The first thing they tell you when you go in for your three-day intensive Scrabble Master training seminar is this: memorize the two-letter words. Games are won and lost on one’s knowledge of this. If you don’t know how many different ways a vowel can be attached to an X, you’re in for a world of hurt. You might as well go home.
Not that I’ve actually ever been to a Scrabble Master seminar, but my dad’s schooling me on a regular basis when I was younger came close. I never was able to beat him, thanks to his intense competitive spirit and massive knowledge of English. The lasting effect of these sessions was an inheritance of the first and a passing representation of the second. I played at this level of skill for a good while, getting by but never racking up huge wins. Then sometime after Sarah and I started dating, I read Word Freak, by Stefan Fatsis, and my brain exploded.
The book radically changed my game. It introduced me to points of strategy I hadn’t even considered. I insisted that Sarah read the book as well, which she did, the result of which was that we both had a formidable competitor for our burgeoning Scrabble obsession. The competition was still cordial enough that we were willing to help each other out with spelling or strategy, and because of that we’ve both grown significantly as players.
We never got around to memorizing that two-letter words list. I tried once, and was able to get a few particularly useful ones lodged in my brain (e.g. AA, AI, OE), but still remain hazy about the rest. If we think a certain combination could be valid, we’ll ask the other person. If we still don’t know, and the word is crucial to a play, we’ll commit the cardinalest of sins, and look it up in the dictionary. I know, scandalous.
Recently Merriam-Webster releasted the fourth edition of the Scrabble Players Dictionary, the official list of usable words in Scrabble, at least for a certain subset of players. Most changes have little effect on our game, but there are two biggies, and they’re both two-letters: Qi and Za are now legal words. This is huge. Both Q and Z are worth ten points, so now that one has the ability to use either letter as a hook—thus scoring it in two directions—these two letters have uncomparable power in the game. They used to be more balanced—their high value was offset by the infrequency of their appareance in words—but now all you need to do to play them is find an open A or I, and you’re practically uncatchable.
What, you don’t use these words in everyday conversation? Neither do we, and fortunately that’s not a prerequisite for legitimacy in Scrabble. Here’s what they mean: Qi is a Chinese vital force (also spelled Ki) and za is—wait for it—shorthand for pizza. Exactly three people in the world use the word za, and they all work for Domino’s marketing department.
Qi and Za unfairly tip the balance of the game, there’s no question. Fortunately, over the span of enough games, the unfairness evens out. So all we need to do is make sure we play lots of games. After four years together, and countless battles under our belt, I don’t see us stopping anytime soon.
(Answer: five. AX, EX, XI, OX & XU.)