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READ THIS FIRST: This is one of my two main Scrabble pages. It discusses at some length the little fixes that give rise to the perfected form of Scrabble called Scrabble II. A better starting point may be my page comparing Scrabble II with the best of modern, tournament-style Scrabble. (The mismatch is an embarrassment.) You can always come back later.

IMPORTANT!!! If you find anything here you are bursting to comment on, please do so in the Google Group rec.games.board. I post there regularly and promise to respond. The internet is in dire need of a Scrabble forum, and rec.games.board is ready-made for it. Hasbro, the owners of Scrabble, might even look in occasionally.

Scrabble II

The classic game brought to perfection for word lovers!

 
How would you like your finished Scrabble boards to look like this? (I've shown the same board twice, the second time with all the tiles flipped across the diagonal so you can easily see every word played by reading horizontally.)


                                   R                
                                   A           D    
       C     W                     M           O    
       O  MORAL      *           COP QUINCES JUTS    
    RAMPAgER R                     A U    V    T     
         U  CRIBs    I             gUAVA  E  F I     
       QUAG  a  E COON            ME G   A   L E     
       U V   N  E A               OR    SPOTTIER     
       I A   T  d Y  C            R C    A O N       
       N   S E WINS  A           WARRaNTER Q T       
       C  APART E    I            L I    T U SCAR    
       EVE O    REpOURED            B   W  E   BEVY  
       S   TOQUE  O  N              sEEdIER          
           T      L                     N E          
       J FLINTS   K  K               CAYS pOLKA      
       U   E  C   AVOID              O    O   V      
     DOTTIER  AB     T               O    U   O      
       S      RE     E            * IN CAIRN KITE    
               V                          E   D     
               Y                          D         
                                                    

If you're familiar with the typical, completed, tournament-style Scrabble board, your jaw should drop. Boards like the above become the norm if you implement the suggestions on this page. Throw out your lists of funny little Scrabble "goodies". Dig into your vocabulary of tens of thousands of words. Step up to the next level . . . Scrabble II!

Here's what's in store. All links are internal - just start reading instead of clicking.

About my book report on Word Freak: while it was a later addition to this page, it may make a more entertaining starting point for my thoughts here on a more vocabulary-based Scrabble.


Introduction

In November 1997 a World Scrabble Championship tournament was held in Washington D.C. As sure as night follows day, the newspapers breathlessly recounted the oddball words played: foy, tui, dzho, zho, vug, birr, yays, taiga, jefe, uncini, obied, gloze, yauper, exeme, metic . . .

Make you want to pull your Scrabble set down and have a rollicking, laughin'-and-scratchin' time with family and friends? Or, make you want to devote your life to memorizing useless letter combinations so you can slaughter Mama, Sis, and Grandpa, before moving on to the Scrabble big boys?

Me neither.

Actually, the situation isn't as hopeless as I've portrayed it. The media do seem to recognize of the absurdity of it all. The Washington Times admits, "Most points are earned from little words even the average college professor has never heard of." The Times also gets in a little jab at the player who knows "at least 150,000 words by now . . . Well, he knows how to spell them, that is."

Nor is the artificiality lost on the Baltimore Sun: "They simply memorize tens of thousands of letter combinations that coincidentally make words. As even a top American competitor noted, 'I don't think of them as words, I think of them as letter sequences.'"

Sheesh. Why even bother with words? Why not use digits instead of letters and randomly choose a set of 150,000 official Scrabble Numbers between 10 and 99,999,999? And, hey! - we could keep things fresh by choosing a different set of 150,000 numbers every few years. Wouldn't that be fun! (No?)

I doubt that Scrabble was created with the idea of memorizing valid "letter sequences". I maintain that Scrabble is plenty fun and remains fresh indefinitely using just the tens of thousands of words we carry around in our own brains - as originally intended.

This claim serves as the basis for most of these thoughts and suggestions, all of which taken together make Scrabble II. Keep an open mind; give them a try. You won't go back.


Good Words Only -
Scrabble's Challenge Rule

This first section is dedicated to the proposition that no one likes to be fooled.

Prior to 1976 and going back at least as far as 1949 the box-top challenge rule was simply, "If the word challenged is unacceptable, the player takes back his tiles and loses his turn."

In 1976 this addition was made: "If the word challenged is acceptable, the challenger loses his turn."

At that moment Scrabble ceased to be a word game and became a whatever? game. You could win by bluffing. You could win with dumb, even if honest, misspellings.

No doubt, a poker-style game is fun for some players, but they're surely a small minority. When you look up a misspelled word at the end of a game and point it out, who wants to be laughed at and told, "Well, you should have challenged, hahaha!" I've seen it go the other way, too - a player feeling guilty or disappointed with himself for scoring points for an honest misspelling. None of this anguish is necessary.

If you've come to Scrabble since 1976, consider whether Scrabble makes more sense and would be more satisfying if players had to make good words to score points. This is how it is in almost all other sport and game competition - you get credit for doing something right; you get no credit for goofing up. If you are greedy for more points, you accept full responsibility for playing a riskier word.

So, for years I stumped for what I call no-risk challenge, that is, the pre-1976 box-top rule. Another term is free challenge. This has always been the British rule. It's the rule in international competition. It's the rule when playing against a computer or electronic Scrabble game. (Can you imagine how much fun that would be if the computer were allowed to make up words?!) It's how the vast majority of on-line Scrabble is played. The "Guiness Book of World Records" ignores Scrabble games which include phony words. It sure looks to me like I have some heavy artillery on my side. I can't help believing it is a tiny handful of American tournament players who are forcing the poker-style game on everyone else, even recreational players who have never contemplated entering a Scrabble tournament. (You will see in my book report on Word Freak below that experts need to bluff to ensure that they never lose a game - horror of horrors! - against a weaker player.)

