If you find yourself speaking to a professional-level Scrabble player, there are some things you don’t ask.
For instance: “What’s your best word?”
“Has your vocabulary expanded?”
“Do you ever bring out the dictionary and challenge another player’s word?”
As we quickly learned while researching this piece, Scrabble is serious business. The top tournament winners take home upwards of $10,000, but if you’re hoping to play at that level, be prepared to invest hundreds of hours in training.
We spoke with Howard Warner, two-time winner of the WESPA Senior Scrabble championship, to learn how the classic word game changes at the highest level of competition, why the professional-Scrabble world needs to unify, and how the average Scrabbler can step up their play.
[Editorial note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
URBO: How did you get started playing Scrabble, and how did you get started professionally?
HOWARD WARNER: Step by step. I used to play many board games and card games with the family when I was a kid, and when I was in my early 20s, I moved to a new town where I didn’t know many people, so I thought I’d join a club. There was no club locally for backgammon, which is my favorite game, or for 500, the card game. My third choice was Scrabble.
After I’d been playing at the club for a month or two, they persuaded me to go to a tournament. I won [second place], and I was hooked. And I’ve been playing it ever since.
How long ago was that?
Oh, 30 years ago. I’m an old timer. I’ve been doing this for a long time.
What’s a misconception people have about Scrabble at a tournament level?
Now, that’s a very good question. Often, journalists ask questions based on their own knowledge and understanding of Scrabble, as they play it domestically, where it’s a very different beast.
The main difference, at the domestic level, [is that] people think it’s about words. I always tell people, “If you’re interested as words as language, write or read.”
For Scrabble, it’s more about letter combinations that are used for scoring points. So it’s a very mathematical game.
And it just so happens that many of the top players are also very good bridge players, chess players, poker players. They’re applying the same sort of numerical and strategic approaches to those games. The only difference is, instead of working with spots on cards or imitation soldiers, they’re working with letter combinations.
So, the big misconception is that it’s about words. Another big misconception is that the only way to score well is to get on the triple word score. The fact is there’s many, many, many ways of scoring very well in the game of Scrabble, and also many ways of stopping your opponent from scoring well. That’s the offensive approach and the defensive approach, and a good player combines the two.
That sounds quite different from the Scrabble games I play.
The main differences are, first of all, in tournament play, it’s one-on-one, and you never have more than one person playing on teams. It’s much more strategic.
Almost, I would say, as strategic as bridge or chess or any of those other games. Tournament play has an agreed set of rules and an agreed word source, so there’s no need for arguments about that. Everyone knows how it works, and you just focus on playing a game.
As a result, the tournaments tend to be quite calm. Everyone is just focusing on what they need to do in the context of their game. It’s much more orderly than the domestic game.
When you’re going into a big tournament, I imagine there’s not really much room for error.
Absolutely, yes. I’ve seen a situation once where Nigel Richards—the greatest player in the sport—he played a game against Odette Rio from the Philippines, who’s one of the top women players in the world. The first time, she beat him by 300 points. The next time they played, he beat her by 300 points.
Now, that’s a huge swing, but that’s the nature of the game. Most times, the better player will always win, regardless of the luck factor, when the tiles come out. But any player on their day can pull out a blinder.
So when you’re preparing for a tournament, what does your prep consist of?
Well, I don’t prepare for a tournament. I prepare for tournament play, generally, and it’s an ongoing thing. It’s daily.
A marathon runner might be clocking up their miles every day, and we’re similar. Everyday, I will do my anagram revision.
I should just explain how we learn words. You generally learn the words from two letters up to five letters by rote, until you just have them all there, just sitting in your memory constantly.
And you play the smaller words a lot, so they don’t need a lot of revision. Once you learn them, they’re just there, ready for use. It’s the words from six letters to eight letters long, and sometimes even nine letters long, that you generally learn by anagram combinations.
You want to be able to recognize the anagram combination as soon as it’s on your rack and know all the permutations. There are programs and apps around now that help us refine this learning. I spend around an hour every day just going through all these, revising all my anagrams.
I’m not learning the words. I know all the words I need now, I’m just revising; anagrams.
Excuse my ignorance; I assume the turns are timed?
No, turns are not timed, the whole game is timed. In tournament play, it’s mostly 25 minutes for each player for their whole game. And once you go over that, there are points penalties.
We all learn to play a game within 25 minutes, including the very sort-of-complex ones that require a huge amount of thought. It’s time management.
Some countries—Singapore plays 22 minutes. Australia has some tournaments that are 20 minutes. There’s even a hybrid form of the game, which is three minutes per game, and that’s a hell of a thing. That’s only ever been sort of held as an adjunct of the World Championship once—speed Scrabble.
The anagram practice you mentioned—that seems pretty vital.
I do it extensively. But there are some players, a handful of top players, who also do analysis of games.
There’s a program where you can simulate a game, all the way through. It’s called Quackle. You can feed in all the coordinates for a particular game, and you can check at any stage what would be the ultimate play at each step of the way. That’s a sort of after kind of training that you can do.
I can’t be bothered doing that. I should, I know.
That’s understandable. I guess I hadn’t really considered that there would be a perfect move in a certain opportunity.
[During a] world championship final, all the other players are sitting in a room next door. There’s a direct feed, we’ve all got our computers out, and we’re all sort of Quackling them. The verb that comes from the name of the program. We’re all Quackling [the championship players] to see what Quackle throws up as the 10 best moves.
