Mind Games Incorporated

Why Do I Play Scrabble?

Credit: Nsikan Iyanam, Lekki Scrabble Club.


For more reasons than you can imagine. It’s a fun game, it’s easy to play (at least for the casual player), it can provide entertainment for families and groups, improves your vocabulary somewhat or at best familiarises you with a large amount of words even if you don’t always know the meaning….

But the real reasons I play scrabble are even deeper. Perhaps the love of fierce competition, the satisfaction if winning a game that long seemed lost, the adrenaline rush of making that power play that scores you a zillion points and deflates your opponent, the challenge of anagramming words from a potpourri mix of scrambled letters…. all play a part….

But most importantly, I play scrabble because compared to most other games, Scrabble approximates life more closely……. and the lessons learned from scrabble are often a reflection of what real life is….

A game like chess has a richer and more prestigious history (even though no one has properly explained why white must move before black😊) and is more recognised as a pure test of strategic acumen and foresight. But chess assumes that all the pieces are equal. That everyone has the same number of pieces and thus an equal opportunity at the start. Chess also assumes that you control all the variables and are in total control of the outcome… but that’s not how real life pans out…. We are not always born with the same opportunities and we do not have absolute control over the outcome of every decision/step we take. I love chess, I love the ideal that it professes, sadly I never learnt how to play properly as a child and was never motivated to start afresh as an adult….

So how is Scrabble any different? How does it reflect life’s realities? Well let’s delve in a little and examine the facts through several lessons…

Lesson One: Life is not always fair

Every scrabble player will have a sad story to tell about that one game where everything seemed to favour his opponent. All the ‘juicy tiles’ (blanks and S’s), Power tiles (J, Q, X, Z) all came at just the right time for the opponent and you get blown away….. it’s life…it happens…. painful but true.

Lesson Two: The bag (life) promises you nothing

Nothing approximates life better than the Scrabble tile bag. 100 tiles, drawn randomly from the bag on each turn. The best players keep track of the letters as they are being played and can tell which letters are either left in the bag, or on their opponent’s rack at any point in the game. Most strategic decisions in scrabble are made based on these metrics…. But while the right strategic play will often lead to optimal plays, the tiles you draw from the bag remain random and nothing can be assumed with certainty until the bag is empty. So, make the best decisions based on probability, intuition and inference while giving yourself the best chance to capitalise on any opportunities that may arise as the game unfolds. But in all these, the bag as with life promises you nothing with any certainty… you make decisions based on partial knowledge and best judgement/experience, then hope for the best….

Lesson Three: Opportunity must meet preparation

The strategic element of scrabble is just as complex as chess, even though the chess purists would dispute this. But anyone who has played scrabble at a competitive level will know that you live or die by the quality of decisions you make on each turn… the tough act of balancing scoring opportunities with rack leave, deciding whether to take your highest score, or make a more defensive move, deciding whether to float a certain letter or setup an opportunity for an unusual hook, usually requires critical thinking and clarity of thought. And over the course of the game, consistently making good decisions on each turn often results in a good chance of victory. Though in these matters, hindsight is 20/20, as a seemingly poor decision may be the one thing that prevents your opponent from making a last-minute comeback and winning a game you assumed you had wrapped up.

Lesson Four: A little sacrifice can sometimes reap rich rewards

The perennial dilemma in scrabble. Should I score 50 while opening up a potential bingo opportunity for my opponent, or should I score the more conservative 30, and retain more flexible tiles that can allow me bingo on subsequent turns… remember lesson 2 about the bag promising you nothing? Well sometimes in life, the best laid plans can work out spectacularly too, so it’s all about timing and decision making. As in life sometimes, the investments/sacrifices you make in previous turns by keeping your rack and the board flexible and amenable to your advantage can result in rich rewards in the future.

Lesson Five: Never Give Up

Yet another vital lesson that scrabble teaches…picture this…. as soon as the game starts, your opponent rushes to a lead of almost 200 points by playing consecutive premiums….. you’re deflated and tempted to throw in the game… but somehow grit kicks in and u decide to set small targets for yourself.. even if I lose, I’ll try to at least score 300 points, or even if I lose, I’ll try close the gap to within 100… and you attack the game regardless of the score, you keep pushing to the very end, your opponent sees you coming close and tries to play defensively to ward you off,  and ends up short-scoring himself….

And lo and behold, as the game ends, you win by just 1 point…. This is perhaps the most satisfying feeling you can get from playing Scrabble. That great comeback with the odds stacked against you… in life, some of your most profound moments come not from winning the biggest things, but some of the smaller victories along the way that seemed improbable at the time and become the building blocks for future success….

These are but a few of the life lessons I learn from scrabble.  But as a semi-retired Scrabble player, what do I really know? I may never make it as an elite player in the game, but these lessons will always pull me back to the beautiful game.

Mind Games