Scrabble Strategy: The Power of Smart Defensive Tactics
Created by Beth Wiggins for WordFinder
Open vs. Closed Boards
Broadly speaking, you can think of Scrabble strategy in one of two ways: an open board and a closed board.
Open Board Strategy
An open board means you’re spreading out those letters and leaving several opportunities open. This approach might work if you have a particularly impressive vocabulary. You can capitalize on super long words with lots of bonuses. It’s especially useful if your opponent’s vocabulary isn’t as vast.
Closed Board Strategy
A closed board stands in stark contrast, keeping all the words as cramped together as possible. Prioritizing Scrabble defense, this approach leaves fewer opportunities for big plays. If you’re not so great at spotting 7-letter and 8-letter words, a closed board strategy can work more in your favor.
You don’t have as many opportunities for bingo bonuses, but your opponent doesn’t either. Rather, you focus on how 2-letter words can help you win by better controlling the game board. Slow and steady wins the race.
Claim and Block Bonus Squares
It’s obvious enough that bonus squares are part of a sound Scrabble strategy. Double letter score, triple letter score, triple word score… These are all good things. You may be tempted to “save” some of the more lucrative squares for when you have a higher scoring word to play on them.
You may want to rethink this approach when you’re playing more of a closed board Scrabble defense, though.
Just as you don’t want to open up a juicy triple word score for your opponent, you may not want to leave them “out there” either. Sometimes, even if it doesn’t net you a lot of points, playing a word on a bonus square is worth it because it prevents your opponent from using it. Depending on the situation, “blocking” a space by making it impossible to use is an equally valid strategy.
Memorize 5 Letter Words
Here’s a powerful Scrabble strategy you may not have considered before. Two letter words are crucial for spotting advantageous places on the board to build your words. And while you may be tempted to think that big words with lots of letters are the key to victory, advanced analytics have revealed otherwise.
In recent years, there has been a big wave of highly successful Scrabble masters from countries like Nigeria and Thailand. Rather than building up big vocabularies, top players simply memorized words without caring what any of them meant. You don’t need to know the definition of a word to play it in Scrabble. Native English speakers gravitate toward familiar words. By comparison, non-native speakers can focus on all the words, even more obscure ones.
In particular, their biggest Scrabble defense was memorizing as many 5 letter words as they could.
They took a closed board strategy, minimizing opportunities for triple letter and triple word bonuses.
By playing shorter words, they saved more letter tiles in their racks. This reduced randomness, compared to clearing your rack every time you played a bingo.
When you use all your letters, you could end up with a less desirable rack for your next turn. This could derail your chances of winning. Playing 5 letter words reduces that randomness and maintains greater consistency.
Five letter words are long enough to land on multiple bonus squares, but short enough to keep the board tight.
This goes back to the power of Scrabble defense as a main Scrabble strategy. Slow and steady wins the race. Consistently good scores are more predictable than wild swings between short and long words.
Capitalize on Parallel Play
If in the process of playing one word, you form another word, you earn points for both words. With this basic Scrabble strategy, you’ll arrange letter tiles in “L” and “T” patterns of perpendicular words. Elevate this strategy to the next level by forming parallel words too.
For example, let’s say your opponent opens with the word BAN.
You could play the word AXE, aligning the E to the end of BAN. That way, you earn points for both BANE (6 points) and AXE (10 points).
Or, you could play the word AXE in parallel to BAN. If you align the A in AXE under the B in BAN, you effectively form BA (4 points), AX (9 points), NE (2 points), and AXE (10 points).
Ignoring bonus squares for a moment, the first option earns you a total of 16 points. The second option earns you 25 points. Depending on bonus squares, the difference could be even bigger.
If the X lands on the double letter score space, for example, the second option could add up to 49 points:
BA - 4 points
AX - 17 points
NE - 2 points
AXE - 26 points
Playing 3 letter words (and other short words) in parallel like this both nets you more points and keeps the board tight.
Playing the Opening, Middlegame and Endgame
With chess, the strategy and thought process you put into your moves at the beginning of the game are different from how you approach the middle or end of the game. Scrabble strategy and Scrabble defense work in much the same way.
During the opening part of the game, you might hold on to high-value letters like Q, X and Z. You’re hoping for bigger opportunities to play them later. The letter bag still has lots of tiles and the board is still wide open.
During the middlegame, you may become much more conscious and deliberate about controlling real estate. This is where claiming and blocking bonus squares is so important. Rack management is critical too. Five letter words, as described above, allow for more consistent play.
Toward the end of a Scrabble game, you should be thinking a lot more about what letters are left in the bag and what tiles your opponent may have. If you have a Q, but there are no more U tiles left in the bag, you may want to play the first QI (for 11 points) that you can. That way, you avoid getting stuck with the 10-point penalty if you’re unable to play the Q before the game ends.
Win Big With Small Scrabble Strategy
As glorious as it may feel to play the longest words possible, this isn’t always the most effective way to win the game. A smaller Scrabble strategy based on a strong Scrabble defense yields more consistent results. As you dive deeper into how you can win more games, review some tricks for using hooks in Scrabble and Words With Friends.
Michael Kwan is a professional writer and editor with over 15 years of experience. Fueled by caffeine and WiFi, he's no stranger to word games and dad jokes.