Thursday, September 11, 2008

Awwww....little Scrabblers!!!!

I'm not talking in the title about the kids and teens who take the Scrabble world by storm here. (If you think about it, those players can hardly be deemed "little Scrabblers" - they might be younger than most of us, but a lot of them know a lot more words and use a lot more complex strategy than other players who might be older. Hence, their skill at the game cannot be called "little").

Instead, I'm referring to you and me and all other people, at the point where we just start(ed) getting into the world of tournament Scrabble and began to figure out what we needed to do to be ready for those first and second-ever tournaments. What a daunting task it was, right?!

Just about a year ago, I was a very little Scrabbler myself. (Being rated just over 1000 now, some might make a compelling case that I still am, lol). When Michael first brought up the idea that we should enter a tournament, I was all for it. I'd played pretty avidly in the University of Michigan Scrabble Club for a few years and played one of my college roommates pretty frequently when we'd lived together. But I knew I wasn't all that good. I don't think I ever won a game against my roommate. And one member of the U of M Scrabble Club liked to make high-scoring plays while providing a "friendly neighborhood reminder to watch your triples!"

I was always so confused by that. I found a place to make a word! I like the word! You're telling me I should find a way to keep you away from the Triple Word Score (TWS)....AND play a word?!?

When Michael and I decided to enter the tournament scene....something told me I'd need to learn how to watch my triples around this neighborhood of probably-scarily-good people. I didn't trust them not to know how to keep ME away from triples. Such was my first introduction to the concept of Scrabble strategy.

I will be the first to admit I do not study Scrabble as much as I should. Michael may spend an hour or two per day with Zyzzyva...I'm lucky if I get two to three hours studying in a week. (I don't use Zyzzyva, either...but my actual studying methods are a whole 'nother post.) But I also know that there was a point in my Scrabble "career" when all I was really concentrating on was keeping people away from triples and making neat words with 2-4 letters. My rating was in the 7-800 range then. I knew all the twos, some of the threes, and almost none of the strategy.

Then came along a foreign concept to both Michael and me, brought to us by Flossie, a very nice woman from Michael's Scrabble club: "When in doubt, use more tiles rather than fewer in a turn. You'll see more tiles that way, have a better chance at getting the power tiles...."

[note to non-Scrabblers: there are ten power tiles: J (8 points), Q (10pts), X (8pts), Z (10pts), four S's (1pt each), and two blanks, which can be turned into any letter you want (0 pts). These are called power tiles because you have the potential to score a lot of points with them if you use them well]

"....and that way you'll have a better chance at winning."

I was intrigued. That concept became "The Flossie Principle" to Michael and me, and we began trying to incorporate it into our games as best we could. Using the Flossie Principle seemed to raise our scores and lessen the time it took to finish a game (which was a good thing, because - I'm ashamed to say - initially one or the other of us was frequently overtime).

The Flossie Principle was also, for me, a wake-up call: Hey! That actually made sense! What, you mean there're other things you can do besides studying and keeping your opponent away from the triples to give yourself a better chance of winning?! I'd never really put deep thought into each of my plays in a Scrabble game before. Maybe I should?

So, before my next tournament (in Rocky River, OH in February '08) I studied when I could and then decided I was going to do a little experiment: Let's see what the effect on my game is of really thinking about my plays! Here were some of the ideas I considered:

-Does my opponent seem ready to bingo soon? If so, can I block possibly advantageous places to put it?

-Are there any power tiles I think my opponent has? If so, can I block any good places to put them?
(Example: putting a Z on a triple letter score (TLS) next to an A and putting an A of your own below the Z to form ZA, ZA, and an acceptable two like AL or AN. This would be a 64-point play and would be a huge chance for your opponent to greatly shorten your lead or to lengthen his/her own!)

-Are my letters absolutely atrocious? (Examples: AIOOUWV or CDGKQVY - no easily-formed words there, even if there are random tiles on the board you can make words through). If so, the best option IS to change some of them and take the lost turn. (It took me a while to convince myself of this - I never wanted to lose a turn!

-Do I have a significant lead? If so, I might want to start closing down the board - making it tough for my opponent to bingo and possibly catch up with me. Am I significantly behind? Then I want the board open, open, open so I can bingo and catch up!

-I want to track tiles as closely as I can! That way, I know which power tiles or even higher-pointed tiles are gone, and I might have a fighting chance of figuring out what my opponent has at the end of the game if I'm a REALLY good tracker (which I'm not usually, yet :-P )

Funny to say I had never considered ideas such as this...but after my first tournament of doing so, my rating rose from 791-859, my largest jump so far. (It's worth noting that I started in September 2006 with a rating of 740 - so in the six months prior, my rating had only gone up 51 points). I decided to keep strategizing - and my rating has jumped about 200 points in the six months after. I THINK. I know why :)

It's important to note here that I am in no way saying strategy alone is the way to approach and to play Scrabble. Word knowledge is vital, and you can see Michael's post below for one method of heightening that for yourself.

I also do not claim to be anything close to a strategy guru. One example of my lacks in strategy showed in my game against George V at Tuesday's club tourney: George had (as expected) a pretty commanding lead. But I had pretty good tiles, and had had a few 7-letter bingos I couldn't fit on the board recently. Maybe I could catch up a little bit still? For the life of me, though, I couldn't think of any 8's that would fit either, even though there were several inviting-looking potential hooks out there.

It was almost the end of the game when George played a W four spaces away from the TWS on the right in the middle (if I had a board in front of me, I could give you the number and letter corresponding to the space, but I'm not snappy enough to remember that offhand yet :) I thought, okay, free triple if I can't find a bingo. Not that that was going to give me all that many points with the letters I had, but maybe I could still bingo on the next turn. So I played WORE 21 - three letters of mine gone to the play, four left - and reached in the tile bag to find only two letters remaining. I had only six letters and couldn't bingo now, since for the 50-point bonus of a bingo you have to have used seven letters from your rack. My hopes of catching up a bit were gone - I hadn't tracked well enough to know there were only two in the bag. Nicely played, George :)

George, of course, knew exactly what he was doing - his reasoning (which I found out after the game when I talked to him) was that if I'd wanted to open things up to possibly bingo, I'd play two letters next to the W and end just before the TWS, making a low-pointed play but the possibility of a high-pointed one on the next turn. But then he'd probably have a tile that would fit right on the TWS, and would make a word going vertically from it - likely blocking any bingo I'd have to put there. If I played three tiles instead of two (which I did), I wouldn't be able to bingo on the last turn anyway and he'd have nothing to worry about.

We all learn something new every day, and my favorite new thing that day was that expert strategy tactic! There are always new words and new strategies to learn. But my point is that if you make a conscious effort to include both new words and better strategy in each game you play, you might be pleasantly surprised at the results. Even little Scrabblers might be astounded at the speed with which they "grow up!"

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