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Scrabble variants
and a few more Scrabble thoughts

Think of this as my Scrabble "mop up" page. In fact, everything here was in my main Scrabble page at one point. When I put the finishing touches on Scrabble II, I figured it was time to tighten the page up and remove the sections not directly related to Scrabble II.

That's what we have here.

Points Per Turn -
The Scrabble statistic

I maintain the most descriptive and significant Scrabble statistic is a player's Average Points Per Turn (PPT). PPT does not depend on playing two-person games, or even standard, 100-tile games. (See my suggestion of drawing from a mixed set of tiles.) It is much less sensitive to "who were his opponents?" than Average Points Per Game or even Won/Loss record. Since there are so many turns in a game, a very meaningful average can be calculated in just a few games.

The PPT statistic recognizes that the number of points that can be scored in a Scrabble game is limited, no matter how much you improve. A Scrabble game always uses up more or less the same letters on the same board. Two novice players may take 22 turns to score their 635 total points while more experienced players will take 16 turns to score the same amount. Heck, if two chickens could be taught to kick Scrabble tiles onto a board, they would score the same. Expert players score significantly more because of the arbitrary 50-point bonuses for their bingoes. Take those bonuses away and there they are, stuck right beside us in the mid-600s, too.

Scrabble is about grabbing up the limited, available points in as big handfuls as possible - and that's what Points Per Turn measures. Just add up all the points you scored and divide by all the turns you played. If you have the highest PPT average on earth, then you are the greatest Scrabble player on earth. (Congratulations!)

PPT UPDATE, April 2008: I just stumbled on this Q&A on Hasbro's Scrabble FAQ page.

My wife scores 400-450 points per game. Would she be considered an expert?

Not necessarily. At SCRABBLE clubs and tournaments experts average between 330-450 points per game. However, the competition is probably much stiffer than your wife encounters, and she may have to adjust her thinking to adapt to the typical 25 minute time limit per person per game when using a chess clock. A better measure of skill is determining the "average points per turn" score. If your wife averages 30 or more points per turn, not counting tile exchanges, then she may very well be a SCRABBLE expert. The very top SCRABBLE players average 35 or more points per turn, not counting exchanges. We suggest she visit and play at a SCRABBLE club or tournament and see how she fares.

This is the first mention I've ever come across, by someone other than me, of average Points Per Turn in Scrabble. For instance, there is not a mention of it in the bloated, highly-worshipped Scrabble book Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis. I can't swear that I was the first person on earth to think it up, but let the record show that I calculated the PPT statistic for everyone in the Bowie Scrabble Club (Maryland) right from the start in mid-1985. And my discussion at the beginning of this section was part of my original Scrabble page, which went up on the web as soon as I got internet access in 1997.

Getting back to Hasbro's FAQ, what's this nonsense about "not counting exchanges"??? If I wanted the highest Points Per Turn average on earth, and didn't count exchanges, I would simply exchange on every turn until a triple-triple ("nine-timer") opportunity opened up. Or maybe even a triple-triple-triple. Sheesh. Put more eruditely, although a Scrabble player scores no points on a turn in which he exchanges his tiles, he does it in the service of maximizing his score for the game. That turn is an important part of his scoring strategy. It counts.

UPDATE II, April 2008, one day later: I see that Hasbro took the above Q&A from Everything Scrabble by Joe Edley (2001), page 227, and reworked it a little. They courteously worked in "my wife" for "I".

The fun of 3- and 4-person Scrabble games

I know most people, at least those who have played tournament-style Scrabble, prefer to play one-on-one Scrabble games. Or at least they think they do. But Scrabble was designed for up to 4 players, and I suggest there are some nice aspects to 3- and 4-person games.

Multi-person games are more "wide-open". Since you are not playing a single foe, play is even less defensive. (Although serious Scrabble players will argue the point strenuously, I maintain the defense element in Scrabble is minimal to begin with.) So what if you open up a double- or triple-word score? A Scrabble board is so loaded with landmines it can't be avoided indefinitely (or even temporarily), but in a multi-person game, the person who takes advantage of it might not be your biggest threat, anyhow. (It might be you.)

It's more interesting to see the board changing more drastically between your turns, rather than incrementally as in 2-person play.

Because they are more wide-open, 3- and 4-person games generally go faster. If it's slightly longer between your turns, so what? In conventional Scrabble, you can chat with whoever's turn it isn't, thereby increasing the social element. Who needs silence to play conventional Scrabble? A glance at the board tells you where to plop your highest-powered consonant. In the case of Scrabble II, the extra seconds can be put to good use rooting through more possibilities out of your rack.

