Palms damp and pulse racing, you contemplate your next move. A game-winning play could be as close as the tiles on your rack, if only you can use the letters to spell out victory -- or, at least, another seven-letter word that will get you there. As you struggle to keep your game face on, your opponent stands ready to throw down the dictionary and challenge your word choice.
If your Scrabble play has progressed into a near-obsession with word lists and little-known rules, then it's time to talk strategy. Successful players see Scrabble as not only a word game, but as a mathematically powered match of wits brimming with statistical probabilities. You'll need to master your own tiles yet understand the board as a whole -- maximizing tile values through premium placements, blocking your opponent's power moves and passing up obvious plays in the hopes of big scores.
Whether your ambitions are to simply dominate game night or to secure a place in Scrabble history at a tournament of champions, take a closer look at our top 10 strategies. One of them could just make you a winner.
Pass Up Your Turn
If you're willing to take a gamble that might pay off big, then this strategy's for you. Rather than making an obvious play, indiscriminately plunking down a couple tiles for just a few paltry points, survey the situation.
As you study the board, first look for multiple ways to play your tiles, adding the points up and mentally comparing the scores. If you're not impressed with the outcomes, take a closer look at how your opponent's been playing. What's her next likely move? Has she already created open-ended words that you could tack a few tiles onto to spell a high-scoring word? Or would you benefit by holding onto your existing tiles until your opponent has taken another turn, potentially opening new opportunities for play on the board?
If you answer yes to that last question, then you may want to sit out for a turn. Passing on your turn -- and wasting nary a letter -- makes sense if you're waiting for an opportunity to pull big numbers by using the tiles in your rack more strategically [source: Lawrence].
Make a Swap
If you're like many players, you're probably wary of the swap. It's a risky move because in swapping, you also pass on your turn to lay down a word. However, if you're stuck with a rack full of tiles that are getting you nowhere, the benefits of swapping are great. The trick is knowing when to make the exchange.
You can swap any or all of the tiles on your rack for unused tiles -- as long as there are enough unused tiles left to make the exchange, one for one. Swapping tiles is a good way to exchange low-point tiles for potentially high-point tiles, or to break up multiples of the same letter. (Es are endlessly useful, but just what are you going to spell with five of them?) If you're really stuck and can't come up with a word, making a swap could inspire your inner vocab whiz [source: Lawrence].
Keep in mind that with great reward comes great risk. But if you've been keeping track of the letters that have been played, and deducing which letters are probably still in the bag, you can make an informed decision. It's only when you don't have an educated guess about which new tiles you'll gain that swapping is too big a gamble. Otherwise, it can be a useful tool.
Score Big with Little Words
In Scrabble, one plus one doesn't always equal two. Especially if you employ a strategy in which you create words that work together. First, check out the words that are already down on the board. Then, see if you can create a new word that will intersect with an existing word (or words) at multiple points. You'll score points for your new word and for each two-letter word formed by conjoining letters.
Two-letter words are also great for playing after your opponent opens up a double- or triple-score space. Not only will you score bigger, you'll block your opponent from building there, too.
To make two-letter words work for you, beef up your vocabulary so you can play beyond "go," "do" and "to." Words like "qi," "jo," "za" and "qat" are real words that can help you score big -- and use up an inopportune Q [source: Holgate].
Go First, and Choose Wisely
If you're really into Scrabble, you'll want to develop middle- and end-game strategies -- assuming you haven't already. But if you've got strong competition, it helps to get a mental advantage right from the very start.
The official Scrabble rules say the player who draws a tile closest in the alphabet to A goes first. Although you'll need to rely on the luck of the draw to employ this strategy, opening the game by making the first move is powerful: Although going first won't guarantee that you'll win the game, there's just something satisfying about being the first to play on a clean board -- and earning a double-word score for doing so.
