Thursday, December 29, 2016

Learning fours, fives and sixes

Today we'll talk about how to learn four-, five- and six-letter words.

If you read conversations about Scrabble, you may encounter the term "playability." I think of playability as an estimate that tries to answer this question: "How much would it hurt not to know this word?" For example, QI has the highest playability of any word, because there are so many game situations where playing QI is both possible and a good idea. Not having QI would really hold you back, wouldn't it? On the other hand, not knowing COBWEBBY (extremely low playability) is very unlikely to cost you anything, since it's so rare that COBWEBBY is even an option.

Zyzzyva allows you to order and filter lists of words by playability, so you can use that to ensure that you're learning the most important words first. I don't necessarily advise using playability to learn bingos, but for fours, fives, and sixes, it's great. The high-playability fours and fives - and sixes, though it's rarer that you'll get to play those - tend to accomplish one of two things: they either allow you to score very well with a high-point tile or two, or they allow you to clean up imbalances or difficult combinations on your rack. (Sometimes both!)

I'll post some high-playability lists here soon. You'll see that most of them fall into a few basic categories: words with J, Q, X or Z, words with a lot of vowels, or words that allow you to play off a clunky letter or two.

A good first learning goal might be something like this: the top 500 fours (by playability), the top 200 fives, and the top 50 sixes. When you're feeling reasonably comfortable with those, continue with a similar ratio; after a while you can add higher percentages of fives and sixes if you like. I don't think it's a good idea to restrict yourself to learning every last four in the word list before you start on fives, or every five before you start on sixes. Just make sure you start at the top of the playability list for each length.

As for how to learn them, everyone's approach is a little different, but I can tell you what worked for me. First, I typed out every word from the list that I didn't know or wouldn't have been sure of, with maybe 3-7 words each line (trying to keep the easy to remember strings of words together), forming larger chunks of 30-40 words. When I had the chunks of words ready, I then practiced typing them out from memory until I had them down pretty well. Once I had the words mostly memorized, I switched to a study program (LeXpert back then, the precursor of Zyzzyva) and practiced unscrambling the words to make sure I could think of and unscramble them reliably.

The process above takes a fair amount of time, and not everyone does it that way: a lot of players who know the mid-length words well got there just by going straight to Zyzzyva or wherever and anagramming them a whole lot, the way I typically would for bingos. I'm glad I took the approach I did, though, particularly for the fours. That's because solving a four-letter anagram is usually very easy - for a lot of them, only one, or a few, combinations might make any sense - so what can happen sometimes is that you can guess the word from its anagram right when you know there's a word in there, but you're not really sure the word is good if you get those letters in a real game, where you don't know if there's a word in there or not. Because I'd done that memorizing, I had another good way to figure out whether the word I was thinking of playing was valid - I could mentally go through the list. And for fours in particular, that's really important, because seasoned Scrabble opponents tend to know most of them and rarely let phony fours go unchallenged.

Even if you don't have time or inclination to do that much rote memorizing - the least fun part of word learning, I agree - it's probably a good idea to do the part where you write out the words you don't already know, at least once or twice, just because writing them down helps cement them in your brain just that much more.

Happy Scrabbling,


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Sevens and Eights: Which should I study first?

(Note: The posts on this blog won't be in a specific sequence; some posts will be for beginning learners, while others will be for more experienced ones, though I hope that even if a particular post isn't at the level where you currently are, you can still get something useful from it.)

When players start studying the bingos (or bonuses, outside North America) - the seven- and eight-letter words - they're presented with learning two skills at once. The first is knowing that a word is valid and being able to recall it, particularly when the word is obscure, and the second is being able to look at a tricky string of letters like AEFILNRU and find the real word or words in those letters. (That's a quiz: I'll give the answer at the bottom of the post.) This is all true for the shorter words as well, but the bingos are where you'll rely most on your unscrambling abilities. So you'll need to study bingos in a way that not only teaches you the words, but also builds that unscrambling ability - because the sooner you build that ability, the quicker you can add bingos to your arsenal.

I've met a number of newer word learners who maybe started their bingo study by learning the seven-letter words formed by adding a letter to six-letter bingo stems like SATIRE or RETINA, and they've gotten a decent way into that. But if I ask them about eights, they say they're waiting to get a good number of sevens under their belt before tackling the eights. That sounds sensible: when we learn the shorter words, we typically do the threes, then the fours, then the fives.

However, for bingos, I think there's a better way to fly. When I started practicing bingos, I noticed pretty quickly that eights were a good deal tougher than sevens to unscramble - I was much slower on eights and got fewer of them right. That one extra letter adds a lot more possibilities for your brain to sort through, and if you don't have that unscrambling practice under your belt, it can be slow going.