ATTENTION: No-risk challenge does NOT mean you get to play again if the word you played is unacceptable. Everybody asks that; I don't know why.

Although I'm as strong a proponent of no-risk challenge as ever, I now view the process simply as one of double-checking, not challenging. Double-checking is not taken personally. If anyone, including the player who spelled the word, has the tiniest twinge of a doubt - look it up. You'll be surprised how often players can be sure a "word" is good, while this so-called "word" somehow managed to slip the mind of the panel of experts who wrote your dictionary. In any case, it's always satisfying to see the word sitting there in black and white.

Although I would love to see the Scrabble world graduate to Scrabble II with its incentives for longer, more natural words, you will see that all of the suggestions in this page can be taken independently. Just below I argue for using a conventional dictionary instead of the OSPD. Please give the Good Words Only rule fair consideration, no matter what dictionary you decide to play with.


Using a Real Dictionary

The advantage of the Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary (OSPD) is that it shows explicitly all of the inflected forms of a word. A big problem is that it contains many words that are no longer in any dictionary in print. I've seen an estimate putting that figure at 5%, or a very unsatisfying one word out of every 20. A little farther down you can see the glaring disparity between the OSPD and the American Heritage Dictionary in the realm of 2-letter and 3-letter words.

A bigger problem, not a fault of its own, is that, since the OSPD is "official", it has been scrutinized by serious players and all sorts of word lists have been derived from it loaded with obscure words. Unfortunately, it is impossible to have a good, competitive game of Scrabble between players familiar with word lists and players who aren't.

In particular, the 2-letter and 3-letter word lists give a huge advantage to those who know them. An intelligent person with a huge vocabulary and infallible spelling and a natural flair for Scrabble strategy would hardly have a chance against someone armed with these goodies.

A familiar scene at the local Scrabble club is the newcomer expressing shock and dismay at the seemingly nonsensical and foreign-looking words filling up the boards. He is told, "Look, if it's in the OSPD, it's acceptable. Like it or lump it." Not surprisingly, most newcomers don't show up a second time.

Here are my suggestions for both moving towards a more vocabulary-based Scrabble and leveling the playing field. Choose a conventional dictionary as your reference. I use the American Heritage Fourth Edition (AmH4), with a print date of 2006. You must also procure an OSPD, but go to it just for inflected forms not explicitly shown in your dictionary.

For example, you would probably go to the OSPD for RE- and UN- words. You might need to go there for comparatives and superlatives (-ER and -EST), and for the -ER ("one that") words. Go to the OSPD for ANTI-, MIS-, OUT-, OVER-, -LESS, and -LIKE words. The problem there is that, with these appendages, the word may be too long for the OSPD. (ANTIPENGUIN or BANANALIKE, anyone?)

The Two-letter Words

The two-letter words are of fundamental importance in Scrabble. They are the connectors that allow you to form a word in your rack and place it somewhere on the board. Think of them as the mortar that holds the Scrabble board together. When I quiz a novice about the importance of two-letter words, he will usually say they are handy for getting rid of leftovers at the end of a game. Ok, but that's very incidental. The two-letter words are crucial to the play throughout the whole game.

Because they are so important - and also because so many of them are dubious as proper words - the valid two-letter words should be made available to everyone during play in perpetuity. Think of the two-letter words as "equipment". No sport would be fair if one side isn't supplied with the basic equipment.

You are thinking, "Yikes! You want me to go through my dictionary page by page to dig out all the two-letter words?" No. Use this list of 101 two-letter words from the OSPD (4th edition) as a basis and just check the most suspect ones.

101 Two-letter Words - OSPD4

AA AB AD AE AG AH AI AL AM AN AR AS AT AW AX AY BA BE BI BO BY DE DO ED EF EH EL EM EN ER ES ET EX FA FE GO HA HE HI HM HO ID IF IN IS IT JO KA KI LA LI LO MA ME MI MM MO MU MY NA NE NO NU OD OE OF OH OI OM ON OP OR OS OW OX OY PA PE PI QI RE SH SI SO TA TI TO UH UM UN UP US UT WE WO XI XU YA YE YO ZA


The American Heritage Fourth Edition (AmH4) shoots down these 23 two-letter words:

AL BA BO DE ES ET FE HM KA KI MM MO NA NE OD OE OI OM OP OY UN XU YA

Now be honest, do they look like words to you? How often have you used them, besides a few grunts and groans? How many can you define? How many have you ever even heard or seen before? Jettisoning that craziness leaves the following list of 78 two-letter words which is consistent with the AmH4:

Two-letter Words - AmH4

AA AB AD AE AE AG AH AI AM AN AR AS AT AW AX AY BE BI BY DO ED EF EH EL EM EN ER EX FA GO HA HE HI HO ID IF IN IS IT JO LA LI LO MA ME MI MU MY NO NU OF OH ON OR OS OW OX PA PE PI QI RE SH SI SO TA TI TO UH UM UP US UT WE WO XI YE YO ZA


Isn't that more than enough? In fact, only about 34 of those 78 would be recognized as words by intelligent, educated, non-word-game-oriented people. The words shown in italics are personally disallowed in the Dover Scrabble Club for being too foreign (AA AE JO PE QI SI), obscure (WO), or stupid (ZA).

