How to Train Like a Champion

As I write this I’m in ‘training’ for Causeway – arguably the most prestigious Scrabble event of the year – even more so than the World Championship as there are far more games. 300 or so gluttons for punishment will be playing a mammoth 45 games over 5 days in Johor Bahru, a peninsula of Singapore – the more games, the less the luck factor, so if you prepare well it’s worth it.

I’m aiming for top 3 which will pay for the trip and a few days recovering in Bali to boot! So I’ve spent the last 6 weeks or so preparing like mad! Good Scrabble players need good strategy and vocabulary- the tactics come from playing through games and experience helps you pick up the finer points such as rack-balancing and tile-tracking, but ‘off the board’, the best ‘study’ method is to build up your word-knowledge, which is not as simple as it may seem. It really depends on how good you want to get.

If you want to be the ‘Family Champion‘ this Xmas, I would definitely suggest buying a copy of Collins Little Book of Scrabble Secrets – I would – I wrote it! At the back is a list of all the 2-letter words – 124 in all which might sound daunting to learn but as you already know about half anyway, the other 60 or 70 shouldn’t be too overwhelming – say 10 a day and you’ll know them all in a week.The 2’s really are the bread and butter of the budding player – QI (life force) is the most useful word in Scrabble- then there’s J*A, JO, XI, XU, ZA and ZO*.

If you want to take it further, there’s also a list of the 3-letter words in the book – there are over 10 times as many 3’s than 2’s, so just concentrating on the 3’s with the high-scorers J,Q,X and Z would be good – then with an armoury of words like GJU, JIZ, QAT, QIN, XED, ZAX. ZEK, ZHO, you should be able to see off your relatives – as long as they’ve not been studying too! The weird 4’s and above are for the more serious player, so they’re only worth spending the time on if you’re thinking of joining a club or playing an event. As wonderful as the dictionary is and the words and meanings within it, I wouldn’t recommend reading it cover to cover as life’s too short!! There are various downloadable ‘high-probability’ word lists that can economise on your study, for example the most likely 7 and 8-letter words to get that elusive 50 point bonus – I believe ETAERIO (a fruit) is the most likely 7 while it’s not really worth bothering with ZYZZYVA!

People tend to tailor their vocabulary training to their personalities so, whilst some are very methodical and learn particular lists thoroughly before going onto the next, I prefer the random approach as I find it less dull. I’ve also gone backwards this time around as I spent 3 weeks looking at 8’s and extensions to 9’s (SPARTICLE is rather lovely!), 2 weeks on the 7’s and I’m now left with a week to do 6’s down to 3’s – if I run out of time, I’m stuffed as the 3’s are the most important! In the World Championship in Lille in September I realised there were a few 3’s I still wasn’t sure of but luckily it didn’t cost me – I’m pretty sure I know the 2’s but then again….!

The most important thing is to have fun when you ‘Scrabble train’ – 35 years on, I’m still learning new tactics and new words and that’s what I love about the game, but looking at list after list can do your head in, so if you’re not in the mood there’s no point in studying as you won’t take the words in, so then it’s definitely time to take a break. It might sound sad, but the pleasure you get when you play one of the words you learn can be immense – I think my favourite word these last few weeks is GANZFELD – imagine that through 2 triple-word scores with the Z on a double-letter – 338 points – the Scrabble version of an orgasm!! Here’s hoping for Johor Bahru…..

By Mark Nyman,
Scrabble Champion

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