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Win at Scrabble

Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page M03

Tired of being whipped at Scrabble by a smart-aleck spouse or friend? Most living-room players don't know that by learning a bit of basic strategy and memorizing some new words, you can improve your game by more than 50 points in a matter of weeks. We asked D.C.'s word experts how to do it.

VICTORY IS A TWO-LETTER WORD. Learning words like AA (rough, cindery lava), XI (Greek letter) and OE (Faeroe Islands whirlwind) will allow you to make plays all over the board. According to the "Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary" (OSPD), there are 96 of these permissible combinations -- but three quarters of them, like AB and ID, you probably already know. (For a complete list of two-letter words, see www.yak.net/kablooey/scrabble.html.)

A pro would know how to make this rack sing. But you'll be eating that Q, won't you? (Chris Mann For The Washington Post)

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DITCH THE Q. Because it usually requires a partnering U, the Q, while worth a big 10 points, is the most difficult letter to play in Scrabble. You should memorize the Q words (and their plurals) that don't take a U --

QAT(S), QAID(S), QOPH(S), FAQIR(S), QANAT(S), TRANQ(S), QINDAR(S), QINTAR(S), QWERTY(S), SHEQEL (SHEQALIM) and QINDARKA(S). But most of the time, you'll want to just shuck the letter, PDQ.

YOU CAN BINGO. Making a word using all seven of your tiles is called a "bingo" and scores a bonus 50 points. Many players go through their whole Scrabble lives thinking it's impossible -- but of course it's not. The first stage is to recognize the most promising bingo combos: vowels A,E,I and consonants L,N,R,S,T. (They can be remembered as STARLINE.) The second: Be vigilant. Even if they have AEILNRT, says Bob Linn, co-director of Washington Scrabble Club, many people "will play LINER or TRAIN, and not even spot LATRINE, RETINAL, and RELIANT." You have to keep looking: "Experts know that in every single rack, even the ugliest, there is the potential for a bingo."

BLANK EQUALS BINGO. The blank tile mixed with the key letters above is a surefire way of making a bingo. Try not to let it go for less.

S EQUALS SUCCESS. The S is a great "hook" letter, meaning it can be added to the beginning or end of another word for additional points. For example, if your opponent plays TEAM, you could play the word GOODIES, with the letter S creating either the word TEAMS or the word STEAM, and win the points for making two words. Hooks are also helpful for playing bingos. Other good ones are A, R, D and Y.

RACK MANAGEMENT. If you have poor letters -- say, three I's and two V's out of your seven -- don't be afraid to swap a few tiles and miss a go, instead of taking three turns to get rid of nuisance letters. Ted Gest, co-director of Washington D.C. Scrabble Club, says to increase chances of finding a bingo, players should move their letters around. Look for prefixes and suffixes like RE, UN, IN and ERS, EST, IEST, ING and ENT, and the rest should fall into place. Stefan Fatsis, Washington-based sports writer for the Wall Street Journal and author of "Word Freaks: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players," separates good and bad letters as soon as he puts them on his rack. On his next turn, he'll try to play off the bad letters and hope to pick up more bingo-friendly tiles.

THINK LATERALLY. If you can't play a bingo but want to maximize your score, try making a parallel play. With your two-letter word knowledge you could lay a four-letter word above or below another four-letter word, for example, playing TAXI above AMID, making TA, AM, XI, and ID. (If the X were on a triple-letter square, you would score the triple twice.)

WHY BOTHER? Stefan Fatsis says: "The first time you learn UM or make an overlap play or create three or four two-letter words like AE, MM or PE, not only are you scoring more points, but it's more satisfying. Ultimately, whether you aspire to beat your boyfriend or win a tournament, Scrabble gives you that little rush of endorphins. You are able to say, 'I have done something cool with my brain, and in the process, I am beating somebody sitting across from me.'" Paul Berger

where to go score:

Alexandria Scrabble Club. 703-680-1408. drowe@mitre.org. Meets the first, third and fifth Sundays of every month, 4-9 p.m., at Springfield Government Center (6140 Rolling Rd.); the second and fourth Sundays at Franconia Government Center (6121 Franconia Rd., Alexandria).

Baltimore Scrabble Club. 410-254-7014. jonjen@charm.net. Meets at Borders in Towson (415 York Rd.) every Monday, 6-10 p.m.

Bowie Scrabble Club. 301-390-6751. lstephan@juno.com. Meets at 7 p.m. every first Monday at Bowie's Barnes & Noble (15455 Emerald Way). Other Mondays, the club meets at the Woodward Estate (14977 Health Center Dr., Bowie) at 7 p.m.

Washington D.C. Scrabble Club. www.nsli.com/.../scrabble. For more information, contact Ted Gest (202-966-5215 or tgest@sas.upenn.edu). The club meets every Tuesday, 5:30-10 p.m., at the Chevy Chase Community Center (5601 Connecticut Ave. NW) and the first Monday of the every month, 6-10 p.m., at Bethesda's Barnes & Noble (4801 Bethesda Ave.).

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