Monday, December 26, 2016


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,



  1. As a Scrabble player who fluctuates up and down in the ratings, I look forward to hearing what you have to say on this subject. It's just as easy for me to forget words as it is to learn them, or so it seems.

  2. Thanks, I look forward to your next post.

  3. Also re 7s v 8s there are far more 8s & it's generally more common to have to find 8s through an existing floater especially as the game progresses