Even if you have a different dictionary, you could use the above list by decree. All that matters is that all the players have full access to the same set of two-letter words. Scrabble is a pointless exercise otherwise.

So now you're all set for playing real Scrabble with a real dictionary, EXCEPT . . .

Now the poor soul who has devoted hours, weeks, or years of his life to studying the OSPD is at a disadvantage. He has lots of obscure words memorized and doesn't know which are valid in the chosen dictionary.

Where there's a problem, there's a solution. Provide a list of words disallowed by your dictionary. Again, doing the legwork for you, here are all of the two- and three-letter words included in the OSPD4 but not recognized by the AmH4. We've already met the disallowed two-letter words, and they aren't really needed here since the list of allowed two-letter words will be made available, but I include them for the sake of completeness.

Disallowed Two- and Three-letter words

AL BA BO DE ES ET FE HM KA KI MM MO NA NE OD OE OI OM OP OY UN XU YA

AAL ABY AFF AGS AHI AHS ALS AMI AMU APO ARF ATT AVA AWA BAL BAM BAP BAS BES BOS BRR CEL CIG CIS COR DAK DEL DEV DIB DIF DOL DOM DOR DOW DUI DUP EAU EDS EEK EFF ELD EME ENG ERS FEH FEM FER FES FET FEU FIL FIZ FOH FON FOU FUB FUD GAE GAN GED GEN GEY GHI GOR GOS GOX GOY GUV HEH HET HIC HMM HON HUN HUP HYP ICK IFF JEU JIN JOW JUN JUS KAE KAF KAS KAT KEP KEX KIS KOI KOP KOS KUE KYE LAR LAT LAV LES LIN LIS LUM LUV MAE MEL MIB MIG MIM MOC MOG MOR MOS MUN MUT NAM NAW NEG NOH NOM NOO NOS OBE ODA ODS OES OKA OKE OMS ONO ONS OOT OPE OPS ORC ORS OSE OXO OXY PED PEH PHT POH POM POW PST PUD PUR PYE QAT QIS RAS RAX REE REG REI REX RIA RIF RIN ROM SAB SAE SAU SEG SEL SER SHA SHH SIM SRI SUK SYN TAE TAO TAS TEL TET TEW TYE ULU UNS UPO URB URD UTA UTE VAR VAW VID VIG VIS VOE VOX WAB WAE WAP WHA WIS WOS WUD WYN YAG YAH YAR YEH YOD YOK YOM YUM ZAS ZIN ZZZ


(In addition to the above, the Dover Scrabble Club disallows these words now included in the American Heritage: AA AE JO PE QI SI WO ZA AZO DEX DIS HOS IGG JEE MEM POO SUQ TAV VAU VAV WAW ZAG ZIG ZEP ZOA.)

Once again, pause and look at the above list of oddball words. Do you feel any great sense of loss? Wouldn't it be a lot more fun to score your points on words you actually have seen or heard used somewhere?

This list of disallowed words is kept under wraps. There is a tiny cost tied to using it - revealing some of the letters in your rack. It serves you right for memorizing all those silly words in the first place. You did it just to give yourself an unfair advantage in games with your friends and family members, assuming they would play with you, which, of course, they won't, at least, a second time.

I also find that if a list is kept out, some players spend all their time staring at it instead of looking for words in their racks. If a player wants to know if a word such as DOR is valid, he announces it and somebody checks the list. He's told it is no good, and he then makes a different play. If he had gone ahead and made his play involving DOR, it would be found on the list and he would remove it and make another play. The reason for asking in advance is that it saves time, and the player doesn't reveal so many letters in his rack.

So we have the 2-letter and 3-letter words under control; what about longer words? If you visited this page in the old days, prior to 2009, you would have seen a list of longer disallowed OSPD words (ABYE AMOKS AZON...). The idea there was to add disallowed OSPD words to the list as they came up in play. The reality was that it was hardly worth the effort; the words came along infrequently and were virtually never referred to again. On top of that, I still needed a rule to handle the situation of a given disallowed OSPD word being played for the first time.

Here is a much better idea. Keep in mind, this is only necessary if you are playing with anyone who has familiarity with the OSPD.

I call this the Check the OSPD rule. If the chosen dictionary rejects a played word, the player may ask to "check the OSPD" - at a small cost. If the word IS in the OSPD, the word is removed from the board and the player makes another play. If the word is NOT found in the OSPD, the face value of the single word in question, without premiums figured in, is deducted from the player's score. The play is removed and his turn is ended. Fair enough?

Now you have everything you need for a real game of Scrabble, using a real dictionary, involving any sort of players from recreational to avid to world champ.

A word about points. It stands to reason that you will not be able to score quite as many points using a conventional dictionary as with the OSPD. You'll have to make do with 32 points for CRUX on double-word score instead of 54 for XU on triple-letter score two ways, oh my. But you'll feel better about yourself for scoring your points on honest-to-gosh words. If you're still reticent about stepping down a fraction of a point per turn to play real words, just be patient. There are further innovations below that will have you scoring 8 or 10 points per turn more than in your conventional, tournament-style OSPD Scrabble.


Mixing Three Sets of Scrabble Tiles

Long, long ago I became bored to death with the Scrabble tile distribution. One Q, one Z, four S, two blanks, game after game, week after week, month after month, year after year . . . (snore) . . .

Time-worn letter distribution
(click to enlarge.)

