Back to index of Scrabble pages by Donald Sauter.
Scrabble For Word Lovers suite - main page.
Scrabble II introduction.
Scrabble II rules.
It was created before the Nice Letter Distribution and Stretch Bonuses were implemented. Back then, Scrabble II words averaged about 5 letters; now they average about 6 letters. So, no matter how impressively Scrabble II stacked up against "regular" Scrabble in this old page, it would go a quantum leap beyond that now.
NOTE: This page discusses in some detail the adjustments that give rise to the much more intelligent and exciting Scrabble II. If you are more interested now in seeing what to expect from Scrabble II, you might start with my Scrabble II in Action! page comparing it with the best of the 2010 National Scrabble Championship. You can always come back later.
How would you like your finished Scrabble boards to look like this?
If you're familiar with the typical, modern, tournament-style Scrabble board, your eyes should pop. Boards like this become the norm if you implement the suggestions on this page. Throw out your lists of funny little Scrabble "goodies". Dig into your vocabulary of tens of thousands of words. Step up to the next level . . . Scrabble II!
Here's what's in store. All links are internal - just start reading instead of clicking.
About my book report on Word Freak: while it was a later addition to this page, it may make a more entertaining starting point for my thoughts here on a more vocabulary-based Scrabble.
In November 1997 a World Scrabble Championship tournament was held in Washington D.C. As sure as night follows day, the newspapers breathlessly recounted the oddball words played: foy, tui, dzho, zho, vug, birr, yays, taiga, jefe, uncini, obied, gloze, yauper, exeme, metic . . .
Make you want to pull your Scrabble set down and have a rollicking, laughin'-and-scratchin' time with family and friends? Or, make you want to devote your life to memorizing useless letter combinations so you can slaughter Mama, Sis, and Grandpa, before moving on to the Scrabble big boys?
Actually, the situation isn't as hopeless as I've portrayed it. The media do seem to recognize of the absurdity of it all. The Washington Times admits, "Most points are earned from little words even the average college professor has never heard of." The Times also gets in a little jab at the player who knows "at least 150,000 words by now . . . Well, he knows how to spell them, that is."
Nor is the artificiality lost on the Baltimore Sun: "They simply memorize tens of thousands of letter combinations that coincidentally make words. As even a top American competitor noted, 'I don't think of them as words, I think of them as letter sequences.'"
I doubt that Scrabble was created with the idea of memorizing mysterious "letter sequences". I maintain that Scrabble is plenty fun and remains fresh indefinitely using the tens of thousands of words we carry around in our own brains - as originally intended.
This claim serves as the basis for most of these thoughts and suggestions, all of which taken together make Scrabble II. Keep an open mind; give it a try. You won't go back.
This first section is dedicated to the proposition that no one likes to be made a fool of.
From the beginning of Scrabble's wild success in 1953, up to 1976, the challenge rule was simply, "If the word challenged is unacceptable, the player takes back his tiles and loses his turn."
In 1976 this addition was made: "If the word challenged is acceptable, the challenger loses his turn." At that moment Scrabble ceased to be a word game. It became a whatever game. You could win with dumb, even if honest, misspellings. You could win by bluffing.
A poker-style game may be fun for some players, but surely they're a small minority. Who wants to be laughed at and told, "Well, you should have challenged!" when a bum word is checked after the game? It goes the other way, too - a player feeling bad about scoring points for an honest misspelling. None of this anguish is necessary.
Scrabble II returns to the original challenge rule. It places the responsibility for making a valid play squarely where it belongs - on the shoulders of the player making the play. If you're greedy for more points, you accept full responsibility for playing a riskier word. Which is the way it should be, and is how it is in almost all other sport and game competition; you have to successfully perform the required action to score the points.
Actually, Scrabble II's "good words only" rule goes a bit beyond the original challenge rule. No invalid word is allowed to stay on the board. With the original rule, challenging a word was optional, and, in some circles, it was considered praiseworthy strategy to allow a bum word to stay if it set you up for a better play. Phooey on that.
In fact, confirming a word in Scrabble II is not even viewed as "challenging"; it's simply double-checking. It is not taken personally. If the word is the least bit out of the mainstream of everyday English - you look it up. You'll be surprised how often a word everyone "knows" to be good somehow managed to slip the mind of the panel of experts who wrote your dictionary. In any case, it's always very satisfying to see the word sitting there in black and white.
When I first wrote this page, I bent over backwards arguing for the sensibleness of "good words only" over bluff-style Scrabble. I pointed out that the free challenge had always been the British rule, and the rule in international competition; how miserable electronic Scrabble would be if the computer made up words against you; how the "Guinness Book of World Records" ignores Scrabble games which include phony words; how there's always a palpable sense of shame in any account of a Scrabble game with "phonies".
