by Stephenie Lim
(Woodlands, Singapore)

Besides attacking, we have to defend too. Scoring is not the only way to win. Even when you score a lot of points, you might give your opponents bonus tiles like the triple letter and triple word. Am I right?

Hi Stephenie - It sounds like you might be referring to Tip #3 by champion Scrabble player Andrew Fisher on my Scrabble Strategy page? In any case, the situation with defense is this...

Defense is simply not as important in Scrabble as our intuition leads us to believe. This is something that we've found out using thousands upon thousands of computer-simulations with Scrabble-playing programs.

It doesn't mean that you shouldn't consider defense. What it means is that we tend to over-rate the importance of defense and end up sacrificing too many points to stop our opponent reaching the triple word square, scoring a bingo, or whatever. In the process of trying to hinder our opponent, we end up hindering ourselves even more!

It's far more effective to learn lots and lots of Scrabble words and focus on scoring than to focus on blocking your opponent. When you get to the stage where you're scoring well consistently (e.g. 400+ points per game), then you might want to think about refining your game by being a bit more defensive.

The real question is not whether to defend or not, but rather 'How much score should you sacrifice in the name of defense?'. The answer to that question is 'Usually, not very much!'. If you're thinking of playing a defensive move, don't sacrifice more than a few points to do it. It simply doesn't pay off in the long run.

As always, there are exceptions. In an endgame, for example, where you know exactly what your opponent's possible plays are, you can sacrifice a large score (a bingo, for example!) because you can calculate that you can win from here. During the early to mid-game though, you really have no idea what your opponent can play next, and sacrificing points to block these unknown possibilities is generally counter-productive.

Remember - this is not a matter of personal opinion. This is the result of very careful and systematic analysis of lots and lots of games played by computer programs. When a computer is programmed to play defensively, it doesn't do very well against an attacking program.

As a result of this analysis, champion Scrabble players do not play anywhere near as defensively now, as they did back in the 1970s and 80s before these studies were done.

I hope that answers your question Stephenie, and thanks for asking

P.S. One thing I should have emphasized above is the importance of rack leave, by which I mean the letters left on your rack after making a move. You are far better off sacrificing points for a better quality rack leave than you are for stopping your opponent from scoring. I say a bit more about rack leave here.

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