From 1985: A Scrabble champ shares his winning strategies

A Scrabble champion shared some strategic insights on the classic board game back in 1985.

Joel Wapnick told us what letters to avoid, how to prepare and how to play a 'phony'

Joel Wapnick on playing a 'phony' in Scrabble

36 years ago
The Scrabble champ explains the difference between cheating and playing a "phony" on the board. 0:47

Montrealer Joel Wapnick has literally written the book on how to win at Scrabble — and he called it How to Play Scrabble Like a Champion because he is one.

The expert Scrabble scrapper has won championships at the national, continental and world levels over the years.

In the summer of 1985, he agreed to share some of his strategic thinking with CBC-TV's Midday. We believe his tips stand the test of time, which is why we're sharing them again.

Do your homework

Wapnick told Midday he studies before a big tournament and he admitted that he's memorized much of the dictionary.

"I know probably 99 per cent of the words in the dictionary," he said.

The work seems to have paid off, literally — he's won around $85,000 playing the game, according to a story about the retired McGill University professor that ran in the Montreal Gazette in 2015.

Don't hoard tiles...

Of the many letters that you can end up with in Scrabble, Wapnick believes 'q' is the most trouble. (John Turk/The Oakland Press/Associated Press)

In terms of taking your turn on the Scrabble board, Wapnick told Midday it's generally a good idea to get rid of the letters in front of you, rather than hang on to them.

"That will increase the probability of picking good tiles from the bag — good tiles being the S's or the blanks, something like that," he said.

... unless they're good

The caveat to that prior tip is that it can be worth keeping good tiles, if you can make a high-scoring play with them.

"You have to be able to balance out these two conflicting ideas," said Wapnick.

Z is good, Q is bad

In particular, you want to watch out for the 17th letter in the alphabet — Q.

Joel Wapnick is seen working the Scrabble board during a 1985 interview with CBC's Midday. (Midday/CBC Archives)

"The Z is OK, the Q is probably the most reviled tile in the bag because there are only five words that you can play the Q with that don't have the U, as well," said Wapnick.

It gets worse from there.

"Quite often, you can be stuck with the Q and then, of course, you can't play any seven-letter words and get the 50-point bonus unless you get rid of the Q," he added. "It can be a real albatross."

Skill over luck

In Wapnick's view, it is better to be skilled than to be lucky when it comes to playing Scrabble.

"If you take a look at the tournaments over the years, what happens is that the best players always win," he said. "And very rarely — almost never — does a mediocre player come in first."

This trend tends to show itself over the course of a tournament, though Wapnick acknowledges luck can play a decisive role in an individual game.

Play a 'phony,' but don't cheat

Joel Wapnick is seen concentrating during competition at the Scrabble World Championship in 2001. (Eric Jamison/Associated Press)

Wapnick said peeking in the bag of letters or hiding problematic tiles are examples of "very reprehensible" behaviour, or cheating, for players of the famous word game. 

But playing an occasional "phony" — a word that doesn't exist — is acceptable.

"Playing a phony is part of the game," Wapnick explained. "It's in the rules, you're allowed to do it. The idea behind doing it is you are testing your opponent's word knowledge. And it's one more tool that a good player can use to win a game over a player who is not as good."

He said there is a certain skill in playing a phony, as it must seem plausible to the opposing player. Otherwise, that player could challenge the word, the ruse would be over and the turn would be lost.

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