What Is an Elo Rating in Scrabble?

Scrabble Tournament (NASPA/Patty Hocker - Photo courtesy of NASPA)

Photo courtesy of NASPA/Patty Hocker

The Elo rating, originally created by Hungarian physicist Arpad Elo, had its genesis as a rating system for chess players. Elo, himself a master chess player, recognized that basing rankings on tournament victories could cause wild swings in the perceived skill of a given player. Instead, he hypothesized that a given player's skill would follow a normal statistical distribution around a mean value. That mean value would be the storied "Elo rating."

Elo and His Kind

Arpad Elo developed his rating system for set groups of competitive players in a given game. Within such a restricted setting, Elo ratings are considered both fair and reliable. In a chess club, for instance, after completing a game, a player can take out a pocket calculator and work out the change to their Elo rating to within a single point.

That being the case, however, the larger the sample size and the more changeable the player base, the more Elo ratings shift and the less they mean in the game's overall meta. The North American Scrabble Players Association, which has more than 2,000 members and a comparatively high degree of player turnover, has greater Elo randomness than would a 100-member chess club, all of whom play religiously.

Calculating Your Elo Rating

The basic formula for calculating Elo rating is as follows:

Elo Performance Rating = (Total of Opponent's Ratings + 400 x (Wins - Losses)) / Games Played

Working out your own Elo rating is relatively straightforward. Let's use these hypothetical figures to calculate an example score:

  • Total of opponent's ratings: 20,000

  • Wins: 15

  • Losses: 5

  • Games played: 20

Given these hypothetical figures, the Elo rating calculation would be:

Elo Performance Rating = (20,000 + 400 x (15 - 5))/20

Elo Performance Rating = 1,200

What's a Good Rating?

This is important: Elo is relative. The temptation to view it as the be-all and end-all of Scrabble dominance is enormous. Look at that formula! And it's used in chess! It was invented by a physicist! Surely Elo rating is the pure and mathematical incarnation of how good someone is at Scrabble.

Well... yeah. That's exactly what it is. And like any mathematical incarnation of anything, it's only as good as the data you feed it. Shockingly, only so many people go to the trouble of inflicting a complex sorting algorithm on a board game. Isn't this supposed to be fun?

Highest Elo Rating in North America

As of February 28, 2020 at 16:53:17, the highest Elo-ranked Scrabble player in North America was Will Anderson of Croton, NY, with a formidable 2128. Do you know how many people he had to beat to achieve that number? 94.

That's how many Elo-rated NASPA (North American Scrabble Players' Association) members there are in New York. There are only 2,000 Elo-rated NASPA members in the whole organization.

Will Anderson helpfully illustrates the most important thing to know about Elo ratings. They're not a determination from on high of how good you are at Scrabble, forever. They're an ongoing measurement of how your skills improve or decline, determined both by the caliber of play and the skill of the people you play against.

Improve Your Elo Rating in Scrabble

So, how can you improve your Scrabble Elo rating? In short, git gud.

Rack up more wins against ranked opponents, increase your points per turn (PPT) and otherwise improve your Scrabble skills, and you will benefit your Elo rating. Better yet, get a club of like-minded players together, get everybody focused on Elo, and play regularly. The more often you play against rated players, the steadier your Elo rating becomes and the less likely it is to be thrown off by a single shellacking given or received.

If you find that kind of play to your liking and you're looking to level up, join a ranked Scrabble club. Expect to get stomped the first few times. Don't worry. Your Elo can take it. Everybody was a newbie once.

Elo and I

Ultimately, the utility of Elo rating in Scrabble depends on what you want out of the game. If your goal is to play casually, or even quite competitively but in a small group or on relatively rare occasions, Elo won't tell you much. If you have a larger, more dedicated group, however, and in particular if you're interested in getting into club- or state-level competitive play, learning Elo will be to your benefit.

For more fundamentals of Scrabble scoring, take a look at our analysis of average Scrabble score per word, turn and game. Happy playing!

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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