When you make the first move, you'll initially control the board. You'll set the tone with the opportunities you open or avoid opening by exposing or blocking premium squares. You can play an up-to-five–letter word directly in the center of the board to avoid opening a double-word score to your opponent. Or, you can maneuver a high-scoring tile onto a double-letter space on your own. And sometimes, just playing a word vertically instead of horizontally can throw off your opponents. Whatever move you opt to make, it can instill a confidence you'll take with you throughout the game [source: Holgate].
Play the Hot Spots
Playing the board's hot spots, or bonus squares, is perhaps the most important high-scoring strategy: Use it early and often. Examine the board before you ever lay a single tile so that you can identify the squares or areas that will offer bonuses.
The bonus tiles and corresponding colors (on most official Scrabble boards) are:
- Triple-word score: Red
- Double-word score: Pink
- Triple-letter score: Dark blue
- Double-letter score: Light blue
You'll want to play your tiles so that you gain as much as possible from these power squares, but that's only half the battle.
You'll also need to make a few defensive moves. Remain keenly aware of your tile placement so that you don't give a sharp-eyed opponent the advantage. Take care not to expose any triple-letter squares, or double- or triple-word squares, to your opponents -- or you'll make it easy for them to take a high-scoring ride on the coattails of your previous play. And take care not to play a word that begins or ends just a couple spaces away from a double- or triple-word space: Your opponent could add to your word and earn double or triple the points you initially received. [source: Hasbro].
Bingo with Seven-letter Words
Even if you didn't excel at school spelling bee competitions, you can still become a Scrabble champ. All it requires is making a few strategic moves -- and knowing a few seven-letter words. In Scrabble, playing a seven-letter word (which uses all the tiles in your rack), is known as a bingo, and will net 50 bonus points.
You can fuel your bingo aspirations by reading the dictionary for fun, and by paying special attention to especially sneaky seven-letter words -- you know, the ones that start with Qs, Js, and Zs. You can find seven-letter word lists compiled by other Scrabble experts and published on the Internet, too. The Australian Scrabble Players Association has an extensive online word list collection, as does Word Buff.
If your rack is filled with tiles that almost spell a seven-letter word -- except for one oddball tile -- play that oddball during your next turn (knowing lots of two-letter words will help here). It probably won't score big, but you could gain a replacement tile that will complete your seven-letter word [source: Meyers].
Know When to Open and Close the Board
If you're ready to take your Scrabble skills to the next level, then prepare to maximize the board's potential -- and thwart your opponent in the process. You'll want to start this strategy by learning to open or close the board at the right times.
According to Hasbro, the makers of Scrabble, "an arrangement of words on the Scrabble game board is said to be 'open' when there are many places to play high-scoring words." As you strategically place longer words on the board to score more points and reach bonus squares -- or as you play a seven-letter word and score a bingo -- you'll also provide more ways for your opponent to make masterful plays. However, there are certain instances when this is still a good strategy, like when you have a sizeable lead or excellent point-scoring opportunity [source: Hasbro].
If your score is lagging, switch to a defensive strategy and close the board. Use this approach when you want to make it more difficult for your opponent to make high-scoring plays. Again, remember all those short words you've been learning, and play new words parallel to (that is, right on top of or right beside) words that are already on the board [source: Holgate].
Reduce the Rack
As your Scrabble game comes to a close, it's time to roll out a few end-game strategies. Although you'll continue to draw new tiles and adapt to your opponent's moves, you'll also need to spend time calculating probabilities before making your next move in order to reduce the high-point tiles in your rack.
First, though, it's important to understand why this matters. When you have leftover tiles in your rack at the end of the game, you must deduct the sum of these tiles from your score. If, however, you are the proud owner of an empty rack, you get to add the sum of your opponent's remaining tiles to your score. How you handle your end-game strategy of rack reduction could very well determine the outcome of a close game.
Keep track of your opponent's rack. You'll want to note the number of tiles left in the bag and calculate what letters they might represent based on what has already been played on the board. It's a debatable practice to some, akin to counting cards, but it's a common practice at tournaments and in competitive clubs [source: Meyers].
