Sunday, May 21, 2017

On Switch-Hitting

Glad to be back! It's been a while...this weekend is a big one for Scrabble, with the tremendous Niagara Falls tourney in full swing. I wish I could be there, but, alas, a work conflict kept me home. Don't you just hate it when real life gets in the way of Scrabbling?

Anyway, while most of the articles here are applicable whether you play TWL or Collins, I've been asked to write a piece for a specific audience: TWL players who are looking to try Collins and want to know how best to go about learning the Collins-only words. As I'm sure you know, the tricky thing is to have the useful Collins-only words in your arsenal for Collins games without being confused by them when playing TWL games. I've taken this journey myself - I don't play much TWL these days, but for many years I played in both lexicons regularly, and so I had to come up with strategies for knowing which words I couldn't play in TWL games. I did manage to maintain roughly the same level of play in both lexicons, but it did require a lot of extra effort that I'm rather glad I don't have to expend these days. Though if I had a compelling reason to take up TWL again, I'd have no problem embracing the challenge.

This year's Nationals has a Collins newcomer prize pool, generously arranged by Norman Wei, which might be a good motivator for some of you to give the international game a try. So I'll write here for the perspective of someone aiming to contend for those prizes.

The first thing you need to know is that a little Collins knowledge can take you a long way. Unless you're aiming really high, you don't need more than a small percentage of those crazy Collins words to be able to play well. The TWL words you know are (with a very few exceptions) all valid in Collins. Nor do you have to make any radical changes to your strategy - it's the same game, just with more words. Play smart, but don't play scared, and don't get discouraged if you fall behind early; comebacks happen more in Collins, so if you hang in there and get some good tiles, you might well be able to overcome that early deficit.

The most crucial Collins-only words to know are the same sorts of words that are most useful for TWL: the twos, most of the threes, some useful fours and fives, maybe some high-probability bingos. That's a good thing, because if you restrict your Collins study to the kinds of words you already know well in TWL, it'll be easier to keep the words separate in your brain.

The twos come first in the learning sequence, followed by the threes, just as in TWL. The twos are easy to learn, since there are only 19 of them. There are a few hundred threes, so that'll take a little more time, but don't stress if you're not absolutely perfect on those; just try to get as many as you can.  I'd recommend writing the threes out on a piece of paper, separating them by what letter they start with, and then reading aloud and periodically making up mini-quizzes for yourself from that list - can you name the Collins threes that start with HO, or MA, or V?

But there's something else just as important to learning the short Collins words, if not more important: playing lots of Collins games! It's a common thing for Collins newcomers to miss plays involving words like DI#, OO#, ITA# or OYE#, even if you know those words are legal - this happens because, as a TWL player, you're not trained to see and think of those words as possibilities. So fire up Quackle, or go on ISC, or grab a Collinsy friend, and plan to play a lot of games. Playing quickly, within your limits, is good here too, because it gets your eyeballs on more positions and trains you more thoroughly to see what is possible on a Collins board.

When looking for more words to add to your arsenal after the shorties, consider that hooks are VERY important in Collins. There are a lot of surprising hooks among the short words, like A(NOW)#, E(VET)#, (FEW)S#. You don't need to know them all, but looking at fours that are formed by common hook letters like A, E or S being added to threes will help you avoid nasty surprises (and create some yourself!)

Also, Collins gives you a lot more ways to play through vowel-heavy racks, so you'll want to learn the short words with lots of vowels well. It's not a terribly long list, though a lot of the words are decidedly weird. (Remember, it's EUOI#, not EOUI*. It's of Greek origin, so remember that EUPHORIA is Greek too and, like a number of other words from Greek, starts with EU.)

