Sunday, May 21, 2017

On Switch-Hitting

Glad to be back! It's been a while...this weekend is a big one for Scrabble, with the tremendous Niagara Falls tourney in full swing. I wish I could be there, but, alas, a work conflict kept me home. Don't you just hate it when real life gets in the way of Scrabbling?

Anyway, while most of the articles here are applicable whether you play TWL or Collins, I've been asked to write a piece for a specific audience: TWL players who are looking to try Collins and want to know how best to go about learning the Collins-only words. As I'm sure you know, the tricky thing is to have the useful Collins-only words in your arsenal for Collins games without being confused by them when playing TWL games. I've taken this journey myself - I don't play much TWL these days, but for many years I played in both lexicons regularly, and so I had to come up with strategies for knowing which words I couldn't play in TWL games. I did manage to maintain roughly the same level of play in both lexicons, but it did require a lot of extra effort that I'm rather glad I don't have to expend these days. Though if I had a compelling reason to take up TWL again, I'd have no problem embracing the challenge.

This year's Nationals has a Collins newcomer prize pool, generously arranged by Norman Wei, which might be a good motivator for some of you to give the international game a try. So I'll write here for the perspective of someone aiming to contend for those prizes.

The first thing you need to know is that a little Collins knowledge can take you a long way. Unless you're aiming really high, you don't need more than a small percentage of those crazy Collins words to be able to play well. The TWL words you know are (with a very few exceptions) all valid in Collins. Nor do you have to make any radical changes to your strategy - it's the same game, just with more words. Play smart, but don't play scared, and don't get discouraged if you fall behind early; comebacks happen more in Collins, so if you hang in there and get some good tiles, you might well be able to overcome that early deficit.

The most crucial Collins-only words to know are the same sorts of words that are most useful for TWL: the twos, most of the threes, some useful fours and fives, maybe some high-probability bingos. That's a good thing, because if you restrict your Collins study to the kinds of words you already know well in TWL, it'll be easier to keep the words separate in your brain.

The twos come first in the learning sequence, followed by the threes, just as in TWL. The twos are easy to learn, since there are only 19 of them. There are a few hundred threes, so that'll take a little more time, but don't stress if you're not absolutely perfect on those; just try to get as many as you can.  I'd recommend writing the threes out on a piece of paper, separating them by what letter they start with, and then reading aloud and periodically making up mini-quizzes for yourself from that list - can you name the Collins threes that start with HO, or MA, or V?

But there's something else just as important to learning the short Collins words, if not more important: playing lots of Collins games! It's a common thing for Collins newcomers to miss plays involving words like DI#, OO#, ITA# or OYE#, even if you know those words are legal - this happens because, as a TWL player, you're not trained to see and think of those words as possibilities. So fire up Quackle, or go on ISC, or grab a Collinsy friend, and plan to play a lot of games. Playing quickly, within your limits, is good here too, because it gets your eyeballs on more positions and trains you more thoroughly to see what is possible on a Collins board.

When looking for more words to add to your arsenal after the shorties, consider that hooks are VERY important in Collins. There are a lot of surprising hooks among the short words, like A(NOW)#, E(VET)#, (FEW)S#. You don't need to know them all, but looking at fours that are formed by common hook letters like A, E or S being added to threes will help you avoid nasty surprises (and create some yourself!)

Also, Collins gives you a lot more ways to play through vowel-heavy racks, so you'll want to learn the short words with lots of vowels well. It's not a terribly long list, though a lot of the words are decidedly weird. (Remember, it's EUOI#, not EOUI*. It's of Greek origin, so remember that EUPHORIA is Greek too and, like a number of other words from Greek, starts with EU.)

You shouldn't need very many bingos just yet unless you're planning to dive into Collins more deeply after Nationals. Prioritizing the short stuff is your best plan, but if you want to learn a few bingos and have the time, all the better. For bingos, I would focus on the highest-probability words that do NOT have TWL solutions. Knowing RESIANT# and STARNIE# probably won't help you, because if your rack is AEINRST, you can probably do just as well with one of the zillion TWL bingos available. Knowing EROTISE# or ORNATER# definitely could help you, though. While I usually recommend favoring eights over sevens for long-term bingo skill building, I would reverse that advice here. First, you want to make it easier on yourself because your time for study is limited, and second, it's easier in Collins to make overlapping plays that can take out bingo lines for eights, so you may not have as many opportunities to play eight-letter bingos as you might think.

As for how to keep these words from infecting your TWL game after your Collins adventure, the tried and true method is to use the # symbol (octothorps, hashes, pound signs, whatever you want to call them) for Collins words that aren't valid in TWL. Whenever you write the words, use the # symbols; if you're studying with Zyzzyva or something else, either set the quizzes up to require the symbols or add them mentally (that is, if you're doing an anagram quiz with both TWL and Collins words, make yourself identify which lexicon it is in order to count the question as correct). Though I don't advise doing too many quizzes with mixed TWL and Collins words - studying the Collins words exclusively for now will keep them separated better when you go back to TWL.

A word about the challenge rule, because it's an important difference in the two games. The penalty in Collins games for challenging a valid word isn't a devastating loss of turn - it's just 5 or 10 points added to the opponent's play. But if the word is invalid, the player playing it still loses a turn, as in TWL. This means that you should usually challenge even if you only have a little doubt about the word. And on the flip side, play only words you're very sure of: if you have some doubts about the word you're thinking of playing, you might want to look for a word you know is good instead. Don't just throw something on the board and hope it's valid. (Though if you sense your opponent is hesitant to challenge, and many newcomers to Collins from TWL are, you might be able to get away with a little more.)

Above all, have fun! I remember when I started out in TWL really enjoying the discovery of strange new words - finding out, whoa, cool, I can play JIAO, or IXIA, or FREMD, or CUBEB. They looked bizarre to me at the time, but they're old friends now. (I even know what they mean!) Taking up Collins extended that joyous experience for me even further, and even if you don't go into learning Collins very far, many players find that the extra words open up intriguing possibilities in games. If you find TWL is more your speed, that's okay too - every player appreciates the game a little differently - but if you embrace the Collins challenge and get comfortable with playing it, you might find you really enjoy it.

Happy Scrabbling, however you prefer to Scrabble,