Things have changed. For instance, world Scrabble has yankee-fied itself slightly and gone to a 5 point reward for drawing an opponent into challenging a valid word. Yuck. Bad on yer, cobbers.
But the sea change is how virtually all of internet Scrabble is played. The pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme; all the Scrabble and Scrabble knockoff programs won't even let you enter an invalid word! I call this the "typing chimp" rule. That's not a game, folks! Imagine football in which you're allowed as many pass attempts as needed to make a completion. Or, insert analogy here with any other game or sport of your choice. All games and sports are a balance of risk-taking with potential payoff. When you reach for the stars, you take a chance of falling on your face.
Still, in spite of how the millions now play their Scrabble, it's the handful of American tournament players who have an iron grip on the official challenge rule. You will see in my book report on Word Freak below that the experts need to bluff to ensure that they never lose a game - horror of horrors! - against a weaker player.
Even in the days before internet Scrabble and the typing chimp rule, people always asked if you could try again. Don't ask me why. SO, JUST TO REITERATE:
NO! Good words only does NOT mean you get to try again after playing an invalid word!
The advantage of the Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary (OSPD) is that it shows explicitly all of the inflected forms of a word.
The problem with the OSPD is that it contains many words that are no longer in any dictionary in print. I've seen an estimate putting that figure at 5%, or a very unsatisfying one word out of every 20. A little farther down you can see the glaring disparity between the OSPD and the American Heritage Dictionary in the realm of 2-letter and 3-letter words.
A bigger problem, not a fault of its own, is that, since the OSPD is "official", it has been scrutinized by serious players and all sorts of word lists have been derived from it loaded with obscure, if not downright bizarre, words. Unfortunately, it is not possible to have a meaningful game of Scrabble between a player familiar with word lists and one who isn't.
A familiar scene at the local Scrabble club is the newcomer expressing shock and dismay at the seemingly nonsensical and foreign-looking words filling up the boards. He is told, "Look, if it's in the OSPD, it's acceptable. Like it or lump it." Not surprisingly, most newcomers don't show up a second time.
In particular, the 2-letter and 3-letter word lists give a huge advantage to those who know them. An intelligent person with a huge vocabulary and infallible spelling and a natural flair for Scrabble strategy would hardly have a chance against someone armed with these little goodies.
Scrabble II levels the playing field by using a conventional dictionary. Somehow, the game of Scrabble has become identified with the official word list (actually, there are several) even though Rule 8 says, "Choose a dictionary."
I use the American Heritage Fourth Edition (AmH4), with a print date of 2006. When using a regular dictionary, you will need an OSPD, but just for inflected forms not given explicitly in your dictionary.
For example, you would probably go to the OSPD for the RE- and UN- words. You might need to go there for comparatives and superlatives (-ER and -EST), and for the -ER ("one that") words. Go to the OSPD for ANTI-, MIS-, OUT-, OVER-, -LESS, and -LIKE words.
The two-letter words are of fundamental importance in Scrabble. They are the connectors that allow you to form a word in your rack and place it somewhere on the board. They are the mortar that holds the crossword puzzle together. When I quiz a novice about the importance of two-letter words, he usually says something about playing off the last few tiles in your rack. Ok, but that's incidental.
Think of the two-letter words as basic "equipment". No sport would be fair if one side isn't outfitted with the basic equipment. Because of that, and because so many of them are dubious as proper words, the list of acceptable two-letter words is made available to everyone during play in perpetuity in Scrabble II.
Now you are thinking, "Yikes! You want me to go through my dictionary page by page to dig out all the two-letter words?" No. Use this list of 101 two-letter words from the OSPD (4th edition) as a basis and just check the most suspect ones.
101 Two-letter Words - OSPD4
AA AB AD AE AG AH AI AL AM AN AR AS AT AW AX AY BA BE BI BO BY DE DO ED EF EH EL EM EN ER ES ET EX FA FE GO HA HE HI HM HO ID IF IN IS IT JO KA KI LA LI LO MA ME MI MM MO MU MY NA NE NO NU OD OE OF OH OI OM ON OP OR OS OW OX OY PA PE PI QI RE SH SI SO TA TI TO UH UM UN UP US UT WE WO XI XU YA YE YO ZA
AL BA BO DE ES ET FE HM KA KI MM MO NA NE OD OE OI OM OP OY UN XU YA
Now be honest, do they look like words to you? How often have you used them, besides a few grunts and groans? How many can you define? How many have you ever even heard or seen before? Tossing out that craziness leaves the following list of 78 two-letter words which is consistent with the AmH4:
Two-letter Words - AmH4
AA AB AD AE AE AG AH AI AM AN AR AS AT AW AX AY BE BI BY DO ED EF EH EL EM EN ER EX FA GO HA HE HI HO ID IF IN IS IT JO LA LI LO MA ME MI MU MY NO NU OF OH ON OR OS OW OX PA PE PI QI RE SH SI SO TA TI TO UH UM UP US UT WE WO XI YE YO ZA
Even if you have a different dictionary, you could use the above list by decree. What matters is that all the players are on the same wavelength regarding two-letter words. It's a rather pointless competition otherwise.
