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A Club-Independent Guide for Beginners to Competitive Scrabble®

This page is pitched at a player who is interested in playing in Scrabble® clubs and tournaments, but who is only familiar with "at-home" or "living room" play.

Before proceeding, please be sure you have read or are familiar with the basics of the game. These are found in my Introduction to Competitive Scrabble page.

The first point to emphasize is when you visit a club for the first time, you may find the level of play somewhat daunting. It may not even be that obvious what folks are doing, but they may be scoring higher than you are used to, especially against you. This is the usual situation when someone shows up for the first time. An "at-home" player may be doing quite well among friends and family, but even the lower-rated club players are typically stronger than that.

The other common shock is termed "dictionary shock", which means you discover words being played that are not familiar to you. If you have already been using the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, then this may not be the case for you. To make it easier on new players, clubs typically provide a list of all the two-letter words for new players to use open-book for their first few visits to a club. Such a list is also available here on this web site.

Once you have mastered the twos, then most players favor learning the three-letter words. If you want to divide up this task, you could begin by learning those threes which are one-letter extensions of two-letter words. These are implied by the word list All Two-Letter Words and Their One-Letter Extensions.

A short, yet useful, list of words worth learning very early on are Words with a Q not Immediately Followed by a U.

The next most valuable words a beginner should learn, in my opinion, are the words up to length 5 which contain at least one of the high-scoring letters: J,Q,X,Z. Such lists are available at this web site at OWL3 Wordlists.

Once you have mastered all of the above words, and this may take some number of weeks, it is then not clear which are the most useful places to focus to increase your word knowledge. Some players suggest concentrating on the fives. I have chosen to learn some number of likely sevens before trying to approach the fives in a coherent manner. Eventually I hope to provide some word lists for sevens, but these are not yet ready. You could try to learn all the fours; this is tougher than I imagined.

If you are playing in a club where there are experienced players, go look at their boards when they are finished to pick up extra random word knowledge.

Here is a helpful source for new or experienced players:

Word knowledge is a lot, but it is not everything. Simultaneously, along with word study, you ought to be playing the game with folks from whom you can learn. Experienced players are usually happy to teach the new player who asks questions and wants to learn. Watch how experienced players place words on the board and how much they tend to open opportunities for the opponent.

Although this word is not mentioned in the rules which come with the game, competive players in North America use the term "bingo" for any play when all 7 letters are used. Trying to make such plays is a large part of the game, since you get 50 extra points when you play a bingo. Competitive players make such plays in almost every game. It is indeed an unusual game when no bingos are played. Strong players will average around two bingos per game. It is not uncommon to find four or five bingos on a board. Many "at-home" players find this surprising. I have been told by such folks that they have been playing for years and have yet to make such a play.

Using today's OSPD (Official Scrabble Players Dictionary), if you just go to the full bag of tiles and randomly pull out 7 letters, the probability they will form a 7-letter word is about 12.5%, in other words 1 chance in 8. So if you play a lot of the game and can anagram well, you should be opening with a bingo maybe 1 in every 10 or 12 or 15 games; I say this since you may not always know the word or words formable from those 7 letters. But I think that you would know more of those words than not - the likely words come from the common letters which are the most plentiful in the bag. For example, there are 12 E's, 9 A's and I's, 6 N's and R's and T's, so these are likely letters to show up when pulling randomly from a full bag. If you combine these with an S, you get a very rich rack of letters and can form any of these:
   ANESTRI ANTSIER NASTIER RATINES RETAINS RETINAS RETSINA STAINER STEARIN
There is no better rack (without a blank) today (in the sense of how many words you can form). I don't know the likelihood of getting that very rack, but I think if you play a lot you would see that every so often on the opening. Moreover, mid-game, when you been playing a while and keeping balanced racks, you are even more likely for this particular rack to show up. So what I am saying is the game provides you with lots of opportunities to have 7-letter word racks. The problem is then finding them. It may take some work and shuffling; if you know these are possible and likely you will find them more often. If you play the game enough, you develop a sense of when a rack looks promising. If you play the game enough and have advice from a computer or knowledgeable player you learn new words, some of which are the likely ones to show up. Examples of likely words you might not know or have thought of are ANISOLE, ERASION, and RETINAE, but if you play a lot you should come across these. Of course, you may start to find 7-letter words in your game and then have nowhere to get them onto the board - this is frustrating, but a common occurrence. Anagramming 8-letter words is a lot more difficult than 7's. I don't know the math of how often there is an opening reply to letters on the board that forms an 8-letter word, but it probably is at least 12.5%.

Unless a blank comes to you very late in the game when the board is blocked up, it is very common to use the blank as part of a bingo. A good player would not usually waste a blank for any other reason, unless a play of at least 40 or 50 is made by it. Since there are two blanks, one would expect there would therefore be at least two bingos per game.

Also, inexperienced players sometimes miss the idea that an S should be kept for a good use. By keeping an S in your rack you increase your chances of playing a 7-letter word when you manage to have one. S is a common letter in 7-letter words, but more importantly, it can be used to "hang" your word on the board, extending a singular noun or present tense verb. With a word such as RETSINA, the S is not necessarily at the tail end of a word.

A reader of my web site wrote to me and asked how likely are bingos and how likely are tied games, since both events happened to her in the same game. As I have indicated above, bingos are extremely likely to be played. On the other hand, the small amount of probing I did found that ties are observed less than 1% of the time when games are between players of the same strength, such as in a tournament. Obviously, the closer the two players are in strength, the closer there scores will be overall and so they are likely to see more ties than two players of unequal strength. If you and your mother play regularly and if your mother almost always wins, then you will probably see ties far less often than 1 in a 100 games.

(to be continued...)


back to the top of this page This page, maintained by Mike Wolfberg, was last updated on January 08, 2016 .