Masters of the Tiles

Even to initiates, Scrabble has yet to yield up all its secrets  

Like many other Americans in 1933, Alfred Butts was experiencing a degree of financial embarrassment, and he fervently hoped that a new game he had just devised would change his fortunes. Butts called the game Criss-Cross—an apt descriptor for what would later be known as Scrabble. He found a business partner, James Brunot, who worked the kinks out of the game and arranged for a professional to design the board. Butts and Brunot sold their game out of a Connecticut garage until, in the early 1950s, a Scrabble craze forced a move to larger premises and resulted, finally, in a licensing agreement with the games manufacturer Selchow & Righter (now a subsidiary of Coleco). Scrabble has proved enduring. Whereas Trivial Pursuit, which is also marketed by Selchow & Righter, and which in recent years outsold Scrabble, is looking more and more like a fad, Scrabble has assumed the august repute of chess and bridge. Scrabble sets can be found in 27 percent of all American households. The level of play in organized clubs and tournaments far exceeds anything that Butts and Brunot could have anticipated.

During the past decade several developments have turned Scrabble into a very rigorous pursuit indeed. One was the debut, in 1977, of the Scrabble Players News, which for the first time united players from coast to coast. In its pages new strategies were explored, games and situations were analyzed, and puzzles of historic moment were presented. Next, in 1978, came the publication of The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (OSPD), by the G. & C. Merriam Company. This put an end to unseemly arguments over verification. If a word up to eight letters long—seven letters is the number a player has in his rack—does not appear in the OSPD, then it is not a legal Scrabble Word. (For longer words, the authority is Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.) In essence, tournament play suddenly had an additional set of rules. Finally, in 1980, a rating system for Scrabble players, modeled on that of the U.S. Chess Federation, was developed by a Scrabble-playing mathematician, Daniel Pratt, who works for the Defense Department. Today the ratings are maintained by another mathematician, Alan Frank, who refined Pratt's system and now lets the world's finest Scrabble players know where they stand in relation to one another.

Today there are several thousand people in the English-speaking world who compete in Scrabble tournaments; many of them will convene next month in Las Vegas for the Western Championship, one of eighty annual North American tournaments. (North American Scrabble, by the way, is different from that played in Britain and in all Commonwealth countries except Canada and Australia. The British play a perverse game that is almost cooperative in nature, and they adamantly refuse to accept the OSPD as the final word in verification, using instead Chambers 20th-Century Dictionary. Outside North America and Australia, only Israel, the home of the Dead Sea Open, plays by American rules.) Of the Scrabble players who compete in tournaments, several hundred are considered masters of the game. Perhaps a score of the better players—among them Ronald Tiekert (who is the top-ranked player worldwide), Joseph Edley, Charles Armstrong, Stephen Fisher, Daniel Pratt, Peter Morris, Joel Wapnick, Lester Schonbrun, Stephen Polatnick, and James Neuberger—might be considered grand masters. I am not a grand master, but I am good enough to have played some of them, and occasionally to have won.

A Scrabble master is not born; like the alphabet he uses, he is made. An enormous amount of training lies behind his apparent gift. First, all of the OSPD's two-letter words must be memorized. Also learned are which ones can be pluralized and which ones cannot. For instance, ka can take an s but xu can't. Next, all three-letter words are learned by heart, both those that hook to two-letter words, like kab, and those that stand alone, like neb. After this, all four-letter words that hook to three-letter words (for example, rani and taro) must be memorized. Then all four-letter words are memorized. Short words are not a majority of all words in the language, but they are disproportionately important in Scrabble. In a typical game they account for three quarters of the words put down and for more than half the points scored. Knowing these two-, three-, and four-letter words makes possible the dumping of unwanted letters and the hoarding of important ones. This is known as rack management.

Learning all the English words of four letters is the most valuable of the memorizing operations. Just knowing which ones are verbs and which ones adjectives increases the likelihood of making "bingos"—that is, laying down all seven letters in one's rack, thereby earning fifty bonus points. For instance, if you know that toit is a verb, then you can make a bingo with toiting. Or if you remember that logy is an adjective, then logiest can clear your rack.

Mastering Scrabble does not, however, end at the fours. All five-letter words that hook to fours, like ranid and taroc, must be learned. However, not even champions can memorize all five- and six-letter words, and these play a small role in the game. In fact, the only predictable situation in which knowing a five-letter-word list comes in handy is that of wanting to join a triple-letter square to the double-word-score square five places away.

Master players concentrate their efforts on the memorization of useful words only. To begin with, they learn longer hooks. For instance, chore can become chorea, which can become choreal. Also, they concentrate on learning "what to do with vowel- or consonant-heavy racks. Four consonants and three vowels are the best combination for a seven-letter word. Think about it: how many five-letter words do you know with four vowels in them? A Scrabble master knows them all. Putting down oorie, ourie, aeda, oidia, orzoeae cleans out a vowel-heavy rack and gets points. How many words do you know with no vowels whatsoever (other than y)? The Scrabble master knows nth, cwm, crwth, phpht, andtsktsks, among others, and so can deal with a consonant-heavy rack. He learns bingo words that are overbearingly vowelish. Ask a Scrabble grand master what five 8-letter words contain six vowels and he will answer, as if bored by the obviousness of the inquiry, eulogiae, epopoeia, aboideau, aboiteau, and aurrolae.