You shouldn't need very many bingos just yet unless you're planning to dive into Collins more deeply after Nationals. Prioritizing the short stuff is your best plan, but if you want to learn a few bingos and have the time, all the better. For bingos, I would focus on the highest-probability words that do NOT have TWL solutions. Knowing RESIANT# and STARNIE# probably won't help you, because if your rack is AEINRST, you can probably do just as well with one of the zillion TWL bingos available. Knowing EROTISE# or ORNATER# definitely could help you, though. While I usually recommend favoring eights over sevens for long-term bingo skill building, I would reverse that advice here. First, you want to make it easier on yourself because your time for study is limited, and second, it's easier in Collins to make overlapping plays that can take out bingo lines for eights, so you may not have as many opportunities to play eight-letter bingos as you might think.

As for how to keep these words from infecting your TWL game after your Collins adventure, the tried and true method is to use the # symbol (octothorps, hashes, pound signs, whatever you want to call them) for Collins words that aren't valid in TWL. Whenever you write the words, use the # symbols; if you're studying with Zyzzyva or something else, either set the quizzes up to require the symbols or add them mentally (that is, if you're doing an anagram quiz with both TWL and Collins words, make yourself identify which lexicon it is in order to count the question as correct). Though I don't advise doing too many quizzes with mixed TWL and Collins words - studying the Collins words exclusively for now will keep them separated better when you go back to TWL.

A word about the challenge rule, because it's an important difference in the two games. The penalty in Collins games for challenging a valid word isn't a devastating loss of turn - it's just 5 or 10 points added to the opponent's play. But if the word is invalid, the player playing it still loses a turn, as in TWL. This means that you should usually challenge even if you only have a little doubt about the word. And on the flip side, play only words you're very sure of: if you have some doubts about the word you're thinking of playing, you might want to look for a word you know is good instead. Don't just throw something on the board and hope it's valid. (Though if you sense your opponent is hesitant to challenge, and many newcomers to Collins from TWL are, you might be able to get away with a little more.)

Above all, have fun! I remember when I started out in TWL really enjoying the discovery of strange new words - finding out, whoa, cool, I can play JIAO, or IXIA, or FREMD, or CUBEB. They looked bizarre to me at the time, but they're old friends now. (I even know what they mean!) Taking up Collins extended that joyous experience for me even further, and even if you don't go into learning Collins very far, many players find that the extra words open up intriguing possibilities in games. If you find TWL is more your speed, that's okay too - every player appreciates the game a little differently - but if you embrace the Collins challenge and get comfortable with playing it, you might find you really enjoy it.

Happy Scrabbling, however you prefer to Scrabble,


Tuesday, March 7, 2017


A while back, someone asked me if I'd write a post here about studying nines. I do love me some nines, so I'm happy to oblige...

How often are nines playable? Not very often, really. As I understand it, about every 10-15 games or so, a position comes up where a nine-letter (or longer) bingo is both playable and the best play available. And many of those are just eights with a standard S plural or -ED and -ING forms of shorter verbs, which don't require studying nines specifically to know. You could probably win a Nationals or Worlds without playing a single nine-letter bingo, if you did everything else well enough.

The nines do have their uses, though. The ones that are unconventional hooks on eights, like INTERVALE or RELOCATEE, can be used to open up some doors for yourself, particularly when your opponent isn't likely to recognize the threat of the hook. Knowing nines can also give you some elegant extension possibilities, particularly when they hit a triple word square - NON(POETIC), COUCH(ETTE), EX(CHEQUER) and IMIN(AZOLE) are a few of the many I've seen on expert boards. It's rare you'll get to play one, but if you're thinking about those possibilities, that's a sign that you're really engaged in finding your best play - and that's a good habit to cultivate.

In terms of study priority, I'd rank the top couple of thousand nines on par with the medium-low probability eights. Neither category will help you that much, but if you've studied that far into the book, you're already contending with the law of diminishing returns either way. Nines that play through certain two-letter words are a little more useful, and it's a good habit to think of these as part of your board vision, particularly when you have a blank and lots of options - TI is a good one, for example, if you have words ending in -ATION. ER and RE, DE and ED are ripe for having nines played to or through them. (In Collins, CH# allows some beautiful nines every once in a while.) In a lot of situations where a nine-letter bingo is optimal, the nine is a double-double through a two-letter word in a double-double lane, so be attuned to that possibility.

