16 tips to boost your Scrabble game

Originally written by Jeff Grant. Adapted and updated by Howard Warner

Word knowledge is a key factor in Scrabble, though not the only one. Half of the following hints relate to vocabulary. The others are about strategy and attitude. If you make an effort to learn new words, this will improve your game. So will taking on board (no pun intended!) a few basic strategic tips.

1. TWOS and THREES: These little words are the basis of the game. You need to know them. There are around 130 two-letter words and 10 times as many threes. Many of them are everyday words. Work on the ones you are unfamiliar with and the benefits will come. 

2. FOURS and FIVES: There are thousands of these. It will add a whole new dimension to your game if you become acquainted with some of the more unusual ones. Concentrate on particular groups, such as: 
(a) HOOKS: Learn what comes before and after commonly played 3- and 4-letter words, e.g. AZO takes an L ‘front hook’ (L-AZO) and an N ‘back hook’ (AZO-N).
(b) BIG LETTERS: Make a list of word containing J, Q, X, and Z (BENJ, QUENA, MIREX, FOXY etc). Sometimes these score as much as a bonus word!

TIP: Compile your own word lists and read them over from time to time.

3. TOO MANY VOWELS: This problem affects all Scrabblers. The answer is to ‘dump’ excess vowels to improve your ‘rack balance’ (see 12). It helps if you can learn some of the shorter ‘vowel-heavy’ words. After the twos (AA, AE, AI, EA, EE, IO, OE, OI, OO, OU), make sure you know AIA, AUA, AUE, EAU and EUOI. Then have a look at the 3-vowel fours, and the 4-vowel fives, e.g. AITU, EIDE, IURE, NAOI, UNAI; AIOLI, MIAOU, OUIJA, URAEI, ZOOEA.

4. TOO MANY CONSONANTS: The same principles apply to consonant-heavy racks. Dump excess consonants to achieve balance, and learn consonant-laden ‘dumpers’ such as BRR, CWM, GRR, HMM, NTH and PHT; BYRL, FYRD, HWYL, PFFT, WYCH and CRWTH.

5. TOO MANY I’S: This particular vowel problem occurs often. There are nine I’s – but only one 3-letter word containing two of them (IWI). Some common words can get you out of trouble, such as IRIS and IDIOT. Why not make a list of unfamiliar 4- and 5-letter words with two (or more) I’s, e.g. FIFI, ILIA, IMPI, INIA, INTI, HILI, PILI, PIPI, WILI; FICIN, FILII, RICIN, LIMBI, MIRIN, NIMBI, RIDIC, ZIMBI.

TIP: Don’t be afraid to change. If your rack is AAIIIIO, there is little point in playing AIA for 8 points and keeping IIIO.

6. Q WITHOUT U: The Q was once a real bogy letter, but nowadays it’s easier to score well with. Learn the Q-words that have no U, including QI; QAT, QIN; QADI, QAID, QOPH; QANAT, QIBLA; QASIDA, QINDAR and QINTAR. All these can have an S added. Some Q-words contain a U but not straight after the Q, e.g. SUQ, BURQA, UMIAQ and QIVIUT. Others have no U and the Q in an unusual position in the word: CINQ, FIQH, WAQF; TALAQ, TRANQ. 

7. BONUS WORDS: If you play all seven tiles in one turn, you will gain a 50-point bonus. ‘Bonus words’ are a quick way to boost your total. To spot these words on your rack more easily, try shuffling the tiles around. A single high-point letter will often start a word (e.g. BARONET, CANDIED, FRIGATE, HANDIER, KERATIN, MERINOS, POLENTA, VENISON, WEEDING, YODELER). Look for beginnings such as be-, re-, un-, up-, out-, dis-, over- and endings such as -ed, -ing, – ier, -iest, -able and -less. You can also use a letter on the board to make an 8-letter bonus word. 

