Your English teacher might tell you to play Scrabble to practise your vocabulary. But to elite players, it’s not a game for word nerds – it’s more about maths, strategy, and memorisation.
“You do learn a tonne of words, but most aren’t useful,” says Raphael Ho Chun-hung, a Form Four CCC Mong Man Wai College student. This weekend, he’ll represent Hong Kong at the World Youth Scrabble Championship in Australia. “You memorise a lot of weird, complicated words but you end up using the simple ones because other people wouldn’t understand. The most you can do is show off occasionally.”
Just take a look at Nigel Richards. The 48-year-old New Zealander can’t speak any French – besides “bonjour” and a few numbers – but after spending nine weeks memorising the French Scrabble dictionary, he won the Francophone World Scrabble Championships in July.
Jason Tsang Wai-yin, a Form Five student at HKMA KS Lo College, has been playing Scrabble for three years. This year, he won the 6th inter-school Scrabble tournament organised by CCC Mong Man Wai College. He’ll be joining Raphael and eight other local students in the tournament.
Jason memorises an average of 200 words a week, but during the summer holidays he memorised 100 every day. He trains by using Collins Zyzzyva, a software that generates letters which he then arranges into words. It takes him an hour to quiz himself on 300 words.
“At first I wanted to learn the words’ meanings as well, but then I realised if I did, my brain would explode,” he says. “Some people ask me why I memorise words I can’t use, but just like being really good at basketball, it’s a hobby for me.”
Raphael, who says his memory isn’t as good, trains by playing Scrabble on Facebook for up to nine hours a day. “After a turn, there’s a computer teacher that tells you which word would have scored the highest. Sometimes they give you some very strange words, and I learn these words in the game,” he says.
A game of Scrabble can have up to four players, but in competitions the games are always just one-on-one. Each player has a total of 25 minutes in a game to place their tiles, so a match lasts about an hour. If a player thinks the opponent’s word is wrong, they must challenge the word before starting the timer for their own round. A wrong word must be taken off the board, and no points are scored that turn.
Jason hopes to place in the top ten at the Youth Championships this weekend. “It’s the first year that Hong Kong is joining the competition, so we are only allowed one spot. I want to play for Hong Kong and get good results so I can open up more spots for more Hongkongers to compete,” he says.
Owen Yip Tsz-hin, vice-president of the Hong Kong Student Scrabble Players Association (HKSSPA), says the Scrabble scene in Hong Kong has been shrinking. “The last time a Hongkonger competed in an overseas Scrabble competition was 1995,” says the City University student. “Before, a 16-school invitational had to be first come, first served – if you signed up late you couldn’t join. But now you can join even if you sign up after the deadline.” Last year, Yip and nine other students formed HKSSPA to organise better competitions for local students. This year they were accepted as part of the World English-language Scrabble Players Association (WESPA) and were allowed to join the World Championships.
The students of HKSSPA have formed a tight knit community with their own tactic booklets, newspaper, and exchange workshops with foreign players. “In Scrabble, you sit with another person for an hour. You chat and argue for points, so there is a lot of communication going on,” says Yip.
But Scrabble isn’t just about the competition. The game is also a valuable brain exercise that can be used to help the elderly stave off dementia. One family who proved no match for their talented grandmother actually contacted the HKSSPA to find a worthy competitor for her. The match-up was a warm experience for the group’s external secretary, Chloe Lam Ho-yi, who said: “We never thought a board game could become something like a volunteer service.”
Super Scrabble tips for top scores!
Having good English definitely helps, but winning a Scrabble game is all about having the right tactics. Jason says a good first step is to memorise the two-letter words in the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. It allows you to put words in spaces right next to an existing word on the board and score extra points with the two-letter words you create.
Seven-letter words and eight-letter words are next on the list to memorise, because if you are able to use all the seven tiles on your rack in a single turn, it’s a “bingo,” which gives you 50 bonus points. “It’s also the coolest thing ever to score a bingo in a game,” says Jason.
Seven- and eight-letter words make up about half of the over 276,000 words allowed in Scrabble, so Jason prioritises memorising the ones with high probability letters. For example, there are 12 letter E tiles in a scrabble set and only one letter J tile, so he prefers to learn words with the more common letter E.
Anagram skills are also important. This is when you rearrange the letters of a word to get new words, so “dear”, can also give you “dare” or “read”. By knowing anagrams you can easily find ways to fit tiles onto the board, or score higher by placing letters with higher scores on premium squares that offer double or triple letter scores.
Balance your rack. That means, don’t use all your vowels in one word and leave only consonants for next turn.