But mostly, learning nines means you're a real word freak! That's not for everyone, I'll grant, but nines as a group of words are really fun to explore if you're into that. And studying them, while they're unlikely to be played, still has some value: they build your anagramming muscles. Remember when I talked about how eights were much tougher than sevens? Adding a ninth letter takes that up another big notch. The nines also contain a lot more compound words and longer word parts, making the anagramming task much more complex - and satisfying, when you solve the puzzles. You do enough of those, and eights start looking EASY. And oh my god, if you ever did get (BA)HUVRIHI down...okay, maybe it's just another bingo. 76 points is 76 points. But if you look at the track records of the very best players, about all of them have a body of work that includes a few sweet long-word finds like SAPROZOIC, SATINWOODS, AUBERGINES or WATERZOOI, and that's not an accident. It's an indicator of the desire these players have to master the whole game, including the furthest edges of the word list.

I do have to warn of a certain disease, though: just because you see a nine doesn't mean it's the best play. Sometimes it's not, and sorry, tournaments don't give out style points, so take the best play and just be happy you saw I(TI)NERANT for fewer points and worse board position than ENTRAIN elsewhere.

What's the best way to think about word practice?

Howdy, folks! Hope all is well in Scrabbleland...a little encouragement today:

Sometimes you'll hear Scrabble players wonder aloud how they could be having a poor run of tournament results after having stepped up their word studying. After all, they say, I know more words now - how am I not winning more? This syndrome is particularly acute after a Nationals or Worlds, since many players are motivated to study up before the biggest tournaments. And it's not surprising: the more effort you put into something, the more confident you become and the higher your expectations go, and it can be jarring when those expectations are not immediately fulfilled.

Some of that is not recognizing the variance in small sample sizes. Even a 31-game Nationals is not a very large sample of games, and there's a lot of luck of the draw in Scrabble as we all know. Sometimes the tile gods decree that it's just not your year, that it's someone else's turn to shine. (Which is okay - it's good to be happy for your friends' successes, too!) And sometimes it's because other parts of your game need more attention - in fact, that's always true; every part of your game needs attention if you want to excel - but someone who's recently been deep in the books can lose sight of their weaknesses in other parts of the game until they get to the Nationals and face a few good opponents who know how to exploit those weaknesses. (If you want to know how to improve those parts of your game, I'd recommend among other things reading the Scrabble Players Handbook, and once you're a little further along, Kenji Matsumoto's wonderful books on strategy.)

But the biggest cause of this feeling, I think, is not recognizing the nature of the process involved in learning Scrabble words. Like a lot of learning endeavors, it's cumulative. Success in Scrabble is all about the long run, and success in learning the words is the same. I started studying Scrabble words in 2002, after reading Word Freak. I studied a lot those first few years; I figured that since there were so many words to learn, no time like the present to start learning them. I am still benefiting today from the practicing I did back then. It's about building a strong foundation, and then building upward and outward from that foundation as you gain the skills needed to encode the information in your mind quicker and more reliably.

This does not mean you will benefit right away - it might take a while. Though you might: thinking back to my first year in Scrabble, my third and fourth tournaments were rather disappointing outings, and I had started to wonder when all the hours of studying I was putting in at the time would start paying off. Then my fifth tournament came, and I got the tiles to play some of those delicious words I'd been learning like LENTISK and SAXATILE and TRAGOPAN. I went 10-1 and gained almost 200 rating points, allowing me to play in division one thereafter, which was my big goal at the time. And I was thrilled, of course. But if that magical weekend in Lampasas, Texas, hadn't happened, it wouldn't have changed the nature of anything - I'd have still reached my destination, just a little slower. The nice thing about learning the words is that it always pays off; it can't not. If you build the ability to find the kind of plays that win games, and you play enough tourneys, know that eventually the wins will come. It just might be sooner, or it might be later.

