Blog Master G

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Science of Scrabble

Friday, April 16th, 2004 · No Comments

Last night Jen and I joined other local word enthusiasts to hear Gary Moss, Scrabble pro, talk about tournament play. It was really interesting. The talk was a precursor to the tournament being held here this weekend.

I come from a family of writers and word afficionados, so Scrabble is in my blood. I love the game. Jen and I play from time to time, and before we moved to the East Coast, we used to get smoked regularly by my Dad.

What I found most intriguing — and, in a way, disappointing — is that competitive Scrabble play is all about memorization, patterns, and, believe it or not, mathematics. When you think about it, this makes sense.

There are 100 letters in a game of Scrabble and each letter occurs X number of times. If you can calculate the probability that each letter appears — and ultimately, word combinations — then you can begin to combine that with the words you’ve memorized from the 150,000 or so in the Official Scrabble Word List. And that’s exactly what tournament players do: Memorize words.

In fact, we learned, some of the best players in the world are scientists who speak little or no English. We heard one story from Gary about one guy whose living room is filled wall to wall with filing cabinets of words. Playing this guy every Tuesday for seven years, Gary only beat him once.

The high-score record in tournament play is about 770, if I remember correctly. The same guy who set this record broke his own record with 800-something, not in tournament play. Realize, too, that an official tournament game of Scrabble is only 25 minutes.

At the end of the talk, Gary challenged audience members to three simultaneous games. Jen and I teamed up in one of those games. Surprisingly, we were ahead most of the game, but Gary pulled ahead at the end to beat us 320-280.

Finding out that competitive Scrabble is more about memorization than the language and knowing the definitions of words almost takes away from it — or at least offers a different way to look at it. “It’s less romantic,” as Jen put it. I agree.

We’ll stick to challenging each other on word definitions and taking our time when we play. And stick simply to being impressed by those who can memorize words like zaratite and all the other word combinations and point values that those letters will give you.

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