Time-worn letter distribution

My solution was to mix three sets together and draw out a hundred tiles from the mixture. Buy up a few extra Scrabble games at yard sales.

You can scoop out the 100 tiles quickly and easily with a cup that is the just the right size. A few tiles more or less doesn't matter. In fact, a side benefit of the mixed set is that you can beef up the number of tiles in a game. Throw in an extra handful of about 8 to 12 tiles; the board can easily handle it. This is particularly beneficial for 3- or 4-person games. Players will get an extra turn or two compared to the skimpy number they get in a 100-tile game.

My advice is to take something like a peanut butter jar, put 110 tiles in, and draw a little line at the fill point or, better yet, slice the jar off at that line. Be careful you don't lose a finger.

Another solution would be to simply count tiles as they are drawn from an over-filled bag, and stop after 110 tiles are drawn. Here's a little grid which counts down for you as you tick off a character for each drawn tile. It's set up for initial draws of eight tiles. (You'll see why below).

    0-------  --0-----  ----9---  ------8-  
    ---=----7----=----6----=----5----=----
    4----=----3----=----0-8-6-4-2-0-8-6-4-2-
Rather than simply mixing together three straight sets of tiles, I highly recommend correcting the over-representation of the letter I. Remove three letter I from the mixture and replace one with an A, one with an E, and one with an O. Kiss goodbye those annoying three-I and four-I racks which pop up so often using the standard tile set. I consider the overload of the letter I the only real flaw in Alfred Butts' wonderful creation.

Using a mixed set of tiles in no way alters the fundamental essence of Scrabble. It plays the exact same way: you have a board; you have a rack of tiles; you have to find something in your rack that fits on the board crossword puzzle-style. It's like playing golf on different courses; it's still golf - and a heck of a lot more fun than playing the same course all your life. A Scrabble novice wouldn't even notice anything out of the ordinary playing from a mixed set, but a more experienced player will get a kick out of the funny little things that happen. I've seen a game with 6 V; a game with 6 blanks; a game with 9 S; a game with just 5 E and 4 I(!); a game with no B, no F, no H, but 9 L and 14(!) N; a game with 17 power tiles; a game where three players each used his own Q to make himself a 60-point play; and a game where a lone Q was stuck on each of the three racks at the end. Neat!

Note that the mixed set of tiles kicks the stuffing out of tile-tracking. Good riddance. Isn't it more exciting not knowing what's left in the bag or on everybody's racks?


The 3-letter Minimum Rule -
Nudging the game towards real words

It has become ridiculously easy to score big points with two-letter words in Scrabble. Is that what Scrabble is about? Yeah, it was a thrill the first time I spelled AX and OX on a triple-letter score for over 50 points as a kid. But with EX and XI and XU to work with, where is the challenge? It happens game after game. A goldfish could do it. And now we're not just talking X; there's JO, QI, and ZA. But even ignoring that silliness, most any 3- or 4-point consonant - in particular H, F, W, and Y - is a threat on a dark blue.

The 3-letter minimum rule was developed to keep such cheap, mindless plays from dominating Scrabble. All this means is that AT LEAST ONE of the new words formed in a play must be at least 3 letters long.

Let me emphasize, this does NOT mean you have to play 3 tiles. It places NO requirement on the number of tiles you play. You could simply add one tile to an existing 2-letter word, for example.

From the start, going back to the late 1980s, I've always called this the "3-letter minimum rule". I came to realize how hard it is for people to grasp that, so I've tried to train myself to say "No plays of just 2-letter words." Even then, a newcomer will snatch up the 2-letter word list and bark, "So you mean we can't play these?" But, with a bit of work, everybody gets it.

Sure, you will form two-letter words while tying your play into the board, but now you can't just plop HA down on triple-letter score two ways for 26-plus points. In one direction, at least, you'll have to make a full-fledged, 3-letter word, such as HAT. It's nice seeing a "real" word on every play. You won't have to feel so embarrassed when an outsider looks over your Scrabble board. I'm not one for putting words in dead folks' mouths, but I believe Scrabble's inventor, Alfred Butts, would approve whole-heartedly. He couldn't have foreseen how insanely powerful the two-letter words would become as point-scorers by themselves. I'll bet the dictionary he used while developing the game had only about two-thirds of the two-letter words my American Heritage has - never mind the craziness in the OSPD.

You will discover that the 3-letter minimum rule adds a refreshing angle to going out, since you have to take it into consideration to the glorious or bitter end!

Note that this 3-letter minimum rule only applies to players three-years-old and above.


8-Tile Racks with Stepped Bonuses

The suggestion here is to fill the rack with 8 tiles, and award bonuses for plays of 6, 7, and 8 tiles. Of course, I'm not the first to think of playing with extra tiles. The epiphany was the stepped bonuses, as shown in the following chart.


     Tiles     Bonus            
     Played    Points   Play called
     ------    ------   -----------------------
       6         20     6-tiler, or Little Bingo
       7         50     7-tiler, or Bingo
       8         80     8-tiler, or Big Bingo

Incidentally, since the rack now has 8 tiles, the requirement on tiles needed in the bag for an exchange is upped to 8.

Let me lump this ball of wax together under the name 8-tile Scrabble. You can forgo me stumbling around trying to find the words to convey the joys of 8-tile Scrabble; try it just once and see if you can ever turn back. But here's what to expect.

