Few people know more about Scrabble strategy than Andrew Fisher. And since Word Buff is committed to sharing the advice of the world's best players, I could think of no better person than a world-class Scrabble champion who has written about that very subject.
So here he is...
Andrew is co-author of the most authoritative book on Scrabble strategy written in recent times. His book, which he wrote with another expert British player by the name of David Webb, is called How to Win at Scrabble (sometimes titled The Art of Scrabble), and it is absolutely jam-packed with tips for playing better Scrabble.
I'll be sharing several of the insights from that book with you shortly, but first, I wanted to ask the author a few questions.
Andrew very kindly agreed to this interview with Word Buff.
Interview with Andrew Fisher
What do you do for a living?
I’m a chartered accountant working in audit. A lot of good Scrabble players come from number-based, financial or computing backgrounds, perhaps because the skill set demands the application of logic, pattern-recognition and probability assessment.
What do you do when you're not working or Scrabbling?
Crossword solving, reading fiction, a bit of choral singing, walking along the beach, cooking, blogging (google for aphis99), and the odd gym visit.
When did the Scrabble obsession bite?
I remember playing with my parents as a young child. I don’t recall the exact words involved, but when dad front-hooked a word (probably something like MILE to SMILE) I was astounded by the verbal transformation wrought. I didn’t resolve at the time to become an expert player, but always enjoyed the game. I subsequently set up a lunchtime club at school, eventually discovering that there was a formal tournament and club circuit.
Do you enjoy any other word games or puzzles?
I love tough cryptic crosswords, and pit my wits each week against The Listener (published via The Times) as well as other online or paper puzzles. The Listener is viewed as the pinnacle of the themed cryptic and attracts devotees from around the world, including many Scrabblers. I am also a crossword setter, having had seven puzzles published in The Listener series and a few others elsewhere.
What is it about Scrabble do you think?
I enjoy the combat with opponents in which every encounter is different. Each game makes you draw on your accumulated knowledge and strategy, while at the same time thinking on your feet to address the specific circumstances that arise.
The luck disparity in individual games adds a measure of spice. At bottom, I love words and word puzzles, and Scrabble is an ideal combination of mortal duel with abstract mental reasoning.
Did you have any Scrabble heroes on your way up the ladder?
I was lucky enough to have two very strong mentors at the Oxford scrabble club, John Place and Barrie Knox. Their styles were very different, but I learned a lot from both of them. At the time Mark Nyman was top of the heap in the UK, and I certainly strove to emulate him.
What proportion of Scrabble words do you know?
I’ve been through all words up to eight letters in length more than once, and would recognize virtually all of them. That isn’t the same as knowing them so intimately that I can solve the toughest candidates every time they hit my rack, but I have a pretty good strike rate.
How much do you worry about meanings?
I am very familiar with Chambers dictionary, but not so much with Collins – though I do subliminally notice the definitions as they pop up while using Zyzzyva, some of which stick.
I think I am a bit unusual among Scrabble players in my level of interest and enjoyment in meanings.
Do you have an all-time favorite Scrabble word?
There are many words I would like to play, but these tend to change with every batch of study.
What is the most unlikely word you've ever played?
I think it might be CACAFOGO.
What is the longest word you've ever played?
I don’t have any recollection of long words played, perhaps because I don’t strive for them or think them unduly remarkable.
Do you have a favorite play of all time (yours and then another player's)?
At the time I was very pleased to find BUVETTE, a game-winning play in my UK Nationals final against Terry Kirk in 1997.
In another final a few years later (King’s Cup 2004), I was stunned and impressed by Nigel’s VAGOTOMY, although I did somehow scrape home in that game.
On your game...
How many hours a week is devoted to Scrabble (playing, studying, or whatever)?
I devote about 20 days to tournament attendance each year, but recently I haven’t played much otherwise (occasionally I will visit Melbourne club, or arrange friendly matches with a few other select players).
Study-wise, I had a few months’ break until February this year but since then have been hitting Zyzzyva pretty heavily (at least an hour a day) as I felt I was rusty in a few areas.
Adding on the Facebook games, analysis of positions using Quackle, and perusing scrabble list emails and blogs, and it comes to a hefty total.
Do you recommend online Scrabble?
I have an ISC membership but hardly ever visit the site.
What Scrabble software do you personally use?
Zyzzyva, Quackle and LeXpert, along with the Facebook application
What Scrabble equipment do you personally own?
All the basic requirements (rotating board, clock etc) and a library of Scrabble-related titles
What's the competition like in Australia compared to the UK?
The top few players are extremely strong here, and as the Causeway Challenge 2006 and 2008 attest, we make up a formidable and indeed world-beating team. However, there is definitely much more strength in depth in the UK, with dozens of players able to deliver a very tough challenge.
