3. Rack Management
“Je ne peux rien faire,” wailed Lucette, “mais rien - with my idiotic
Buchstaben, REMNILK, LINKREM...”
Vladimir Nabokov - Ada
Rack Management is the game’s arcane art and who has ever dabbled in Scrabble bears witness to the divination required to create order out of a rackful of intractable tiles. This ten-point guide will help you apply some basic principles.
1. Play away duplicate letters
You are more likely to create bonus words if you rid your rack of duplicates (or triplicates and quadruplicates). Keeping four I’s and two V’s might allow you to play DIVIDIVI - but precious little else. Whereas combinations with one of each letter - like SATIRE and RETINA - will yield several hundred possible sevens and eights. If forced to choose between keeping duplicate letters - E-E and O-O would generally be preferable to A-A, I-I and U-U; T-T, R-R and P-P preferable C-C, H-H and V-V.
2. Keep a balance of vowels and consonants - ideally three vowels and four consonants
Depending on the board (and tile bag) situation a slightly consonant heavy rack is more conducive to bonus formation. And since all the vowels are only one-pointers your excess consonants will guarantee some sort of scoring opportunity in the interim. Let your tracking grid tell you whether the bag is "consonant-heavy" or "vowel-heavy" and retain the appropriate tiles - if you know there is only one E to come be chary about wasting it.
3. In choosing between letters to retain on your rack for bonus formation prefer
Vowels: Blank E A O I U in that order
Consonants: Blank S R T N L D G B M P H W F Y C V K X J Z Q in that order
Of course, this order may vary according to what other letters you are holding (e.g. C might be preferable to a Y if you have an H on your rack) or according to a specific game situation. Experts often differ on this ranking - some might promote the C ahead of the H, the I ahead of the O etc. - but as a broad rule of thumb it is a useful guide.
4. Keep fruitful combinations of letters to optimise the bonus potential of your rack
For example you should retain combos like S-A-T-I-R-E or R-E-T-I-N-A, stems like R-E-S-T or T-R-A-I-N, common prefixes and suffixes like PRE--IER and -IEST or maybe high-frequency two- and three- letter combinations like CH and STR.
5. As a general rule retain low-scoring tiles and try and play away high and medium value letters - the low point tiles occur with greater frequency in bonus words
I spent many many hours in the mid-eighties memorising the basic tile bonuses formed from the one or two-point letters since the high probability sevens and eights derive from this set (representing 75% of all the letters in the bag). To remember which are the basic tiles I just think of DEREGULATIONS - which contains all the one- and two-pointers in Scrabble. A list of these three-percenters can be generated from a word list software package like LeXpert or Video Flashcards
I feel comfortable that I can identify (on my rack or over the board) bonuses from this group about 95% of the time. The one and two-point bonus words are also the hardest to find - whereas words with high-scoring letters (like ZYGOTES or JONQUIL) tend to sort themselves on your rack.
The 1983 North American Champion, Joel Wapnick, in his excellent book The Champion’s Strategy for Winning Scrabble®, actually advises keeping a three- or four-point tile on your rack "for insurance". I think this limits bonus probabilities in the long run but if you are not familiar with the basic-tile bonus words then Joel’s approach may work for you.
6. Only play away a single letter (fishing) if your rack is in such good shape that it virtually assures you of a bonus word next turn - such as S-A-T-I-R-E plus Y
How often have you dumped a letter only to draw its duplicate from the bag (or some other un-bonus-worthy tile)? In the above example consider playing away YA on a TLS for a healthy 28 points with the still promising remnant E-I-R-S-T . Even the humble three-letter leave E-R-S attracts a bonus roughly 33% of the time.
7. Take account of letters left in the bag
For example, if all the E’s have gone it might be wise to retain the last E for the flexibility it gives your rack in the final moves. Don’t play away the last U, I or A-T combination if the Q is still out there.
8. Be careful to discard awkward or potentially unplayable tiles in the endgame
The Q, J, Z, V and C can be unplayable on a tight board (QI, JO, ZO and CH are the only available two-letter dumps).
9. When all else fails - exchange your tiles
When exchanging tiles in the early part of a game it is advisable to turn over as many as possible to give yourself a chance of picking up S’s or blanks. In the middle game and endgame it often pays to keep a medium or high-scoring letter for scoring potential. The art of exchanging is not only what but also when - timing can be critical.
For example, which tiles would you exchange from the following racks? Give yourself five minutes for each then click on the racks and compare your choices to ours.
10. Weigh up the score and positional value of the tiles you play away against the quality of your "leave" and the balance of tiles remaining on your rack.
I tend to approach each move with the question “What must I play away to improve my rack?” then consider the various board options which will allow me to maintain tile control. Other players let the board determine which letters they will retain. It is this ongoing struggle between rack and board which, to me, is the essential "dialectic" of the game - yielding its most absorbing mental challenges as well as its most frustrating moments.
Exchanging Tiles 1
1. Your rack: A-E-I-I-I-U-U Exchange the lot. Keeping an E is often wise in the mid- or endgame but it is generally better to turn over the extra tile early in the game.
Exchanging Tiles 2
2. Your rack: G-G-R-X-T-V-Y Exchange six tiles - keeping the X for scoring potential.
Exchanging Tiles 3
3. Your rack: E-L-Q-R-V-V-Y Exchange the lot - the leave E-R does not offset the advantage of turning over seven tiles in the quest for blanks and esses.
Exchanging Tiles 4
4. Your rack: C-C-E-F-N-R-T Exchange C-C-F retaining E-N-R-T. Here rack control with the fruitful combination R-E-N-T slightly outweighs exchanging the lot.