Q&A with John D. Williams Jr., Scrabble Expert

Q and A with John D. Williams Jr. about his recently published book, Word Nerd: Dispatches from the Games, Grammar, and Geek Underground.  (Liveright).

Williams was longtime executive director of the National SCRABBLE Association.

Q: Do Scrabble tournaments attract a lot of eccentrics – like chess tournaments?

A: We do have our share. We had one male player who would wear fuzzy pink bunny slippers to every tournament. We had players who would wear the same lucky shirt for a week-long event, washing it in the hotel room sink every night.

We have occasional outbursts. Twice I've heard a player scream and run out of the tournament room, out of the hotel, and down the street, where I had to coax him back. (It was about bad tiles).

We had a woman who wore too much perfume -- allegedly to distract opponents -- and we had to insist she wash her face. We had a guy who dressed as a wizard.

Q: New Zealand Scrabble Champion Nigel Richards recently won a prestigious French Scrabble tournament without speaking a word of French. How was that possible?

A: It was a total testament to Nigel Richards’ skill. He is a pure genius with a photographic memory.  No other player in history could have accomplished this.

 Q: A few years back, there was controversy over Scrabble admitting thousands of what critics called “junk words” – like GRRL, THANG and WEBZINE.  Are you with the modernizers or the traditionalists?

A: I think of English as a changing, expanding entity that reflects our culture. The chapter in WORD NERD that discusses how a new word gets into the Scrabble dictionary pretty much defends this point of view.

Q: Everyone has a favorite ridiculous word in the Scrabble dictionary.  What’s yours?

A: Hmm.

Q: How many scrabble sets do you have, and do you have favorites?

A: We probably have 50 or more. We have ones in Hebrew, Arabic, Italian, and Swedish. We have a Braille edition, and every travel version ever made. I've got a Franklin Mint special edition with 14k gold tiles and a customized rotating board version. I also have a sketch of a prototype given to me by the family of Scrabble inventor Alfred Butts.

Q: A few questions about game play.  What is your number one tip to be a better Scrabble player?

A: Two tips: First, learn the 2 and 3-letter words. Second – admittedly self-serving -- buy the book Everything Scrabble by myself and three-times National Scrabble Champion Joe Edley. It’s all you ever need to know in a very approachable style.

Q: How much should average players focus on trying to find 7-letter words?

A: A lot. The most basic winning strategy, using proven techniques, is to manipulate your rack to a 7-letter play.

Something average players often overlook: do not be afraid to turn in some or all of your tiles if you have a bad rack.  That will increase your chances of getting a 7-letter play.

Q: What is the biggest mistake average Scrabble players make?

A: They play too defensively, worrying too much about the opponent’s play.

I was taught to go through as many tiles as possible early in the game to keep the board open for opportunity -- and increase my chances of getting valuable tiles.

People fear setting up their opponent for a play at the double and triple squares more than they should -- especially early in the game.

Another common mistake is misusing the S. Only use it if it's going to get you an additional 10 or 12 points.

Q: If you could change one rule in the official Scrabble rules, what would it be?

A; I'd make a clock mandatory. You usually find the best play within three minutes. A one-on-one game should never take more than an hour.

Q: You hear a lot about young people today being more video- than word-focused.  Is Scrabble finding a following with them?

A: Sadly, when young people hear of my Scrabble work, they often say, "That's like Word With Friends, right?" That said, we did start a National School Scrabble Program that reached over 1 million kids in 20,000+ schools.  We also started an annual National School Scrabble Championship, similar to the Spelling Bee.

Q: How do you feel about digital versus analog Scrabble?

A: I think of them as complementary. The digital game is fast and always accessible. But nothing beats the interpersonal and tactile experience of playing another person.

Questions and answers edited for publication.