Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Scrabble Challenge

Scrabble players, are you ready? Here’s a test. I was playing Scrabble with my wife a while ago and made a 6-letter word using my “Q” tile, yet I only received a total of 10 points. The “Q” itself is worth 10 points. The question to you is – how did I do this?

My wife and I have been playing recreational Scrabble for over 30 years. We follow the game rules, but in a very lenient manner. While we both know all the acceptable 2-letter words, and even the few word combinations that can be played using a “Q” but without the need for a “U”, in other situations we are not as skilled. The words “Can I just look this up?” are common to our games, resulting in a quick glance at the pages of the official Scrabble dictionary.

It wasn’t always so.

For a short period of time, many years ago, I participated in weekly matches held at the Jerusalem Scrabble Club. The club, founded by former Canadian Sam Orbaum in 1983, still considers itself the biggest in the world, averaging more than 50 players in its weekly gatherings. Although initiated as a friendly social gathering, the matches at the Jerusalem club are cutthroat competitive Scrabble. Games are played between 2 players; play is governed by a time clock (each player has a total of 25 minutes for all his/her moves); the official Scrabble rules cannot be disputed; and of course no dictionaries are allowed. The Jerusalem club is “still Scrabbling after all these years” and meets every Tuesday evening.

I did not fair too well in club competition, losing more matches than I won. In one Scrabble tournament I scored more than 500 points, a personal record that I have no chance of ever beating. Memorizing word combinations and forming them based on seven tiles and board openings in a challenging task and my brain, unfortunately, is no longer capable of handling the millions of computations necessary to be a Scrabble champion.

Scrabble challenges the mind and strategy plays a major role. Playing the highest-scoring word; blocking spaces so that one’s opponent has no good openings; and even keeping track of available letters – it’s all part of the game. Scrabble is a game of skill, very similar in many ways to chess, backgammon, and even poker. But for many, playing Scrabble is simply a hobby.

That is why the games I play with my wife are entirely for fun. While we don’t play as frequently as we did in the past, we still sit down occasionally for a friendly match. I admit there is a degree of competitiveness in our games. I have been diligently keeping records of our matches since 1987. At the time of this writing, I have won 70 times; my wife has won 60; and there have been 3 ties. We don’t play to win. We play to have fun. And to win.

Now, back to the match where I formed a 6-letter word using my “Q”. It was just my second turn in the game and looking at my tiles, I was sure I would be capable of making a 7-letter word, which is considered a ‘bingo’ and worth a bonus of 50 points, but my wife was getting impatient. In the end, I put down 6 tiles.

Here’s what I did. I did not have a “Q” at all, but rather a blank tile, which can be used to replace any letter when forming a word. I used the blank as a “Q” and formed the word ‘quieten’. Quieten? Yes, it is a word and it means ‘make or become quiet and calm’. After forming the word and scoring only 10 points, it was not hard at all to quieten my wife.

As for the rest of our friendly match, I had all the good letters (Z X J) yet I still lost by the embarrassingly low score of 289-290. As you can see, I am not really a talented Scrabble player. I play the game for fun. And to win.


  1. In the words of the Apollo 13 mission, a successful failure. You never waste a blank tile on "q"! I love Scrabble and am not good at it, and have found that the size of my vocabulary has little to do with being successful. People assume that I must be good at Scrabble because I read and have an English degree. But the fact is I am terrible at solving puzzles. I liked this post.