The 8th tile cuts the probability of an all-vowel or all-consonant horror rack just about in half. It's only one step up from 7 tiles and will not overwhelm the player with tons of extra options to consider on every turn. I'll admit, when I first heard of people playing with 9 tiles - which is now a suggested variant in the set of rules that comes with Scrabble - I thought two things. First of all, "Kid's stuff!" And secondly, "Holy smokes, it would take me half an hour to wade through the possibilities of 9 tiles!" Rest assured, there is nothing cheap or silly about 8 tiles, and there is nothing overwhelming about the possibilities. It plays just about as fast as with the conventional seven.

8-tile Scrabble removes that "all or nothing" aspect of Scrabble in which you either have it or you don't, meaning either a rack with good possibilities for a bingo or maybe a high-point, short word vs. a rack which is good for neither. 8-tile Scrabble fills in that "no man's land". All of a sudden, the game is not weighted so heavily to having the right goodies at the right time. With the bonus for a 6-tile play, there's always hope for making a solid score with what would be a very mundane batch of letters in conventional Scrabble.

Casual players for whom playing all seven tiles was a once in a lifetime event, if that, can now experience the thrill of making 7-tile bingos. If you are an old hand at bingos, now there's the challenge of playing all eight tiles - the Big Bingo!

It's hard to put into words, but 8-tile Scrabble has a much smoother, more comfortable feel. Try it and tell me if I'm exaggerating or imagining things.

In opening Scrabble up to longer, and more natural words, I chose 8 tiles simply because it was the most conservative step up from the standard 7, and still one less than Scrabble's own suggested 9-tile variant. Since then, I've had reason to experiment with a 12-tile(!) rack. I was quite surprised to find that the finished board was not remarkably different from those formed with 8-tile racks. I failed to make a single 9-tile play, for example. Now I'm wondering if 8 tiles may represent a sort of optimum, given the space limitations of the Scrabble board and time constraints on the game.

If you can't see yourself stepping up to 8 tiles, you still might consider stepped bonuses for the 7-tile game. I haven't tested it myself, but have little doubt that bonuses of 10, 30, and 50 points for 5-, 6-, and 7-tile plays would work marvelously. Implemented along with the above suggestions, I dub that game, "Scrabble II Lite".

For 8 tiles you'll want a longer rack than the standard Scrabble rack. I find a one-and-a-half inch (1.5") extension is perfect. If you have extra racks lying around you'll probably be as surprised as I was to find how different the cross sections of racks from different sets, and even within the same set, can be. What I suggest is taking one rack from a set of four and cutting three 1.5" segments from it to glue to the ends of the other three racks. Use a miter box and Elmer's Wood Glue.

Extended rack for Scrabble II, plus word puzzle 
(click to enlarge.)

Extended rack for Scrabble II (plus word puzzle)


The Extended Board -
Breaking out of Scrabble's straitjacket!

Only very recently (writing in February 2008) was I alerted to the existence of Super Scrabble. A bit of research on the web showed straight away that Super Scrabble is not for me. It charges headlong in the opposite direction from where I'm going. With its new outer rows jam-packed with premium squares, including quadruple-letter and quadruple-word scores, Super Scrabble places even greater emphasis on Scrabble's worn-out, OSPD baby words. Why even worry your brain with bingos when you can make 50-point plays blindfolded with any F, H, W, or Y? Never mind 100-point plays with the J, Q, X, and Z . . . What's a piddly 50-point bingo bonus worth, anyway, when typical scores for a player are up in the 800s?

But those extra three rows on all sides of a conventional Scrabble board, that got me thinking of all the times I couldn't get a nice word down simply because I "ran out of road!" Wouldn't it be nice to be able to blast right on through the border? Wouldn't it be great to play through a triple-word score rather than having to stop right on it? Why not? It would open things up without altering the essence of Scrabble in any way.

Let's go for it.

To get started, either procure a Super Scrabble board, or glue poster board to the back of a regular board to give room for an extra three rows all around. If you're handy and clever, you could construct an extended board from conventional Scrabble boards. (You can make two extended boards from four conventional boards.) In every case, slice away the margins around the playing board. Here are some pictures to inspire you. (Click to enlarge.)

...from Super Scrabble board 
(click to enlarge.)     ...with poster board backing 
(click to enlarge.)     ...from classic Scrabble boards 
(click to enlarge.)

Extended boards for Scrabble II.

In fact, if you're content to not rotate the board during the game, you can simply use a regular board and place overflow tiles on the table top. I'm proud to say the first extended board Scrabble games ever played were on my set with the 1949 copyright.

We'll call the 15x15, classic inner board the "main board", and the extra three rows on each side the "wings". This makes the overall board 21x21. If you are using a Super Scrabble board, ignore all premium values shown in the wings. All squares in the wings are single-letter score, so to speak.

The wings are for extensions only. "Extension" is used in the general sense of either the head or tail of a word, depending on which border of the main board it crosses, of course. Every play must still be pegged to the main board, meaning that every play must include at least one tile newly played on the main board.

Put the other way around, you cannot make a play wholly in a wing; you cannot merely extend a word that stops at the edge of the main board into a wing. You will see that no word can ever extend into any of the 3x3 blocks at the corners of the board. In fact, you might want to slice a diagonal off of each corner to make the oversized board a bit more rotation-friendly.

Naturally, any tiles that touch in the wings must form valid words, crossword-style, and those words will figure in the score.

Now sit back and watch the board almost fill itself up with 7-, 8-, and 9-letter words!


