Calgary Scrabble Group


Scrabble Strategy: Art of Exchanging

Posted by Juraj P on Sun December 06, 2009 at 16h19
The Art of Exchanging

The following are my notes on the topic of exchanging tiles. They are my ideas, built up
from experience and reading and consulting with many players and texts. Take them with
a grain of salt. I'm still improving and trying to understand these "basic" points of
the game. This is the single topic that my thinking has evolved on the most, and one which
will continue to evolve.

Disclaimer: I don't Quackle that much, so my experience is home-grown. Of course
Quackle in a specific game position, or an expert's advice, trumps any of my
reasoning below.

If you are an expert, and strongly disagree with any notes below, send me an email
and I'll post your comments. Seeing any topic debated from more than one side is
eye opening. Or if you have your own set of rules, send it in.

When to exchange?

One of the hardest things is deciding when to exchange and when not to.
The hard part is that each situation is different. The worst things you can
say or think are:

"I always get the same letters back"

This is simply not true and is an emotional, rather than logical look
at the problem. Yes, it's possible that you throw OOII and then draw
OOII. But it happens so infrequently that you would rather consider
what happens most of the time. Think about repeating the experiment
10 or 100 times and ask what trends you would observe. This is a good way
of changing your thinking, to how you would benefit in the long run.
To analyze a specific position, and say "See, I threw OOII and drew OOII"
is meaningless. The long term trends are what matters.

Another very faulty line of thinking is

"Isn't 8 points better than none?"

Yes a few points are useful. But how much long term damage are you doing?
If you are comdemning your next 3 turns to being dismal, low-scoring
10-15 pointers, you're in big trouble. (A typical game has 15 moves
per side - A typical score is 350. That works out to about 23 points per turn)
That means if you are scoring 10-15 and your opponent is scoring 35,
that after 3 turns you're behind by 60. Now you NEED a bingo to just catch up.

What to Exchange

- I see this mistake often in the lowest division. A player will keep
JKQ on their rack because each of those letters is worth a lot.
Or a W or a Y because they're high scoring tiles.

Keep in mind, when you are exchanging, it is almost always a sign you
are trying to get a bingo. (After all, you are giving up an entire turn,
which sets you back by about 25-30 points - you need a bingo now to catch up)
So why on earth would you keep a J if you are trying to bingo? Or a Q?

The only high tiles normally worth keeping are X first, then Z. Maybe even both

I only keep one of each of ANESTRI+Blank when I exchange. Also, X and Z,
but almost never any other letters, perhaps a D. If I have no vowels, maybe
an O. But I never keep a U (game situation not withstanding, could be useful late
in the game if a Q is still unseen).

I would try to keep a balance of vowels and consonants,
(slightly less vowels is better than slightly more).

Avoid keeping ONLY two vowels. Too risky to get a huge imbalance in vowels.

Exchanging All 7

Depending on the state of the bag, I would consider throwing them all to draw the
Blanks or S's. By only exchanging 3 tiles, you only get a small chance to draw the goodies.
But by exchanging 7, you dramatically improve your odds. Exchanging 7 is a good idea
- there are lost of good (ANESTRI+blank) tiles in the bag, few bad ones
- There are lots of letters of the ones you're holding still out (you'll get fresh ones back!)

Sometimes I'll be holding an ET combo and some junk,
and I might consider exchanging 5 since ET has good synergy.

But if there are still 12 E's
and 6 T's, I have a good chance I'll draw duplicates. So I might get rid of them all.
Maybe I'll draw a fresh ET. Again, it depends on what's in the bag.

I never exchange without first looking at the tracking
sheet. It tells you which letters are scarce (and hence valuable) and which ones
are oversupplied. (Example: Late in the game, if there's still 6 R's, and you're exchanging,
don't keep an R on your rack! If there are not many vowels left, and you have the last two A's, keep them both!
Even two I's for that matter!)

I exchanged 11 times at the 12-game Marathon. Allan Simon told me recently that experts exchange tiles
approximately once per game, on average. So have a look at your game scores, and consider making
an adjustment. If you're exchanging twice per game, maybe consider fishing less. And if you're too cheap
and stingy, then exchange more! - good things await.

4/11 exchanges were "change 7" types. (I won every one of those four. 448, 438, 356 and 519 being my scores)

That's a small sample size but it shows that you still win when you have to exchange, and you can still
achieve high scores.

Problem of Not Exchanging

The problems of NOT exchanging are twofold.

