The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Scrabble® Players

By David Goldberg

Want to know THE secret of playing Scrabble® at the level of the world’s top players?

Ask Nigel Richards, arguably the world’s greatest Scrabble® player, and you may hear a reply he’s given before, “You’ve got to know the WORDS”. 

Ask the same question to world class players Joe Edley andKenji Matsumoto, or read their books, and you may conclude that STRATEGY is most important. So which is it, Word Knowledge or Strategy? That debate may never be resolved.

This article is about a third component to consistent high-level performance in Scrabble® that I believe rivals the importance of word knowledge and strategy, but doesn’t get nearly the attention: developing good, consistent, Scrabble® HABITS.

Ask any top professional athlete or coach their secret to success and here’s what many will tell you: unending repetition and commitment, mastering the fundamentals, and developing winning HABITS. In baseball, one habit might be running out every hit. In basketball, boxing out after every shot.   I believe that Scrabble® is no different.

It is my belief that Scrabble® experts have developed winning habits that have helped take them to the top echelon of the game – with or without being aware of them!  And the good news is that I am convinced that ALL levels of Scrabble® players can benefit greatly by developing these habits.

So how did I, a fairly seasoned tournament player but by no means a world champion, come to a recognition of these winning HABITS? Mainly by screwing up. How many of us have not had the experience of giving a game away when we had it all but won? Those games, I find, are the best way to become aware of bad habits, and then figure out what the good habit would be, thus avoiding giving those winnable games away. 

So, how do we define a HABIT as opposed to strategy?  For the purposes of this article, the HABITS I propose cannot be reasonably debated, while strategy can. For instance, it is a generally accepted principal in Scrabble® that when considering a play, you’re trying to find the perfect balance between the word you play (the “play”), and the tiles that remain on your rack (the “leave”).  While deciding what the best play or leave would be considered strategy, looking for both the best play and leave would be a good Scrabble® habit.    

Wordnik defines a habit as: “a recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition”. The purpose of making something a Scrabble® habit, then, is to be able to do that thing without having to think about it, especially in the heat of the game.  In Scrabble®, that’s accomplished by incorporating good play tips into your daily play, slowly and consciously at first, until you’re eventually doing these things automatically and consistently.

So, hopefully without stepping on Steven Covey’s toes, here are the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Scrabble® Players:

Take your time to find your best play. Then, just when you think you’ve found it and are ready to make that play, STOP! Look again for an even better play. Then make the play.

Perhaps even look a 3rd or 4th time. How many times have you made what you thought was a terrific play, and then immediately saw a better play or a better location? Often, when considering my next play, I find a strong play, maybe even a bingo. Do I always stop to see what other possibilities my opponent’s play has opened up for me? Or perhaps a better location to play my bingo?  Maybe a bingo on double-double rather than a triple word score?

In a game recently, I quickly saw the word “arenite” on my rack and a place to play it. My opponent made her play, and I almost immediately laid down my bingo for 65 points. Unfortunately, I quickly realized I could have played “creatine” on a triple word score line off a “c” on the board for 83 points! ”Slow down”, I told myself, for at least the 1000th time!

You will be well served by not rushing into your play. If you make a habit of only one thing, make it this one!

Make it a HABIT: Even when you’re positive you’ve found the greatest play of all time on your rack and the perfect place to play it, STOP, look again, and look for something even better. Though you may very well not find a better play, you’ll be training yourself to slow down and consider all the possibilities.

Corollary 1: Look for the highest scoring play and the next highest scoring play as well. You may decide the “leave” of the next highest scoring play is worth more to you than the extra points of the highest scoring play.

Be aware at all times of what’s been played and what remains in the bag.

Seems obvious, but how many times have I lost a game by not paying attention to what’s been played and what’s NOT been played, and setting up or not blocking an easy 50 or 60 point play for my opponent?  Tracking tiles on paper is the best tool for this. Knowing which power tiles (J,Q,X,Z,S’s & blanks) remain in the bag is vital as is knowing if bingo-prone tiles remain (A,E,I,N,R,S,T  etc.). That’s not to say you would never make a play that gives your opponent these opportunities, but that play should be a conscious decision, in part based on what remains in the bag, not an oversight due to not paying attention.

Make it a HABIT: At the beginning of the game, before any tiles have even been played, I’ll look at my tracking list to see what remains. Obviously, that’s all of the tiles, but I’m training myself to constantly be aware of the non-played tiles. Then I’ll continue to check my tracking as often as possible, throughout the game.

Corollary 1: Be aware of how many tiles remain in the bag, especially near the end of the game. You’ll be bummed when you’re maneuvering for a bingo near the end of a game and realize there aren’t enough tiles remaining to make one! Similarly, you may leave your opponent just enough tiles to bingo out AND get your entire rack of extra points, allowing them to win the game. So pay attention!

Ask yourself, before every play, especially later in the game, “What is the most likely way I’m going to win this game”.  Then make the best play to help make that happen. 

Competitive Scrabble® players tend to get tunnel vision – constantly looking for the bingo in their rack or “massaging” their rack to maneuver for the bingo. But what if the remaining tiles in the bag and/or the way the tiles are positioned on the board, are not likely to allow for a bingo? Then, even with a bingo on your rack, you will likely be frustrated that you cannot play it. Alternatively, if the most likely way you are going to win the game is to play a high point non-bingo with a remaining power tile on a strategic premium square, or, if you are in the lead, to block your opponent from making such a play or bingo, your strategy would likely be entirely different. 