So now you're all set for playing real Scrabble with a real dictionary, EXCEPT . . .
The poor soul who has devoted hours, weeks, or years of his life to studying the OSPD is at a disadvantage. He's memorized lots of obscure words and doesn't know which are valid in your dictionary.
Where there's a problem, there's a solution. And the solution here is the Check the OSPD rule. No one gets burned for playing a word he knows from the OSPD. If your dictionary rejects a played word, the player may ask to "check the OSPD". If his word is there, his play comes off the board and he gets to make another play. But there is a risk involved. If his word is NOT found in the OSPD, the play comes off the board, the full value of the play is deducted from his score, and his turn is ended. Fair enough? It's his fault for studying those ridiculous word lists so he could mow down family and friends in Scrabble.
In practice, unless you are playing with serious, tournament-style players, you will rarely see the "Check the OSPD" rule invoked. Even enthusiastic, long-time Scrabble fans know few OSPD "goodies" above three letters. Unfortunately, just those oddball twos and threes were enough to wreck Scrabble completely.
Above, we looked at the discrepancy between the American Heritage Dictionary and the OSPD with respect to two-letter words. For the record, here are the three-letter words that would not fly with the American Heritage:
AAL ABY AFF AGS AHI AHS ALS AMI AMU APO ARF ATT AVA AWA BAL BAM BAP BAS BES BOS BRR CEL CIG CIS COR DAK DEL DEV DIB DIF DOL DOM DOR DOW DUI DUP EAU EDS EEK EFF ELD EME ENG ERS FEH FEM FER FES FET FEU FIL FIZ FOH FON FOU FUB FUD GAE GAN GED GEN GEY GHI GOR GOS GOX GOY GUV HEH HET HIC HMM HON HUN HUP HYP ICK IFF JEU JIN JOW JUN JUS KAE KAF KAS KAT KEP KEX KIS KOI KOP KOS KUE KYE LAR LAT LAV LES LIN LIS LUM LUV MAE MEL MIB MIG MIM MOC MOG MOR MOS MUN MUT NAM NAW NEG NOH NOM NOO NOS OBE ODA ODS OES OKA OKE OMS ONO ONS OOT OPE OPS ORC ORS OSE OXO OXY PED PEH PHT POH POM POW PST PUD PUR PYE QAT QIS RAS RAX REE REG REI REX RIA RIF RIN ROM SAB SAE SAU SEG SEL SER SHA SHH SIM SRI SUK SYN TAE TAO TAS TEL TET TEW TYE ULU UNS UPO URB URD UTA UTE VAR VAW VID VIG VIS VOE VOX WAB WAE WAP WHA WIS WOS WUD WYN YAG YAH YAR YEH YOD YOK YOM YUM ZAS ZIN ZZZ
As was the case with the two-letter words, this list includes more than 20% of the OSPD three-letter words! But, hey, if these things turn you and your Scrabble buddies on, go for it.
Do you see what we've done so far? With "good words only" and a conventional dictionary, players of any and all levels of experience and ability can meet at the Scrabble board and have a good, satisfying, meaningful game. Sure, the skilled player will win most of the time, but it will be a perfectly fair fight.
Think about it; even YOU would beat the national champion every now and then!
Long, long ago I became sickly bored with the Scrabble tile distribution. One Q, one Z, four S, two blanks, game after game, week after week, month after month, year after year . . . (snore) . . .
Time-worn letter distribution
My solution was to take three sets of Scrabble tiles; mix them together; and scoop out a hundred tiles from the mixture. Buy up a few extra Scrabble games at yard sales.
You can scoop the 100 tiles quickly and easily with a cup that is the just the right size. My advice is to take something like a peanut butter jar, put 100 tiles in, and draw a little line at the fill point or, better yet, slice the jar off at that line. Be careful you don't lose a finger.
Note that it matters not a whit if the scoop is exactly 100 tiles.
Another solution is to simply count tiles as they are drawn from the over-filled bag, and stop after 100 tiles are drawn. Here's a number line set up to show what's left as you cross off a numeral for each drawn tile. It counts up for the first 30, so you can easily account for the initial draw of all the players, and then counts down for the remaining 70 tiles.
