There Are No Bad Racks

This entry is about Scrabble as a metaphor for life.

Posted Jan 16, 2010

This blog entry is about Scrabble, where one's "rack" is the seven tiles in front of you that you want to play in a way to produce a high score and/or to prevent your opponent from doing the same and/or to set yourself up for future high-scoring plays.

This blog entry is also about Scrabble as a metaphor for the good life, just in case you are not a dedicated Scrabble player like I am. But if you do play Scrabble, my advice here is useful. :)

Scrabble is deliciously middle-brow, which is why I like the game. When psychologists have studied complex problem-solving, they have often opted to investigate the high-brow game of chess, which in my opinion does not provide nearly as good a metaphor for life. Chess is thoroughly deterministic, whereas Scrabble has an element of chance. Great chess players always beat poor chess players, whereas great Scrabble players sometimes lose to their less talented opponents. If the less talented player draws a lot of power tiles (Q, X, J, K, S, and blanks), good things will happen, if they are played well. That's the first lesson about life from Scrabble. Luck can matter ... if one takes advantage of it.

Said more positively, anyone can win a Scrabble match against anyone else, not often but at least occasionally. That's a useful metaphor for life, at least for the vast majority of us who are not the "best" at anything, except of course being ourselves.

More systematically, here are the lessons for a good life that I have learned from playing Scrabble during the past decade.

First, like chess, you don't need to bet on the outcome of a Scrabble match to make it enjoyable. There may be high-stakes Scrabble games, but I've never heard of them. In contrast, other popular games - like poker or the NFL - would likely not be as interesting or engaging without a pot or a wager. Here is a lesson about the good life pertaining to those things that we choose to do. The best activities are those that are intrinsically rewarding.

Second, Scrabble is more of a visual game than a verbal game, something I did not appreciate when I first started to play. I have a great vocabulary, so I should be good at Scrabble, right? Wrong, as I learned the hard way in the beginning. It's where you play the word, across doubles and triples, more than what the word per se happens to be. Good players see patterns and the possibilities they present. The particulars matter but mainly in the context of the bigger picture. That's another good metaphor for life. Do what you do in situations where doing well has the biggest payoff.

Third, the "meaning" of a word in Scrabble is not its dictionary definition. It is the worth of the word where it is played on the board. Period. Consider the word SUQ. Every time I throw that one down against a neophyte, he or she looks puzzled and asks "What does that mean?" I always reply "It is a three-letter word that ends in Q ... and a great play!" "But what does it mean?" they persist. And I repeat what I had just said. Here is the lesson for the good life: The value of anything is contingent and contextualized. A productive play is purposeful and pragmatic. What are we doing with it, where are we doing it, and why are we doing it?

Did you know that some of best Scrabble players in the world don't even speak or read English? They speak Scrabble, as it were, which is what you need to do when playing Scrabble. That's yet one more lesson for the good life: Speak the local dialect!

Fourth, move tiles! If you can't make a high score, then make a low score that frees up your rack. Most of us know that in poker, you cannot draw to an inside straight, and the same principle applies to Scrabble. Don't hold tiles hoping and praying that you'll get the one extra tile that allows a good play. Move them out! Doing so clears out the nonsense and allows new possibilities. If that is not a useful metaphor for the good life, then nothing else in this blog entry is.

Indeed, sometimes discarding the ten-point Q can be a great play, and one that is often recommended by Scrabble experts. Another good metaphor, but one that is hard to heed. Even though I know better, sometimes I die ever so slowly by the overly-held Q.

Fifth, one of the "best" racks is really mundane - SALTINE - all one-point tiles. Why? Because this ostensibly ordinary rack allows all sorts of plays that can be hooked with the S and produce a Bingo (playing all seven tiles and thereby yielding a 50-point bonus), like:


Sixth, Bingos rule. The player who makes more Bingos than his/her opponent is going to win the vast majority of Scrabble games, even if his/her other plays yield little. The lesson for life? Pretty obvious, I think, and one akin to Kahneman's peak-end theory of what we remember from hedonic experiences. The peaks are what matter (along with how an experience finishes, which in the case of Scrabble is determined by the peaks - i.e., the Bingos).

Seventh, don't rely on what are called bluehair moves, those that are cautious, conservative, and constipated. They block your opponent's future plays, but also your own. Unless they have good reasons for playing defensively, the best Scrabble players open up the board, and their plays create what looks like a spiderweb on the board. The lesson? Go for it!

Eighth, don't cofffehouse, a pejorative term used to describe Scrabble playing in which the chatter overwhelms the game. In my opinion, one can (and should) chatter before and after a match, but when you play Scrabble, you should do so fully, deeply, and sincerely. Flow is thereby produced, even under the time constraints of tournament Scrabble. Yet another good metaphor for life: Do nothing half-heartedly.

Ninth, Scrabble requires that you juggle the here-and-now and the future. If you can play a Bingo, you should probably do so, even if it opens up the board for your opponent. But a thirty-point play that allows your opponent to make a forty-point play is not preferable to a safer twenty-five point play.

Tenth, when the game is coming to an end and you are winning, close the board down! Tournament Scrabble matches and even informal games reward margin of victory, but close victories are always better than "should of, could of, would of" losses that resulted from an attempt to pile it on. A lesson for life? I think so.

Finally, and to mention explicitly the title of this blog entry, there are no bad racks, only bad players. Good Scrabble players may blame their strategy, but they never blame the tiles they draw. Tiles are to be played, not used as excuses. To be sure, there are less than productive racks (e.g., what I call irritable vowel syndrome racks), but these can be fleeting annoyances, if one deals with them by moving tiles or exchanging them. In the latter case, you lose a turn, but you void your rack, as it were, and you make the bad tiles more likely to appear in the rack of your opponent. Another metaphor for the good life, with or without opponents.

Scrabble on, dear reader, whether or not you have a rack in front of you.

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