This is why I recommend that new bingo learners actually spend MORE time on eights than on sevens, maybe a 60/40 or 65/35 ratio in favor of eights. Sevens and eights are, in general, about equally important to learn, but if you do more eights to start with, you'll build those unscrambling muscles quicker, which will also help a lot when you work on the sevens. It's like adding a little more weight to the bar when you're working out; the workout will be a little tougher, but the long-term payoff is well worth it.

However, remember what I said about making the learning fun? If you're not that good at anagramming yet and you take on a big pile of high-probability eights, you might find yourself getting pretty frustrated with your low solving percentage and lack of speed. That's not fun. So I recommend two things to help you lessen that frustration and build more momentum.

First, when you study high-probability eights initially, don't just take on everything in the top 1000. Instead, study only those alphagrams in the top 1000 that have one and only one solution. (Zyzzyva allows you to search for those easily, and I'll post a list of these here today or tomorrow when I get time.) So instead of annoying yourself by not remembering and finding every last one of the zillion words in ACEINRST, you can just concern yourself with remembering and finding one solution at a time. That way you'll move through the words faster and have a better flow. Once you get a bunch of these words learned and become a little more comfortable with solving eights, you can go back and add the ones with multiple answers.

Second, when you study eights, don't limit yourself to just the highest-probability eights. Here's why: high-probability words, which are mostly collections of one-point tiles, are generally much harder to anagram than lower-probability words are. Lower-probability words tend to have high-point tiles like K or Q or W or Z in them, and those letters can simplify your unscrambling process a lot, since there are fewer ways those letters can appear in words. With high-probability words, you don't have that help. (For example: The low-prob CCEHIKN is much easier to solve than the high-prob ILNORST, though they're both commonly known words.) So here's how you ease your burden a little: when studying eights, do the high-probability stuff most of the time, because those words will help you the most in the game, but mix in maybe 25% of the time doing a lower probability range of eights, something like 15000-16000. It'll expose you to a more varied and interesting set of words (at least in my opinion) that won't be quite as hard to unscramble as the high-prob words are, and again, you'll have more fun and get into the flow easier. And if you happen to unleash one of those obscure lower-probability beauties in a game, all the better!

These two tips are just as useful when learning sevens, too.

Happy Scrabbling,


* Quiz answer: AEFILNRU is FRAULEIN.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Twos and Threes

Let's talk about some basics. The two- and three-letter words are absolutely fundamental to your Scrabble game. If you learn nothing else, learn these: a player who knows these short words well has a very significant advantage over a player who doesn't. This is because these words facilitate other plays - if you know twos and threes well, you can find plays, particularly overlaps or underlaps, that make multiple words with other tiles on the board, and those points can add up. Consider the twos and threes your basic equipment.

How to learn the twos and threes? Well, fortunately for you, you know a lot of them already: I'm sure "if", "and", "bag" and "at" are already in your arsenal. But there are more of these words than the typical English speaker realizes. Even in the smaller North American list, there are just over a hundred legal two-letter words and just over a thousand three-letter words. But again, many of them you already know from real life. Of the others, there are some that you might wonder whether they're valid words: RE, PA, HM, SH. They're things people say, but are they legal in Scrabble? And then there are oddities like KA, UT, or FE, new friends you just have to get to know. So your very first assignment, if you're brand new, is to make a list of the two-letter words you wouldn't be totally sure of if you saw them in a game. Here's the whole list of legal two-letter words for North American list (TWL) players:


For CSW (Collins) players, the list is all the above plus these (# means the word is valid in CSW but not in TWL):


From the list of twos above, you'll end up with maybe 50-70 words that you'll need to get used to. Notice I've organized them by their starting letter above. When you go through your list, taking out the two-letter words you already know for sure, you can break it up similarly - maybe groups of between five and ten, associated with their first letters or some other way that works for you, so you have some nice small chunks you can absorb one at a time. Practice writing them out from memory until you have them down. I would advocate using the same approach for the threes, though there will be a lot more threes unfamiliar to you, so that'll take longer. But you'll get them, or at least most of them, in a reasonably short time, and then you'll be on your way. Even if you don't have all the threes perfect, if you have most of them within easy reach, your game will definitely show the benefits.

But more importantly (and this goes even more for the threes), play and examine games. Against humans, against the computer (more on this later), wherever you can find. This is because it's even better for your memory to see these short words on a board, in a live game, than as a simple list, and twos and threes get played ALL THE TIME. The idea is to get to where you aren't just able to recite a list from memory - you're able to think of playing these words in a real game, seeing where they fit on the board, what you can do with them. You're starting the process of rewiring your brain to think like a Scrabble player: it's one thing to know NOH is a valid word, but much better to see right away that you can put your H at the end of NO on the board to make a nice play. If you do it enough, you'll start to see those possibilities naturally without thinking too hard, and that's what you want to learn to do.