Multi-person games do NOT mean you can't calculate win/loss percentages. (Do Scrabble players do this? If not, they should.) For a 3-person game, the win credits are 1 (first place), 1/2 (second), and 0 (last). For a 4-person game, the win credits are 1, 2/3, 1/3 and 0. Add up your win credits for all your games and divide by the number of games played. That's your win/loss percentage. For more discussion, see my Average Place Statistic page.

Scrabble variant: 4-letter minimum

Understand that when I say "n-letter minimum", we are talking about the number of letters in a word formed on the board, not tiles played.

The 3-letter minimum rule has its own section as a standard component of Scrabble II. It is the first and most important step in getting Scrabble away from those high-scoring, baby word plays.

If you find a good sport to play with, you might try even higher minimums. A 4-letter minimum requirement means at least one of the new words formed in a given play must be at least four letters long. It does not mean you have to play 4 tiles; you could satisfy it, for example, by adding two tiles to an existing two-letter word on the board.

4-letter minimum takes you even further into the realm of good, familiar words. It makes you work even harder, but wouldn't that add to the satisfaction?

A 5-letter minimum works, too. I've had a good time with it. In conventional Scrabble trade-ins will be more frequent, but it's the same for all players. In Scrabble II, with its 8-tile rack, trade-ins are surprisingly rare.

Follow-up note: In October 2009 I had the opportunity to play a run of six 5-letter minimum games over the course of a few weeks with some Dover Scrabble Club players. Here are my findings. Yes, the average length of the words on the final board was about half a letter longer than in regular Scrabble II. There were no 4-letter words, only one 3-letter word, and the tiniest smattering of 2-letter words. That sounds like a resounding success as far as getting the game off the baby stuff. But the trade-off was fewer of the big plays of sevens, eights, and nines. Five-letter minimum seems to pull everything towards the middle of the pack; there were less "fireworks". There's a satisfaction in having to work up a 5-letter word for your points on every turn but, for the long haul, I would choose the much more explosive, regular Scrabble II.

Scrabble variant: 1 Point Per Tile

This variant was also developed in the hopes of escaping the clutches of those killer, baby Scrabble words.

Scoring is simply 1 point per tile. Yes, that means the blank, too. The idea is to scrounge up as many points as you can by making big, long words.

Unfortunately, I discovered early on that there was a problem. Two-letter words played two ways on a triple-letter score, no matter what letters they use, were worth as much, or more, than good, solid 5- and 6-letter words. That is not the point.

So you need to change triple-letter scores to double-letter scores. Admittedly, that knocks a lot of pizzazz out of the game. It brings it a step closer to just playing single-point letter tiles on a bare table top. (Yawn).

Score 20 points for the 7-tile bingo.

After settling in on the 3-letter minimum rule, which does such a good job of encouraging longer words, and especially after finalizing Scrabble II with its stimulus for long words, I've never revisited the 1 Point Per Tile variant. Still, you might give it a go and see what you think.

Bingo Bop

Bingo Bop is a frantic little game I devised for club members to play while waiting for other people to finish up their games. It's the most fun with as many people as possible. The object is simply to be the first to form a 7-letter word on your rack. It doesn't involve the board.

It turns out that Bingo Bop is a valuable teaching tool. The logic used - asking yourself for each rack, what letters should I save in order to have the best chance for a bingo on my next draw - is fundamental in the regular Scrabble game. It's a great way to get inexperienced Scrabble players to "think ahead".

A peculiarity of the gane is that your thinking takes place only while others are taking their turns. NO thinking on your turn!

Play moves to the left. Your turn is devoted solely to mechanically following these steps:

1. DISCARD ANY NUMBER OF TILES FROM YOUR RACK, 0-7. These go face down into your own "discard pool" to the left of your rack.

2. DRAW 1 TILE FROM THE DISCARD POOL OF THE PLAYER TO YOUR RIGHT, assuming you discarded 1 or more tiles from your rack. There is no discard pool for the first play, of course.

3. DRAW FROM THE BAG to get a total of 7 tiles on your rack.

When you have formed a bingo on your rack, YELL IT OUT, regardless of whose turn is in progress. You can make a game out of a succession of rounds. The player who wins a round scores a point. You didn't need to be told that, but it suggests a method for handling an announced bingo that is invalid. When that happens, the player loses a point. He's out of that round, and the other players continue.

