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Learning Scrabble with Gerry Carter

Learning Scrabble with Gerry Carter – About Stems

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The word “stem” is often used by Scrabble players in reference to learning Scrabble vocabulary. But what are stems and how can they help to enhance your word knowledge and give you the edge in a game of Scrabble? Gerry Carter explains.

Merely Learning Short Words Doesn’t Help in Scrabble

An article in a famous online newspaper not dedicated to Scrabble aroused interest earlier this year when it seemed to claim that the secret of Scrabble success is based more on short words than those of seven and eight letters. They suggested that the be-all and end-all of Scrabble is knowing XU, DZO, QAT and JOW. While it is true that short words are very important, especially when balancing racks, it is the ability to find the longer words that is so important and where the use of stems comes in handy. The article suggested that 2015 World Scrabble Champion Wellington Jighere and his Nigerian compatriots had somehow found a magic formula and a “secret” cache of words. This is absolute nonsense.

Most top Scrabble players have known about the basics of Scrabble strategy for decades. There are very few secrets and not too much difficulty in mastering them, though it may take some time and a lot of hard work. Essentially any beginner who puts their mind to it can do it. It is the shortcuts to success that are really the secrets – but don’t forget they need to be combined with hard work too! If Scrabble were easy everyone could do it – it is a challenge, remember that! For real Scrabble success you need to know more “bingos” – seven- and eight-letter words.

Basic Scrabble strategy involves using shorter words to help rid the racks of heavy consonants, paving the way for common bingos or bonuses using one- and two-point letters to be played. These are the ones that score 50 extra points of course. While this is a generalization of Scrabble strategy, it is not too far from the mark and is a good starting point. As is the study of stems.

How Scrabble Stems Grow into Beautiful Flowers

Stems are essentially a way of making it easier to study and accumulate the seven- and eight-letter words that score high and constitute an expert Scrabble play strategy. Any beginner should start by studying the most common six-letter stems.

When I first started appreciating what Scrabble was about I wrote hundreds of six-letter stems out by hand in grids, combining them with the different letters of the alphabet to make a seven-letter word. These days there are all sorts of online devices to make that quicker and easier – an online program like Zyzzyva, for example. I would test myself with the stem and the letter needed to make it seven and try to work out the word that was the answer. If I didn’t get the answer I would make a note and come back to it later. After a time I would do the exercise by NOT reminding myself which letters of the alphabet combined to make a seven. This helped to simulate more the thinking in a real game situation when you don’t have clues. The constant practice – and I used to do this ten hours a day when I was first learning – engrained the stems and the answers in my mind. Learning the pesky short words is easy by comparison, but as I said it is the longer words that set the masters apart from the wannabes.
You don’t need to do ten hours a day, by the way, just half an hour and the benefits will start to manifest in more victories. In the end after sufficient practice, the stems fade into the background – the patterns of Scrabble take over. It becomes apparent that the same combinations occur again and again. You will get very familiar with them.

One-Point Letter Stems< h2>

The most useful six-letter stems have mostly been calculated by computers based on probability. The first G appears at number 17 on the list and the first D at number 19. These are one-point letter stems at the start of the probability list.

Here are the top ten. You may give them any name you wish, but do remember that some are not words in and of themselves. On my list I have marked items that are not a word with an asterisk. You may decide to alphabetize them as some players do. So RETINA becomes AEINRT and so on.


Number one on the list, RETINA, combines with every letter of the alphabet except AQX and Z. This in itself is a good thing to remember as it can save you time looking for things that are not there. So if you were to study like me you would write out the other 22 letters of the alphabet and try and find a word.
If you failed, use software like Zarf, Zyzzyva or the Scrabble Helper here on word-grabber to find out what you missed. Try and find all 70 words that use this stem, then move onto the next stem and so on.

Even a mastery of the first few dozen stems will give you a strong advantage over the player who doesn’t know this particular secret. There will be many common words as well as “Scrabble words” – those that are jargon – but you need to know them all – so persevere, ok! If you can master hundreds of stems, you will be on your way to giving Wellington a run for his money! The top experts have many “down pat” and even intermediate players are familiar with the 1000 or so bingos that are most likely to occur based on the best stems.

Remember to revisit the stems regularly and not to always study them by giving yourself the letter clues. At one point just think RETINA 70 and find them all if you can. Because much of the vocabulary is repeated in subsequent stems, there is good scope for revision in learning stems. Soon enough, words like INERTIA ANESTRI and OTARINE that are fundamental to the game will just jump out at you both in study and during games. Look out for subsequent articles using seven-letter stems to find eight-letter words.

Happy studying and good luck!
Gerry Carter

More about Playing Scrabble

What`s your opinion about Scrabble stems? Let us know and comment below or on Facebook!
Do you want to learn more about tactical improvement in Scrabble? Just take a look at our other articles about tactical considerations for Scrabble and learn the short and long words with our Scrabble Helper!

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I have been playing Scrabble competitively for 25 years; throughout the world using both the TWL and Collins lexicons. I`m an extensive writer on the game both in terms of news and features. I play for Thailand internationally and live in Bangkok since 1985. I was the 1998 Champion of Asia and the Pacific and I am currently writing a book about the quirky life of international Scrabble players featuring a broad spectrum of views about the world's favorite word game.

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