5. Board Management
The basis of strategic skills in Scrabble is the ability to understand and make best use of the architecture of the board. Players with a sharp "sight of the board" often come to Scrabble from chess, draughts, go or backgammon and immediately understand that the positioning of the tiles is not just a haphazard jigsaw of letters but an integral part of the game’s complexity.
To exercise your strategic "sight" you need to be sitting with the board properly in view. In the USA and UK revolving turntables are the norm so the view , during your turn, is always front on. In some countries, like Australia, players sit side by side in tournaments which can sometimes affect your angle of vision. Avoid glare and the need to dodge and weave every time you look at the board.
Don’t forget that Alfred Butts was an architect and designed his Scrabble® board with as much love and care as Frank Lloyd Wright devoted to the Guggenheim Museum.
To master board management it helps to understand the features of Scrabble architecture:
Squares can be premium word squares (doubling or trebling tile values) or non-premium (scoring the face value of the tile)
open or closed -
Tiles can be:
Files can run:
A lane is an empty file available to either player to place a move
Plays (or moves) can be
Boards can be:
Gradually you will learn to develop sight of the board and to take in all these architectural features at a single glance. One computer Scrabble program has a facility which shows you all possible plays and recreates them square by painful square. Fortunately, humans have a smarter in-built "heuristic" which focuses on the essential squares or files and ignores the rest.
Open and Closed Premium Squares
It is sound strategy to close premium word squares unless only you can take advantage of them yourself. Placing an I beneath a TLS could yield 50 plus for your opponent’s X - or 60 plus for his Q (now that QI is playable).
Which vowels are least dangerous to play over a double or triple word square?
My preference is for U, E, A, I, O in that order. Some experts think the I is more of a risk than the O but statistically there are higher scores available from an exposed O.
Embedded tiles and squares
These can be critical in the endgame - like the hidden TLS that gives your opponent a winning 30 points for his Y or the I’s that seem to be playing hide and seek with your unplayable Q.
Parallel plays: underlaps and overlaps
Players with good vision can often thread their tiles parallel to other words on the board forming four or five words in one go. The Israeli champion Evan Cohen, in the 1993 World Championships, replied to his opponent’s bonus word by laying down another neatly on top - forming seven two-letter words at the same time!
Nobody likes being double-crossed - particularly by a Q, X, J or Z. Make sure you don’t open up a TLS needlessly. There’s nothing more painful than finally laying down a bonus for 60 only to see your opponent score 62 for his QI on a Triple Letter Square that you just created.
When we looked at the Opening we considered ‘Benjamins’or words extending to a TWS on the first move. It pays to look out for these possibilities in the middle and endgame as well. Russell Byers, three-time British Champion, won our first-round clash at the World Championships in 1997 by cleverly playing QUOTE three spaces away from a TWS while holding M-S towards the end of the game - knowing that several I’s were still to come for his MISQUOTE and 57 decisive points.
A thorough knowledge of front and back hooks is an essential weapon in the master player’s armoury. Familiarity with the twos-to-make-threes and threes-to-make-fours lists in Chapters 22 and 23 will give you a solid foundation. Knowing unusual hooks can be a great tactical advantage. Mark Nyman once played the word INFOLDS on his opening move right up against the TWS at A8 guessing, correctly, that his opponent did not know the P- hook for PINFOLDS.
It is wise not to leave floaters if your opponent is stronger than you in the knowledge of eight-letter words. If you are defending try and make a parallel play across a line of floating tiles or choose a move that intrudes into the bonus lanes each side of the floaters. If you are attacking don’t inadvertently block bonus lanes - make sure there are at least two or three free tiles to play through in different parts of the board.
Open and closed boards
Good strategists know how to open and close boards as the game situation demands. They may achieve this by a last-minute setup yielding an unstoppable hook for a bonus or high-scoring Z play or by a defensive underlap that takes away three bonus lanes in one go. Generally, stronger players prefer open boards so they can bounce bonuses around in all directions. The weaker players like to block up the game with unhookable tile ladders hoping to claw their way to a narrow win. By playing through exhibition matches you will gain an understanding of how experts can exploit board space for a strategic advantage.
Feints shepherds and swindles
The cagy Scrabble player sometimes resorts to downright cunning to ensure a victory. This is not unethical. It merely adds to the subtlety of the game. Playing specious words deliberately - even where there is no penalty for an incorrect challenge - creates a dimension of uncertainty which enhances the contest. In the Grand Canyon Championships in 1988 I overheard the opponent of Texan Jeff Reeves comment on Jeff’s weird-looking move "Wow, is that a word?" The Texan replied "No, it’s a psychological ploy, you dummy." Playing allowable pseudo-misspellings like CYDER, COPPY or KREEP can be just as disconcerting to your opponent as forcing him to decide if WETSUIT is okay.
Another common ruse is "feinting" - for example, dropping a tile next to a TWS to give your opponent a scoring opportunity while distracting him from the real seat of action elsewhere on the board (and the only spot for your bonus). Another is "shepherding" - making a move which obliges your opponent to play along a lane which will give you counterplay. Finally, when all else fails, the strategist must resort to swindles - maybe by sticking an -S onto KOI hoping your opponent has forgotten that the Japanese food fish doesn’t take the hook!