4 Essential Scrabble Rules That'll Help You Win

Three women playing Scrabble

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In Scrabble, as in any game, it’s easy to feel like the rules are against you. That’s because they are. Rules exist to limit your possibilities in the name of delivering structured, iterated interactive entertainment. (That’s Geek Talk for “game.”) The trick to real mastery of any game is to turn that dynamic around. Use the rules as resources to increase scores, decrease your opponent’s options and guarantee you win. Here are three fundamental Scrabble rules that you can bend into your service to help you win.

Rule #1 - Bingo Was His Name-o

If you play all seven tiles from your rack in a single turn, it's called a “bingo.” And, it gives you 50 bonus points. Serious Scrabble players are always looking for that 50-point bingo bump. But, short of expanding your vocabulary, which sounds suspiciously like work, how can you make that work for you?

Play Big, Go Home

The first tip isn’t just a tip; it’s a whole playing strategy. If you can’t play a bingo, don’t play big at all. Stick to short Scrabble words. A reliable maximum is five letters. That’s just long enough to scoop up any worthwhile bonuses, and short enough to deny scoring opportunities to your opponents. When you see the makings of a big word, be patient. Let the game play out until you can lay down all seven letters and get that sweet 50 points.

Hit ‘em on the End

Most seven-letter or longer plays rely on suffixes or plurals. It’s much easier to lay seven tiles across the end of the word with a convenient S tile than it is to incorporate already-played letters into your bingo word, forcing you to find room for all those tiles on a crowded board. The best way to keep your opponents from playing a bingo, therefore, is to scoop up all the ends for yourself. Make sure worrying words are capped off with a neat S or ED.

Are You Challenging Me?

No. No, you aren’t. As a rule, if a bingo goes down, your opponent has been thinking about it for a while. They know it’s good. They’re betting their game on it. Don’t lose a turn and let them rack up more points with a bogus challenge.

Rule #2 - The Word on Dictionaries

You can use any dictionary in Scrabble. Always agree on a dictionary to use for challenges before you begin a game. That’s what keeps Scrabble civilized: No matter how acrimonious things get over the board, the big book of words gets the final say. How does that help us? Well…

Know Your Book

There is an official Scrabble dictionary. At least three of them, actually. The Official Scrabble Players’ Dictionary (OSPD) is for normal play; the NASPA Word List (NWL) is for regulated competitive play; and Collins Scrabble Words (CSW) for international play. How do you game them for your benefit?

You don’t. Those word lists are designed to keep the game simon-pure, like other official Scrabble rules. We’re fixing to get dirty. If you want an edge, pick a dictionary that you know is easier on slang and neologisms than the official list. That gives you a whole pocketful of words that may never occur to your opponents to play. Better yet, if someone challenges you on it, they lose a turn and you rake in points.

Get Shorty

The nice thing about using a dictionary is your word only has to be in the dictionary. It doesn’t have to be a word anyone on Earth ever actually uses. The best way to implement this trick is to stuff big things in small packages. Leverage these Scrabble rules to your advantage.

Unless you’re a Scotsman in love or an aikido practitioner, you have no reason to use the word JO. But, it’s in your dictionary, and it’s 11 points in two tiles. XU (an out-of-date Vietnamese currency) and ZAX (a tool for cutting slate) are other examples of big things in small packages.

Lay the Bait

This is the dark side of increasing your vocabulary with the various high-scoring cultural obscurities above. Learning words that are common in dictionaries but unknown in conversation is also beautiful bait. Lay down ZAXES on a triple word score and count the seconds until your opponent asserts a righteous — and entirely invalid — challenge. No turn for them. Free turn full of scoring opportunities for you.

Rule #3 - Racking Up the Bonuses

Premium squares: Using those bonus squares to your advantage seems pretty straightforward. They literally explain what they are on the board: Triple word scores have “triple word score” written right on them. How are we to co-opt them into our nefarious Scrabble schemes?

Fortunately for us, there are lots of ways to capitalize on Scrabble rules surrounding bonus squares.

Cheap Shots

Remember this rule always: Any amount of points for you is better than any amount of points for your opponent. You may feel you’re “wasting” a bonus opportunity by playing a mediocre word for triple points. Fight that feeling. You aren’t just picking up an acceptable number of points. You’re also removing scoring opportunities from the board for your opponent.

Double Up

Every bonus counts. If you play a word that hits a triple letter score and a double word score, the letter triples, then the word doubles. Stack bonuses like that for massive damage. Those opportunities don’t come often, but when they do, they decide games.

The Best Offense Is a Good Defense

There’s a game called Go. Game geeks like to wax lyrical about Go. It’s thousands of years old and has never changed from a single, beautifully simple principle: Two players take turns laying black stones or white stones on a 19-by-19 board. Whoever controls the most space at the end, even by a single increment, wins.

When you play Scrabble, think of Go. Your goal isn’t to lay down a list of words. It’s to control the board. Strategic, defensive play can remove whole sections of scoring possibilities from your opponent’s consideration.

Can’t play on that bonus square? Fine. Play a V or a C next to it. Watch your opponent sweat blood trying to think of a two-letter play with one of those letters. (There isn’t one.) String a low-scoring word across the bottom of your opponent’s best so they can’t develop it into something even better. If you want to win at Scrabble, play defensively.

Rule #4 - Bluffing Isn’t Cheating

When you’re out of options to create a high-value word, all hope isn’t lost. There’s a way out, but it does involve losing a bit of your honesty. If you have plenty of tiles but no real words to create with them, just make up a word and play it.

Test Your Opponent’s Knowledge of Words

Bluffing is a legal and valuable Scrabble rule that players should use to their advantage when need be. Every player has an obligation to know as many different words as possible. When they see a word they don’t believe is real, they might challenge it. Try playing a simpler fake word to see if your opponent calls you out for it. If they don’t, you can try to use more elaborate ones later.

Practice Your Poker Face

To pull off a good bluff, you need to be skilled at not letting people tell what you’re really thinking. Knowing what a word means is not a requirement in Scrabble. But, if you can come up with a convincing definition for the fake word you created, it can help make the deception more convincing. 

The Anti-Bluff

If your opponent knows to watch you for fake words, you can look for chances to use that against them. One way is to use an incredibly obscure yet Scrabble-legal word. Something that just screams, “That’s got to be fake.” You can also act like you’re bluffing to raise their suspicion. That way, they’ll take the bait and challenge your word, which will then cost them their next turn when your word turns out to be real.

Lawful Evil

The phrase “lawful evil” comes from another of the world’s great games: Dungeons and Dragons. It refers to someone who twists the rules of their world to their advantage, who causes suffering and destruction while staying within the letter of the law. We prefer to think of it as “lawful victory.” 

Come to your next game prepared — with the Scrabble rules, a headful of strategy, and a few cheap shots in your pocket — and victory shall be yours. (Evil laughter is optional, but encouraged.) Need more of WordFinder's special brand of sinister? Try the best reasons to use our Words With Friends cheat. Dark side for life.

Matt Salter has been a professional writer for over 10 years. He is a gaming and technology expert, and world-class word nerd.


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