Today I have the second part of my visit to the North American Scrabble championships. If you missed part one, it’s Grammar Girl episode 477 from August 13, so you can find it at iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, but this week, the co-president of the North American Scrabble Players Association, John Chew is going to tell us how people win Scrabble tournaments when they don’t even speak the language, what some of the tricks are that Scrabble masters use to memorize words, how Scrabble is played differently in other countries, why it would be extra cool to go to Thailand to play, what one thing you should focus on if you want to be a better player, and finally how you can compete in the national championship—it’s not as hard as you may think, but it requires mental focus.
Playing Scrabble When You Don't Speak the Language
FOGARTY: There was a lot of buzz at the champions because a rock star player named Nigel Richards, an English speaker, had just won the French world championship—after studying the French word list for just a few months—but it’s actually not a new thing for people to play Scrabble in foreign languages. Here’s John Chew.
CHEW: It’s not the first time that anyone has done this. I believe a Frenchman has won the Spanish world championship, and more than one Thai player has won the English language world championship with very little spoken fluency in English, but certainly the ability to memorize a large number of words in a foreign language . . . it’s interesting playing some Thai players because their approach to the English language is very different from native speakers, and there’s something very alien about it.
FOGARTY: What he means is that foreign players need to study the English word list efficiently—to optimize their mental effort—so they study the good Scrabble words, not everyday English words. So foreign players often don’t know common English words like hitch.
CHEW: No native speaker of English would ever challenge the word hitch in a Scrabble game, but that would be the sort of word that a non-native player might easily challenge because when you study words systematically, to optimize the mental effort of studying word, you study the words that are going to be most useful. The odds of actually playing the word hitch in a Scrabble game are very low because there are only two H's in the bag. You’d need to have both of them and one of the two C’s, so their type of play tends to be, very Scrabbly, because you get a lot of Scrabble words, and you don’t get eight- and nine-letter words that are everyday words away from the Scrabble board but are almost never played in Scrabble.
Tricks for Memorizing Scrabble Words
FOGARTY: So how do people study these words lists? It’s all about memorization, so what are their memorization techniques? Stefan Fatsis—you remember him from the Scrabble episode a few weeks ago; he’s the guy who wrote the book Word Freak—he uses free training software put out by NASPA called Zyzzava, but other top players have devised their own methods.
CHEW: There’s one former world champion named David Bois who came up with his buddy system for learning words. He takes each word and assigns it a buddy in the dictionary. It’s a word that reminds him of the other word, and it’s like when you’re in kindergarten and you’re holding hands with your buddy on a field trip. You’re far less likely to lose two kindergarten kids or two words from your vocabulary than you are to lose one. So I don’t know if he still uses that, but I know he hasn’t lost any of his three kids, so there’s probably something.
Another champions named Joel Wapnick has a page-based system.
FOGARTY: John is going to mention alphagrams next. The word was coined by Joe Edley and Jim Homan, and it’s when you take all the letters in a word and rearrange them so they’re in alphabetical order. The alphagram for the word car is acr—you’ve rearranged the letters C A R so they are in alphabetical order. A comes first, C comes second, and R comes third. Here’s an example of a longer alphagram that contains seven common letters that can make nine different seven-letter words: A-E-I-R-N-S-T:
CHEW: Those seven letters, A E I R N S T, you can make any of the nine seven-letter words. anestri, antsier, nastier, ratines, retains, retinas, retsina, stainer, stearin. There are different techniques.
FOGARTY: Back to Joel Wapnick’s method for memorizing words.
CHEW: He doesn’t use pure alphagrams; he takes all the vowels first and puts them at the beginning of the alphagram and then all the consonants, and sorts them separately alphabetically, which kind of ... I can see why he does that because vowels and consonants are different in the way they interact, and it’s good to know how many vowels and consonants you have in a word, so he takes all of those possible pseudoalphagrams and prints them out in alphabetical order and then, a certain number, like 200, to a page, and then he sits down and memorizes them page by page.
A Way of Thinking That Will Improve Your Scrabble Score
FOGARTY: Let’s say you don’t want to memorize 90,000 words. Let’s say you’ve just memorized the two-letter words, and the good Q-words, and you want to get a little better. Here’s John’s advice.
CHEW: When you’re playing Scrabble seriously, there’s strategy to it as well as word knowledge. And the most important aspect of strategy is to plan ahead. Even a casual player, if they’ve played enough, should have developed some sense as to what’s going to happen when they put a word on the board. Is their opponent going to be able to easily respond to that? Are they setting themselves up for a bigger play the next turn? And so I always tell people if they want to know how to increase their Scrabble scores, after you learn the basic tools of the lexicon, what you should really do is instead of thinking what’s my highest scoring play, or worse, what is the prettiest word I can make with these tiles, you should think, what can I do now that will see me ahead by the largest number of points after my next turn. Not the turn that I’m making, but think about the turn that you make right now, and the tiles you are going to keep, and how your current turn contributes to your opponent’s reply, and how the tiles you are keeping on your rack are going to affect your scoring opportunities on your next turn, and that’s about as far as you need to look in most situations, unless you’re playing in the top division at the National Scrabble championship, and that will help you get ahead of your friends.
