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,