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An Introduction to Competitive Scrabble®

Scrabble® is the commonly used nickname of the Scrabble® Brand Crossword Game. This brand name also applies to several other word games, but these are not as well known to the public. This web site refers to the Scrabble® Brand Crossword Game merely as "Scrabble®". This game was invented in the 1940's and has been sold by various corporations. For many years Selchow and Righter owned the Scrabble® trademark in North America. Today Milton Bradley and its parent company Hasbro own it for distribution in this part of the world.

This word game is best played between two players, even though the game sets are sold with four tile racks. Playing this game with more than two racks greatly diminishes the strategic aspects of the game.

The purpose of this game is use single-letter tiles to form and lay down words on the 15 x 15 game board in a crossword-like fashion, such that all formed vertical and horizontal words are acceptable words. The letter tiles each have a score value, which serve as the basis to calculate a score for each play made. The least frequently used letters in the English lexicon have the highest score values. The game board has several colored "premium" squares which boost the values of individual letters or entire words, as tiles are set down over these squares. The object of the game is to outscore your opponent.

The pool of letters for the game are on 100 tiles whose distribution is specifically dictated: A-9, B-2, C-2, D-4, E-12, F-2, G-3, H-2, I-9, J-1, K-1, L-4, M-2, N-6, O-8, P-2, Q-1, R-6, S-4, T-6, U-4, V-2, W-2, X-1, Y-2, Z-1, blank-2.

Each player's rack holds 7 tiles from which plays are made. There is a significant bonus (of 50 points) added to a player's turn score when one plays all 7 tiles at once, so this is an important goal for players to achieve. Beginners rarely play all 7 letters, but experts may do so 2, 3, or more times in a typical game.

It is not intended that the complete rules of this game are to be included here - the above general aspects of the game are what a casual reader of this page may want to know. This part of this web site is meant for those who already play or strive to play competitively. Although much less popular (in terms of numbers) than chess or Bridge, there is organized competitive Scrabble® activity throughout the world. Unfortunately, this game is not usually played in the same manner throughout the world, so international competition is limited. The main difference is one of language - American English, British English, French, Spanish, etc. are all specific and different. Chess, on the other hand, is language-independent, so international competition is possible.

Of central importance in the game of Scrabble® is the lexicon of acceptable words. In the U.S.A. and Canada, the basic reference today is the "Official Tournament and Club Word List" or "OWL", published by Merriam-Webster. The Second Edition of the OWL is now the basis of acceptable words in North America; its use began in March, 2006. This book is the only reference for words played which are less than 10 letters in length. Competitive players should ideally learn what is in and what is not in this "bible" of the game, but this is a mighty difficult task.

Before June 16, 2003, words of length greater than 9 letters may also have come from the longer word source dictionary, which was the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary Tenth Edition.

The Official Long Words List was compiled and created by the Dictionary Committee of the NSA, subsequently NASPA. As of June 16, 2003, this list became the ONLY acceptable official long word list for use at sanctioned NSA/NASPA Clubs and Tournaments. The committee has plans to update this long words list, but this was not imminent (as of August, 2006).

Before the OWL Editon One was published there had been various editions of the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (OSPD), also published by Merriam-Webster. When the Third Edition of this book was published, several politically incorrect words were omitted, but competitive play has continued using such words. At this time, it is probably best to own both a Second Edition OSPD (for defitions of most of these nasty words) and a Fourth Edition OSPD, but the Second Edition is no longer sold in stores. The Fourth Edition, which can be purchased today, is for "recreational use", not competitive play. See Steven Alexander's Scrabble® FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) for more details about word sources.

These books are also used in some other parts of the world, for example in Thailand, but there are yet other places where a different reference book is used. At the moment there are two different lexicons for competitive Scrabble® play in English. The OSPD and OWL was described above. The other is called Collins Scrabble® Tournament and Club Word List (CSW12) which has been valid for play since 1-Jan-12. Collins is the publisher. Previously, the authority for play in England and most parts of the world was known as the Official Scrabble® Words (OSW), when it was based on the British Chambers Dictionary. At that time, OSW words did not include all OSPD words, but now CSW12 does include all OWL2 words. It used to tbe case that international tourneys used a lexicon which included both OSPD and OSW words, and the combined word list was informally called SOWPODS, from the letters in both OSPD and OSW. For example, a World Scrabble® Championship Tournament was held in November, 1997 in Washington, D.C., where the best players from around the world competed using SOWPODS.

It has been announced in early 2014 that by the end of 2014 there will be a next edition of the OSPD and the OWL. References should be available for purchase at the North American Championship in Buffalo, NY in August, 2014. It seems likely a next edition of Collins will follow.

