Life lessons I learned from Scrabble

In my leisure time, I play Scrabble online against friends. Over the years I’ve gotten reasonably good at it; I’m happy to say that I know several people who are also good at it and give me interesting games. And as I’ve learned to be better at it (some of it from playing, some of it from reading Stefan Fatsis’s book Word Freak), I’ve learned bits of perspective that are very useful for doing well at the game but also often useful in other parts of life. These may or may not be useful to you in your life – but at the very least, they will help you at Scrabble.

1. There’s no such thing as winning a turn.
The play that’s worth the most points this turn isn’t always the play that’s worth the most points in the long run. The aim of Scrabble is to finish with more points than your opponent. If you get more points this turn but it leads to you doing worse (or your opponent doing better) subsequently, it’s not the best play. I remember playing one friend who, after one game, confessed that he had been using an online anagram finder (which, by the way, I do not – I’m far too vain to seek that kind of help). “And yet you still lost,” I said. Likewise, in other parts of life, you may feel like you have come out on top in an interaction – especially if you’re the sort of person who treats every conversation as a contest, or looks for ways of sucking the last nickel out of a customer – but you may very well lose out in the long run, because the people you “won” against won’t be inclined to let you “win” again in future.

2. It’s not how fancy your words are, it’s how you use them.
Many people think doing well at Scrabble is all about knowing and playing really nice words. It’s true that knowing a lot of words is very helpful, but often you get the most points (and improve your position the most) with plain, ordinary words. This is also true elsewhere in life: fancy words in the wrong place can fall flat, and the right ordinary words may score a lot of points.

3. Most of the time, the little words make the difference.
This is a thing most people learn before too long at Scrabble: big words may make big impacts, but little words – two-letter words that you make while playing alongside another word, and sometimes two-letter words played two ways on a triple – are crucial. Likewise in the rest of life, small words – though slightly longer than two letters, such as “Thanks!” – can really help make connections.

4. But sometimes the right big word can have quite an effect.
This should be obvious: the two previous points notwithstanding, impressive words are impressive, and used in the right place, they can score a lot of points.

5. Some things that appear to be worth the least can be worth the most.
Two of my fundamental rules in Scrabble are “Don’t waste an S” (meaning that if you use an S, the play should be worth at least 40 points, since you are very likely to be able to play a good word and also pluralize or conjugate a word already on the board orthogonally) and “A blank is a bingo” (meaning that a blank tile gives you the flexibility to make a play that uses all seven tiles, which will give you a 50-point bonus, and you do well to hold onto it until you can put it to that use). And yet an S says it’s worth one point and a blank is worth zero points on its own. Likewise in the rest of life, there are things that by themselves don’t seem worth a whole lot but make quite a lot of things possible. But what those things are will vary quite a bit, unlike in Scrabble.

6. Start by looking for where you’ll accomplish the most.
In Scrabble, if I can play a bingo, I will; if not, I look at any high-value tiles I have and see if I can use them on a double or a triple or even a double-double or double-triple. Then I work out the rest of the play on that basis. In the rest of life, similarly, if you come into a situation where there are different things you can do, see where you can put your best assets (skills, for instance) to best use.

7. Manage the board.
Many players play words without looking to see what they’re opening up or closing off on the board. They may make a great opportunity for their opponent (remember that this is a game that you are, in fact, playing to win). Or they may play a word that makes it very difficult to play any further in that area of the board. The play that’s worth the most points this turn isn’t always the play that’s worth the most points in the long run. Pay attention to what opportunities you create. And so, too, elsewhere in life.

8. Manage your rack.
It’s common to have times when you look at the tiles on your rack and see a motley and basically unplayable assortment of tiles. Some of the time this is just bad luck, but some of the time it’s because you played the easy-to-play tiles – or the biggest-point word – and left yourself with a mess, and the new tiles you drew didn’t rescue you. Do what you can to make sure you have a reasonable balance of vowels and consonants. Don’t have too many high-point letters (they seldom go together productively). In short, pay attention to what you’re leaving for yourself. And so, too, elsewhere in life.

9. It’s not a referendum on your intelligence.
Scrabble is just a game. And some people I know who are very smart aren’t all that good at it, because it requires a particular set of abilities and learned tactical skills. If someone beats you at Scrabble, oh well. You are not humiliated (though if you’ve made a lot of noise about how good you are at it, you sow what you reap). Most of the rest of life is not a game, but it, too, is almost never a referendum on your intelligence. Even really smart people aren’t good at everything – and can make mistakes at things they are good at. It’s OK. Own up, suck it up, move on. It’s just a thing you’re doing; it’s not the sum total of you.

