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Scrabble Apologetics I: Terminology


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“Why are you always talking about bingo? I thought you played Scrabble, not bingo, and can’t imagine why you’d enjoy sitting with a small crowd of geriatrics, gambling small sums of money on the chances that a ping pong ball marked I-23 might be pulled from a large jar at an opportune moment. It just seems so sad.” I get this sort of thing a lot. So, in the interest of shining a little light on the shady underground of the club-and-tournament Scrabble scene, I’ve put together a short guide to the terminology used by the “pros.” If I’m successful, I suspect that my “kitchen-table Scrabbling” friends will have a better understanding of what I’m raving about, and when they say “It just seems so sad,” they will be referring to Scrabble, not bingo.

The Terminology

Anamonic: An anamonic is a phrase used as a pneumonic device. The idea is that every letter that occurs in the phrase can be used to create a valid Scrabble word when combined with all of the letters in its associated “keyword.” For example, a rack containing the letters AEIMNT and a blank can be used to form 24 valid seven-letter words. AEIMNT, without the blank, forms three valid words: inmate, etamin, and tamein. A player might easily see the word inmate, and if she remembers a popular anamonic for this keyword, will know that every letter occurring in the phrase “relaxing by his cell door” can be combined with AEIMNT to form a valid seven-letter word (amentia, animate, ambient, nematic, mediant, etamine, matinee, mintage, teaming, tegmina, hematin, intimae, ailment, aliment, mannite, amniote, minaret, raiment, etamins, inmates, tameins, taximen, amenity, and anytime).

tile bBack-hook: A letter that can be added to the end of a valid Scrabble word to form another valid Scrabble word, is said to be a back-hook for the original word. The letter S is, of course, a valid back-hook for many, many words. It would not surprise you that S is a valid back-hook to cat. You might not know, however, that E also works (to form cate, “a choice food”).

Bingo: This is the term that seems to cause the most confusion. When a player uses all seven tiles from his rack to form a word, he earns a 50-point bonus in addition to the value of the play. We refer to this as a bingo. (Why bingo and not, for example, parcheesi? I don’t know, but I can only imagine that if some excited Scrabbler yelled “Parcheesi!” after making a particularly spectacular bonus play, half of the players in the room might repond with “Bless you” or “Gesundheit.”).

Bingo variations: There a several variations on bingo in regular use:

  • Bingo, bango, bongo: Three bingos, played back-to-back-to-back. This is just greedy.
  • Mingo: A bingo that scores under 60 points (including the 50-point bonus). This isn’t easy to do. Excluding blanks, a seven-letter word played as a bingo will score a minimum of 60 points: eight points for the “main” word (which will hit, at minimum, one double-letter square) and two points for the hook word. But if two blanks are used, the absolute minimum score for either a seven-letter or an eight-letter bingo is 56 points. This is better than a poke in the eye by a sharp stick, but barely.
  • Non-go: A “natural” that can’t be played on the board. For example, holding “JOLTING” on one’s rack, while the only word on the board is “VERB” will provide something nice to complain about after the game, but won’t do much good scoring-wise.

Challenge rule: The “double challenge” rule is used in club and tournament play in North America. A player may challenge any word played by his opponent. If the word is not found in the dictionary/wordlist, it is removed from the board, and the player of the word loses her turn. If, on the other hand, the word is found to be good, the challenger loses his turn. Socialist-leaning, effete Europeans use a free-challenge rule. The challenger loses nothing in this system by challenging a perfectly acceptable word.

tile dDictionary: The Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary, or OSPD, is a sorry excuse for a dictionary. It’s the wordlist derived from this dictionary (and additions to it for club and tournament Scrabble competition) that is important. See Wordlist below.

Double-double: A word that covers two double word squares when played is called a double-double and is worth four times the face value of the tiles played. The shortest possible double-double is seven letters long.

Double-letter square (or DLS): A double-letter square doubles the value of the tile played on it. C’mon, you already know this.

Double-word square (or DWS): A double-word square doubles the value of the word(s) played on it. It’s a pink square, and clashes with your shirt.

Front-hook: Like a Back-hook (see above), but on the other end of a word. The letter S is a front-hook to CAT, but it doesn’t create a word that means “more than one cat.”

tile kKitchen-table Scrabble: Kitchen-table Scrabble is a pejorative term used to describe the game most of us played before we became aware of the existence of clubs and tournaments. These games often feature three or even four players. Defense and rack management may be non-existent (this is often true of my game even today), kibbitzing is allowed, and a play clock is seldom employed. Kitchen-table players actually play the game for fun.

Phony: A word played that is not found in the Scrabble dictionary/wordlist. A phony can be “challenged off” the board, but it might “stay on” the board if an opponent chooses not to challenge it. Knowingly playing a phony is a legitimate strategy in club and tournament play (while in kitchen-table play, it can lead to ridicule, fisticuffs, and in extreme cases, gunplay and/or divorce). Strategic considerations behind the play of a known phony include, does one’s opponent know this is a phony? If not, can he afford to risk a challenge (see Challenge rule)? Of course, some phonies are not played on purpose. A player may think a word is or should be good when it is not (which word is acceptable, feedings or stealer? Outrain or outsnore?), or a player may misspell a word. Either way, it’s up to an opponent to challenge or not.

Rack management: This is the concept that what is left on a player’s rack after making a play is often just as important, and sometimes more important, than the number of points scored by the play. I won’t say why this is so, because we “pros” can’t afford to reveal everything.

Stamp collectors: This is a pejorative term for club and tournament players who do not play at the highest echelons of competition, and/or do not take the game seriously enough to devote long hours of study to it. Many of these players should have remained kitchen-table players. I am a stamp collector (but not a philatelist). A subset of the stamp collectors are called blue hairs. These are the older stamp collectors.

tile tTriple-triple: This is a play, also called a nine-timer that covers two triple-word squares, and is worth nine times the face value of the tiles in the word played.

Triple-letter square (or TLS): You can probably guess.

Triple-word square (or TwS): A triple-letter square triples the value of the tile played on it. It’s a dark-blue square.

Wordlist: The wordlist used in North American club and tournament Scrabble play is the Official Tournament and Club Wordlist, Second edition, which is sometimes acronym-ized to OTCWL2, but more often to OWL2. This “dictionary” is often scoffed at by kitchen-table players, and is a subject all its own. I will deal with it in another Bachblog post. You will want to stay on the edge of your seat for this.

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