Tuesday, March 7, 2017


A while back, someone asked me if I'd write a post here about studying nines. I do love me some nines, so I'm happy to oblige...

How often are nines playable? Not very often, really. As I understand it, about every 10-15 games or so, a position comes up where a nine-letter (or longer) bingo is both playable and the best play available. And many of those are just eights with a standard S plural or -ED and -ING forms of shorter verbs, which don't require studying nines specifically to know. You could probably win a Nationals or Worlds without playing a single nine-letter bingo, if you did everything else well enough.

The nines do have their uses, though. The ones that are unconventional hooks on eights, like INTERVALE or RELOCATEE, can be used to open up some doors for yourself, particularly when your opponent isn't likely to recognize the threat of the hook. Knowing nines can also give you some elegant extension possibilities, particularly when they hit a triple word square - NON(POETIC), COUCH(ETTE), EX(CHEQUER) and IMIN(AZOLE) are a few of the many I've seen on expert boards. It's rare you'll get to play one, but if you're thinking about those possibilities, that's a sign that you're really engaged in finding your best play - and that's a good habit to cultivate.

In terms of study priority, I'd rank the top couple of thousand nines on par with the medium-low probability eights. Neither category will help you that much, but if you've studied that far into the book, you're already contending with the law of diminishing returns either way. Nines that play through certain two-letter words are a little more useful, and it's a good habit to think of these as part of your board vision, particularly when you have a blank and lots of options - TI is a good one, for example, if you have words ending in -ATION. ER and RE, DE and ED are ripe for having nines played to or through them. (In Collins, CH# allows some beautiful nines every once in a while.) In a lot of situations where a nine-letter bingo is optimal, the nine is a double-double through a two-letter word in a double-double lane, so be attuned to that possibility.

But mostly, learning nines means you're a real word freak! That's not for everyone, I'll grant, but nines as a group of words are really fun to explore if you're into that. And studying them, while they're unlikely to be played, still has some value: they build your anagramming muscles. Remember when I talked about how eights were much tougher than sevens? Adding a ninth letter takes that up another big notch. The nines also contain a lot more compound words and longer word parts, making the anagramming task much more complex - and satisfying, when you solve the puzzles. You do enough of those, and eights start looking EASY. And oh my god, if you ever did get (BA)HUVRIHI down...okay, maybe it's just another bingo. 76 points is 76 points. But if you look at the track records of the very best players, about all of them have a body of work that includes a few sweet long-word finds like SAPROZOIC, SATINWOODS, AUBERGINES or WATERZOOI, and that's not an accident. It's an indicator of the desire these players have to master the whole game, including the furthest edges of the word list.

I do have to warn of a certain disease, though: just because you see a nine doesn't mean it's the best play. Sometimes it's not, and sorry, tournaments don't give out style points, so take the best play and just be happy you saw I(TI)NERANT for fewer points and worse board position than ENTRAIN elsewhere.

What's the best way to think about word practice?

Howdy, folks! Hope all is well in Scrabbleland...a little encouragement today:

Sometimes you'll hear Scrabble players wonder aloud how they could be having a poor run of tournament results after having stepped up their word studying. After all, they say, I know more words now - how am I not winning more? This syndrome is particularly acute after a Nationals or Worlds, since many players are motivated to study up before the biggest tournaments. And it's not surprising: the more effort you put into something, the more confident you become and the higher your expectations go, and it can be jarring when those expectations are not immediately fulfilled.

Some of that is not recognizing the variance in small sample sizes. Even a 31-game Nationals is not a very large sample of games, and there's a lot of luck of the draw in Scrabble as we all know. Sometimes the tile gods decree that it's just not your year, that it's someone else's turn to shine. (Which is okay - it's good to be happy for your friends' successes, too!) And sometimes it's because other parts of your game need more attention - in fact, that's always true; every part of your game needs attention if you want to excel - but someone who's recently been deep in the books can lose sight of their weaknesses in other parts of the game until they get to the Nationals and face a few good opponents who know how to exploit those weaknesses. (If you want to know how to improve those parts of your game, I'd recommend among other things reading the Scrabble Players Handbook, and once you're a little further along, Kenji Matsumoto's wonderful books on strategy.)

But the biggest cause of this feeling, I think, is not recognizing the nature of the process involved in learning Scrabble words. Like a lot of learning endeavors, it's cumulative. Success in Scrabble is all about the long run, and success in learning the words is the same. I started studying Scrabble words in 2002, after reading Word Freak. I studied a lot those first few years; I figured that since there were so many words to learn, no time like the present to start learning them. I am still benefiting today from the practicing I did back then. It's about building a strong foundation, and then building upward and outward from that foundation as you gain the skills needed to encode the information in your mind quicker and more reliably.

This does not mean you will benefit right away - it might take a while. Though you might: thinking back to my first year in Scrabble, my third and fourth tournaments were rather disappointing outings, and I had started to wonder when all the hours of studying I was putting in at the time would start paying off. Then my fifth tournament came, and I got the tiles to play some of those delicious words I'd been learning like LENTISK and SAXATILE and TRAGOPAN. I went 10-1 and gained almost 200 rating points, allowing me to play in division one thereafter, which was my big goal at the time. And I was thrilled, of course. But if that magical weekend in Lampasas, Texas, hadn't happened, it wouldn't have changed the nature of anything - I'd have still reached my destination, just a little slower. The nice thing about learning the words is that it always pays off; it can't not. If you build the ability to find the kind of plays that win games, and you play enough tourneys, know that eventually the wins will come. It just might be sooner, or it might be later.

You might be tempted to ramp up your word practice before a big tournament. This is fine - I do it sometimes, too, as I'm sure many other players do. You want to be able to bring your best game to the table. But especially in a long tournament like Nationals or Worlds, it's important to keep a level head and keep your expectations in check. Focusing on how you're doing in the tournament can distract you from the more important task in front of you when you sit down to play, which is to find the best plays you can with the skills you have, in the time you have. You're not going to play perfectly; no one ever has. But know this: the studying you do may not pay off today, but if you're studying the right things and putting in the time, it will pay off. 

Happy Scrabbling,