With our deep sub-conscious minds we seldom dabble
Noel Coward, Bronxville Darby and Joan
Anagramming - or unscrambling a jumble of letters into meaningful words - is the core skill of the Scrabble player. Noel Coward saw it, quite rightly , as a ‘sub-conscious’ experience. Experts can often spot words on their rack or across the board in the wink of an eye and , like Nabokov’s Ada, shape “appetizing long words from the most unpromising scraps and collops.” But, excluding a handful of geniuses, most players have to work at their rack - just as writers gain their inspiration from tapping at a keyboard.
1. Move the tiles about on your rack
This may sound obvious but I have seen many club players sit motionless over bonus-containing racks which would bear fruit with the simple transposition of a tile or two. By shuffling the letters we break up arbitrary patterns and assist the mind to make structure out of nonsense. If you have ever tried anagramming 10-letter word square puzzles you will realise that it is easier to recognise the target word as a two-dimensional jumble of letters than as a linear array of text. This tactile working with the tiles, like a sculptor moulding his clay, is an important precursor to the creative process.
2. Identify bonus-prone racks
Learn to allocate more time to fruitful looking combinations of letters and develop a feel for the likelihood of your rack containing a bonus.
For example, give more attention to racks containing a blank or an S, S-A-T-I-R-E combos or the basic letters (one and two-point tiles).
Work according to the three P’s - Patterns, Percentages and Probabilities:
Pattern: Does the rack have all one pointers, are there 5 vowels?
Percentage: If I have two blanks I know I have a good (about 80%) chance of a bonus.
Probability: Two W’s means only 65 chances out of 31,136 of having a seven-letter word. But since I have learned all the two-W bonus words I have the knowhow to deal with these awkward racks - and the probability of my finding a seven-letter word from W-W-D-N-L-O-O suddenly approaches certainty.
3. Look for natural grammatical extensions and inflections such as -ED, -ING -IER.
Identify prefixes and suffixes to link words to word sets and lists with which you are familiar.
For example, from D-I-K-N-N-O-S I would extract NON- (since I have memorised all the words prefixed with NON-) and find the word NONSKID.
4. Use common letter strings and combinations like STR, -TY -OO as clues and place them together on the rack where you would expect them to occur in a word.
e.g. STRONG, AMENITY , BOOTIES
5. Don’t think of specific words - learn to "vision" your letters.
The Canadian expert player Mike Wise once said “As soon as I sight the first tile I’m starting to imagine a bingo.” Letting your mind "float" might mean looking away from the game for a moment or even closing your eyes.
Remember to look for "double-barrelled" words such as BOATMAN, TIECLIP or BULKHEAD. With letters like A-D-D-E-G-H-O mechanically positioning -ED at the end of your rack won’t help you find the bonus - GODHEAD.
Visualisation is particularly important when you are holding two blanks given the plethora of possibilities such good fortune brings. Look at Endgame Practice Session 4 for a nice example of this "blessed dilemma."
6. Add available letters on the board when you are anagramming to find eights or nines.
You have R-E-T-A-I-N-S with no place to play it - but there is a floating A for ANTISERA, ARTESIAN, RATANIES, RESINATA or SEATRAIN.
Nine-letter words are playable on average one every five games but they are often missed because players don’t consciously look for them. Most often a nine is simply an extension to an eight on the board but it also pays to identify potential two-letter playthroughs like AR, ER, AT, IN, ON, OR, RE, TE and TI.
e.g. D-E-G-I-R-R-S through an AN (GRANDSIRE) or E-I-I-L-R-S-Z onto STAB (STABILIZERS)
Occasionally you will be able to bridge two non-adjacent letters to form a nine. In the 1997 World Championships I was lucky enough to link two A’s six squares apart to make FANTASIAS - for a double-double word score of 98 - the kind of move you dream about.
7. Place tiles on your rack according to the likelihood of their occurring in a given position in a word.
For example, an F or a J is more likely appear at the start of a word, an S or a Y at the end.
8. Let the board or rack situation determine which length of letter you should be looking for.
For example, on a closed board you might not waste time looking for a seven but concentrate on eights, nines or even four- or five- letter dumpers and blockers.
You should say to yourself “I need to find a word with the V in the fourth position to take best advantage of that open triple file” or “I don’t want to play my O over that open triple word square because the X is still to come - so I’ll play a word containing an I instead.”
You also use rack management principles to limit your choice:
“I need to dump three vowels from my rack of A-A-A-E-I-I-L. AIA, or better still AALII, will fit the bill.”
“I have A-E-F-H-L-T-V - the F and V are awkward - FAVE or FAVEL will do the trick.”