Scrabble II Summary -
Plus a look at some completed boards

Here's a rundown of the small fixes which finally brought the classic game of Scrabble to a state of perfection: Scrabble II.

Requiring good words brings Scrabble into line with other games and sports where you are only rewarded for doing something right. It puts the kibosh on bluffing.

The chosen word set is up to you, of course. Scrabble II can be played with any word set. Consider a conventional dictionary, which makes Scrabble more vocabulary-based and opens up the possibility of playing Scrabble with family and friends. (What a novel idea!) If you go with the American Heritage, I've done the word list legwork for you.

All players must be armed with the same list of acceptable two-letter words. The disallowed OSPD word list and the Check the OSPD rule make it possible to have good games between players of widely varying Scrabble backgrounds.

The 3-letter minimum is the first step toward making Scrabble more vocabulary based.

The 8-tile rack and stepped bonuses for 6-, 7-, and 8-tile plays do away with the unenjoyable "all or nothing" aspect of Scrabble. It's thrilling to see big words flying all over the board.

The extended board is the final ingredient in giving big, long words free rein in Scrabble II.

Scooping about 110 tiles from a mixture of 3 sets of tiles makes every game fresh and different.

 

These elements of Scrabble II are all independent of each other. You could try one; you could try a few. For me, there's no going back on any of them. A conventional, tournament-style game against a bluffer using an "official word list" and the skimpy and monotonous 100-tile set without being sure of the acceptable 2-letter words and no intermediate ground between a junk rack and a bingo rack? You can have it. Count me out.

In reply to real or imagined accusations of, "You've changed Scrabble!", I maintain that the Scrabble II fixes fall within the Scrabble box top rules or emerge naturally by adjusting constraints which exist simply because of a need to "draw the line" somewhere. You wouldn't expect the makers to supply hundreds of tiles just so the players could scoop out a fresh batch every game. Alfred Butts himself considered at least a 17x17 board, and it's no great surprise it took almost 60 years for a company to tackle the oversized Super Scrabble board. You might say the bonuses for 6- and 8-tilers are something "new" but, still, you have to agree they extrapolate very naturally from the bonus for a 7-tile bingo. That, by the way, was one of James Brunot's innovations, not part of Alfred Butts' original rules.

Now have a look at completed Scrabble II boards produced in the Dover Scrabble Club. Don't drool on your computer.

Here is a comparison of all 31 "Table 1" games at the 2009 National Scrabble Championship with 31 games from the Dover Scrabble Club in an easy to digest format.

My first web page comparing Scrabble II with what the experts do was perhaps a little harder to digest. It takes a detailed look at the last four "Table 1" games played at the 2008 National Scrabble Championship side-by-side with four games played by us at about the same time.

The Columbia Scrabble Club (Maryland) was game enough to send me some of their completed boards for a comparative study. The length of our Scrabble words compared to theirs is much more striking, of course, but, to their credit (if not necessarily their own pride), they play much more ordinary words than do the champs. See my Columbia Scrabble Club page.

You may also visit my page of Dover Scrabble Club rules to see the same ideas presented here, but tightened up into an actual set of rules, suitable for implementation in your own play.

If, after all of my best efforts above, you still maintain that Scrabble is about making tons of points from goofy little words nobody's ever seen in their lives, I've invented the perfect little Scrabble game for you. It cuts right to the chase. It's called, Goo-Goo Scrabble!


Book Report: Word Freak, by Stefan Fatsis

Word Freak is an impressive job, maybe even amazing. How in the world could someone crank out a 372-page book on Scrabble that more or less lives up to the reproduced blurbs: can't-put-it-down narrative; marvelously absorbing; impassioned; thoughtful, winning; etc. Bob Costas summed it up: "Scrabble. Who knew?"

But they forgot to mention: no fun; disgusting; revolting; no missed opportunity to rub an obscenity in the reader's face; like sitting down to Mark Twain and getting the Godfather. I doubt I'll ever feel clean again. As an English player said about the Americans: "I can't imagine being any of them."

Sordidness aside, it's hard to imagine anyone not already brainwashed into the cult of tournament Scrabble not coming away from the book with a feeling of serious Scrabble being a perfectly ridiculous activity. Scrabble was invented as a word game, but you'd have to look mighty hard at a tournament Scrabble board to find anything to do with one's spoken, written, listening, or reading vocabulary - no matter how intelligent or educated, or how much of a word lover, you are.

Early on, Fatsis tells about watching a game between two experts that seems to be in a "foreign language." He reports that there are devoted Scrabble players, even, who think more people would join up if the dictionary "didn't include so many strange or obsolete words." How could they not?

A top player says, "It's very frustrating to me that we have not yet managed to develop an audience for the game." Gee, I wonder why that is. This player's own brother points out (112 pages later) that a tournament Scrabble board "would look like Greek to its prospective audience."

The list of valid Scrabble words for international play is called SOWPODS. Players opposed to SOWPODS say that its supporters are "a handful of elitist snob experts who play in the world championships and are trying to ram 40,000 ridiculous words down the throats of the masses." I second that. Or, I would if it mattered. All my Scrabbling is with a conventional dictionary, and I don't see any signs of an apostasy on the horizon.

Fatsis states, "It's just about impossible to play high-level (or even low-level) competitive Scrabble if you're hung up on the game's use of odd words." His saving grace there is the hedge, "just about". I offer myself as living proof that competitive Scrabble can, in fact, be played with a conventional dictionary.