Scrabble in France
FOGARTY: Because we had been talking about Nigel Richards winning the French Scrabble tournament, it came up that Scrabble is played completely differently in France, which was a big surprise to me. I thought it would be the same everywhere, but cultural differences come into play.
CHEW: But when French people play Scrabble they play a very different version of the game. In addition to it being in French, they also play what they call duplicate Scrabble, which I usually describe to my competitive Scrabble playing friends as being closer to bingo than Scrabble. One aspect of the game of Scrabble that people have agonized over ever since the game was invented was the tension between skill and luck in the game. And I think it’s just where it needs to be. It’s the sort of game where the more you study the luckier you get, and someone who is skilled can beat a less skilled opponent most of the time, but not all the time. So that gives the weaker opponent a chance to play, a reason to play.
The French on the other hand, for the most part didn’t like the aspect of luck, they wanted to make it purely a skill-based game. Their duplicate game is everyone playing the same game of solitaire Scrabble, with one person, like a bingo master, drawing out tiles and announcing to everybody which tiles are we going to use, and everybody has a few minutes to make the best play they can make. And they score their own plays, but then the everybody’s board gets updated with the play that the director instructs, which is usually the highest scoring play. And it’s a very unforgiving game for people who don’t have perfect word knowledge or perfect board vision. And most English language players find it tedious after trying it once because what they really like is the head to head competition and the camaraderie that comes with it.
Scrabble in Britain
FOGARTY: Another interesting difference is how challenges are handles by British and American players.
CHEW: There are cultural differences though, that historically led to the British having a different rule for challenges than the Americans did. The British said, if you make a word and it’s no good, then if your opponent catches you, it comes off the board. If your opponent thinks the word you made is no good, they can check at no penalty, and there is no penalty, because it wouldn’t be right, it wouldn’t be fair, for you to try to bluff your opponent into getting away with a word that is no good; whereas for Americans, bluffing in poker is their lifeblood. They think, no-no, there should be what we call the double challenge rule: when you make a challenge in American scrabble, one player is going to lose their turn—either the challenger or the challengee.
Scrabble in Thailand
FOGARTY: And if you think those differences are interesting, you’ll love this. Scrabble is a big deal in Thailand. It’s taught in all the schools and the king backs a royal Scrabble tournament every year. When I mentioned Thailand to people I met at the championships, their eyes lit up, and everyone I talked to hoped to make it there some day if they hadn’t already.
CHEW: In fact everybody who has any interest in Scrabble or pomp and pageantry too should come to Thailand for the King’s Cup tournament in July each year. But, in Thailand, Scrabble is part of the school system, it’s taught as an activity, as a way to study English, from I think the kindergarten level all the way up to the college level, and it’s got major corporate sponsorship. The minister of education recognizes it as a worthwhile course of study, and all of the top competitions have royal patronage. The King’s Cup is named because the king donated a trophy and a prize fund to go with it. It’s a big deal there.
When I go to Thailand for the King’s Cup tournament, of those 10,000 people playing under one roof, of those 10,000 people about 100 are adults playing at an elite level and the rest of them are kids up to about high school age, and it’s a good balance because the kids are all excited to be competing at the same activity that they see world champions competing at, and they’ll run up to you and ask you for your autograph, and at the same time it keeps the adult players on their good behavior, and they realize that these kids are the future of things, and that’s the way any sort of long-term sustainable healthy competitive activity has to be.
FOGARTY: While I’m dreaming of going to the King’s Cup someday, the North American championship seems a little more within reach. I had thought it would be hard to make it there, but they actually have different categories so you don’t have to be the best in the world to play.
CHEW: It’s actually relatively easy to come here. The only thing we insist is that you can’t play in the National Championship as your first tournament. You have to have had at least one tournament experience before, for two reasons. One is we need to know how strong you are to know which rating division to put you in, we don’t want you to be the world’s strongest player but who has never played in a tournament before.
FOGARTY: The other reason they want you to have played in a tournament before is because they want you to know what you’re getting into—it’s a mental marathon. At the North American Scrabble championship, they play seven hours a day for five days straight. It’s like taking the SAT twice a day for a whole week, and this isn’t even the most grueling tournament.
I hope I’ve inspired some of you to try to up your game or even compete, and I hope you liked these special episodes, but if not, we’re going back to our regular format next week, so thanks for sticking with me.