If it's with someone who is ESL with limited vocabulary and never played Scrabble before with you being a native speaker who played Scrabble lots.

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    It seems like the real issue here is making the game actually enjoyable for them, not just providing a handicap to even the odds! (And whatever you do in terms of actual gameplay/scoring, you probably want to avoid challenges - maybe just let them challenge you for free, and let them look things up if they're not sure.)
    – Cascabel
    Commented Oct 12, 2013 at 5:49
  • Can you be more specific about "limited vocabulary?" That could mean a huge range of things. And you've played a lot, but how good are you? How many points do you typically score in a game?
    – Cascabel
    Commented Oct 12, 2013 at 23:05

6 Answers 6


I play Scrabble with kids all the time, I think the same concepts would work nicely with an ESL opponent. To me handicapping by points (opponent starts with 150 or 200 points or whatever) does nothing to make the game more fun for either player. What does work is allowing my young opponent all the time they need for each turn - I get timed. They get all of the good cheat sheets - I don't (that one is fair even even if I'm playing an adult native English speaker with less Scrabble experience). And if the gap is really big - especially if Scrabble is being used as an educational tool - allowing my opponent timed use of the dictionary or OSPD while figuring their play. For the last one, consider limiting the time the opponent gets to use the dictionary more and more as the gap narrows.

BTW, using timing the stronger player as a handicap only works if that player draws tiles at the beginning of their turn instead of the end of their last one.

  • I like that last bit - I will use it myself. Perhaps a combination of timing and points would make a better handicap system than either alone. Commented Dec 9, 2013 at 3:19
  • @PieterGeerkens Do you mean "that last bit" as in the BTW concerning timing the turn, or was it the allowing timed dictionary use that you liked? For what it's worth, I have found allowing dictionary time to be the most fun. Educational too. Commented Dec 9, 2013 at 12:23
  • Allowing them to use the dictionary also helps them build English vocabulary, giving them benefit beyond the game as well
    – Zags
    Commented Oct 26, 2018 at 14:16

Start at 200 points. (To make sure they win the first game.) Every game they win, until you win, subtract 10 points from the handicap. After you win once, reduce handicap by 5 pts every time they win 3 (or 2, decide with your opponent) times running.

Hidden assumption - Opponent is a competitive Type-A personality who really wants to improve their vocabulary, and is also doing crosswords a few times a week.

  • Yikes, that could take a really long time to settle, especially if you manage to get lucky and win a single time before you're close to the actual handicap. (Unless the OP is really good at Scrabble, or the other player has a really limited vocabulary.) Why not just guess a handicap to start with and after each game, replace it with the average of the score differences from the previous games?
    – Cascabel
    Commented Oct 12, 2013 at 22:59
  • Really more of a general question- how to estimate a Scrabble handicap Commented Oct 12, 2013 at 23:07
  • @Jefromi: I give my 18 year old son a 70 point handicap, ad my 16 year old daughter a 100 point handicap, and their native language is English. We have tight games that usually go down to the wire. Maybe 150 is a better starting point than 200, but for an ESL opponent coming up with the survival two-letter words on a bad rack will be really challenging. P.S. OP says he is really good at Scrabble - without evidence to the contrary, I must believe him. Commented Oct 13, 2013 at 1:48
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    @user2617804: You don't estimate it. You over-estimate it, and then measure the over-estimation. Commented Oct 13, 2013 at 1:54
  • @PieterGeerkens Well, he said he plays a lot, not that he's really good; people by that description could easily range from 250 to 450 point games. In any case, whatever the starting point, it still seems like a method that will always take more games than necessary to settle on a handicap, and at the same time can even overshoot, because it's not making use of all the information you get from every game.
    – Cascabel
    Commented Oct 13, 2013 at 6:27
  1. Give them more Tiles. I think this helps expand what they can do rather then just artificially boosting the score. And the goal of games is engagement not winning. (I know competitive people want to win, but games are about engagement)
  2. Let them pick their tiles at the END of their turn (so they get to look at them longer). Everyone else picks at the start of their turn. Gives them a little time advantage.
  3. They get credit for a BINGO if they use just 7 Tiles.
  4. Give them BINGO +1 credit for each tile beyond BINGO they use.
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    If they're getting more tiles, I guess you probably want to give them credit for a bingo for 7 tiles still (as opposed to all their tiles) so that you don't make that even harder.
    – Cascabel
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 1:55
  • I like these too! +1 Commented Feb 20, 2016 at 8:19
  • A potential issue with giving them more tiles is that the number of potential plays expands exponentially with each additional tile. More options, especially for someone not good at English can cause decision paralysis, delaying the game and giving them a worse experience.
    – Zags
    Commented Oct 26, 2018 at 14:14

As others have mentioned, it's not merely a question of strategy and expertise - English spelling rules being what they are, your typical ESL player is probably going to take a lot of penalties for challenged words if you play strictly by the rules. I would think you'd want to not only give them a numeric handicap, but maybe soften up the rules on challenges a bit. Perhaps a successful challenge just means they need to try again with a different word, rather than making them lose their turn.

Similarly, the biggest difference between novice and intermediate Scrabble players is probably knowing the list of 2-letter English words. I have seen people play Scrabble with a little cheat-sheet of the two letter words as a way to level the playing field.

  • Along with that, it's probably fair to let them look up every single word you play if they want.
    – Cascabel
    Commented Dec 12, 2013 at 7:31

In certain games like golf, the handicap is set by "experience".

That is, each player will know their scoring history and compare them. The weaker player wins if s/he can beat the "spread" suggested by these histories. That may be the best way to compare and "handicap" two players of very disparate backgrounds.


Scoring will be frustrating for one player or another. If the handicap is too harsh, the native speaker will have a hard time; if the rules are too lenient, the ESL player will be frustrated... The best solution would be to play Scrabble just for fun. If you want to play competitively, Scrabble isn't the right game.

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