100 Tile Countdown 1 2 3 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 123456789012345678901234567890 0987654321098765432109876543210987654321098765432109876543210987654321
You might want to take this opportunity to fix the over-representation of the letter I. Remove three letter I from the mixture; replace one with an A; one with an E; and one with an O. Kiss goodbye those annoying three- and four-I racks which popped up so often. I consider the I overload the only real flaw in Alfred Butts' wonderful brainchild.
Using a mixed set of tiles in no way alters the fundamental essence of Scrabble. The mix for each game will be different, but, in the long run, each letter will turn up with the same frequency as before. And it plays exactly the same: there's the board; there's your rack; you have to add to the board crossword puzzle-style. Using the mixed set of tiles is like playing golf on different courses; it's still golf - but a heck of a lot more fun than playing the same course all your life.
A Scrabble novice wouldn't even notice anything out of the ordinary playing with a mixed set, but a more experienced player will get a kick out of the funny little things that happen. I've seen a game with 6 V; a game with 6 blanks; a game with 9 S; a game with just 5 E and 4 I(!); a game with no B, no F, no H, but 9 L and 14(!) N; a game with 17 power tiles; a game where three players each used his own Q to make himself a 60-point play; and a game where a lone Q was stuck on each of the three racks at the end. Funny!
Note that the mixed set of tiles kicks the stuffing out of simpleminded tile-tracking. That was not the point, but good riddance, anyhow. Isn't it more fun and exciting not knowing what's left in the bag or on everybody's racks? And to those who kid themselves that Scrabble is really a "math game", and howl that the mixed set yanks that away from them, I say, baloney. Now you have the fun of calculating real probabilities, such as that of drawing a D given that there are 5 of them among the 62 tiles visible to you. (Ans. One in 34 = .0294)
It is ridiculously easy to score big points with two-letter words in Scrabble. Yeah, it was a thrill the first time I spelled AX and OX on a triple-letter score for over 50 points as a kid.
But everybody learns quickly enough how to "play the board" like that. Plunk your highest-value consonant on a color square next to a vowel, add a vowel on one or the other side of it, and watch your points go ka-ching! My pet turtle could do that.
This is why the experts call Scrabble a "strategy game" (as opposed to "word game"), and why I call modern Scrabble "checkers with letters".
While Scrabble II's 3-letter minimum rule is a very small nod to the intelligence of its players, it is a big step in keeping such cheap, mindless plays from dominating Scrabble.
All the 3-letter minimum means is that at least one of the new words formed in a play must be at least 3 letters long. Is that asking for too much?
Understand that this does NOT mean you have to play 3 tiles. It places NO requirement on the number of tiles you play. You could simply add one tile to an existing 2-letter word, for example.
From the start, going back to the late 1980s, I've always called it the "3-letter minimum rule". But so many people have such a hard time getting it, that I've tried to train myself to say "No plays of just 2-letter words." (Even then, a newcomer will snatch up the 2-letter word list and bark, "So you mean we can't play these?") With a bit of trial and error, everybody gets it.
You will still form two-letter words while fitting your fully-formed word on the board, but now you can't just plop HA down on triple-letter score two ways for 26-plus points. In one direction, at least, you'll have to make a full-fledged, 3-letter word, such as HAT. And you'll feel good about yourself; you won't be so embarrassed if a non-Scrabble player walks by and takes a look at your board.
I'm not one for putting words in dead folks' mouths, but I believe Scrabble's developers, Alfred Butts and James Brunot, would approve whole-heartedly. (Stop press! In late 2011, I was shown a Scrabble flier from 1950 that suggests this "brain-testing variation": "Play a minimum of three letter words . . . then watch your score soar!") They couldn't have foreseen how insanely powerful the two-letter words would become as point-scorers by themselves. I'll bet the dictionaries they used had only about two-thirds of the two-letter words my American Heritage has - never mind the craziness in the OSPD. (Stop press again! An examination of the 1953 Scrabble Word Guide shows only 51 two-letter words, barely half of the current 101!)
You will discover that the 3-letter minimum rule adds an exciting angle to going out, since you have to take it into consideration to the glorious or bitter end!
Here we come to the heart of Scrabble II. The conventional dictionary and the 3-letter minimum give Scrabble a little push towards longer words. Now we add a heavy pull.
Scrabble II uses an 8-tile rack and rewards players with "just right" bonuses for plays of 6, 7, and 8 tiles.
Of course, I'm not the first to think of playing with extra tiles. The box top rules have suggested a 9-tile variant for some time. The epiphany was the stepped bonuses, which are shown in the following chart.
Tiles Bonus Played Points Play called ------ ------ ----------------------- 6 20 6-tiler, or Little Bonus 7 50 7-tiler, or Bingo 8 80 8-tiler, or Big Bonus
I believe 8 tiles could be shown to be optimal for Scrabble. The extra tile gives more possibilities to consider, but not overwhelmingly so. You should find it a refreshing step up from 7-tile Scrabble, where studies show that more than 80% of the plays turn out to be "first impression" plays.