You can speed things up by making your discard before your turn comes, but wait until the player who follows you has picked from your discard pile.

Phone Scrabble

My friend, Harry Vernon, and myself developed a game we called Phone Scrabble, or Head-to-head Scrabble. This, no doubt, is similar to Duplicate Scrabble - same boards, same racks, high scoring play wins. Not for the first time, the 'Net shows that an "original" idea of mine already existed.

I don't know the precise rules to Duplicate Scrabble, but I suspect our game has some nice, non-obvious features. For instance, we ensure against miserable racks - there are always at least 2 vowels and 2 consonants on it.

Phone Scrabble, by the way, is a great teaching tool. It brought Harry right up from a 15-point per turn player to a 20-point per turn player. For example, he would play his X on a triple-word score figuring, how can you do any better than that? Then he would be amazed to see me outscore him by playing the X on a lowly double-letter score, two ways.

Here are detailed, road-tested rules and playing guidelines for Phone Scrabble. I've used the names Harry and Don, instead of Player 1 and Player 2, to make things easier to visualize.

- Overview -

The object of phone Scrabble is to outscore your opponent by playing the highest-scoring word in each turn. The competition is "head-to-head" since both players always use the same board and the same rack for each turn. You don't have to be connected by phone, of course, but if you're in the same room you might as well play regular Scrabble.

There is a time limit for each turn. At the end of the time limit, each player announces his score and gets credit for his score.

The highest scoring word remains on the board. The player with the lower score removes his play and places the winning play on his board so that both boards - and both racks - are identical again.

The racks are each replenished with the same new tiles, and the next turn starts.

- Players -

Don - draws the tiles from a bag and announces them to Harry.

Harry - has his tiles laid out face up next to his board.

Any number can play, of course, but the administration becomes cumbersome with more than two players.

- Getting Started -

Both players start with empty boards and racks. Don draws and announces 7 tiles as described in "Drawing Tiles".

The first turn proceeds like a typical turn except that a shorter time limit, 1 minute, is used since there is less to think about.

- A Typical Turn -

Both players have timers that are started simultaneously after both players are ready and one shouts, "Go!"

When you find a word, jot it down along with its score. (See the sample play sheet.) Then continue to look for higher-scoring plays, jotting each one down until the time runs out.

When time runs out, each player announces his best score. The player with the lowest running score describes his play first. For example, Harry says, "DAH spelled downwards ending to the left of the A in WAKED" or, "VACANT spelled across using the C in COOING."

Don double-checks Harry's play. If there is any doubt at all about the validity of a word, Don looks it up in the dictionary. If the word is no good, Harry scores 0 points. (There is no penalty, of course, for double-checking a word that turns out to be ok.)

Don double-checks the score announced by Harry and enters it on the score sheet.

Then Don describes his play. That play is verified by Harry and the score is recorded.

The player with the lower-scoring play modifies his board: he removes his word and adds the winning word. Both boards - and racks - are once again identical.

Don draws tiles (see "Drawing Tiles") to replenish the racks.

- Scoring -

Both players keep track of both running totals.

If on a play near the end of the game, Harry uses the last tile, and Don doesn't, Don's score for that turn is adjusted downward by the value of the unplayed tiles on Don's rack. Even though Don's adjusted score is used in the comparison of the two plays, it may still be the higher. If that's the case, Don's play survives and the game continues.

So, when you consider two different plays at the end of the game where one uses the last tile and the other one doesn't, be sure to subtract the value of the leftover tiles from the plays that leave them. It may be better to make a lower-scoring play and go out. (There is no upward adjustment of the score of the player who goes out.)

After all the tiles have been played, the player with the highest total score is the winner (of course!)

If one player runs up a huge lead, 100 points, say, the players may agree to call that a victory and start scoring from 0 again while continuing to play the remaining tiles on the same board.

- Same Score -

When both players make the same score in a turn, there is no reason to add it to the running total. It may be worth making a note of these scores, however. For instance, if you are interested in comparing your performance in different games, you will need to add them in. The sample play sheet shows an area for noting identical scores.

When both players make the same score with different plays, the one that uses the most letters survives on the board. If both plays use the same number of letters, the players decide which one they would rather keep on the board.

- Drawing Tiles -

Don does all of the drawing of the tiles. No matter how many are needed to replenish the rack, he draws them one at a time. He picks one out of the bag and announces it to Harry, who finds it and acknowledges it.

