How Scrabble Works

Scrabble is a word game that relies on both vocabulary knowledge and chance.
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The pressure's on, and as you glance back and forth between your rack and the board, you can hardly believe your eyes at the play you can make. You lay down your seven tiles and, to the amazement of your friends, rack up a triple word score using the letter Z, getting a Bingo in the process. Tonight you've rightly earned your win at Scrabble.

Every night people all over the world set up their racks for a game of Scrabble. Scrabble is a crossword game where players use lettered tiles to build words by placing them on a grid. It's a game of both skill and chance -- you have to have a good knowledge of words, but you're also stuck with whatever tiles you pick and what's already been played on the board.


An architect named Alfred Mosher Butts invented Scrabble while he was out of work during the Great Depression. Originally called Criss-Cross Words, he built the game to combine both crossword puzzles and anagrams. In creating the game, he analyzed the front page of the New York Times and counted the usage of each letter in the alphabet. Once he figured out how often each letter was used, he assigned them all point values and chose how many of each letter he would include in the game. The rarer the letter, the higher the point value.

Unfortunately for Butts, his Criss-Cross words couldn't garner any interest from manufacturers, so he partnered with an entrepreneur named James Brunot, who helped him refine the game. They came up with the name Scrabble and started manufacturing it themselves in 1949. The first few years were slow, but when Macy's decided to stock the game in the early 1950s, it became a phenomenon, and the two had a hit on their hands.

Today, Hasbro manufactures Scrabble, and it's become a standard in many game rooms in homes around the world. It's also morphed into a competitive sport, complete with its own association. The National Scrabble Association helps players improve their games and hosts an annual tournament in the United States. Other countries and regions around the world also put on national tournaments. The best players on earth gather every two years to compete in the World Scrabble Championships.

How can you take your game to the next level? Let's start by looking at game play.


How to Play Scrabble

The winning board for the 2003 National School Scrabble Championship is shown on display in Boston.
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The object of Scrabble is to get the most points by creating words. You build these words by placing lettered tiles on a grid. Each tile is assigned a point value, and you amass points by trying to get the most points out of your word. Players build off of at least one tile in each other's words until no one can build any more words. The player with the highest score wins.

Anywhere from two to four people may play the game at one time, although tournament play is always one-on-one. The game consists of four basic pieces:


  • Board -- The board is a grid with a star in the middle, where game play starts, and bonus squares scattered around it.
  • Tiles -- The tiles are the pieces used in play. The game comes with 100 tiles, each with a different letter and point value assigned to it. Common letters, like E, have more tiles, but fewer points. Uncommon letters, like Q and Z, have only one tile each. Tiles range in point values from zero to 10. The two tiles that aren't worth any points are both blank, and they can be deemed as any letter in the alphabet when they're first laid down on the board. Although they're not worth anything, the ability to use them strategically can help you out when you're missing that one letter you need to build a word.
  • Letter Bag -- The letter bag holds all unused tiles. During game play, players draw tiles from this bag.
  • Rack -- Each player gets a rack for his or her tiles. The rack allows a player to prepare for the next move without anyone else seeing what tiles he or she has.

Games may also include a timer, in case the players would like to set a time limit on the length of a player's turn.

Players should also have a dictionary on hand for challenges. Players should agree on which dictionary to use, whether it's a standard dictionary or the Official Scrabble Players' Dictionary.

Now that you know the parts of the game, let's take a look at how to play it.


Scrabble Rules

Nick Amphlett and John Ezekowitz, both 12 years old, react to their victory at the National School Scrabble Championship.
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To determine who goes first, put all the tiles into the bag and mix them up. Each player chooses one tile, and the person with the letter closest to A or a blank tile goes first. Play continues in a clockwise direction.

Next, put all the tiles into the bag. Each player draws seven tiles and assembles them on their rack. Player one takes two or more tiles and lays down a word either across or down, with one letter on the star in the center of the board. He counts up her score, announces it and draws tiles until he has seven on his rack again.


The second player lays down at least one tile adjacent to a letter on the board to create a new word or words. This can be as simple as adding a prefix, suffix or plural to the original word, or it can be a totally new word. Again, the word must read either across or down, because diagonals aren't allowed in Scrabble. The player counts up his point total, announces it, and the next player continues the game, building off of any word on the board. If you use all seven of your tiles, you get a 50-point bonus, which is called a bingo.

When you use a blank tile, announce what letter it will represent. It will remain that letter for the rest of the game. Blank tiles aren't worth any points.