8. SHORT-WORD LEARNING:  This is for words from two to five letters long. How players learn words is highly personal. Popular methods include:
(a) ROTE: Repeating the words in alphabetical order until they get seared on your mind.
(b) HOOKS (front and back): Compile your own special list, or use Bob Jackman’s published lists per Winning Words.
(c) BROWSING: Looking through lists – some words will stick.
(d) DEFINITIONS: Looking up meanings – not essential knowledge but they can help ingrain learning.
(e) MNEMONICS: Making up ‘mnemonics’ (cute rhymes) to bring to mind patterns of words, e.g. “CHAP MY TWO DRY LIPS” for end hooks to CHA (CHAP, CHAM, CHAY, CHAT, CHAW etc.

 9. LONG-WORD LEARNING – ANAGRAMMING: Seven- or eight-letter words are valuable for making bonus words. The skill is to spot these from a random rack of tiles. Early on, the most popular learning method was ‘stems’: what words you could make by adding one letter to a set of six letters. The most productive six-letter stem was SATIRE (+A = ATRESIA, +B = BAITERS, +C = RACIEST, +D = TIRADES etc). So these were sometimes called ‘satire words’. Once you’d mastered the 6+1 stems and if you weren’t too bored, you could move on to 7+1s. 

10. LONG-WORD LEARNING – PROBABILITY: Nowadays, club and tournament players use computer programs and apps to learn words. Most common is Zyzzyva, which sorts letters into anagram combos and packages them as quizzes or flash cards. It also grades anagrams by ‘probability’ –the mathematical chance of these letters appearing on your rack. The top 1000 seven- and eight-letter words (by probability) come up 80% of the time. So if you just focus on these, you’re already ahead of the game! For new players, your club may provide lists of common anagrams.

11. ESSES and BLANKS: These are the most valuable tiles for making bonus words. There are four S’s. They are great for hooking onto the end of words already on the board. Early in the game, you might use an S in a shorter word if you can get a reasonable score (e.g. 30 points upwards). Ditto if you have two of them. A blank should yield a bonus word or at least a 50-plus score. Don’t waste it. Occasionally you might hold back a blank if you have a high-scoring move with your other letters. At the end of the game, on a closed board, just score the best you can with it.

TIP: Playing out plenty of tiles (called ‘tile turnover’) increases your chances of picking up esses and blanks.

12. RACK BALANCE: Aim for a good score while leaving a reasonable selection of letters on your rack. Sometimes it is desirable to sacrifice a few points. For example, when holding IIINOTZ, it is better to get 28 for ZITI (leaving ION) than 33 for ZO (leaving IIINT). Try to maintain a good balance of consonants and vowels – three vowels and four consonants is best for bonus words. In general, get rid of duplicated letters, especially awkward ones like C, I, U, V and W. If your rack is really bad and there are no decent moves on, consider changing letters. 

13. BOARD CONTROL: Avoid opening up high-scoring opportunities (particularly triple-letter and triple-word squares) unless you are scoring highly yourself. If you are well ahead, keep the board tight: let your opponent take the risks. However, if you are miles behind, try to keep the board open so there are places to get your win-snatching bonus word down. 

14. TIME STRATEGY: You have limited time to play the game (25 minutes for each player, in New Zealand and most other countries). Use it wisely. As a general guide, try to make about seven moves in the first 10 minutes of your allotted time, and five moves in the next 10 minutes. Allow a minimum of five minutes for the endgame – this is where many games are won and lost. 

15. CHALLENGING: Throughout the game, challenge unfamiliar words. It’s only a loss of five points if the word is OK, and you learn a new word into the bargain. Think of it like this: if you challenge five words unsuccessfully for the loss of 25 points and then challenge off one 35-point word, you’ll be 10 points in the black. Challenging is easiest to do early in the game. 

TIP:  In general, always challenge your opponent’s last turn if you’re not absolutely sure of the word – unless you’re going to win by under 5 points.

16. LUCK and ATTITUDE: On some days the words just flow; on others nothing seems to go quite right. Accept your losses and wins graciously. Don’t be psyched out when facing a superior opponent – the tiles may go your way. BE POSITIVE: if you think you have a word, give it a try. Do your best, respect other players, and above all ENJOY THE GAME!