- You can't score well
- You surrender the good tiles

By not exchanging from a problem rack, it usually takes many turns of short words
to clean up your rack. Ex: You hold Q, K, and V. But you can only play them off,
one at a time. That means you're sitting stagnant, while your opponent
is possibly bingoing or playing 5-6 letter words and getting tile turnover.
And drawing the good stuff.

Many people keep stats on what power tiles they get and what their opponents get.
Are you also keeping track of "how much you're fighting for your fair share?" Many people
get upset when I ask that question because they think it's all luck. Baloney. Experts
fight very hard for their share of the pie. When you say "You get everything" you really need
to ask instead "did I hold on too stubbornly to difficult letters that it took me many turns
to play off?" That means instead of suffering through
VVGG and finding VIG then VUG, an expert will pass and ask for his share Blanks, E, and S's.
By playing through those combos, the opponent has a better chance to draw Blanks and S's,
and NO CHANCE to draw the ugly letters V and G. Because you're doing them the favor of sheltering
them from those combos. Quit protecting your opponents!

My Rules

I try for 30 pts per move, on average, so If I can only score 20, I might
exchange. Find out your number, depending on your word knowledge and average
game score, and analyze with that in mind.

1. Can I score at least 30 pts, regardless of my leave?
- take the points
- I am so dumb, I once exchanged WWFFOLA when I could have
played WOLF with a well placed W for 36 points.
- So make sure you take the points if they're there. 30 pts,
is almost ALWAYS worth it.

2. If not,
2a. Is there any chance of drawing a bingo, given my leave?
- if not, consider exchanging
2b. If yes, then make your play and keep your "good synergy" leave.
Problem solved.

Note that the rules above permit you to score only 6 pts, if you're leaving
yourself excellent letters. (Called 'fishing' for a bingo). But they don't
permit you to score 6 pts, and leave garbage.

Whether to exchange or not depends on the stage of game too. Early on, good
letters are much more important, because that's when the chances to play bingos happen.
Keeping "mediocre" letters near the endgame, is fine. Keeping them early on,
could be a sin. See below for an example of a mediocre rack.

Also game score makes a difference, because if you're behind you really can't
afford to keep making small plays. The same could be said for when you're ahead -
you can't afford to keep making small plays lest the opponent catches up.
(V and C are useful when you are ahead to block the board and make it difficult
for them to hook bingos onto. You might even exchange to DRAW those letters! hahah.)

There are Ex12, Sx4, and Blankx2. That's 18 / 100 or about 1/5
chance to pull one at random. That means that for a given rack, you expect
1-2 of those. Early on, if I have none, and not many have been seen, I might
exchange just to get them.

Failing that, I'll ask how many of these letters I have. They're the
easiest ones to bingo with (they're in high supply and most flexible together)

There are Ax9, Ex12, Ix9, Nx6, Rx6, Sx4, Tx6, Blank x 2, = 54 tiles.
That means you would expect 3-4 of these tiles in a random rack. If you have
none, that means you might exchange.



- I had this rack fairly early on in a game. And no Blanks or S's had been
yet. I could play GOB, BOG, GOBO, etc but none of the leaves were
promising. The play would score beans, and my subsequent play would
score beans. My chance of drawing into a bingo was very poor.

Holding IG to fish for an ING ending is a monumental waste of time.

I exchanged all 7.


This sounds like a made up example. I saw Laverne Brookes draw
this exact combination at Saturday scrabble recently. I surveyed
many players, most of which were experts, and the concensus was

Keep R. Exchange 6 BLRRRR

The reasoning is that R's are quite valuable (part of ANESTRI),
so keep it. And by holding 5 of 6, you're unlikely to get the dreaded RR combo.
(It's not that bad, but you strive to avoid duplicates)

If I had BLRRxxxx and four other junky consonants, I wouldn't keep even
a single R. You'll probably get another one, or some other combo
of letters. Better to buy a "lottery ticket" with the R's than hold
on to them in that case, since there's more in the bag. But when holding
5 they'll be hard to come by on your next draw. So keep one.

Several people suggested keeping BLR because of their synergy
But keeping a gross imbalance of three consants with NO vowels
is a disaster waiting to happen. Buying two more lotto tickets
to get S's and Blanks's, by exchanging the BL is well worth it.


WU are a "death combo" so I'd be looking to play off one or both.
What I would do here is very complicated and depends on the board
and game situation.

Given those letters early on, I might exchange 7. I have no ANESTRI+Blank letters,
other than N, and it's early. But if I can score well with BOW or MONO or WOMB,
keeping ONU isn't so bad. However, if none of those words play, and I'll be stuck
with W AND U after my play, I would definitely exchange 7. Nothing worth keeping,
I'd rather take the lotto tickets.