Scattered around the board are bonus squares indicating extra point-earning opportunities, either premium letter squares or premium word squares. The star in the center is a double word score. A bonus square can be used only once per game.

Any word can be challenged, and this is where your dictionary comes in. You may use the dictionary only to look up a challenged word. If the challenge is successful, the player takes back his tiles and loses his turn. If the word does exist, the challenger loses his next turn. A player may only challenge a word directly after it's played.

The game continues until one player uses all of his tiles and there aren't any in the pouch, or if there are no more tiles and no one can make a word. Add up the total of your unplayed tiles and deduct it from your score. If you've used all of your tiles, add the total of the unplayed tiles to your score. The winner has the most points.


Scrabble Tips

A quiet night of Scrabble in 1970.
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If you play often enough, you'll need to learn how to play the board in order to get the highest score. These tips can help you exploit your tiles for all they're worth.

  • Points vs. leave -- Laying down a word is only one aspect of the game. What you choose to leave on your rack is equally as important. Are you setting yourself up for a big play? Do you have a lot of letters on your rack that aren't combining well? Do you need to play some low-point tiles just to make space on your rack for better possibilities?
  • Exchanging your tiles -- Speaking of making space on your rack, it's OK to exchange some or all of your letters. Granted, this eats up one of your turns, but sometimes it can make your point-earning opportunities even better.
  • Parallels -- Every word you create is a score, so try to make multiple words on one turn. For example, if someone lays down TON, and you lay down NOW underneath it, with the N under the O in TON, you get points for NOW, ON, and NO because you've created three different words. If you create three small words that play off a bonus square, it can produce more points than one long, elegant word.
  • Exploiting the bonus squares-- As you look for places to lay down your tiles, be aware of where the bonus squares are and what you're playing around them. You don't want to set up a triple word score for your opponent. Also, try to use higher-point tiles on bonus squares.
  • Hooks -- A hook is adding one tile to a word that results in a totally new word. For example, if EEL is on the board, you can add an F to create FEEL. Sometimes you can ratchet up your score just by adding one letter.
  • Setting up your rack -- The way you look at the letters on your rack can also help you see more opportunities. Some people like to have the letters on their rack in alphabetical order. Others like to group common suffixes and prefixes together.
  • Vocabulary -- Of course, it doesn't hurt to brush up on your vocabulary. One way is to play anagrams, the transposing of letters in a word to create a new word, which helps you visualize your rack. Another way to boost your Scrabble score is to "learn your twos," the list of acceptable two-letter words. Knowing these can help you shed difficult tiles, especially near the end of the game when space is difficult to find [source: Hasbro].

With the game's popularity, it now comes in many variations. Let's take a look at some different ways to play Scrabble.


Scrabble Variations

Instead of using a board, players of Scrabble Apple take their tiles out of a plush apple.

Many people play Scrabble on a traditional flat board with the grid imprinted on it. Fancier versions of the board have a plastic overlay on the grid so that the tiles can stay in place. These boards are also set on a lazy susan so you can spin the board around from player to player. From time to time other special edition boards are released to give players the opportunity to invest in a high-quality set.

Young children can enjoy a junior version of Scrabble that helps them match letters to words on the grid. As the children become more advanced, they can use the reverse side of the board to build their own words.


You can also take your Scrabble set on the road with a travel version. This folio edition comes in a zip-up case for easy travel. Letter tiles snap into the grid, so they won't move as you travel. Another highly portable version is Scrabble Express. Designed to last only 20 minutes, this small game has letters on dice that you roll to try to create words. A timer keeps the game from going too long.

Of course, you could be a purist and play Scrabble strictly as a board game, but there are also many electronic and online versions of the game. Whether you have a video game system, a smartphone, a PC or the Scrabble electronic pocket game, you have access to great word play.

Hasbro has also released a card game version called Scrabble Slam! This fast-paced game is for two to four players who race against each other to build four-letter words. Once a word is built, players lay down cards to keep changing the word, trying to get all of the cards out of their hand.

Another variation is Scrabble Apple, a Scrabble-like game without the grid. Letter tiles come in a plush apple, and players flip them over one at a time in a race to build words the fastest.

With its worldwide popularity, it only makes sense that Scrabble comes in languages other than English. Spanish, German, French and Swedish are just four of the 29 languages in which you can play the game [source: Mattel].


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Hasbro. "About the Scrabble Game." (March 26, 2010)
  • Mattel. "Scrabble: History." (March 26, 2010)
  • National Scrabble Players Association. "Scrabble History." (March 26, 2010)