The extra tile "smooths" Scrabble out. It cuts the probability of an all-vowel or all-consonant horror rack just about in half. With the extra tile and the modest bonus for a 6-tile play, you will be making solid scores with what would be very poor racks in classic Scrabble.
Casual players who made a 7-tile bingo once in a blue moon will experience that joy much more regularly. If you are an old hand at bingos, now there's the challenge of playing all eight tiles - the Big Bonus!
With the 8-tile rack, the requirement on tiles needed in the bag for an exchange is upped to 8.
At the same time, we make another nice little fix to the game: literal interpretation of the double and triple word score squares. Now they act individually on the score of the word, not piled one on top of the other. Thus, hitting two triple word scores yields six (3+3=6) times the value of the word, instead of nine times (3x3=9), which was dreadfully out of whack with the rest of Scrabble scoring. You must admit, scoring six times the value of a word is still a monster play.
Notice Scrabble II presents a new possibilty, the quintuple word score, by hitting a double and triple word score on the opening play. And with that we now have a very satisfying progression of single, double, triple, quadruple, quintuple, and sextuple word score possibilities. Neat!
For 8 tiles you'll want a longer rack than the standard Scrabble rack. I find a one-and-a-half inch (1.5") extension is perfect. Take one rack from a set of four and cut three 1.5" segments from it to glue to the ends of the other three racks.
Extended rack for Scrabble II. (Find the 8-tiler!)
If you're locked into 7-tile Scrabble, such as with an internet Scrabble or Scrabble knockoff program, you can still implement stepped bonuses by agreement with your friend. Use bonuses of 10, 30, and 50 points for 5-, 6-, and 7-tile plays, respectively. You can also agree to a 3-letter minimum and to a sensible two-letter word list. In fact, I have formalized the rules to this game and road-tested them. I call it, naturally enough, Scrabble I . (I guess that makes "regular" Scrabble, Scrabble Zero, haha.)
Shortly after implementing the above modifications to my Scrabble playing, I was alerted (February 2008) to the existence of Super Scrabble. A bit of research on the web showed right off that Super Scrabble was not for me. It charges headlong in the opposite direction from where I'm going. With its new outer rows jam-packed with premium squares, including quadruple-letter and quadruple-word scores, Super Scrabble places even greater emphasis on playing the board as opposed to digging hidden treasure out of your rack. What's a 50-point bonus when you can toss down 50-point plays blindfolded with little words with the F, H, W, or Y? Never mind 100-point plays with the J, Q, X, and Z . . .
But those extra three rows all around were the perfect final touch for Scrabble II! Now you can spread your wings; now there's breathing room for those eight tiles! And, as with the other adjustments, the essence of Scrabble isn't changed one iota.
Let's call the 15x15, classic inner board the "main board", and the extra three rows on each side the "wings". There are no premium squares in the wings. All the squares there are plain, single-letter score, so to speak.
You must always play off the main board, meaning that at least one of the newly played tiles has to fall on the main board. The wings are for word overrun only, which may be the beginning or end of a word. Put the other way around, you cannot make a play wholly in a wing, whether a complete word or merely adding to a word that stops at the edge of the main board.
Naturally, any tiles that touch in the wings must form valid words, crossword-style, and those words will figure in the score.
As was the case with the 8th tile, the extra 3 rows are "just right." Two wouldn't do it, and you'll be surprised at how rarely you'll mutter, "Darn, I wish I had one more row out there!"
There are a few ways to rig up your own Scrabble II board. You can modify a Super Scrabble board. Or, you can glue poster board to the back of a regular board to give room for the wings. Use three tiles to set the spacing of the lines parallel to the board, and simply extend the lines on the board outward from the edge. (I hope that makes sense when you get to that point.) I experimented with a simple, "no lines" version but found it surprisingly disorienting. What's so hard about remembering "3 extra spaces"? But it might work fine for you.
If you're handy and clever, you could construct an extended board from conventional Scrabble boards. You can make two extended boards from four conventional boards. In every case, slice away the margins around the playing board. Since no word can ever overrun into any of the 3x3 blocks at the corners of the board, it makes sense to slice a diagonal off of each corner. This makes the oversized board a bit more rotation-friendly.
Here are some pictures to inspire you. (Click to enlarge.)
Extended boards for Scrabble II.
In fact, if you're content to not rotate the board during the game, you can simply use a regular board and let the tiles run onto the table top. I'm proud to say the first Scrabble II games ever played with the extended board were on my "1949" set.
Now sit back and watch the board fill up with 7-, 8-, and 9-letter words!
