January 19, 2009


Masters of the Tiles: Even to initiates, Scrabble has yet to yield up all its secrets (Barry Chamish , June 1987, The Atlantic)

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.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 19, 2009 6:35 AM
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