Thursday, January 19, 2017

On Anagramming Speed

Let's say you're fairly new to the game and you've been practicing anagramming Scrabble words for a little while. You're at a tournament, and after the first day's games are done, you go out to dinner with a large group of Scrabblers, including a few expert players. At some point in the pleasant evening, one of your fellow diners throws out an anagram puzzle or two for the table, and you're wowed by how quickly certain players can get the answers. You're able to solve most of the anagrams you've studied when you practice at home, if you stick with them long enough to find the solutions, but you can't imagine being able to flip the letters around in your mind so fast that you can reliably solve thorny anagrams in just a few seconds.

Most of that is no secret: like anything else, there's no substitute for putting the practice time in. But you absolutely can tailor your practice in ways that will help develop your solving speed. Which leads me to another of Geoff's Scrabble word learning principles: To learn to find words fast, study fast.

Why is speed essential, besides the mild pleasures of impressing your Scrabbling friends at the dinner table? Well, it's clear that anagramming speed can help you in live games. Scrabble isn't just a game of words or anagramming - it's a game of decisions, and the better decisions you make, the more often you'll win, over time. Each of your turns has two components: first, you're trying to find some good possible plays you can make, and second, you're trying to make the best choice from the ones you find, considering all the relevant factors in the game at the time. If you can find good candidate plays quickly and reliably, it means you'll have more time left to consider which of your candidates is best to play - and that's a much better use of your time. You don't want to find yourself having to figure out a complex pre-endgame with 90 seconds left on your clock because it took you four minutes to find your bingo back on turn six.

Why does studying fast lead to anagramming fast? The main reason is that there are a whole lot of words to learn in Scrabble, as I'm sure you've noticed. And if you go fast, you'll get your eyeballs on a lot more words - and even better, you'll get practice on words with all different kinds of structures: common prefixes and suffixes, less common prefixes and suffixes, compounds, plurals of shorter words, oddball variant spellings, unclassifiable foreign-looking words, etc. Your brain starts to absorb how these word parts tend to work, and over time you'll notice you're arriving at solutions quicker as a result, even on words you haven't practiced much before. That's your anagramming muscles being built! Also, when you're working at a good pace, you're conditioning your brain to focus more intensely - and believe me, over time your brain will get used to this demand and it will feel normal. And when THAT happens, you can reliably find words even faster.

Also, remember what I said earlier about getting into a rhythm when studying and avoiding frustration? Nothing is more frustrating in word practice than staring at a set of letters for two minutes straight and not finding anything. (It's not much fun in games, either.) Don't let yourself get to that point - it's better to mark an anagram as missed and move on if you flat don't know it or can't find it after a short time. (It might also help you to write down or say aloud to yourself the words missed. Anything to get it in your brain a little better for next time.)

If you go fast, yes, it means you'll miss more words in practice. Your solving percentages might not look so pretty. But that's okay, because the fact that you're going fast means you can get more repetitions on those words. Every time you see a solution to an anagram, even if you didn't solve it successfully, builds up a little more awareness of the word in your brain. Repetitions are especially good (and needed) for obscure words or words with unusual patterns. What looks like anagramming is really a combination of anagramming and memory, so any little thing you can do to expose more words more often to your memory will help.


So how fast should you go? If you're not that experienced, I'd recommend allowing about 15-20 seconds maximum to solve an anagram, and as you get better at solving anagrams, you should reduce that time gradually. You can allow more time as needed if there are multiple solutions to a question or if you expect the words you're practicing to be unfamiliar or difficult - if you think you've almost got it by the time limit, sure, go a few seconds longer and complete your attempt. You can use the timer feature in Zyzzyva or some other timer, though it doesn't have to be quite that structured; I usually just estimate it. If I'm not getting a particular anagram after what feels like my usual allotted time, then I don't really have it down that well, and I need to put it back in the "need to practice" pile (cardbox 0, if you're cardboxing). There's no shame in that; it's why you practice!

This is also an excellent reason to use Aerolith (, Word Walls). While relying *only* on Aerolith for your word practice has its drawbacks, as mentioned in an earlier post here, racing to solve the anagrams on an Aerolith board is the best way to develop sheer anagramming speed there is. Highly recommended.

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