It is suggested that for each tile drawn, the drawer say it 3 times in succession; for example, "em-em-em". This makes the consonant sound clearer since it is heard both starting and ending syllables.

As long as it is possible, Don ensures that there are at least 2 "pure" vowels and 2 "pure" consonants on the rack. By pure vowels, we mean A, E, I, O and U. Pure consonants are all of the other letters, excluding Y. In other words, for the purposes of satisfying the vowel and consonant quota, blanks and Y's do NOT count as either.

For example, if there are 5 consonants and 1 vowel on the rack, Don keeps drawing until he gets an A, E, I, O, or U for the 7th tile. Very near the end of the game, it may not be possible to balance the rack in this way.

As long as there are tiles left in the bag, the rack is limited to 1 blank.

What to do if the Q is drawn after all the U's and blanks have been played? If both players agree there's no hope for the Q, just put it aside.

- Special S Rule -

When an S is used in a "non-essential" manner, it is removed from the board and replaced on the rack so it can be reused.

"Non-essential" means it was simply tacked onto one end or the other of an otherwise valid play in order to increase the score by a few points. (Specifically, this will be 1 to 6 points.)

In other words, the play must be valid without the S, the S must be part of one word only and it must land on a non-premium square or double-letter or triple-letter square. (If it hits double- or triple-word, it is "essential" to the play.)

Even though the S comes back off the board, the player's score is calculated with the S included.

- Time Limit -

It is suggested that the countdown function of digital watches be used for timers.

If your timers are only programmable to the nearest minute, the time limit is 2 minutes per turn. There are 2 exceptions. The first turn is 1 minute. When the rack has less than 7 tiles, the turn is 1 minute.

In my experience, 2 minutes is somewhat long for a turn, but 1 minute is not long enough. If your timer is programmable to the second, consider 1 minute and 30 seconds per turn.

Playing all 100 tiles results in a very long game - approximately 2 hours. If that's too long for you, just stop at a some predetermined time limit, or after a certain number of turns.

- Play sheet -

The following shows a suggested play sheet layout. Tape the play sheet to the table next to the Scrabble board; you'll want to be able to write one-handed. In this example, the players made the same score 3 times, and in 2 of those cases made the exact same play.

This sample play sheet was kept by Don. The list of words jotted down the left side are his own, plus those of Harry's which outscored his own. You can deduce that UNPIPED was no good for Harry; and that they both found WAKED and NOH, for example. (You can see that they were using the OSPD!)

        nipped 26                  DON      HARRY        SAME PLAY
        unpiped 78                  26         0          //
        waked 26                    23        87
        noh 27                   ----------------        SAME SCORE
        buns 23                     49        87               26
        bunches 87                  26        24               27
        zips 35                  ----------------              35
        es 23                       75       111
        bole 26                     20        36
        jo 20                    ----------------
        jells 36                    95       147
        cooing 18                        .
        arc 10                           .
        ar 13                            .

Scrabble score sheets

One last, little thought: I have seen many Scrabble players who are greatly put out if there are no preprinted Scrabble score sheets available.

A blank sheet is simple to use. And cheap; you can find 'em in waste baskets at the copy center!

For a neat score sheet the Top-Secret, strictly-confidential, highly-classified, patent-pending, copyright-for-the-whole-universe idea is to strike a line all the way across after entering Player 1's score for the second and following turns. Here's an example:

          S              Q_
        John    Mary   Sally   Richard
        ----    ----   -----   -------
         18      21      36        9
         19      12      67        7   TONIGHT
         37      33     103       16

Keep track of game highlights like bingos, and who gets the goodies - the Q, Z, X, J, S and blank. The Q, Z, X and J are in a class by themselves, value-wise. Each would make a very good score all alone on triple-letter score - never mind any other letters played or words formed! (The power of these goodies is much reduced in Scrabble II, and I have long since stopped keeping track of them.)

Jot the goodies above the player's name. In this game Sally has played a Q and a blank so far, and had some fun with a bingo, TONIGHT. (Name the Little Richard tune alluded to. Oo-oo-oo, baaaa-by!)

The best reason for doing this is so that at the end of the game you can say, "No wonder you won, you got all the good stuff!"


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Helpful keywords not in the main text: ospd = official scrabble players dictionary.

Parents, if you're considering tutoring or supplemental education for your child, you may be interested in my observations on Kumon.