Simple Ideas

Online scrabble primer

Video Games | February 12, 2011


5-1-5-1-1-2-1. That is a seven letter word that has 15 natural points. If you play that as the first word in a Scrabble game you get the double word score if you place the tiles so that there are 4 letters on one side of the star, then that is 30. Then you get the 35 point bonus for using all your tiles. You would be up 65 points. And you would have gotten rid of two tiles that I hate, hate, hate and 3 more tiles that I moderately dislike. (C and V are abhorred, U and I are just troublesome.)

Scrabble is a very simple game. (The on-line version I play, Words with Friends, Is even simpler because it rejects the words that don't play-there are no dictionary challenges). Anyway, you and your opponent get seven tiles. You play the same board in turn. There is a scoring system that requires only rudimentary math skills. It is a very accessible game.

Plus with the on-line version, you have all the sites that augment your limited vocabulary. If you take this game up, I suggest you use two sites. The Phrontistery has a page that lists all the acceptable two and three letter words. I used that site for the first 6 months that I played the game. After a while I learned just about every 2 and 3 letter word in the language. At that point is the only site I use.

When I first started playing I ran into quite a few vicious players who waxed me but good. It was painful to get creamed, but the truth of the matter was, I didn't understand the game. I was playing it as a word game. It is not. It is a strategy game. You don't even need to know English to play the game in English. That means you could write an AI program to solve the problems and that program would not pass The Chinese Room experiment.

At some point, I will describe what I consider would be a solid scrabble app if I could find it, but first let's build into this a bit. At the intro level of the game, you play a word like G-A-M-E and your opponent uses one letter to create a word that runs perpendicular to that word. Lets say they use the G and create G-A-N-G. Because their word starts and ends with a G, they can use the G on the board to start or end the word. Generally, they will choose the options that has the most point doublers or triplers on the game board and go from there. That is scrabble at it's most basic level. And there are plenty of people who play it just that way, they take turns making one fully formed word that pulls one letter off an opponents word.

But if you play that way online, you will get smacked around more often than not. Going back to the example of G-A-M-E, if you had an O and M on your set of til, you can set the O next to the G and the M next to the A. You get three words then OM, GO and AM. That would be 5, 4 and 5 points naturally. You would get 14 points for playing tiles that had a face value of 5 points. That right there is the first shift you need to make in your thinking. You need to figure out how to amplify the natural points of your tiles.

The second shift has to do with the board itself. The triple word and triple letter score tiles can make huge swings in the game. You almost have to have the triple word block to make a play over 100 points. So laying tiles near these tiles is a problem for you. You need to know where there are and consider that unless you are going to get a huge score on your turn, you don't want you opponent to be able to get to those tiles.

That is where letters like C and V come in. I hate these tiles because...there are no 2 letter words that contain these letters. So using that fact you can place these tiles close to the triples to "block" you opponent from getting to those tiles and using them easily. Another tool is to locate a word that can't be expanded next to the triple word tile. Take a word like G-Y-V-E. There is no letter you can put in front of that to make another word. So placing the G left or below a triple block takes that block off the board for your opponent (well, you too, we are presuming you want to block that triple for some reason.)

I think that is enough to get you up to the the point where you can start to see what I think is the ultimate scrabble tool.

Once you recognize that the goal is to make as many words as you can with one turn, you then see that what you are really looking for is an app that looks at words the same way DNA is viewed. DNA is simple reflective pairing, here the problem is not that simple. But here is how it would work. Take a 5 letter word like A-I-M-E-D. You would like to find another 5 letter word that can "zipper" right next to this word and make a total of 6 words. I think T-H-A-N-E would work . You get TA, HI, EM, NE and ED as you two letter words and then the familiar THANE of British derivation as your main play. In addition to the natural 8 for thane, you get 2, 4, 5, 3, 3 for the other 5 words, plus any boosts from the game board.

I haven't found that "DNA Scrabble App" out there yet. It may be there and I haven't found it. In any case, for now, I try to reproduce that process as best I can with my knowledge of the 2 and 3 letters words and roll from there.

I made one other change to the way I play a few months ago. I used to play every game to achieve the most points I could. As a result, I had quite a few games where I would double my opponents score. On the one hand, this was how I learned, getting blown out of the water by people who knew the game better than I.

There is an argument to be made for sub-optimizing as you become a better player. Not always going for max points can make sense in terms of improving your play. Keep the game close, maybe stay 20-30 points down for most of the game and then try to win with 20 or 15 or even 10 tiles left.

Sure some people can take umbrage at this. The idea that you are laying down, luring them, giving them hope and that at the last minute crushing them. If you were doing it for that purpose it would be bad. But if you are just doing it to improve your own game, then it is not nearly that...


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