You might be tempted to ramp up your word practice before a big tournament. This is fine - I do it sometimes, too, as I'm sure many other players do. You want to be able to bring your best game to the table. But especially in a long tournament like Nationals or Worlds, it's important to keep a level head and keep your expectations in check. Focusing on how you're doing in the tournament can distract you from the more important task in front of you when you sit down to play, which is to find the best plays you can with the skills you have, in the time you have. You're not going to play perfectly; no one ever has. But know this: the studying you do may not pay off today, but if you're studying the right things and putting in the time, it will pay off. 

Happy Scrabbling,


Saturday, February 18, 2017

On learning definitions

Long ago, I was playing a tournament game against an opponent who was not a native English speaker. At one point midgame with the score still close, he tried RETIN(G)LE*, which I challenged off right away; I was able to play my own bingo in the same spot and went on to win comfortably. (The real word in those letters, GREENLIT, didn't fit on the board.)

I don't bring this up to mock non-native English speakers, of course. In fact, I have even greater admiration for a player who achieves sufficient word knowledge to play in top divisions without having a base of native language to start with. Such a player has to study harder to overcome that obstacle.

I'm sure most of you who are native English speakers would have challenged off RETINGLE* pretty quickly, too. We know what "tingle" means, and therefore we know that the RE- prefix almost surely doesn't work with "tingle." We may not be able to give a linguistic analysis of why it sounds wrong, but we know it does. But if you don't speak the language and all you know is that "tingle" is a verb and lots of verbs take RE- in front, RETINGLE* isn't an unreasonable guess.

You hear it said sometimes that definitions don't matter in Scrabble. That's correct - the rules of the game do not require you to be able to define the words you play, and for the most part trying to memorize definitions isn't a good use of your limited study time. But there are times when we all rely on our working knowledge of the language to help us out in a game, and knowing what words mean is part of that.

The most useful aspect of knowing what a word means, for Scrabble purposes, is knowing what part of speech it is. If you know PAIK means "to beat or strike," then you know it's a verb and you also know that PAIKED and PAIKING are good. (Not all verbs have regular inflecting forms like this, but most do; you'll just have to learn the exceptions, sorry.) If you know DORMIE means "ahead in golf by as many holes as remain to be played," then you know it almost surely doesn't take an S, and you also know DORMIER* and DORMIEST* are invalid, since there's about no plausible way a word with that meaning could have comparing forms. There are, of course, many tricky exceptions along the way: for example, in common parlance, the word ELFIN is an adjective meaning the same as ELFLIKE, so you'd figure ELFINS is no good, but it is - at least one of the source dictionaries for Scrabble also lists a noun sense for it. English can be a wonderfully ragged mess, and that's part of why it's such a good language for word gaming.

And even beyond knowing the part of speech, knowing what a word means often guarantees you'll be 100 percent sure of it. Knowing definitions never hurts, and now and then it can help. But if the plan isn't to sit around memorizing definitions, what's the way to get some benefit from knowing how certain words operate and what they mean?

When I started learning Scrabble words, the available learning programs did not include the definitions of words. But then Zyzzyva came along, and Zyzzyva has definitions. This was actually a big step forward. I wasn't trying to memorize definitions, but I found that just eyeballing them for a split second when they came on the screen in Zyzzyva got a surprising lot of them into my memory, especially with words I got a lot of repetitions on. The osmosis method, you might say. Since knowing parts of speech is the biggest benefit, sometimes I'd take a second to say to myself when a word came up, that's a verb, or that's an adjective and compares, or that's an interjection that doesn't take S, that kind of thing. Anything that gives your brain more information about a word with minimal added time and effort is good.