Here's a quick summary of the small adjustments which give rise to Scrabble II.
- Good words only
- Conventional dictionary (plus OSPD for RE-, UN-, etc.)
- Two-letter word list for all players
- 3-letter minimum (no plays of just 2-letter words)
- 8-tile racks and stepped bonuses for 6-, 7-, and 8-tile plays
- Extended board: 3 extra rows on each side (for word overrun only)
- 100 tiles scooped from a mix of 3 sets
Requiring good words to score points eliminates the seedy bluff element and brings Scrabble into line with virtually all other games and sports. (Nobody will tell us how bluffing was introduced to Scrabble in 1976, anyhow.)
Scrabble II uses a conventional dictionary. You'll find vocabulary-based Scrabble much more satisfying, and it opens up the possibility of playing Scrabble with family and friends. (What a novel idea!)
Since two-letter words are "basic equipment" in Scrabble, all players may have a list of them.
And don't forget the Check the OSPD rule which opens Scrabble II's doors even to players immersed in modern Scrabble's funny little words!
The 3-letter minimum rule makes for a very modest minimum requirement, but is one giant leap for Scrabble-kind.
Working together, the 8-tile rack and stepped bonuses for 6-, 7-, and 8-tile plays form the main power plant for Scrabble II's big words.
The extended board gives your big words some wide, open space!
Scooping tiles from a mixture of 3 sets of tiles makes every game fresh and different.
If I've failed to convert you over completely to Scrabble II by this point, I invite you to take a look at my pages showing "Scrabble II in action". The difference between what regular, intelligent people can do at the Scrabble board compared to the best players on earth will make your jaw drop. You might return to the Scrabble section of my main index page. Or, you might visit my short, introductory Scrabble II for Word Lovers page (written long after this one.) Either way, you can find pages showing the wonderful Scrabble II boards that are in store for you.
Word Freak is an impressive job, maybe even amazing. How in the world could someone crank out a 372-page book on Scrabble that more or less lives up to the reproduced blurbs: can't-put-it-down narrative; marvelously absorbing; impassioned; thoughtful, winning; etc. Bob Costas summed it up: "Scrabble. Who knew?"
But they forgot to mention: no fun; disgusting; revolting; no missed opportunity to rub an obscenity in the reader's face; like sitting down to Mark Twain and getting the Godfather. I doubt I'll ever feel clean again. As an English player said about the Americans: "I can't imagine being any of them."
Sordidness aside, it's hard to imagine anyone not already brainwashed into the cult of tournament Scrabble not coming away from the book with a feeling of serious Scrabble being a perfectly ridiculous activity. Scrabble was invented as a word game, but you'd have to look mighty hard at a tournament Scrabble board to find anything to do with one's spoken, written, listening, or reading vocabulary - no matter how intelligent or educated, or how much of a word lover, you are.
Early on, Fatsis tells about watching a game between two experts that seems to be in a "foreign language." He reports that there are devoted Scrabble players, even, who think more people would join up if the dictionary "didn't include so many strange or obsolete words." How could they not?
A top player says, "It's very frustrating to me that we have not yet managed to develop an audience for the game." Gee, I wonder why that is. This player's own brother points out (112 pages later) that a tournament Scrabble board "would look like Greek to its prospective audience."
And then there's the size, or lack thereof, of championship Scrabble words. We read, "While the twos, threes, and fours comprised just 5 percent of the dictionary, they accounted for 75 percent of all the words formed." (This is a word game???) But instead of sparking a light bulb along the lines of, "Hey, what can we do to move this thing into the realm of respectable words?", the conclusion comes right back at you: everybody needs to learn more two- and three-letter words!
The list of valid Scrabble words for international play is called SOWPODS. Players opposed to SOWPODS say that its supporters are "a handful of elitist snob experts who play in the world championships and are trying to ram 40,000 ridiculous words down the throats of the masses." I second that. Or, I would if it mattered. All my Scrabbling is with a conventional dictionary, and I don't see any signs of an apostasy on the horizon.
Fatsis states, "It's just about impossible to play high-level (or even low-level) competitive Scrabble if you're hung up on the game's use of odd words." His saving grace there is the hedge, "just about". I offer myself as living proof that competitive Scrabble can, in fact, be played with a regular dictionary.
American tournament rules permit bluffing, and so a bluffing game Scrabble has become. Whoopee. Fatsis reports on some of the highest scoring Scrabble games. A Chicago player scored 792 - "but he used four phony bingos." A Cincinnati student scored 724 - "but his opponent was an 83-year-old newcomer... who let him get away with five phonies." I hope I'm not the only one who has to cringe reading that.