And the top players actually aim to operate their brains like that computer program would. Nigel Richards, the top player in the world, seems to have a computer for a brain. In many ways, we think he could actually be superior to Quackle the program.
[Editorial note: According to FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of cross-tables.com’s data, Richards is technically ranked higher than Quackle. They also note that Quackle’s tournament data is limited, so this point is somewhat debatable.]
Has anyone been caught cheating?
Interesting question. Very few at the top level. Very few, because we’ve got a lot things in place these days to make it extremely difficult for people to cheat.
There are still some who try. They tend to be pathological cheats who have been doing it for a long time and have become very clever at it.
In recent years, only three have been caught and sanctioned—sanctioned means long bans from the game. One from one of the Middle Eastern countries, one from the United States, and one from the UK, most recently. The ones from the U.S. and UK are major figures in the world of Scrabble, so that was quite a shock.
[Editorial note: One recent case: British champion Allan Simmons, who was allegedly caught peeking at the tiles he was drawing in 2017. NPR cheekily noted that Simmons, when reached for comment, “had no words.”]
But it’s very rare, and it’s very hard to prove. There are some people who are suspected, but you can never ever seem to catch them. Most of the time, the players are focused on their own games.
Most cheating involves ways of looking in the bag to see what tiles are there, or feeling in the bag to see what tiles are available, and being able to very quickly replace the bad tiles you’re pulling out of the bag with other tiles. Or sometimes, concealing tiles on your person, which is a little bit like a magician’s sleight of hand—trying to distract your opponent while you’re doing dodgy things with the tiles.
I’m pretty sure my brother used to do that.
I’m sure a lot of it happens at the domestic level!
When we were speaking via email, you mentioned that there’s two separate circuits: the North American circuit and the World Circuit. Why is that?
This has always been the case, ever since competitive Scrabble began in the 1970s. It’s because there are two separate owners of the Scrabble brand: In North America, it’s Hasbro, and in the rest of the world it’s Mattel.
Hasbro keeps a very, very tight control over the players, the players’ group, the players’ organization. Mattel, slightly less so.
Hasbro developed their own dictionary, which is based on five different versions of Webster’s, and that dictionary is constantly being updated. The World Circuit has a different dictionary…in fact, the World word source has about 40,000 extra words.
Now, there’s also a different set of rules. The World Circuit has been wanting the North American Circuit to join them ever since the start—we want to be a unified world. The North American Circuit, being the biggest organization with the largest number of players, they’re quite happy with what they’re doing.
They’re a bit insulated. In recent years, some of the bright young players in America have chosen to forego the North American competitions and just play overseas.
So there’s kind of a consensus that the World Circuit is more difficult?
Yes, that’s part of it. And also that there are way more words that they can play with. And also just a growing awareness that the world is not just North America.
So which countries tend to produce the best Scrabble players?
This will surprise you, but the one country that has the largest number of players in the top 100 is Nigeria. The next largest is Thailand.
Any idea why that’s the case?
Nigeria has only two leisure activities that are sponsored by the government: One is Scrabble, the other is soccer. It’s a dog-eat-dog society. They stand to win money—not huge money—but they stand to win money from winning competitions. So they’re all fiercely competitive about their Scrabble.
In Thailand, it was introduced into schools to help with English language some years ago. And the funny thing that happened, it didn’t really improve the level of English very much, but there’s some young mathematicians, and they rose to the surface in Scrabble.
I think Thailand has produced three world champions. So those two countries have been very successful. Of course there’s the traditional powers of U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom, and more recently, Australia has started to produce a lot of very great players, young ones. They’ve had a sort of youth program happening there in recent years, and that’s produced some great players.
The biggest growth in international Scrabble is in Asia—so countries like India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines.
[Editorial note: Three Thai players have placed in World Scrabble Championships: Panupol Sujjayakorn won in 2003; Pakorn Nemitrmansuk was runner-up in 2003 and 2005, and won in 2009; Komol Panyasophonlert was runner-up in 2013.]
What are some of the top scores of players in the circuits?
The top score in the world is 850, which smashed the previous record. The next best is about 770—big difference.
The 700 club is still very small and very elite. We actually have a page on the World Scrabble website that shows the small number of people who have achieved scores over 700 in international play.
My best score in competition was, I think, 756. That was in a New Zealand competition. I still can lay claim to the highest-ever game score in the World Championships, and that was 696. That was a few years back.
When you’re coming close to that type of a score, what’s going through your mind?
On my very last rack, I had what you call a bonus, where you can play all of your letters in one turn and you get a 50 point bonus. That was possible in two different places on the board. And I was thinking, “Whoa, I’m definitely going to get to 700 here, and I can possibly even give a serious nudge to the world record.”
And I was really thinking, “This is on.” But my opponent very cleverly blocked off the two spots for the bonus, and my score dribbled out to a mere 696. Since then, we’ve had quite a few more 700 games. That might have been, oh, eight years ago. And since then, scores have started to get bigger and bigger.
I have to ask one obvious question: What’s something that a person could do in a domestic game that would drastically improve their play?
Okay: Get the highest scoring letters on the hot spots. The hot spots are all of the squares with colors.
So you get your best scoring letters—like, an H is worth 4, as opposed to an A, which is worth 1—so you get your highest scoring letters on those colored squares. That’s how you get your best scores.
Well, that sounds remarkably simple.
[Laughs] There’s a bit more to it than that.