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Night on the tiles: the misconceptions of Scrabble

Outing yourself as a keen Scrabble player is often a bit like admitting to wearing the same pair of long johns for four days in a row. People will often look at you as if  you’re a bit of an oddity; the type of person who would sit alone in a dark room with a video of Test Card F playing while scouring through a dictionary and feverishly scribbling down notes of ‘interesting’ words with a quill pen.

Scrabble is a game that does attract a certain type of personality – often eccentric – but most keen players of the game are interesting, intelligent and, above all, very friendly. The game suffers from some misconceptions that perhaps put a lot of wordsmiths off playing, so here are three of the main myths about taking part in the word-wise game:

1. You need to make as long a word as possible

Although the 50-point bonus obtained for using all the letters on your rack is always welcome, the best way to get good at Scrabble is to remember the short words playable. It’s very rare for words of more than nine letters to appear.

There are 125 two-letter words you can play in British Scrabble – you will know many of them (AM, BE, DO, HE, IF, IN, NO, SO, TO, WE, etc), but are you familiar with CH (an obsolete dialect form of the personal pronoun ‘I’), FY (an expression of disapproval), KO (a digging stick) or YU (a Chinese jadestone)?

These are so useful because you can bridge them onto existing words to create another word in the opposite direction. For example, if your opponent starts the game by playing the word PANTO across, rather than criss-crossing that word, you could place a K above the O to form KO reading downwards, then play the word KEY across. This would be especially worth doing if the K (worth five points) was on a premium square, as your points for the letter would double or triple for both KO and KEY.

2. Letters like Q, Z, X and J are a nuisance

Actually, players often see these less commonly used tiles as a chance to score highly without using many letters. This, again, is where the two-letter and three-letter words come in.

Worth eight points, X is a brilliant letter to have on your rack, because you can always use it if there is an available vowel. You might know AX, EX and OX, but what about the Greek letter XI and the archaic Vietnamese currency XU? It’s also well worth knowing QI (Chinese life force), ZO (a Tibetan yak) and ZA (apparently a slang term for a pizza). Bear in mind as well that your score can rocket if you place the high-scoring letter on a double or triple letter score square, and even more so if you can form another word with it in the opposite direction. It’s therefore not uncommon for 50-60 points to be earned for playing any of these short words.

The most awkward letter to have is probably V, in fact, because it’s the only letter contained in no valid two-letter words and is worth a stingy four points.

3. You need to have a huge vocabulary

You can certainly learn new words and how to use them by playing Scrabble, and having a way with words in the first place is certainly an advantage, but players regularly lay down words without knowing what they mean.

You don’t have to be able to define the word to be able to score for it. Generally, players just become familiar with common patterns of letters, good words for getting rid of a rack heavy with vowels or consonants and short words with one or more high-scoring letters. Few players sit down and memorise them, but simply learn them through repeated playing.

Some players do find that knowing the definition helps them to remember the word, and doing so can expand the game beyond simply knowing patterns of letters and bring some general knowledge into things, but seasoned players often get tired of hearing “what does that mean?” after every unusual word they play.

It’s never been easier to start a game of Scrabble, and you can do so on Facebook and several other online sources, but there’s no substitute for having a physical set and playing an opponent at a table over a tea, coffee or a pint. Your game is bound to improve from the experience of completing directly with avid players, and it makes you really appreciate the wit and tactics of the 75-year-old game.

As a starting point, I would thoroughly recommend the Association of British Scrabble Players website (www.absp.org.uk), at which you’ll be able to find details of your local club.

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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