Here's one of the author's own anecdotes from a tournament: "I open with a deliberate phony, MEAOW. On her next turn, she takes the bait, pluralizing the fake word, and I challenge that off the board and gain a turn... At the next table, one of the old-timers watches the sequence. 'You've become one of us,' she says." Sounds like too much fun for me; guess I'll never be "one of them."
In another passage, a former top-rated player explains why he quit Scrabble. He objected to having to play inferior players, from whom he had almost nothing to gain, rating-wise, and everything to lose. "Given this environment, one must play phonies... to steal games that are seemingly out of reach." In other words, if he were constrained to playing valid words, he would lose now and then. Excuse me while a grapefruit-sized tear rolls down my cheek.
You know from my Scrabble pages what I think of phonies. If that asinine component of Scrabble were eliminated, Fatsis' book could have been half as thick, and who knows how much more exciting. Maybe it could have attracted the word-loving masses, such as crossword puzzle fans, to the game.
At the time the book was written, world competition used the free challenge rule, what I call "no-risk challenge", or simply double-checking. In one game a player challenges ZAMIAS, a baby word for the pros. He's accused of "buying some time to think." Fatsis declares, "It's one of the perils of the free challenge rule." Somehow, in the other 371 pages of the book, he forgets to list any of the other "perils" of limiting the game to valid words, which, by the way, was the box top rule until 1976. Hmmm, mid-1970s . . . tournament Scrabble emerging . . . Who tricked or strong-armed Selchow & Righter into changing the rule, and thereby turning Scrabble into a barroom bluff game after 25 years of class?
If Fatsis recognizes the two-letter words as anything more significant in Scrabble play than teensy words, he doesn't let on. He writes near the beginning, "Armed with the two- and (most of the) three-letter words, I can now beat casual players handily." I should say so. And armed with an AK-47 you could beat a guy with a water pistol at 20 paces. Handily. The two-letter words are basic equipment, indispensable tools of the game. They allow you to place a fully formed word in your rack on the board. They are the mortar that holds the board together. Any game in which one of the players is not equipped with all the acceptable two-letter words is a pointless exercise.
Fatsis counts the K among the power tiles. I've known people who do the same. I don't get it. It's nowhere near the category of the J, X, Q, and Z. Any one of those tiles played on a triple-letter score, all by itself, nothing else, would score 24 or 30 points. That's better than the average points per turn of a very good player. The K would score a piddly 15 points. That's about equal to the average points per turn of the weakest novice in a Scrabble club. The K - you can have it.
Fatsis made use of a funny little word, pesty, in his text. Twice, even. This was not a word in the original OSPD, a concoction of five major dictionaries (supposedly). Back then, if anyone accidentally said "pesty", he was really trying to say "pestiferous". But it sounds so right that PESTY was always popping up on Scrabble boards. I wonder if it became a real word somewhere along the line largely because Scrabblers willed it.
Worth the price of admission was the chapter on the inventor of Scrabble, Alfred Butts, and the man who put the finishing touches on it (including the name), James Brunot. Now there's a classy story! The chapter stands out like an enchanted isle in an ocean of sewage.
It disappoints me greatly that Scrabble players are ranked according a "rating" with an obscure and complicated calculation. I trust it shows where the players stand relative to each other, but what sort of absolute meaning does it have? If there's some reason not to simply calculate average Points Per Turn (PPT), would somebody please tell me. Points Per Turn says it all. Since Scrabble has no defense component, your skill is fully measured by how many points you can grab up in a turn, on the average. PPT is insensitive to the level of your competition. To be the top player, you have to be able to wring out a fraction of a point more per play than anyone else. Period.
I wish I had enough money to run a major tournament using my club rules: a conventional dictionary; good words only; 3-letter minimum; and tiles drawn from a mixture of three sets. Now that would be fun to watch and play along with. Just think, all those guys who spent years memorizing tens of thousands of official Scrabble "letter sequences" having to downshift to a real dictionary to go for the biggest Scrabble pot ever offered, heehee. The winner might even be a reasonably smart, regular person.
Fatsis observed: "Recruiting new players is Scrabble's toughest task." No mystery there; just read the book. He gives 372 pages of reasons.
When I wrote the penultimate paragraph above, I was indulging a flight of fancy. Then it started hitting me, "Why not? . . . why not?" I sent an email to Houghton Mifflin, the publishers of my American Heritage dictionary, suggesting they could get some wonderful, and cheap, advertising, and help to get Scrabble back on track as a people's word game, if they sponsored a Scrabble tournament using their fine dictionary. I kind of knew in advance what the response might be, and it turned out my suspicion was right on.