Next to be studied is the so-called three-percent list. The three-percent list was pioneered by a psychologist, Michael Baron, of Albuquerque. It is based on the assumption that of the 76,000 bingos listed in the OSPD, most can be discarded as unlikely ever to appear on a Scrabble rack; a few thousand, however, will appear over and over again. There are, for example, two Vs in a Scrabble set. Trying to memorize bingos with Vs in them is inefficient, because picking one is relatively unlikely. However, there are twelve Es in the game, eight Os, six Rs, six Ns, and so on. The chance that on your first draw you will pick any of the twelve letters contained in Baron's list of bingos is three percent or better—hence the name. Baron also discovered that certain six-letter combinations occur with uncanny frequency. By learning the six-letter words and all the possible sevens that can be made from them, players can digest an enormous number of new words and immediately find the bingo when a familiar combination is picked. The letters in satine can form sixty other words with the addition of a seventh letter, and the letters in retina can form almost as many.

Consider the word amines, meaning certain chemical compounds. It has six letters, and by adding a seventh you can make a bingo. Try it. Okay, you've failed. But if you were familiar with the list, you wouldn't have fumbled with the letters, arranging and rearranging them for the solution. You would say amines with a d is sideman or maidens. With a g it's seaming or gamines; with an l, seminal; with an r, seminar or marines; and so on. The strategy is to assemble a six-letter word known to be fertile territory for seven-letter words and just add the missing letter from memory. Thus, the astute player assembles satine oramines, recalls his list, and makes etesian or samisen.

Another tool is the Scrabble "bonus-word" list, which was assembled by three competitive players, Stuart Goldman, David Schulman, and Edward Andy. Schulman is a contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary and the author of An Annotated Bibliography of Cryptography. He has written many articles about words for American Speech magazine and would be expected to be a Scrabble star. Goldman holds the record for the most official Scrabble games played in a lifetime, but neither he nor Andy has anything in his background extraneous to Scrabble to suggest a mastery of words. The Scrabble bonus-word list is similar to the three-percent list, but it takes into account all letters, even the rare high-scoring ones. It is not as mathematically precise as Baron's list but rather reflects the combined instincts of three great Scrabble players. It's arranged in alphabetical order. For instance, if you have AAABLST on your rack and you're stumped, and after the game you look at the bonus list, you will discover, to your amazement, that you had not one but three bingos:atabals, balatas, and albatas.

Whatever the regimen recommended by the experts, the fact remains that memorization is a highly personal act. One memorizes more easily what one relates to or finds congenially systematic. A common tool for word memory is mnemonics, or association. One example is the ladder trick—building words by adding a letter at a time. Here are three examples:

he, her, herm, therm, therme, thermel, thermels

pa, pal, opal, copal, copilm, copalms

lo, log, logy, ology, oology, zoology

All these words, by the way, can be found in the OSPD.

Joel Wapnick is a professor of music at McGill University and Canada's Scrabble champion. He has memorized more than 16,000 bingos and is considered one of Scrabble's top theoreticians. In the Scrabble Players News he had some words of wisdom for those who might wish to memorize almost 20,000 mostly ridiculous words:

There are many mnemonic devices that all of us use to simplify the memorization process. Suppose for some strange reason you want to memorize the following nine words: victoria, ophidian, diplopia, fixation, miaowing, hominian, himation, hospitia and pavilion. Those happen to be my list of 8 letter words that have the four vowels aiio plus two high point tiles.

If you simply rehearse them over and over again, it's not likely that they will be remembered over a long period of time. Instead you might look for some structure in the words. For example words 6, 7 and 8 begin with the letter H. Words 1, 2, 3, and 4 have a pattern in their last letters; a-n-a-n. Or perhaps the number 41243 can be remembered—it stands for the tile value of the first letters of words 1 through 5, and can serve to cue these words in.

Knowing many words is invaluable in two ways. First, it saves time. In tournament play each competitor has only twenty-five minutes to complete a game. If he goes over the time limit, he is penalized ten points per extra minute. Second, it reduces the importance of luck as a factor in the game. Because letters are chosen blind, anyone can get bad ones. (This assumes that one is playing honestly; there are several ways to cheat, the most notorious being the practice of "brailling"—feeling the tiles in the bag in search of a blank or an S.) It is estimated that the outcome of high-level Scrabble games is determined by luck in one game out of six. The percentage, of course, increases with ineptitude, and with ignorance of useful words. Because of the recent upsurge in word knowledge, owing to the introduction of new word lists and memorization schemes, Scrabble strategy has changed completely during the past decade. It used to be considered smart to block or clog up a board so that no one could put down a bingo. Today the top players hate it when their hard memory work goes for naught, and they tend to play wide-open, aggressive Scrabble in the hope of putting down a three-percent word they have learned.