American tournament rules permit bluffing, and so a bluffing game Scrabble has become. Whoopee. Fatsis reports on some of the highest scoring Scrabble games. A Chicago player scored 792 - "but he used four phony bingos." A Cincinnati student scored 724 - "but his opponent was an 83-year-old newcomer... who let him get away with five phonies."

How can one write that or read it without turning red with embarrassment? Where else in all of our competitive sports and games is there anything like it? Did Babe Ruth bluff credit for a home run when he struck out? Did he rack up his home runs in sanctioned games with kiddies and grannies and a 150-foot fence?

Here's one of the author's own anecdotes from a tournament: "I open with a deliberate phony, MEAOW. On her next turn, she takes the bait, pluralizing the fake word, and I challenge that off the board and gain a turn... At the next table, one of the old-timers watches the sequence. 'You've become one of us,' she says." Sounds like too much fun to me; guess I'll never be "one of them."

In another passage, a former top-rated player explains why he quit Scrabble. He objected to having to play inferior players, from whom he had almost nothing to gain, rating-wise, and everything to lose. "Given this environment, one must play phonies... to steal games that are seemingly out of reach." In other words, if he were constrained to playing real words, he would lose now and then. Excuse me while a grapefruit-sized tear rolls down my cheek.

You know from my Scrabble pages what I think of phonies. If that asinine component of Scrabble were eliminated, Fatsis' book could have been half as thick. And maybe a reader or two might have come away thinking, "Hey, this Scrabble, it could be a pretty neat game!"

Actually, world competition uses the free challenge rule, what I call "no-risk challenge" (or simply double-checking). In one game a player challenges ZAMIAS, a baby word for the pros. He's accused of "buying some time to think." Fatsis declares, "It's one of the perils of the free challenge rule." Somehow, in the other 371 pages of the book, he forgets to list any of the other "perils" of such a lame-brain rule, which, by the way, was the box-top rule until 1976. Hmmm, mid-1970s . . . tournament Scrabble emerging . . . Who tricked or strong-armed Selchow & Righter into changing the box-top, and thereby turning Scrabble into a barroom bluff game after 25 years of class?

If Fatsis recognizes the two-letter words as anything more significant in Scrabble play than teensy words, he doesn't let on. He writes near the beginning, "Armed with the two- and (most of the) three-letter words, I can now beat casual players handily." I should say so. And armed with an AK-47 you can beat a guy with a water pistol at 20 paces. Handily. The two-letter words are the game's basic equipment, the tools. If Scrabble were a brick wall, two-letter words are the mortar. Any game in which a player is not "armed" with all the acceptable two-letter words is a pointless exercise, a total waste of everybody's time.

Fatsis counts the K among the power tiles. People in my former scrabble club did the same. I don't get it. It's nowhere near the category of the J, X, Q, and Z. Any one of those tiles played on a triple-letter score, all by itself, nothing else, would score 24 or 30 points. That's much better than the average points per turn of a very good player. The K would score a piddly 15 points. That's about equal to the average points per turn of the weakest novice in a Scrabble club. The K - you can have it.

Fatsis made use of a funny little word, pesty, in his text. Twice, even. This was not a word in the original OSPD, a concoction of five major dictionaries (supposedly). Back then, if anyone accidentally said "pesty", he was really trying to say "pestiferous". But it sounds so right that PESTY was always popping up on Scrabble boards. I wonder if it became a real word somewhere along the line largely because Scrabblers willed it.

Worth the price of admission was the chapter on the inventor of Scrabble, Alfred Butts, and the man who put the finishing touches on it (including the name), James Brunot. Now there's a classy story! The chapter stands out like an enchanted isle in the middle of an ocean of sewage.

It disappoints me greatly that Scrabble players are ranked according a "rating" with an obscure and complicated calculation. I trust it shows where the players stand relative to each other, but what sort of absolute meaning does it have? If there's some reason not to simply calculate average Points Per Turn (PPT), it eludes me. What makes PPT perfectly valid is that you always play the same number of turns as your opponent, on the average. It's insensitive to opponent, except maybe in the far-fetched case of collusion. And how long can you hope to go around playing the same chum who blithely spends his life setting you up? To be the best player, you have to be able to wring out a fraction of a point more per play than anyone else. Period.

If somebody calculated these guys' average points per turn, I would have an idea how I compare. But since their scores are so affected by the arbitrary 50-point bingo bonus, I'd also be interested in a Base Points Per Turn statistic, without the bonuses added in, and a separate Bonus Points Per Turn statistic. Added together, they would give the Total Points Per Turn for a player. Notice that the Bonus PPT is easily convertible into another interesting statistic, Mean Turns Between Bingos. (For example, if a player's Bonus PPT is 5.0, then he must average one bingo every ten plays.) If you say, "But they throw away a lot of points in order to make bingos!", I say, so do I.

I wish I had enough money to run a major tournament using my club rules: a conventional dictionary; good words only; 3-letter minimum; and tiles dispensed to the players from a drum with a mixture of a hundred sets. Now that would be fun to watch and play along with. Just think, all those guys who spent years memorizing tens upon tens of thousands of official Scrabble letter combinations having to downshift to a real dictionary to go for the biggest Scrabble pot ever offered! Heeheehee. The winner might even be a reasonably smart, regular person.

Fatsis observed: "Recruiting new players is Scrabble's toughest task." No mystery there; just read the book. He gives 372 pages of reasons.