Who, in your opinion, is the best player in the world right now?
Richards or Logan.
Do you have a most satisfying tournament win?
I suppose the "big ones" are more satisfying, because you then become part of Scrabble history (e.g. the UK Masters or Nationals, and the Australian Nationals).
I particularly enjoyed taking part in the UK's inaugural BEST tournament in 2001 - a nationwide individual knockout with the number of games escalating each round up to a 19-game final. I made the final against David Webb, and had a very enjoyable series of games which went my way at the death by a margin of 10-9.
On your book...
Isn't this book going to help your opponents beat you?
It should help to point the way, but is not a panacea in its own right. By far the most important skill is vocabulary recall, and readers have to put in the hard yards to get to a strong level.
How did the book come into being?
I attended a splendid tournament in Singapore in 1999, and spent a day touring some of the sights with David Webb. We discussed the germ of the idea there, and it came to fruition over the next couple of years via email exchange and the editing of one another's contributions.
In your book you say that Scrabble is not a deep game like chess. Does that diminish your achievement?
It isn’t deep in the sense that you cannot plan a campaign several moves ahead, although the endgame is a special case. Your tactics as the game progresses are largely dictated by the tiles you draw and the position that develops.
Scrabble therefore calls on other skills such as adaptability, calculation of probabilities rather than forced sequences, judging when to attack and when to defend, and so forth.
There are some similarities, such as the intensive study required to perform objectively well and perhaps the psychological aspect, but the intention behind the remark was to suggest that it is fairly straightforward to pick up the fundamental skill-set. In fact, Scrabble can show remarkable depth under close computer-aided analysis of specific positions.
You include more advice about psychology than other Scrabble books - do you ever lose your cool when your opponents keep getting everything?
I am usually renowned for unflappability, but chinks in the armour have been noted from time to time.
Any plans for an updated edition or future Scrabble books?
Unfortunately there is not enough of a market to justify a new edition. We toyed with creating a book for beginners, but that hasn’t got off the ground.
Speaking of beginners...
Can you give us your top five brief tips for an enthusiastic lounge room player who wants to become a competitive tournament player?
And he did! So here are...
Fisher's Top Five Scrabble Strategy Tips
I've added some commentary to Andrew's tips, including links to some online resources that will help you put his advice into practice.
But if I was only allowed to give one sentence of advice to a Scrabble player, it would be this...
Despite being a small book, there simply isn't much you won't find in its pages.
Ok, ok, I'll shut up and get on with it now!
Scrabble Tip #1
Spend some time learning words – even a few basics will help, and we all start somewhere.
[But which words? And how do I learn them? To get you started, I've written this
brief introduction to Scrabble words
which includes some crucial word lists and handy tips on word-learning strategies... Word-Buff]
Scrabble Tip #2
Don’t play the first thing you see – explore alternatives, and consider your rack leave as well as the raw score of the candidate moves.
[The practice of considering not only the score you will get for a word, but also the letters you will keep on your rack for your next turn, is usually referred to as rack management. It is a crucial skill to develop, but also a subtle one that requires time and effort. Here's a brief
Introduction to Rack Management
to get you started... Word-Buff]
Scrabble Tip #3
Defence is over-rated – the best way to win is to score a lot of points.
[But how do I "score a lot of points" I hear you ask? Obviously this requires you to work on your word-knowledge, as per Andrew's first tip, but it requires much more than that.
Finding high-scoring plays requires you to improve your board vision and ability to identify what Scrabble players often call hot-spots. You'll get better at this as you play more games, but when it comes to developing new skills, highly-targeted exercises are usually best. That's why I've introduced a regular
Scrabble Word Finder Puzzle
This puzzle presents you with a Scrabble game position along with the rack you are faced with, and your job is to find the highest scoring move available. Not that the highest-scoring move is always best, of course, but this will give you targeted practice at the specific skill of scoring a lot of points... Word-Buff]
Scrabble Tip #4
Remain dispassionate about results – treat each position as a problem to be solved, no matter how lucky or unlucky you may feel.
Scrabble Tip #5
Review your games afterwards to find out what you missed – that’s a great way of learning from mistakes.
[Of course, when you're just starting out you probably won't have much of an idea about how to review your games thoroughly. To help you find your way, here is a full and detailed
analysis of a Scrabble game
played by Andrew Fisher himself, against another world-class player by the name of Bob Jackman. Watch as Andrew practices what he preaches, by carefully reviewing each of his moves after the game to identify errors and refine his strategy... Word-Buff]
Well, thank you so much for that wealth of advice Andrew. It's a great starting point for budding Scrabble champs!
For more tips about how to win at Scrabble, and many other word games for that matter, feel free to subscribe to my Word Buff Stuff! newsletter...