This web site is limited to OWL3 and OWL4 words, at least those parts of the site devoted to words, such as Mike Wolfberg's Wordlists. The OWL3 lists will be removed when time permits, now that the OWL4 is the authority.

Many North Americans have played Scrabble® in a non-competitive home atmosphere, where taking a lot of time and arguments about acceptability of words is typical. In competitive play, the list of acceptable words is very clear, even though each person's perception of the list's contents is argued. There are bound to be words you think should be in the list which are not, and you are more likely to find words in the list which you think do not belong for various reasons. At least, by adopting one word source, the game can be played in a controlled manner. As far as consuming too much time, competitive Scrabble® is played with a chess clock to time the game. Each player has a total of 25 minutes in which to make all plays, so games usually last less than 45 minutes. If you go overtime in Scrabble® you lose points rather than merely losing, as is the penalty for going overtime in chess.

In competitive play, each player keeps score, with a running tally, and these are compared from time to time throughout the game. Some players like to make these comparisons upon every play; I personally find this to be annoying and distracting. The going-out scoring in competitive play is slightly different than the rules which come with Scrabble® sets. When the bag of tiles is empty and a player clears out his/her rack, the game is over and that player who just went out gets double the value of the tiles in the opponent's rack.

A game can end earlier than a player's clearing the rack. At any point in the game, if the last 6 plays scored zero, then the game is over. Each player subtracts the value of the tiles in his/her rack from his/her current score. Achieving a score of zero for a play may be due to a pass, a trade, or a lost challenge. These terms will now be explained.

During a competitive Scrabble® game in North America instead of making a play on the board, you may either pass your turn or trade from one to seven tiles with the bag. You may trade on your turn when the bag holds at least seven tiles, no matter how many you intend to trade. When you trade, you lay the letters to be traded face down on the table, announce the number of tiles you are trading, hit the chess clock (which commits you to this decision), and take the new tiles from the bag before mixing back the tiles being traded from the table.

A competitive game in North America is played closed-book, but you are welcome to take notes and even come to the game with a preprinted score sheet, which can include the letters in the set. This so-called tracking sheet can help you keep track of what has been played so that you can make better decisions throughout the game, and especially at the very end of the game, when you can determine what your opponent's last rack has in it. Most expert players use tracking sheets during games. Perhaps, as a beginner, it is better is get down the other fundamentals of play before trying to track also. It can be confusing enough to get used to using a chess clock.

When using a chess clock, you set each of the two clocks of this device to 25 minutes before the hour (when the clocks are standard analog clocks) or merely a 25-minute time period (on a digital clock). When the player who is going first, player "A", places a first tile on his/her rack, it is time to start player A's clock; either player does this. Then the clock is ticking down, as player A is thinking about what to do - using up the total time. So there is no time limit per play. When player A is ready, if tiles are being played for the turn, they are positioned on the board, the score is announced by player A, and player A pushes the chess clock button. This stops player A's clock or timer and starts the other one. Until the clock button is pushed, the play can be retracted, reconsidered, and changed, but once the button is pushed, a commitment has been made.

At that point the opponent, player "B", should say "hold" if there is any doubt about the acceptability of the play. This has the effect of stopping player A's replenishing the rack from the bag immediately. Then player B considers that last play and either decides to accept it, else challenge. If the decision was to accept the play as made, then the game proceeds, and player A replenishes the played tiles from the bag. But if the decision to challenge is made, player B says "challenge" and neutralizes or stops the clock or timer. While using no one's time, a determination is made as to the acceptability of the play. It is up to the challenger to decide which of the words played (there can be as many as 8) should be part of the challenge. It is customary to have a third party, such as an official word judge in a tournament make the determination of the acceptability of the play. What comes back from the judge is either that the play is ACCEPTABLE or UNACCEPTABLE. If all challenged words are acceptable, the answer is the play is acceptable, but if there is at least one phony, then the play is deemed unacceptable, with no further information.

When a challenged play is declared acceptable, the challenger, player B in this case, then gives up the right to make a next play, and so a zero is scored. When the play is declared unacceptable, the tiles are returned to the rack from which they came - to player A's rack in this case - and that is the end of player A's turn. That turn therefore scores zero.

These are the fundamental rules which are not covered by the game box rules. There are many pages of rules in the official rule book of NASPA. These are not worthy of repeating here. They are concerned with problems during the game, such as what to do with an incomplete set, what to do when too many tiles are drawn from the bag, etc.


back to the top of this page This page, maintained by Mike Wolfberg, was last updated on June 10, 2014 .