Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Studying Tips from a Beginner

Posted by Tina
Over on my personal blog, I blog a lot about Scrabble and, more specifically, my dedication this year to Scrabble tournaments (my Whirlwind Scrabble Tour). This was a decision I made after a tournament in Pittsburgh where I did so poorly that, to me, the event has simply become known as "Pittsburgh." The good thing about hitting the bottom, though (or coming real close to it), is that it's often a turning point. So I decided it was either time to let it go and just play casually or to buckle down and put in the work to do better. After giving it very little thought (because the decision was easy), I decided to go the buckling down route.

And by buckling down, I mean studying. For me, was time to get serious. If, by some chance, you're looking to get serious about Scrabble,'s what I've done so far and I've seen some good progress:

The first person I consulted was our club's director, Brad Mills. Brad helped me get past the block I had on the (now seemingly simple) task of memorizing my three-letter words beginning with K. (The trick was a mnemonic.) He also supplied me with my very first set of Scrabble flash cards. Flash cards can be based on any type of word list but they're commonly based on "bingo stems." (My first set is the most common stem called the "TISANE's.")

At the same time, this first level in studying for me meant not only memorizing other three-letter word lists (after moving past the mental block with K's), but using the awesome, free program called Zyzzyva. Within Zyzzyva, I could study my word lists (simple recall) and use the program's Cardbox function to learn to recognize words in their scrambled form. The Cardbox function retests you on words periodically based on whether or not you got them correct before. It's designed to help you gain long-term retention of the words and, on its face, it seems to do exactly that. (If you use Zyzzyva, click the donate button and slip a little cash to the designer, Michael Thelen.)

After becoming comfortable with the words on my first set of flash cards, I added those words to my Cardbox. So, at that point, it had every three-letter word in it plus the TISANE's. I access my Cardbox every day (which right now displays about 70 anagrams a day as long as I don't skip) and, at the same time, I keep adding to my three-letter straight recall memorization (also using Zyzzyva).

The word list recall is mostly rote. Sometimes a word will stick with you, though, for some silly reason. When I see the letters BIO, the lyrics "Obie Trice, real name, no gimics!" go through my head and I remember that BIO is also OBI. Sometimes it backfires, though. For instance, the letters DHO do make the word HOD, but do not make Homer Simpson's "DOH!"...but I always think it anyway.

This three-pronged approach to studying really seems to be working. Using word list recall, anagram recognition, and flash card study of bingos, the process feels balanced but at the same time not too elementary. I've found that pacing myself is important (or it just gets too hectic and nothing sticks) but that also, sometimes a stroke of inspiration or motivation...or just curiosity...will lead to some special challenge. (Yesterday, for instance, I decided to go ahead and add my "Q without U" words to my Cardbox. It was like adding a little Tabasco to your french fries...and had the desired effect.)

Oh! And sometimes I throw a little Aerolith play into the mix. It's similar to the Cardbox function of Zyzzyva but adds a timing function and displays random words every day. You choose from daily word "challenges" that are 2 to 15 letters in length, based on your selection. This program is yet another angle to learn and test yourself on Scrabble words and I think it adds another dimension to how your brain stores and recalls them. (Thanks to Brendan for suggesting Aerolith to me at the last tournament. Again, if you use the program, maybe consider donating a little money to its designer.)

So, at this level...(a relative beginner's level)...just getting the words in your brain is a huge part of it. Of course, getting them back out is also important. In Scrabble's upper levels, people are able to take on much more complicated, strategic approaches or even a very Zen approach (like Joe Edley). Heh...maybe its easier to be Zen about it if you know a bazillion words. Maybe someday I'll be able to let you know.

In closing, I'll focus on something I'd mentioned earlier. If you're considering studying, or starting your Scrabble study, consult your director. It's highly likely that she or he has devoted a good deal of their life to the game. That level of dedication does not come without the knowledge of the tools that are available, good strategies, and the accumulation of some really good advice. And play in your director's (and other directors') tournaments! The experience you get there is the practical application of all this theory and will help you figure out what works for you.


  1. I'm so proud of you!! All that effort is going to shoot your rating through the roof!!

    One of these days I'll get my keester in gear and start officially studying. Someday.

    Remember me when you climb up the divisions. Throw me a bone sometime, say hello. ;)

  2. Those flashcards are now on our website (in the words section) so everyone else may benefit from them. I'll be adding more over time.

  3. Thanks, Martha! I will remember you when I get to that A Division. The way you did in Pittsburgh, it won't be hard because you'll be sitting right beside me.

    And, Brad...that's awesome about the flashcards! The concept of Scrabble flashcards sounds kind of mysterious so it might help people just to get to take a look at them.


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