Jul 24 2007 Mr. Sauter, Thank you for your suggestion of an American Heritage Scrabble Tournament. Although we agree that this is an interesting and thoughtful idea, Scrabble has an arrangement with another Dictionary company, and so American Heritage would not be able to hold Scrabble events as a result. I am very pleased to find that American Heritage has been a source of help to you, and I hope it continues to serve you well in the future. Best of luck with your Scrabble tournaments. Best regards, Sarah Iani Dictionary Editorial Department Houghton Mifflin Company
(Actually, I wasn't expecting a response even that thoughtful and polite. Thanks, Sarah!)
Now, there may be many other good reasons why such an idea would never come off, but what sort of screwy world have we created where some agreement made between two parties, Scrabble and Merriam-Webster, applies to everybody else - who aren't any sort of party to the agreement? Can Scrabble really kick down my door and have me arrested for using something other than the "official" Merriam-Webster dictionary? What about their own box-top rule number 8: "Before the game begins, players should agree upon the dictionary they will use."
Any other dictionary maker out there with a nice, standard edition who wants to take up the good fight? Are the Scrabble people really that simple-minded that they can't see how a bunch of come-one-come-all tournaments with down-to-earth dictionaries would send their own profits sky-rocketing? In any case, when they try to hassle you, all you have to do is take Rule 8 with you all the way to the Supreme Court.
i just read your Scrabble page and think that perhaps had i read it a year ago, i would still be with my fiancee. she loved Scrabble and so did i. i also play a lot of poker and at the time was playing a lot of Magic: TG. we played by the standard rules and in no time my bluffing style started to be a constant source of friction to the point where we no longer played. you see, with my old roommates, bluffing was part and parcel of the game, even the point of some games. we were also old poker hands so this is not surprising. anyways, she and I played fewer and fewer games and then broke up. Moral: don't bluff your sweetheart and use the no-risk challenge rule. Next time I'll remember this. Damn, do you know how hard it is to find a girl in her 20s who likes boardgames? you'd think it was easy but of the 4 serious girlfriends i've had (i'm 28), 3 of them HATED board games. anyhoo, thanks again for your page...i'll keep it bookmarked for the next one.
Reading your comments about the sad state of Scrabble was like wandering in a foreign land for years and suddenly stumbling on a compatriot. (I disagree in some details, but that's not important).
To introduce myself, I gave up tournament Scrabble shortly after participating in the Vegas Tournament of Champions (I'm the bald-headed guy in the 4th row in the Sports Illustrated aerial shot). The reason I quit, despite a 1950 rating, was disgust at the way the Scrabble Assn, which is simply the mouthpiece of the game's manufacturers, kept jacking players around with piddling changes in the allowable words.
The way the wind was blowing, I sensed that it was just a matter of time before SOWPODS [a combination of the American OSPD and the British OSW, Official Scrabble Words] became universal, which would mean that a non-dictionary dictionary, Chambers (really an encyclopedia, not a dictionary) would become the authority for all North American players, with the result that monstrosities like QI and JA would suddenly become allowable. Obviously the experts want this to happen; they wouldn't have to learn and unlearn thousands of words every time they entered a tournament.
My hopes lie in the other direction: we should throw out foreign currencies, Scottish dialect, the umpteen variations on Yiddishisms like GANEF and buzz words that have a shelf life of 2 or 3 years. Wait till they've been around for a while before we accept them. (Apparently that's what happened with FRABJOUS. It became good for OSPD2, more than 100 years after it was coined as a nonsense word by Lewis Carroll in "Through the Looking Glass". How did it suddenly become acceptable?)
A recent cover story of the Scrabble newsletter shows how derelict we've become in allowing tone-deaf people to decide the fates of words. It tells of the attempts to include LOLLAPALOOZA, meaning an outdoor concert series, as an acceptable word. Apparently the editors are too young, or too dense, to realize that the word already exists, and has since the turn of the century, under a different meaning. [End Lundegaard.]
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Helpful keywords not in the main text: g.i. joel sherman; larry sherman; nick ballard; bill blevins; brian capelletto; ron tiekert; mark nyman. Long Word Scrabble, Octo Scrabble, XBoard Scrabble, Extended-board Scrabble, Transcendental Scrabble, Ultimate Scrabble (discarded early names for partially or fully implemented Scrabble II.)
Note that Peter Roizen, the creator of
WildWords, has attacked the vapidness of
standard Scrabble from a different direction. His brainstorm to
pull Scrabble away from the lists of short, inscrutable letter sequences
and into a richer realm of long words - the longest you know, even - was
to introduce wildcards into the game. The wildcard * behaves as
it does in familiar electronic searches - it stands for a string of
letters. All of a sudden, you can play 20-letter words;
the sky, or supercalifragilisticexpialadocious, is the limit!
If you think of it later, search the web for "wildwords" (one word).
Peter's pokes at tournament-style Scrabble are funny!