Saturday, May 21, 2016

Analytics: Short words are better in Scrabble

Nigeria is beating the West at its own word game, using a strategy that sounds like Scrabble sacrilege.

By relentlessly studying short words, this country of 500 languages has risen to dominate English’s top lexical contest. ...

Once, almost all of Scrabble’s champions hailed from North America or Europe. Most stuck to a similar “long word” strategy—mastering thousands of seven- and eight-letter plays like QUIXOTRY, a 365-point-move in American Michael Cresta’s record-breaking 830 point win in 2006. ...

Global competition and computer analytics have brought that sacred Scrabble shibboleth into question, exposing the hidden risks of big words.

Risk one: Every extra letter on the board is another opening for an opponent to land their own seven-letter blockbuster.

Risk two: Every letter played gets replaced by a random tile from the bag. A bad draw can—and often does—leave players stuck for several turns without vowels or decent letter combinations. After millions of computer-simulated games, Scrabble strategists have concluded that bad draws happen more frequently than previously assumed.

So while Scrabblers still fancy bingos, they increasingly hold off on other high-scoring moves, such as six-letter words, or seven-letter terms that only use six tiles from the rack. Instead, by spelling four- or five-letter words, a player can keep their most useful tiles—like E-D or I-N-G—for the next round, a strategy called rack management. ...

Also, thanks to a design quirk, the board is oddly generous to short words. Most of the bonus squares are just four or five letters apart. ...

Nigeria’s Scrabble ambitions date to the 1990s, when several local fans convinced the dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha to make the game an official sport, a designation that brings funding. Nigeria was ostracized from the world then. Scrabble offered one area where the country could redeem its image abroad.

Nowadays, the country of 187 million stages daylong tournaments in stadiums on an almost weekly basis, often with small prizes on the line. Dozens of Scrabble clubs scout high schools for talent, sometimes poaching players. Several of Nigeria’s 36 states have a Scrabble coach on the payrolls.

Of them, Prince Anthony Ikolo was the first to glimpse the potential of the shorter-word strategy. In the late 2000s, the university mathematician had two apps—Quackle and Maven—that let him simulate tens of thousands of possible game scenarios that would result from a given move. The data showed how often a long word would leave the player vulnerable to a counterstrike or a series of bad draws.
--Drew Hinshaw and Joe Parkinson, WSJ, on less being more. HT: Jeff Mosenkis. I also noticed for the first time that the WSJ has fully succumbed to the singular "their."