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7. Board Psychology

“...she recounted her monstrous points in a smug, melodious tone of voice like a princess narrating the poison-cup killing of a superfluous lover...” Vladimir Nabakov - Ada

Most of us, like Ada, have indulged in Scrabble gamesmanship at one time or other - like the player who tips his tiles out straight from the rack when forming a seven-letter word or the opponent who thumps his clock emphatically after a forty-point play.

This is part and parcel of tournament Scrabble and developing a healthy board psychology is an important component of overall strategy. Here are a few pointers.

Managing your time

Keeping cool under pressure is easier when you practise effective time management:

1. Don’t forget to press your clock.

This has happened to all club and tournament players at some stage in their career but to lose two or three minutes from your 25 minute allotment could deprive you of precious think-time at the end - and cost you the game.

2. Distribute your time effectively - spend less time on more obvious moves and more on looking for anagrams or in analysing a complicated endgame

I remember playing Joel Sherman (the 1997 World Champion) at the Third World Championships in London in 1995. There was a floating S on the board around which hoped to play PAS(S)WORD. Joel used up a good 12 minutes of his time analysing his move - which turned out to be a watershed in the game. He played a 4-letter blocker round the S and went on to win. Good players have a strong sense of timing - knowing when to play quick automatic moves and when to spend time considering their options.

3. Use your opponent’s time to work on your rack - use your own time to analyse the new position

You should aim to have your individual move tactic formulated before your opponent makes his move - then just readjust your plan if necessary. Some players daydream through their opponent’s thinking time hoping that his reply will offer a solution to their awkward rack.

I know players who make lightning fast moves- using up maybe only five or ten minutes on their clock just to deprive their opponent’s of thinking time. Computer programmes can get away with this "blitz" approach but the average human should make optimal use of the "two score minutes and five."

4. Have two options ready for each move

“My best play is PLAZA for 103 from the top left TWS but if she goes there I will play ZETA onto the bottom right TWS for 69.” This saves both time and disappointment. Many players see a great move, look no further and spend their time wriggling with expectation rather than coolly planning a fall-back position in advance.

5. In the endgame use up all your time to find the winning move(s) or to optimise the margin

Even in clear-cut win or loss situations spend the last few minutes of your time analysing all the possible moves. In the former case there is the added psychological advantage of enjoying your win. In the latter you can let your opponent worry that you might come up with a last-minute game-saving bonus.

6. Use "challenge time" to catch up on tile-tracking, check the scores or analyse the board situation (And if you know your challenged word is acceptable track your tiles in readiness to draw your new tiles)

In the World Scrabble® Championships (where the single or no-penalty challenge rule has applied) it has always been considered unethical to challenge a word you know to be acceptable just to gain thinking time. However, in a normal tournament situation it is quite acceptable to make effective use of the time in which the runners and adjudicators are busy with your challenge. Some countries have a rule variant which insists that both players cover their tiles or place their tiles face down during the challenge period - depriving the challenger of the advantage of working on a full rack of tiles during that time.

Body Language

Learn to read your opponent’s body language.

Does she always hunch over when in a losing position? Does he have a characteristic gesture or expression when he has a bonus word on his rack?

I was once told I always leant back and put my hands behind my head when about to play a bonus - so thereafter I did it only when I had rubbish on my rack.

The importance of guessing right

Some players seem to have an instinct for where their opponents are going to make their move. This can be critical when the last bonus will decide the game and you have two spots to block. After checking the tracking grid and calculating the probabilities often you are just left with a hunch. In Round 19 of the 1997 World Championships I was pitted against the brilliant player from Kenya - Patrick Gitonga Nderitu. I had an early lead and spent most of the game guessing exactly the spots where he could score. I observed that he was getting agitated as we approached the last moves of the game with me leading by 50 odd. There was one bonus alley available on row 14 and another through an embedded T along column O - yielding the chance of a nine-timer. Logic said “Block column O and get counterplay with your S along the triple file if he bonuses along row 14.” But then I noticed Patrick was staring intensely at the top right-hand corner and moving about on his chair as if he had just spotted a nine-timer. Obviously he was (as they say in rugby parlance) "selling me the dummy". He wanted me to play along the O column and then roll his bonus word along row 14. So I dumped my S there to block him.

In fact he had a rackful of junk, scored 45 off the TWS at O1 with an awkward Y and eventually won by 13 points. It was then that I heard a little voice say to me “No, that was not a psychological ploy, you dummy.”

Ten Practical Tips for Tournament Players

  1. Get into a winning state of mind - confidence improves your decisions.
  2. Learn to distinguish between bad luck and bad play and avoid the "whingeing syndrome": "I can’t believe my bad luck" or "Why do I just pick up lousy tiles?" On the other hand, differentiate between good luck and good play - the score sheet does not tell the whole story.
  3. Avoid mechanical play - keep the adrenalin flowing and be prepared to take risks.
  4. Have a good breakfast and a light lunch - watch out for drowsiness in the post-lunch game.
  5. Don’t analyse too much immediately after the game - keep your mind fresh for the next one.
  6. Don’t play practice games during or immediately before a tournament - get "tile-hungry".
  7. Don’t study word lists within a week of playing in a tournament - the mind gets constipated. Some players like "cramming" but I find my brain groping for the few words I have just read rather than the many I already know.
  8. Don’t drink or smoke - at least not during the tournament - the neurones get sluggish. Drink plenty of water and not too much tea or coffee.
  9. Play the tournament - surf the winning streaks, ignore one-sided "blowout" games and get back on the board if you are "dumped". Luck evens itself out in the long run.
  10. And remember - it’s only a game.

I had the privilege of playing Joel Wapnick in the first World Championship in London in 1991. Both of us had a chance of making the final 16 but needed to win the game. The tiles fell nicely for me and I scraped home by 30 points or so. Realising that he had missed out Joel commented , as he signed the scoresheet, “Oh well, the world won’t end, will it?” I was impressed with his composure - as I was two years later in New York when he emerged, vanquished but heroic, from that dramatic showdown with Mark Nyman. I nearly called out “Don’t worry, Joel. The world won’t end.”

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