Make it a HABIT: From the opening play, before every turn, ask yourself, “What’s the most likely way I’m going to win this game?”.  Early on in the game, the answer may likely be working towards a bingo. But later, that answer may very well change and you’ll be glad you’re in the habit of asking yourself what you need to do to win.

Assume EVERY word you’re considering playing has a “hook” or multiple hooks on both ends before making your play. Then make sure you really want to make that play.

Of course every word does not have a hook, but making the assumption they do will force you to think through the actual hooks, if any. There’s no better way to blow a game you had won, then to give your opponent an unexpected hook and open the board for them.

Consider these common words: arced, blest, brows, buses, ching, comet, conic, corps, delis & vied.

It would be easy to assume that there are only “s” hooks or no hooks to these words only to play them and find out that you’ve left your opponent an easy bingo line.  In fact, they all have non “s” hooks.

I can’t tell you the number of times I have made what I thought was the best play, only to realize as soon as I hit my clock, that I foolishly opened up a bingo lane, or other high scoring lane for my opponent. Had I taken the extra few seconds to think through the hooks of the word I played, I may very well have made a different play. Maybe not, but maybe so too!

Make it a HABIT:  When you’re decided on your best play, assume the word has hooks and think through as many of those hooks as you can prior to making your play.  Besides preventing you from making plays you really may not want to make, this is good word study practice, helping to reinforce and refresh your knowledge of the hooks.

Corollary 1: Assume every word currently on the board has a hook when considering your next play.  Be open to the possibility that there are more words to hook – thus lines to make your play – than appear at first glance.

Corollary 2: Assume every word on the board does NOT take an “S” hook before hooking an “S” to it.  Because so many words do take “S” hooks, it is easy to fall into the trap that they all do. Think through very carefully whether the word you’re hooking actually takes an “S”.

Corollary 3: Once you see a hot spot for a hook, devise your own system to remember that spot for later in the game. You may not be in position to play a hook you find right away, but may be able to do so later in the game. How many times have I seen a great hook, only to forget all about it later in the game when I really could have used it to make a killer play and then my opponent winds up using that hook!  Aaaaargh!

When making a parallel play, don’t limit yourself to a 2 or 3 letter word.  Assume you can extend the word even longer to a 4, 5, or even 6-letter word. 

How often do we limit our words when making parallel plays – especially when we see a power tile parallel play like “ex” or “jo”.  Instead of making a 40 or 50 point play, we settle on a 30 or 40 point play by not extending “ex” to “exam” or “jo to “jole“. You’ll be surprised how often that can be done by looking for a word that can go even longer than the obvious one you intend on playing.

Make it a HABIT: Whenever making a parallel play, take a moment to see if you can make an even longer word – in either or both directions – than the first one that comes to mind, even if it would be impossible to extend the word. 

Look around the board and make note of which words can be extended

At almost any time during a game, existing words on the board can be extended, often to reach premium squares, creating  scoring opportunities where none seemingly existed or at least giving an opportunity to discard unwanted tiles without trading in.

For example, “reenact” can be added in front of “ed”, “hat”  becomes  “chatted”,  “one” turns into “oneriest”,  or even  “joist”  transforms into “banjoist”.  The possibilities are endless and often spell the difference between a winning and a losing game.

Make it a HABIT: Constantly survey the board, specifically looking for words that can be extended and if they can’t be used right away, remember then, or write them down, for later in the game.

Don’t over-focus on one area of the board – either offensively or defensively. Even top players can get fixated on the area of the board that tends to be the current “hot spot” of the game with, seemingly, the most scoring opportunities.

Keep in mind other sectors of the board that don’t seem to hold as many scoring opportunities.  They can contain scoring gems that are often overlooked.

Make it a HABIT: Identify areas of the board that don’t seem to hold scoring opportunities and consciously try to find scoring plays that may be being overlooked.

Other Winning Scrabble® Habits:

These may not have made the top 7, but can be other invaluable to incorporate nevertheless:

When you challenge an opponent’s play off the board, make sure to write down their tiles, so as not to then make a play which sets them up for another high scoring play or bingo.

Be patient looking for a word/bingo on your rack by methodically go through all of the common word “beginnings/prefixes” and “endings/suffixes”, of letters on your rack you can think of – like “out…..”,  “over….”,  “….like”, “cr……”, “….ier” etc.  You may find when you hit the right one, the word will just pop into mind.

Near the end of a game, if it will take you more than one play to go out, try to figure out your opponent’s best play before making your next play. You may very well be able to block your opponent’s best play with one of your final plays.

If you’re not sure a word is actually a word, think of similar words that you are sure of. This may help you determine if the unsure word is good, or that you may have been confusing it with a similar word.  Also, if your opponent plays a word you’re not sure of, write it down and you may find other words in that rack that you know are good and that you know don’t have other anagrams.

Don’t convince yourself a word is good because you want it to be good!

Don’t get sloppy with these habits even when you’re way ahead or way behind! That’s the fastest way to break a good habit!

And finally….get into the habit of checking in with yourself that you’re still having fun playing the game!

So, there you have them: the 7+ habits of highly effective Scrabble® players!  Will these guarantee Scrabble® success?  Probably not, but what I can guarantee is that you will be more successful with these habits than without them.  And remember, habits don’t happen overnight. They require repetition, discipline and persistence and slowly they will become a natural part of your game.  Good luck!

Authors Note: There are probably scores more good Scrabble® habits that, hopefully, you incorporate into your play, and I’d love to hear yours. So I would like to invite you to share any of your own good habits with real-world examples as well as any examples of the habits I wrote about and perhaps I can compile them into a more in-depth article or book.  Please e-mail them to dgoldberg36@gmail.com.  Thank you!