want go here. These words are so important, especially in the end when you have 7 vowels and seemingly nowhere to go. Knowing these words will also improve your ability to place a word in line directly parallel to another word, creating more words (and more points). For instance, if DAMP is spelled on the board horizontally, and your last two letters are A & A, it helps to know that AA is a word, and you can play this word directly on top or on bottom of DAMP at any space above or below and create three words.

Set Scoring Goals
I typically refuse to settle for any play that doesn't produce a minimum of 20 points. Even if I don't see how to score the 20 at first, there's usually always a way (unless you're playing someone who's really good defensively). And so set scoring goals that can act as a measuring tool for your improvement. Disallow yourself to play any word that doesn't net at least 15 points, and raise the bar as you perceive yourself improving.

Closing is the biggest weakness that I notice regarding most players. Even when my highly skilled friend plays me to a dead heat and there are 7 tiles left, I know I’m probably winning because she is an awful closer, like most of you folks. First things first. When the remaining tiles get down to single digits, you have to keep a count of how many tiles your opponent has. If your opponent has all 7 of his tiles, there is only 1 tile left in the bag, and your opponent plays a word using 4 tiles, then that opponent who now has 3 tiles would pick up that last remaining tile, giving them a total of 4 tiles. This is pretty evident in Scrabble as you can see the backside of your opponent’s pieces, but not so much in electronic word games. And so it’s important to make a mental note. This is very important if the score is close, because the first person to play all of their tiles receives points based on the tiles that their opponent has, and if the scores are close, these points could be enough to give that person the win. Knowing which letters are left can be a lot of help also. If you know what your opponent has, you can strategize accordingly. Although the amount of each letter-tile available may be different for the different word games, make yourself aware of how many important letters (X’s, Q’s, Z’s, S’s, etc.) are in each game’s 'bag' and you’ll have an idea of what your opponent is working with toward the end of the game based on what has already been played.

That’s all for now, and best of luck with your Scrabble or other word game endeavors.
And if you’d like to play me in Wordfeud or Words w/ Friends, my username for both is phoenixsoul.

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