Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to play a "Scrabble" game of some importance. It had been at least six months since I'd last played, and I've never been a very strategic player. I'm way more interested in making words that are pretty, funny or interesting than in scoring points. Since the score apparently has some bearing on who wins, I lost.
Even though I held my own respectably for a while, the final score was kind of embarrassing, so I came home determined to improve my skills. I've been doing this by playing "Words With Friends" on my iPhone -- same principles, different board. So far I've improved from losing all my games to losing only half of them, and I've stumbled upon some very basic tips that nobody has thought to tell me, probably because they're so completely basic that I should have known them already. But here they go.
- 1. Don't just learn the two-letter words. Learn how to use theme effectively. "Learn the two-letter words" is the one piece of advice I heard over and over before and after that fateful game (along with "Learn how to use a 'q' without a 'u'"). And before we started, I was earnestly trying to memorize a list of two-letter words from a copy of the rules. It wouldn't have helped if I'd succeeded. Knowing the two-letter words is only half the challenge: You have to shift the way you look at the board, so you see all the possibilities for positioning your tiles to create several short words at the same time. And then you can build on multiple rows of two-letter words to make longer words.
- 2. Swap tiles wisely. Depending on what's available on the board, you may be able to put down a couple of those extra Es next to some much higher-scoring letters and wind up scoring enough points to make it worthwhile. But if the words you're scraping together from unfortunate tiles are only going to net you five or six points, you're not really losing much by missing a turn to swap some out, especially if your opponent only seems to play words that score 25 points or higher.
- Count up your score before you hit "play" (or if you're playing "Scrabble," before you put your tiles down). I don't know how many times in recent weeks when I've thought, "I have four letters adjacent to other letters. This is going to be awesome!" and then was crushed to see that I had just scored 16 points, not 60.
- There is no shame in adding an "s," "ed," "ing" or something similar to your opponent's word. But if it's an "s," that should be starting or ending another word of your own if at all possible. Similarly, keep an eye out for situations like adding "af" to "fluent" to get "affluent."
- Don't try to wait for other letters to play the ones you already have. Thinking along the lines of "If I get a "c" I can build "acquiesce" out of the "ce" already on the board, and I will get a triple word score AND play all my tiles." That will end in heartbreak and regret. Play what's in your hand, not what's waiting to be drawn.
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