Four Great Games Compared: Chess, Go, Scrabble and Bridge

I love to play games, especially games of strategy. I’m not all that good at any of them, but I enjoy them. Four of the great ones are chess, go, Scrabble and bridge.

Introduction to chess, go, Scrabble and bridge

Chess is probably familiar to most people reading this. It is a stylized version of war, played by two people. Each side gets a king, queen, two rooks, two knights, two bishops and eight pawns. Chess pieces move according to precise rules and you win a game of chess if the opponent’s king is attacked and cannot escape or be protected.

Go is of Chinese origin. It is played on a board of 19×19 intersecting lines. There is only one type of piece, called a stone, and each side gets an essentially unlimited number. The two sides alternate placing stones on intersections of lines. Stones do not move, although they can be captured. As the board fills, each side surrounds territory. A game of go ends when both sides pass, and whoever surrounds the most territory wins.

Scrabble was invented by Alfred Butts in 1948. It can be played by any number of people, although tournament Scrabble is always played by two sides. It is a word game. There is a bag of 100 letters, in roughly the same proportion as English letters – e.g. there are 12 E’s but only 1 X. Rarer letters are worth more points. In Scrabble, each side picks 7 tiles, and then alternates placing the letters on the board to form words. Different squares of the board can double or triple the value of a word or a letter, and if you use all 7 letters in your rack you get an extra 50 points. The game ends when both sides pass, and whoever has the most points wins.

Bridge is a card game for four players, playing as two teams. Each player gets 13 cards from a standard deck. A bridge game is divided into bidding and play. In the bidding, there is an auction to decide who gets to play the hand and what the trump suit will be (the trump suit will have special powers in the play). The play is a trick taking competition, similar to other card games. However, the rules of bridge are quite complex.

Origins and brief history of chess, go, Scrabble and bridge

Chess and go are ancient games, Scrabble and bridge are modern games.

Chess originated in India, and evolved there and in Europe. Today, it is played all over the world; for much of the 20th century, many of the best players were from Russia, but today the best chess players come from all over the world.

Go originated in China. Today, it is played all over the world, but is most popular in Japan, China and Korea. It is also popular in many math departments in the world.

Scrabble was invented in the United States. It is played casually mainly in English speaking countries. Although there are translated versions of Scrabble, the English version predominates. Most of the top players are from English speaking countries, but some are not. There are even some top players who do not speak English fluently.

Bridge evolved from whist. It is played all over the world. Players from different countries tend to have different bidding systems, but all can compete against each other. Top players are mainly but not entirely from the “west”.

Depth and complexity of chess, go, Scrabble and bridge

In terms of complexity of rules, go is simplest, followed by Scrabble, then chess and then bridge. You can learn the rules of go or Scrabble in a few minutes; of chess in a few hours. Bridge is more complex, and the rules are usually introduced to new players in a gradual fashion.

Assessing depth of strategy is more difficult, but all four of these games are very strategic. Some people would think that go is the deepest, chess next, then bridge and then Scrabble, but it is easy to argue for other rankings. One way to compare is to look at computer skill: The best computer chess programs are better than the best humans; the best computer Scrabble players are about even with the best humans; but the best computer bridge and go programs are not in the same class with the best humans.

Getting good at chess, go, Scrabble and bridge

All four of these games repay study.

Chess study can be divided into the opening, middle game and endgame. All three phases have large literatures in English, and many computer programs devoted to them as well. Good chess players will have many openings memorized and will have a feel for the middle game.

Go has a much smaller literature in English, although it has a huge literature in Japanese. Getting good at go, more than the other games, seems to come in sudden spurts. Your first few games of go will be very confusing. Then you suddenly grasp a bunch of stuff and make a leap.

Getting good at Scrabble involves two broad classes of tasks: Word knowledge and strategy/tactics. The best Scrabble players have a huge number of words memorized. Intermediate players will have memorized all the 2 and 3 letter words, and some of the most common 7 and 8 letter words. Most casual players are probably unaware of the depth of strategy in Scrabble – it involves rack management (you want to keep certain letters, and a balance of consonant and vowels) and board management (if you are way ahead, you want to close the board, so there are fewer point scoring opportunities; if you are way behind, just the reverse).

Bridge, like chess, has a huge literature in English. Getting good at bridge, however, involves working with a partner as well as alone. It also involves three very different parts of the game: The bidding, play, and defense.


Chess, go, Scrabble and bridge are all great games that can be enjoyed at many levels.

Sources and more information:

I relied mostly on information I have learned over the years from many sources; I am solely responsible for errors. For more information on these games in the United States, see

National Scrabble Association
United States Chess Federation
American Contract Bridge League
American Go Association

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