So if you can use a study program that provides definitions, I advise you to do so. Most desktop applications for learning words now have definitions, though some mobile apps don't. The only time I would suggest flat-out studying definitions would be learning which three- and four-letter words are not just regular nouns taking S. Even then, you probably don't want to make that too high a priority; for one, studying longer words will often give you -ED and -ING forms that fill in those gaps about as well. (And rote memorization is boring, so you don't want to make yourself do more of that than you really need. You'll study more and learn more if you bore yourself less.)

Exercise: Six good bingo tiles and one multi-point non-bingo tile

Hello again...good to be back after a week off. (I'm a busy guy these days, so I can't guarantee I'll have one of these every week. But most weeks I should be able to.)

Sometimes in a game, you'll have a rack with six tiles that look promising for bingos...but your seventh tile will be far less cooperative. But don't give up too soon! You don't want to be playing off OF or AY for 20 points or something and praying your fish will be successful next turn when you could have played OLEFINE or ELYSIAN for 70.

So I've got an exercise for you today: These seven-letter alphagrams have one solution each. They're all high probability and contain one of BFJKQVWXYZ, and most of them are not common words (so you'll likely be learning words and practicing your anagramming skills at the same time, a useful combination). The ones marked with a # are Collins-only.




















Friday, February 3, 2017

An exercise for turning letters around in your head

Howdy, folks!

This week I have an exercise for you that should get your neurons firing in a useful direction. And it's not something that requires all-encompassing attention, either - it's the sort of thing you might do in idle moments while driving (though please pay attention to the road!), or showering, or waiting in lines. You can do it at a leisurely pace; whatever suits you. Exercises like this train your brain to swim in the ocean of words even during times when you're not explicitly "studying." Remember - every little bit helps!

I'll present a simple version of the exercise here. First, pick a couple of consonants - making at least one of them a mid-point tile (BCFHKMPVWY) is a good start, and I'd avoid S or JQXZ at first. For example, let's choose D and P. Your task is this: without writing anything down or having tiles in front of you to shuffle, try to think of words that include D, P, and any two vowels. Two vowels, two consonants, four-letter words. If you feel unsure of some of your answers, either check them after you're done, if you can, or make a mental note to check them later with a program like Zyzzyva.

What you're doing here, starting with shorter, simpler words, is teaching yourself to turn around groups of letters in your mind. The complete list of fours with a D, a P and two vowels: APED, PADI, PAID, APOD, DOPA, DEEP, PEED, PIED, DOPE, OPED, DUPE, POOD, UPDO (and DOUP#, if you're Collins), PUDU. Notice that the D, the P, and the vowels can appear in many different sequences in the words. To find all of these, notice what you have to do - in your mind, you have to evaluate DP plus these vowel combos: AA, AE, AI, AO, AU, EE, EI, EO, EU, II, IO, IU, OO, OU, UU. But four letters isn't very many to juggle in your mind, so you can move quickly. And while you'll still have to examine each combination for at least a few seconds, your intuitive familiarity with English will help inform you that, for example, DP plus EE is much more likely to yield words than DP plus IU is. Through this exercise, that native intuition will be honed even further, and you'll solidify the studying you've already done. (Also, the ability to anagram without tiles or writing allows you to study much faster, covering more words and getting more practice on the troublesome ones.)

You may be wondering why I stipulated above that you should do this exercise entirely in your head - that is, no writing things down or having tiles in front of you. There are two reasons: first, doing the exercise in your head frees you to practice your skills even in situations where you don't have tiles or writing materials at hand. But second and more important, anagramming in your head is an important Scrabble skill. As I said in a recent post, the less time you have to expend on finding words, the more time you have left over to consider the strategic implications of your plays, and because the strategic elements of the game often require deeper, more multidimensional thought, it's better to be able to devote your clock time to that purpose than to finding words and plays. And being able to shift around letters in your head feeds into your skill at visualizing plays on the board, too - finding the best play can require seeing complex overlaps or finding plays through disconnected letters on the board. These are the kinds of plays that experts often see without even thinking very hard, because the process of mentally turning around letters has become so ingrained. If you want to excel at Scrabble, you should look to make these skills second nature for yourself.

