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Scrabble secrets from a pro

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Whether you're playing Scrabble or one of its many variants (Words with Friends, that means you), chances are you've run into a rough tile rack or two.

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So has Laurie Cohen. One of the country's top-ranked Scrabble players, the Arizona resident started her Scrabble career playing with her mother and sister as a child, and fell in with an upstate New York Scrabble club about 25 years ago. Her "serious" Scrabble play began in 1998. Since then, she has competed in over 80 Scrabble tournaments around the country, earning at least one world record along the way.

This October she will represent the U.S. at the World Scrabble Championships in Poland -- and she filled us in on some of the tactics, techniques, and tricks she's learned over the years.

So what's the key to Scrabble success? Here are a few of her go-to tips:

Learn the right words

"When you know a lot of words, your opportunities for scoring increase dramatically, and you can also better identify whether your opponents' words are legitimate or not," says Cohen. In other words, the bigger your Scrabble vocab, the better you're going to play.

But don't go memorizing the dictionary just yet. Cohen recommends a free program called Zyzzyva developed by a fellow Scrabble player.

"When I first started learning, I used one of Zyzzyva's predecessors to create flashcards that I use for studying," she says. Catch an opponent playing an illegal word and they'll forfeit their turn; in Scrabble, having a large vocabulary pays double.

"Most players could benefit by learning more words, especially the seven and eight letter words that can earn bonus points," explains Cohen. "I would recommend downloading Zyzzyva and starting by learning the 100 most probable seven letter words. People will be surprised at how many words they don't know."

Like what? How about "etesian", a strong summer wind in the Aegean Sea? Or "taenias," a kind of headband? Or "anestri," which refers to periods of dormancy in the reproductive cycles of certain mammals? All regular tools in the tournament Scrabble player's verbal load-out, according to Cohen, but unknown to most novices.

Fill in the Blanks

"The two zero- point blanks are the most valuable tiles in the bag," believes Cohen. "I've seen some casual players use them on low scoring plays, or even consider them bad draws." But together with the ever-handy "S," they're key tiles for creating high-scoring "bingo" plays and earning a prized 50-point bonus.

Not all letters are such a welcome sight.

"The 'Q' is not as good of a tile as some people think," Cohen says. Though it's tempting, holding onto a big-scoring "Q" tile seriously constrains your rack and limits your scoring potential. Her advice?

"Get rid of it as soon as possible," -- by playing one of those short Q-without-U words so beloved of Scrabble players, like "qi," or "qat."

The best defense is a good offense

Novices also tend to play too defensively, she observes.

"Lower level players are often overly concerned with blocking the triple-word score and other premium squares, while sacrificing points. Higher level players are typically more concerned with scoring and don't mind keeping the board 'open' in order to do so."

So don't sweat it if your double-word scoring beast opens up a triple-word opportunity for Uncle Mark. If you can score big points, score them.

Track the tiles

While counting cards is frowned upon at a blackjack table, counting tiles is perfectly legal at pro Scrabble matches. Indeed, most tournament players "track" letters, Cohen reveals, keeping a mental (or even written) note of which are left in the bag.

"This is critical information, especially when games are close. This way, you can plan what you're going to play with knowledge of what your opponent can do in return...most players will find a lot of benefit in knowing if, for example, their opponent has a 'Z,' a 'V,' or a blank on their rack."

Then what? "Sometimes, you can block your opponent's high scoring play or even 'stick' them with an unplayable 'Q' or 'V,' for instance," suggests Cohen.

Slow down, you spell too fast

Of course, the biggest problem most of us face during a Scrabble match is the other player getting antsy when we're not firing off words left and right.

But to Cohen, rushing it only spells Scrabble disaster.

"Take your time," she says, "and don't always play the first good play that you see. Sometimes, if you keep looking, you'll find an even better play. When you're first learning 7- and 8-letter words, it can take a little while to find them, so it may take a minute or two to have that 'eureka' moment."

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