We study word lists, especially those with words that offer a high bang-for-buck ratio (highly probable bingos, words containing premium letters, vowel-heavy words, etc.). We play game after game of Scrabble® against both human and computer opponents. We save all our game records, often performing computer simulations to compare our moves against the optimal play. We study some more words. We play more games. We pit our skills and arsenal against others in tournament play. Lather; rinse; repeat.
For some of us, our Scrabble® regimen consumes a considerable part of our week. Because Scrabble® occupies time that might otherwise be (better?) spent, say, playing with our children or starting up our own business, we'd like to think that all that effort will lead to positive results. For some of us, it's all about the rating--the higher, the better. For some, it's simply the thrill of victory, of having used your mind functioning at its peak to emerge with a win. It certainly isn't about the monetary recompense--not even, I suspect, for those who really do compete for the big prizes.
Whatever your Scrabble® goals may be, it's very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the effort you spend honing your board vision and broadening your word knowledge entitles you to reach those goals. The more effort spent, the more one deserves a positive outcome, goes this train of thought. This certainly appeals to our human sense of justice; we'd all like to think that someone who works very hard at something, sometimes at the expense of other important aspects of their lives, should taste the sweet fruit of their labors.
Scrabble® just doesn't work that way.
Diligent, patient study of words and game results; game play against strong competition; and cultivating a positive attitude while playing all improve our chances of success, yes; but they offer no guarantee of success. It's like an athlete who is well-conditioned and trains every day: She's minimizing the chances of exhaustion, she's increasing stamina...yet she could still blow out her knee. The best one can do is to prepare as best one can for the competition. This preparation includes accepting that the winds might blow a different way than hoped for.
We rail against this unfairness. This sometimes takes the unhealthy form of fretting about losing when outdrawn. While opponent clearly had great material to work with and used it moderately effectively, you made great play after great play with dreck, losing by maybe 10-15 points. You "out-thought" opponent. You out-prepared opponent. Maybe so; you're to be commended for your effort and your brilliance. When you outdraw opponent, are they thinking the same thing about you? Scrabble® games aren't won on quality of play, just the score. Is it fair? Maybe not. C'est la vie.
We jokingly talk of the "Scrabble® gods", the "tile gods"...some unseen, capricious hand either guiding the magic cookies into our racks or funneling them straight to opponent. I think we're putting a funnier face on God's honest randomness. Drawing tiles at random introduces such a powerful element of uncertainty into Scrabble®--so powerful that, paraphrasing ESPN's Dan Patrick, "you cannot stop it; you can only hope to contain it". We attempt to contain, or mitigate the effects of randomness in Scrabble® by:
- learning as many words as possible, so that we might find gold in even the crummiest of combinations
- learning which rack leaves are more conducive than others to high-scoring future plays and non-crummy combinations, for a given game state (rack + board position + unseen tiles), so that we don't always simply chase a local optimum while mortgaging our ability to score later on
Still, God's honest randomness looms large. Sometimes the tiles just aren't coming our way. It happens to everyone, even the best players. So learn to deal with it.
The top players are keenly aware of all of these ways to minimize the chances that God's honest randomness is going to bite them in the behind. But the true greats, it seems to me, bow down before the altar of God's honest randomness, intoning: "I recognize your greatness. I acknowledge that despite my best efforts to lessen your effect on the game, you may still yet win out. May I play my absolute best, and be gracious should Thou chooseth to look with favor on someone else today." ("Oh, and P.S.: Pleeeeeeze gimme gimme gimme the good tiles!")
That said, it's worth pointing out that in the end game, when the effects of God's honest randomness are lessened toward zero (with no tiles left in the pool), the top players truly shine. They use their tracking, even before the bag is depleted, to calculate optimal plays based on unseen and undrawn tiles. They reason about what opponent might likely be holding, given opponent's recent plays and which of the unseen tiles would be more advantageous to hold. They work through probable sequences of moves, deducing the likeliest winning plays. They're guaranteed nothing except that they are using their abilities to their utmost, along with whatever uncertainty is left, to implement a winning strategy.
I'm not knocking study and simulation--it's absolutely necessary to improve your game. I'm only warning against feeling entitled to success because of the volume and/or frequency of study and simulation. You'll only end up disappointed.
It's helpful for me to remember what I can and cannot control in Scrabble®:
- Which words to study
- When/How often to study words
- When/How often to play games
- Whom I choose to play online
- What tiles I play or exchange at any given game state
- What tiles I keep at any given game state
- How much of my game time I spend looking for my next play
- Whether/how I track tiles during play
- Whether or not to challenge opponent's play
- What tiles I draw from the bag
- Any of opponent's game resources (tiles drawn/played/kept, time spent)
- Opponent's behavior during play
This is a pretty short, off-the-cuff list. I honestly thought I'd be able to enumerate more things I cannot control than things I can control. How 'bout that. It seems there's plenty of my own stuff for me to worry about rather than fretting about how opponent's drawing better.
I hope the foregoing is useful to you on your Scrabble® journey.