Thursday, December 29, 2016

Learning fours, fives and sixes

Today we'll talk about how to learn four-, five- and six-letter words.

If you read conversations about Scrabble, you may encounter the term "playability." I think of playability as an estimate that tries to answer this question: "How much would it hurt not to know this word?" For example, QI has the highest playability of any word, because there are so many game situations where playing QI is both possible and a good idea. Not having QI would really hold you back, wouldn't it? On the other hand, not knowing COBWEBBY (extremely low playability) is very unlikely to cost you anything, since it's so rare that COBWEBBY is even an option.

Zyzzyva allows you to order and filter lists of words by playability, so you can use that to ensure that you're learning the most important words first. I don't necessarily advise using playability to learn bingos, but for fours, fives, and sixes, it's great. The high-playability fours and fives - and sixes, though it's rarer that you'll get to play those - tend to accomplish one of two things: they either allow you to score very well with a high-point tile or two, or they allow you to clean up imbalances or difficult combinations on your rack. (Sometimes both!)

I'll post some high-playability lists here soon. You'll see that most of them fall into a few basic categories: words with J, Q, X or Z, words with a lot of vowels, or words that allow you to play off a clunky letter or two.

A good first learning goal might be something like this: the top 500 fours (by playability), the top 200 fives, and the top 50 sixes. When you're feeling reasonably comfortable with those, continue with a similar ratio; after a while you can add higher percentages of fives and sixes if you like. I don't think it's a good idea to restrict yourself to learning every last four in the word list before you start on fives, or every five before you start on sixes. Just make sure you start at the top of the playability list for each length.

As for how to learn them, everyone's approach is a little different, but I can tell you what worked for me. First, I typed out every word from the list that I didn't know or wouldn't have been sure of, with maybe 3-7 words each line (trying to keep the easy to remember strings of words together), forming larger chunks of 30-40 words. When I had the chunks of words ready, I then practiced typing them out from memory until I had them down pretty well. Once I had the words mostly memorized, I switched to a study program (LeXpert back then, the precursor of Zyzzyva) and practiced unscrambling the words to make sure I could think of and unscramble them reliably.

The process above takes a fair amount of time, and not everyone does it that way: a lot of players who know the mid-length words well got there just by going straight to Zyzzyva or wherever and anagramming them a whole lot, the way I typically would for bingos. I'm glad I took the approach I did, though, particularly for the fours. That's because solving a four-letter anagram is usually very easy - for a lot of them, only one, or a few, combinations might make any sense - so what can happen sometimes is that you can guess the word from its anagram right when you know there's a word in there, but you're not really sure the word is good if you get those letters in a real game, where you don't know if there's a word in there or not. Because I'd done that memorizing, I had another good way to figure out whether the word I was thinking of playing was valid - I could mentally go through the list. And for fours in particular, that's really important, because seasoned Scrabble opponents tend to know most of them and rarely let phony fours go unchallenged.

Even if you don't have time or inclination to do that much rote memorizing - the least fun part of word learning, I agree - it's probably a good idea to do the part where you write out the words you don't already know, at least once or twice, just because writing them down helps cement them in your brain just that much more.

Happy Scrabbling,


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