Your Feedback

When I wrote the penultimate paragraph above, I was indulging a flight of fancy. Then it started hitting me, "Why not? . . . why not?" I sent an email to Houghton Mifflin, the publishers of my American Heritage dictionary, suggesting they could get some wonderful, and cheap, advertising, and help to get Scrabble back on track as a people's word game, if they sponsored a Scrabble tournament using their fine dictionary. I kind of knew in advance what the response might be, and it turned out my suspicion was right on.

    Jul 24 2007

    Mr. Sauter, 

    Thank you for your suggestion of an American Heritage Scrabble Tournament. 
    Although we agree that this is an interesting and thoughtful idea, Scrabble 
    has an arrangement with another Dictionary company, and so American 
    Heritage would not be able to hold Scrabble events as a result.

    I am very pleased to find that American Heritage has been a source of help 
    to you, and I hope it continues to serve you well in the future. Best of 
    luck with your Scrabble tournaments.

    Best regards,
    Sarah Iani
    Dictionary Editorial Department
    Houghton Mifflin Company

(Actually, I wasn't expecting a response even that thoughtful and polite. Thanks, Sarah!)

Now, there may be many other good reasons why such an idea would never come off, but what sort of screwy world have we created where some agreement made between two parties, Scrabble and Merriam-Webster, applies to everybody else - who aren't any sort of party to the agreement? Can Scrabble really kick down my door and have me arrested for using something other than the "official" Merriam-Webster dictionary? What about their own box-top rule number 8: "Before the game begins, players should agree upon the dictionary they will use."

Any other dictionary maker out there with a nice, standard edition who wants to take up the good fight? Are the Scrabble people really that simple-minded that they can't see how a bunch of come-one-come-all tournaments with down-to-earth dictionaries would send their own profits sky-rocketing? In any case, when they try to hassle you, all you have to do is take Rule 8 with you all the way to the Supreme Court.


From: Peter Farley, Jan 1999.
Subject: your page could have saved my relationship.

i just read your Scrabble page and think that perhaps had i read it a year ago, i would still be with my fiancee. she loved Scrabble and so did i. i also play a lot of poker and at the time was playing a lot of Magic: TG. we played by the standard rules and in no time my bluffing style started to be a constant source of friction to the point where we no longer played. you see, with my old roommates, bluffing was part and parcel of the game, even the point of some games. we were also old poker hands so this is not surprising. anyways, she and I played fewer and fewer games and then broke up. Moral: don't bluff your sweetheart and use the no-risk challenge rule. Next time I'll remember this. Damn, do you know how hard it is to find a girl in her 20s who likes boardgames? you'd think it was easy but of the 4 serious girlfriends i've had (i'm 28), 3 of them HATED board games. anyhoo, thanks again for your page...i'll keep it bookmarked for the next one.

Pete


From: Bob Lundegaard, Dec 1997.

Reading your comments about the sad state of Scrabble was like wandering in a foreign land for years and suddenly stumbling on a compatriot. (I disagree in some details, but that's not important).

To introduce myself, I gave up tournament Scrabble shortly after participating in the Vegas Tournament of Champions (I'm the bald-headed guy in the 4th row in the Sports Illustrated aerial shot). The reason I quit, despite a 1950 rating, was disgust at the way the Scrabble Assn, which is simply the mouthpiece of the game's manufacturers, kept jacking players around with piddling changes in the allowable words.

The way the wind was blowing, I sensed that it was just a matter of time before SOWPODS [a combination of the American OSPD and the British OSW, Official Scrabble Words] became universal, which would mean that a non-dictionary dictionary, Chambers (really an encyclopedia, not a dictionary) would become the authority for all North American players, with the result that monstrosities like QI and JA would suddenly become allowable. Obviously the experts want this to happen; they wouldn't have to learn and unlearn thousands of words every time they entered a tournament.

My hopes lie in the other direction: we should throw out foreign currencies, Scottish dialect, the umpteen variations on Yiddishisms like GANEF and buzz words that have a shelf life of 2 or 3 years. Wait till they've been around for a while before we accept them. (Apparently that's what happened with FRABJOUS. It became good for OSPD2, more than 100 years after it was coined as a nonsense word by Lewis Carroll in "Through the Looking Glass". How did it suddenly become acceptable?)

A recent cover story of the Scrabble newsletter shows how derelict we've become in allowing tone-deaf people to decide the fates of words. It tells of the attempts to include LOLLAPALOOZA, meaning an outdoor concert series, as an acceptable word. Apparently the editors are too young, or too dense, to realize that the word already exists, and has since the turn of the century, under a different meaning. [End Lundegaard.]

 


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Helpful keywords not in the main text: g.i. joel sherman; larry sherman; nick ballard; bill blevins; brian capelletto; ron tiekert; mark nyman. Long word scrabble, octo scrabble, XBoard Scrabble, Extended-board Scrabble, Transcendental Scrabble, Ultimate Scrabble (discarded early names for partially or fully implemented Scrabble II.)

Note that Peter Roizen, the creator of WildWords, has attacked the vapidness of standard Scrabble from a different direction. His brainstorm to pull Scrabble away from the lists of short, inscrutable letter sequences and into a richer realm of long words - the longest you know, even - was to introduce wildcards into the game. The wildcard * behaves as it does in familiar electronic searches - it stands for a string of letters. All of a sudden, you can play 20-letter words; the sky, or supercalifragilisticexpialadocious, is the limit! If you think of it later, search the web for "wildwords" (one word). His pokes at tournament-style Scrabble are funny!

Parents, if you're considering tutoring or supplemental education for your child, you may be interested in my observations on Kumon.
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