2. Counting Skills
“On the Scrabble board, however, this same wild and weak Ada was transformed into a sort of graceful computing machine, endowed, moreover, with phenomenal luck... ”
Vladimir Nabokov - Ada or Ardor: a Family Chronicle
Some theorists of the game believe that Scrabble is more of an exercise in numeracy than literacy. To that extent accountants generally fare better at the game than Professors of English and most of today’s top tournament players come from mathematical or computing backgrounds. Even anagramming itself is a form of pattern-matching more akin to the formulations of algebra than to literary composition. And those who "teach" Scrabble in schools assure me that the game is a an excellent aid to practising basic arithmetic quite apart from its benefit as a remedy for misspelling.
These computational skills are required in three key areas:
Is there a preferred method of calculating the score?
There are different methods of calculation in tournament play . For example, you can work out the score before playing your move and just announce the total points or you can add up aloud as you go announcing the subtotals - I generally adopt the former method only when in time trouble.
The best way to verify your side of the score sheet is accurate is to announce your move score and running total - "2 for 175". This way your opponent can pick up on any discrepancies and request a score verification.
Should you always double check your opponent’s score?
There are players who laboriously lift up each tile and read the opponent’s score (while their clock is ticking away). A bit of "risk management" is advisable here - if the score looks about right accept it. With experience you can generally spot an over- or underscore and you can always do a quick read when you have a breathing space and have the move rescored later on.
2. Tile Tracking
Counting the tiles which have been played by marking them off on a tracking grid is a standard feature of tournament play.
It helps you to identify which letters are on your opponent’s rack when there are no tiles left in the bag or, in the middle of the game, to see at a glance how many, say, E’s or S’s are still to come. The standard method of tile-tracking is to cross off each letter played on the tracking grid as soon as you or your opponent has completed each move.
A typical tracking grid looks like this (blanks are indicated by a ?):
A A A A A A A A A .......... B B....... D D D D
The Simplified Method
The simplified method involves tracking only the Q Z J X K Blanks Esses plus the 3- and 4 point tiles. (25% of the bag). If necessary the other one and two-pointers (contained in DEREGULATION) are each counted over the board towards the end of the game.
The Oliver-Weinstein Variation
Common mistakes in tile-tracking are crossing off the wrong letter or failing to mark off a letter already played.
Two Australian expert players - Mark Oliver and Alan Weinstein - developed a system for avoiding this which makes tracking easier.
When you make your move and record your score , write down the word you actually played - underlining any tile or tiles on the board - e.g. HOTHEADS. If a blank is used circle it. Do the same after your opponent’s move. Then immediately (or at some point in the game when you find yourself with time to kill) cross off the corresponding letters on your tracking grid. When you have completed each word give it a tick. This method gives you the flexibility to concentrate on a critical rack or board situation and worry about the tracking later.
Towards the end - with maybe seven to ten tiles left in the bag - underline on the grid the letters on your rack and circle the letters unseen (in the bag or on your opponent’s rack) then list the circled letters underneath the grid. Finally, count the tiles in the bag and check if they tally with the number of circled letters on your tracking grid.
Should I bother to track tiles?
Well, I haven’t come across too many players who enjoy losing clearly winnable games.
There are a few experts who don't mark off the tiles but do a mental count at the end of the game. However, probably one in five tournament games will be decided by a knowledge of which tiles are on your opponent’s rack. Some endgames are like dark complex forests - and the tracking grid (like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs) can lead you safely home. Tile-tracking reduces the uncertainty factor in Scrabble. Once you master the skill it can actually be rather fun - when you discern correctly what’s on your opponent’s rack at the end of the game it’s a bit like solving a whodunnit or making a correct accusation in Cluedo.
Tile-tracking is not only of benefit in calculating your opponent’s last seven tiles. During the game it can tell you if the bag is ‘vowel-heavy’ , whether the U’s have all gone or if your opponent is likely to have a bonus word on his rack.
A final word on tracking technique
Mark off your letters in a vertical direction - I won a game in the 1993 World Championship because my opponent inadvertently crossed off two esses with one stroke and failed to block the last S-hook. And use a thin felt pen to score with - you can also use it to mark off letters on your tracking grid more effectively.
3. Endgame permutations
If you are familiar with the if-then scenarios of chess then calculating permutations in Scrabble should not be too difficult. Thinking 4 or 5 moves ahead is impossible in Scrabble until you get to that point where nearly all tiles are known and there are finite solutions in sight. Master tacticians of the endgame like Peter Morris and Ron Tiekert can often diagnose the outcome of a game at this point - assuming of course a complete knowledge of all relevant words.
The computer has the advantage of "simulations" - evaluating all the different outcomes of a move and making predictions and yet computer programs seem to fare worse at endgames in Scrabble than human experts.
I have dealt in more detail with this in the chapter on the Endgame and in the Endgame Practice Sessions.