Hi! My name is Geoff, and I'm a Scrabble addict. I took up Scrabble seriously in 2002 and entered the wonderful world of tournament Scrabble in 2003, and almost fifteen years hence, I'm currently ranked eighth in North America for play using the international English word list (CSW), and I've won 32 of the 131 tournaments I've entered since I started. I've had plenty of failures and foibles to go with those successes, believe me, but it's more about the journey than the destination, and my experience in the game has been and continues to be very rewarding. I'm still enjoying the endless challenge this complex, multidisciplinary game has to offer. Scrabble is a word game at heart, but it is so much more: excelling at the game requires a good feel for probabilities, spatial board dynamics, even human psychology. But as a word game, it also requires a finely tuned memory and, when memory is imperfect, a strong sense of and instinct for the building blocks of the language.

This isn't necessarily a straightforward task if we're talking about Scrabble in the English language, which is the most widespread form of the game. English is, essentially, the world's second language - it is the predominant language of business, for one, and English-language cultural expressions of all kinds have gained a foothold in so many places around the globe. Thus we have not just one English, but many Englishes, and everywhere English is used, it is influenced by contact with other languages and dialects. The English heard in Mumbai is distinct from the English heard in Melbourne, or Glasgow, or Monterrey, or Quebec City, or Johannesburg, or Tel Aviv, or Chicago, though it's all English. And the way English incorporates borrowings from other languages is deliciously haphazard: we have taken some words wholesale, barely changing the spelling or inflections, while in other cases we have anglicized foreign words, imposing more conventional English spelling and inflected forms. There is some amount of rhyme and reason to the process, but it's too complicated to reduce to simple rules of thumb. For the word gamer looking to master the words allowed by a game, this means you must commit as much as you can to memory and to be able to rely on sound instincts about the language, and about the quirks in the largely arbitrary list of legal words itself, when that memory is less than perfect.

In the case of Scrabble, fortunately, it is not necessary to master all the hundred thousand-plus words in the playable lexicon to become highly proficient at the game. The game is structured so that certain words are much more important to know than others, and it's no secret within the Scrabble world which words those are. That's part of the mission of this blog: to help guide you, the aspiring player, to the most important words and show how to bring them into your arsenal over the board. You don't just want to know words to know them (or maybe you do - I do sometimes!) - you most want to know the words that will win you Scrabble games.

But it's more than that. If I didn't have an affinity for words on some level, I wouldn't have taken up Scrabble. I'm not sure why I like words so much, but I do. Scrabble has been described as playing with strings of letters as game pieces, which indeed it is - but if those strings of letters were strings of numbers or colors or pictures of B-list celebrities, I wouldn't be a Scrabble player. Words are different, at least to me, and I see the beauty (and the ugliness, which only serves to illustrate the beauty further) within them. The point is this, and I'm sure I'll make it several times on this blog: you've got to enjoy the exercise, or else you won't do it. If that means you're not always learning the most important words you could be, that's completely okay. Therefore:

GEOFF'S FIRST PRINCIPLE OF LEARNING SCRABBLE WORDS: It's MUCH better to have a less than optimally efficient study plan you enjoy than a perfectly optimal one that feels like drudgery. Because, let's face it, if it feels like drudgery too often, you're not going to stick with it. Yes, there's a balance you'll need to find - if you want to get ahead in the game, you'll find out soon enough that there are words you can't afford not to know, and you'll need to spend time on them, and sometimes doing the reps you need to nail those down will get to feel like kind of a slog. So always make sure to have some dessert with your vegetables; go exploring in the dictionary, look for fun, off-the-wall words and embrace them. Sure, you might never get to play those bizarre low-probability words over the board, but those opportunities do come up now and then, and it feels oh so good to be able to get plays like that down when they're clearly the best play available. (And if your goal is really ambitious - say, winning the world championship -  it doesn't matter much which words you learn before others, since you'll be hitting the book so hard that you'll get to all the words anyway. If you're not hitting it that hard, then it's fair to ask whether that's really your goal, isn't it?) If you want to make that long journey from neophyte to word master, you'll need to build in some fun along the way.

A note about word lists: as tournament Scrabblers know, there are two word lists commonly used in competitive play. The North American list, known as TWL or OWL (Official Word List), is used in the majority of tournaments in North America and in a few other places. The rest of the world, and the world championships, use a larger list, called CSW or Collins (since the Collins dictionary company publishes the official book), that includes virtually all of TWL but adds about 25-30% more words, most of them obscure. I started out playing TWL, being a North American, but I now play the larger CSW list pretty much all the time. However, the content on this site will mostly apply to players of either list, and when that's not the case, I'll make sure to indicate which words are allowable in one list but not the other - I want this blog to be helpful for both TWL players and CSW players.

Happy Scrabbling,