8. Endgame Finesse
“He found the game rather fatiguing, and toward the end played hurriedly and carelessly... ” Vladimir Nabokov - Ada
Many tournament games are won or lost in the endgame - when there are less than seven tiles in the bag.
Some players, like Nabokov's Van Veen, find this a "rather fatiguing" aspect of the game and fail to think their way through winning situations. Yet this is the most controllable phase of the contest where your powers of concentration are required.
Here are ten principles which will help you to form an overall endgame strategy.
Ten Basic Endgame Principles
1. Leave the last letter in the bag
If you empty the bag and your opponent goes out with a bonus word you will have no chance for a counterscore or possibly catching her with an unplayable Q, V, or C. You will also be adding the value of the tiles you didn’t get to play to the final points spread. I have seen plenty of close games lost because a player forgot to check if there were any letters left depriving himself of a vital last shot. Occasionally, though, it will pay you to clear the bag and pick the ultimate tile - say if your only chance of winning the game is by drawing the last blank for a bonus and turning over five tiles instead of four will improve the odds.
2. Go out in two
The player that goes out as quickly and efficiently as possible will always have the edge in an endgame situation. Sometimes this may mean taking a lesser score to thereby catch your opponent with an extra tile or two on his rack. It pays to break up your final rack into sets of two words and look for spots on the board to play them. For example, with a rack of A-E-E-E-I-N-U you could form EAU/EINE or out of H-H-M-S-T-Y-Y you could make MYTH and SHY.
There are situations, however, where you will want to slow down the process of going out. Your opponent may be stuck with an unplayable Q or V and you can maximise your score by playing off one tile at a time.
3. When in doubt go for the highest scoring move
Sometimes you may find it hard to decide which move is tactically better or you may be in time trouble and not able to analyse all the endgame permutations. As a rule of thumb go for the higher score. Very often those extra one or two points will be just enough to win the game.
4. Try to trap your opponent with awkward tiles
When playing your final moves identify dumping squares for your opponent’s hard-to-get-rid-of letters like Q, C, V or U and cover them if you can. If those tricky tiles remain unplayed not only do they not add to his score but they inflate your final aggregate as well.
5. Play to maximise spread
In tournament play it is important to look for ways of maximising your winning margin (or conversely minimise your losing spread). These days most championships are decided by wins and total score margins and twenty or thirty wasted points per game could add up to you finishing further down the leader board than you should have. There is also the psychological advantage of making your opponent play the game right out to the finish. Scrabble is not chess - you can’t resign after move eight!
6. Get your tracking right
It is important to be spot on with your tile-tracking, particularly in tight bobbing finishes when there are no tiles left in the bag. Many club and tournament games are lost out ignorance - just not knowing what tiles your opponent has on her rack. You simply cannot calculate possible permutations if you are unsure about which letters are relevant.
7. In general, with seven or more tiles in the bag minimise tile turn over to allow your opponent to fill his rack
One cardinal rule of Scrabble strategy is, if you are ahead, turn over as many tiles as possible and get the game over as quickly as you can. If you are behind the reverse applies - slow down the pace. However, in a close endgame, by minimising tile turnover, you can sometimes ensure your opponent is playing with a full rack. For example, I have A-B-N-R-T-T-U with eight letters left in the bag. If I play TRUANT I replenish my rack and my opponent makes a 6-letter play leaving himself with three tiles and a possible out play next time. However, if I play UT and he makes the same 6-letter move, his rack is replenished I am favoured to go out first. Of course the other variables of each game situation will determine whether you should play ‘short’ or ‘long’ .
8. Look for possible setup plays to take advantage of your letters for unblockable hooks.
In an endgame board high-scoring real estate is often at a premium (excuse the pun). Scores are wheedled and cajoled using every available nook and cranny. A cunning setup (say for the last S or a unique Y-extension) can often turn around a contest. I recall trying the famous J/NANA setup ("wisdom gained from meditation") (a ploy invented by Canada’s Stephen Fisher) against the future World Champion Mark Nyman at the North American Open in Reno in 1988. Trailing by 90 odd I played NANA at 12B holding the J and setting up for a cool unstoppable 75 points. Alas Mark played an equally cool counter-setup for his Z on the other side of the board and left me meditating on a win that might have been.
9. Identify opponent’s hot spots (and hot tiles) - for bonuses, high scoring moves or dumping plays and think through the "if...then" situations
It pays to focus on the key squares that will determine the outcome of an endgame, often embedded in or disguised by tiles on the board. Human beings seem to fare better at "hot spotting" than computer programmes. The secret is to "play through your opponent’s eyes" - imagine "If I had his rack what would my best play be ?" and "Which tiles are critical here?" and "If he plays this then I will play that..." The Endgame Practice Sessions will give you some examples of these sometimes complex ‘if-then’ scenarios. Those fortunate enough to witness the final game of the playoff between Peter Morris and Brian Cappelletto at the 1991 World Scrabble Championships in London will recall the calculating finesse displayed by both players - baffling even the collective brainpower of the experts in the audience.
10. Double check current scores and additions before making your final move.
This may sound like a truism but quite often a complex process of calculating endgame permutations can be undermined by a lack of simple arithmetic. Some tournaments allow recounts after the game is over but if you have time it is best to do your score-checking in the course of the game.