10. There are always great plays you just can’t make.
“Aw, man! I had a great bingo on my rack and I had nowhere to play it!” This is a common complaint. There are two truisms, though. First, it’s not a great play if you can’t make it. Plays are made by what’s on your rack and what’s on the board. You don’t have a great play on your rack, only on the board, and only if the board allows. The rest is just “If I had a million dollars” stuff. Second, however often you notice a “great play you can’t make,” I guarantee you there are many more “great plays you can’t make” that you don’t notice – as well as great plays you could have made but didn’t notice. It’s just the way it is. You don’t always get the opportunity, and you don’t always notice when you do. But you notice more if you look more.

11. Always leave room for the other person to do something that helps you.
I generally prefer to play Scrabble in a way that creates openings. Partly it’s so if my opponent takes one opening, there will still be another opening for me to take. Partly it’s because if I’ve set it up right, my opponent’s gain will likely create an opening for me to gain even more. If I play in a way that closes off opportunities, yes, my opponent won’t be able to score big, but neither will I – and my opponent also won’t be able to make a play that will be useful to me. Most of the rest of life is not so competitive (or at least doesn’t have to be, and if you think it does, see number 1 above), but it holds true that you should leave room for others to do things that help you. And one really good way to do that is to help them. When you’re not playing a game like Scrabble where only one person can win, you might be able to help set it up so everyone wins.

12. If you count on getting lucky, you won’t; if you count on not getting unlucky, you will.
And if you count on the other person not getting lucky, they will. I don’t think I need to explain this too much. A short form of this might be “Hedge your bets.” If you make a play that’s worth decent points but creates an opportunity for the other person to score, say, 52 points if they just happen to have the X and an I, you will surprisingly often find forthwith that they do have the X and an I. This is in part because people often hold onto those high-value letters for several turns, so the chance of their having one is higher than a simplistic calculation of the odds would say. The short of it is that if you make plans that rely on things beyond your control going just so, they often will not come out as you wanted.

13. There’s no point in complaining about your tiles.
Everyone gets bad tiles from time to time; Scrabble is a game of chance as well as of skill. It’s not all that different from card games in many ways. If you’re not playing well because you keep drawing crap tiles no matter how much you try to manage your rack, so it goes. It happens to everyone. The game is not a referendum on your intelligence. Similarly, elsewhere in life, if things beyond your control aren’t lining up to let you display the true genius you want the world to recognize you as, consider (a) whether you are that true genius, (b) whether the person you’re complaining to is someone you had been hoping to show yourself as superior to, and (c) whether the person you’re complaining to might have experienced the same from time to time and not made a stink about it.

14. You can’t win all the time, and there’s nothing wrong with the other person winning some of the time.
Scrabble is a game you play to win, yes. But you get to play more than one game in life. Take the insight from point 1 and apply it here in the broader scope. People who win against you at least some of the time are more likely to want to keep playing against you. That’s not to say you should obviously throw games. But you could play a bit more loosely from time to time. And at least not get upset if you lose. Likewise in life, tomorrow is another day – usually.

15. Finish en beauté.
I took a course in syntax taught in French once, and we didn’t quite make it all the way through the text before the last class; the professor told us that we should read the remaining chapter if we wanted to finish “en beauté.” That literally means “in beauty” but idiomatically can mean “with a flourish” or “with panache.” I apply that when I play Scrabble: even if the game is nearly over and there is no doubt who will win (sometimes me, sometimes my opponent), I like to look for the best moves I can play. Because although the point of the game is to win, there’s still nothing wrong with enjoying the other aspects of it. And I can still do the best I can even if it’s just a flourish.

I can’t say that I apply all these lessons equally well to my life, but I can say that I have definitely gained useful perspective from them all. And, as I said, at the very least, they all help when playing Scrabble.

3 responses to “Life lessons I learned from Scrabble

  1. I enjoyed this post! The rule of thumb for S I’ve been vaguely considering is that an S has to add 10 points over the best alternative before I’ll use it (even if I look for more). 40-point words don’t always come around that often, so hoarding the S for too long might lower your score in the long game.

    Number 5 reminded me of an article I read about a very early automated Scrabble game, in which an audience with high expectations was disappointed from the get-go when the computer wasted an S on the first move. In the rare occasions I had taken a peek at the moves I didn’t make (after the fact), I think the machine advice had been short-sighted.

    For #10, I have a slogan, “a bingo you can’t play is like a foul-ball ‘home run.'” Not so special.

  2. Great post, James. I also learned a lot of Scrabble strategy from Word Freak. And there are certainly a few of these I could work on, both in Scrabble and in life.

  3. Pingback: Pick & Mix 60 – beetles, horses, cherries, butterflies, Scrabble, Monarchs and more | Don't Forget the Roundabouts

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