Populate Your Plays with Power Tiles
If you don't know and love power tiles, then you're only playing half the game. In Scrabble, there are 10 power tiles -- two blanks, four Ss, and the J, Q, X and Z -- and it pays to use them to your advantage.
Whenever you play a J, Q, X or Z, you earn lots of points -- 10 each for the J, Q and X and eight for the X. The blank tiles are wild cards that can help you play an otherwise impossible word, but you score no points for using it, so avoid placing it over a double- or triple-letter square. The S tiles can turn a previously played word into a plural word and allow you to play a new, perpendicular word at the same time, earning you points for both. Sometimes an otherwise careful opponent will take a chance on playing a word that you could pluralize to perpendicularly reach a double- or triple-word space.
However, like many Scrabble up-and-comers, your excitement over power tiles may have waned when you realized the letters included in the power tile roundup. After all, Q, X, J and Z aren't always easy letters to play. Don't despair: If you make an effort to learn consonant-heavy words, you will open new avenues for power plays and do wonders for your game [source: Word Buff].
Follow Famous Players
If you want to learn how to be the best, it makes sense to learn from the best. That's why you'll want to develop a Scrabble dream team. This fantasy roster will be your go-to source for information, tools and strategies to improve your game. And even if you can't attend the same Scrabble club or watch these players in tournament action, you can still follow along by reading their blogs and books.
One strategy that stands out among many Scrabble experts is the homework they complete on a regular basis. For example, the Australian Scrabble Players Association recommends studying word lists 20 minutes a day for a year to ready yourself for competitive play. And this is in addition to actually playing the game. However, when you consider that Scrabble players vying for a world championship spend 12 hours a day reviewing word lists, it's likely to put it all in perspective [source: Holgate]. In the end, there's nothing like the dream of snapping down a seven-word bingo containing the letter Q over a triple-word score square to motivate a learning quest.
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10 Scrabble Strategy Tips: Author's Note
During a typical day, I research everything from serial killers to sweaty armpits, so learning more about Scrabble strategies seemed like a simple request. Scrabble has a permanent home in my game cabinet, so I invited a colleague over for a some friendly competition -- and quickly learned two potentially painful lessons: 1) I am not a master Scrabble player, and 2) this game really does require strategy.
I'd imagined that becoming the reigning interoffice Scrabble champ would bestow certain niceties. After all, there's really no better context to introduce oneself as a former spelling bee champion than when discussing a game built on the mastery of words.
Unfortunately, my plan took a dark turn as I discovered multiple sources insisting that Scrabble is a game of mathematical prowess and statistical probabilities as much as it is a game about vast vocabularies. This is rarely good news for a journalism major.
Several days, much research and one Scrabble iPad app later, I came to understand the competitive appeal of continual adaptation and mental mathematics. As for Scrabble champ? That challenge is still on the table.
- Hasbro. "About Scrabble." (Feb. 14, 2012) http://www.hasbro.com/scrabble/en_US/glossary.cfm
- Holgate, John. "Lists and Lexicons." Australian Scrabble Players Association. (Feb. 21, 2012) http://www.scrabble.org.au/strategy/lists.htm
- Holgate, John. "Strategy." Australian Scrabble Players Association. (Feb. 14, 2012) http://www.scrabble.org.au/strategy/strategy.htm
- Lawrence, Anthony. "How to Win at Scrabble: Basic Scrabble Strategy." (Feb. 14, 2012) http://pcunix.hubpages.com/hub/Basic-Scrabble-Strategy
- Meyers, Justin. "How to Master Scrabble and Win Every Game." Wonder How To. (Feb. 14, 2012) http://www.wonderhowto.com/how-to-master-scrabble-win-every-game-0115054/
- Scrabble Solver. "Scrabble Solver." (Feb. 14, 2012) http://www.scrabble-solver.com/?blanks=0&type=2&word=jckwaab&gametype=scrabble&dict=TWL
- Word Buff. "Four Letter Words." (Feb. 14, 2012) http://www.word-buff.com/four-letter-words.html