By doing this exercise with various letter combinations, you're building your feel for the structures of the words, and systematizing that ability means that you can call on it during games to help you. Even better, the act of cycling mentally through letters and combinations of letters can help you in other ways: for example, when you have a blank on your rack, you want to be able to go confidently and quickly through the alphabet, imagining the blank as every different letter of the alphabet and being able to find what the blank allows you to play. Rehearsing the act of mental cycling makes that process feel natural, over time, and this skill will serve you well whether you're considering bingos with a blank (a good spot to be in!) or just finding the best shorter word you can play in an important or high-scoring spot on the board. You want to get your Scrabble brain into that cycling habit, and little informal exercises like this help cultivate that habit.

If you're advanced enough in your word practice that two consonants and two vowels is feeling easy, there are any number of ways to make this exercise tougher. Add a third consonant, or require a third vowel, and try to find five-letter words, or if you're feeling particularly masochistic, add a blank tile that could be either consonant or vowel to your puzzle. Or require the consonants to be in a certain order, or...well, any other rule you want to impose. There's a variant I like to play during my long commute to work sometimes: most license plates in my part of the world have consonant-heavy letter strings. I'll take a string from a neighboring car I see and try to think of all the words with those letters plus any number of vowels, or if it's a particularly clunky set of consonants like GJW, I'll allow a blank or extra consonants into the solution. (There are ten 6-8 letter words containing GJW - can you think of some of them?) Customize the game however you like - the point is to create the habit of rearranging letters in your mind.

Happy Scrabbling,


Thursday, January 26, 2017

Using the wrong answer to lead you to the right answer

Howdy folks...

You'll remember I mentioned the last time that saying words aloud or to yourself, particularly ones you miss in practice, can help reinforce what you've learned. Today I'll talk about a specific way to apply that technique to help you reach correct solutions faster and more reliably. It's especially useful for words that don't follow the most common prefix and suffix patterns.

Practicing solving an anagram is really practicing a path to the solution. The first time you see AGIMNOST, maybe you think of trying -ING words first, then -INGS, then MIS- or -ISM or -IST words, and so on. Those are all false paths in this case, and you'll probably give up before thinking of trying ANTI- words. The first thing you saw was probably something like MOATINGS* or SOMATING*, and either you entered one of those as an incorrect guess or you correctly ruled them out but did not find the real answer.

You've missed the question, and the solution is revealed: ANTISMOG. I can solve this one reliably now, but when I was first studying it, I would always see MOATINGS* and either I'd think it was good and try it or I'd go down a number of other blind alleys and give up. What I needed was a way to be able to jump from my instinctive wrong answer (MOATINGS*) directly to the right one (ANTISMOG). So I would say "MOATINGS* is ANTISMOG, MOATINGS* is ANTISMOG" to myself every time I missed it (or even the first few times I happened to get it right, until I knew it well enough that I didn't need to). Whenever I see those letters now, I still see MOATINGS* first, but that sentence I said to myself long ago is ingrained enough that I instantly know it's ANTISMOG without having to try anything else. I don't always use this technique, but it's nice to have in the tool box.

So that's the principle for today: For anagrams you have trouble with, try to create a link in your mind between the wrong answer you tend to see first and the solution.

I will warn you that there is a hazard to this method, and I've been bitten by it a couple of times. You have to be careful that you don't start thinking of your wrong guess as an actual legal word. I played OVERBIND* in a game a long time ago, thinking, oh yeah, that sounds familiar to me, I think that's good. Shortly after I hit my clock I realized, whoops, no, OVERBIND* is OVENBIRD. Fortunately my opponent didn't challenge. This isn't usually a problem, but it's something to watch out for - when you see a word during a game, spend a moment to make sure it's a real word and not just a reminder for a different real word.