If one takes a glance at international tourney results around the world, especially in the past year, it’s not difficult to notice that only a handful of people perform very consistently at the top (and by top I mean top 3). I’m sure some of my readers would be pretty decent players themselves, so it’s not uncommon to think “Gee, I’m not that bad, why’s it that I’m not doing as well as they do? Are they really that lucky?”.
My answer for you is: Maybe, but it’s really unlikely that anyone is lucky all the time. And, in tourneys where top games are annotated, it can be seen that good players do draw bad racks at times. They are also more than 2 bingos behind in certain games (and, against all expectations, they win some of these games).
So what else could it be? Most people do feel a difference when they play top class players, compared to playing players they feel very confident beating. Could it then be that there is an abnormal “fear” of these top players, causing the affected player to play suboptimally? Well, for one, it certainly doesn’t always work this way – some players will subconsciously play better, some will do worse, so it can’t be a blanket case that everyone will be negatively affected. Another reason why this can’t be the sole factor is because Scrabble players who are experienced enough won’t be that impacted, so any difference made can only be minimal and unimportant.
I think, though, that the main reason must lie in their gameplay. The “top” players are noticeably more consistent than other “good” players, in both making winning plays and winning games. Here’s what I think are 5 defining strategic traits of the top flight players.
1. Sensitivity to opponent’s move
This is one important trait that makes players possibly better than Quackle. Although Quackle is brilliant at analysing moves based on what’s left in the bag, it does not know about analysing moves based on what move your opponent just made. If your opponent does a 2-tile 22 pointer in a wide open board, there should only be one thing going through your mind – he wants to bingo next turn. So it would perhaps be unwise to expose more lanes at that time…
Of course, this is an extremely simplistic example; but in less obvious cases, top players are still able to remain sensitive about their opponent’s moves, and hence improve their own play. By saying that, I mean things like “he played this, so he shouldn’t have this on his leave”, which many of us usually leave out.
There are many cases where one is stuck with a number of choices. Often, the main difference between the choices is turnover, with a average bag (i.e. not fantastically good or terribly cluttered). Leave-wise, the choices are similar, with one keeping niceish tiles (or even nice tiles) and the other keeping 1 or 2 synergistic tiles. If one is behind by, say, more than a bingo, he would be tempted to play the move with less turnover for more security, especially with a decent leave.
This is a good example, though it isn’t exactly what I just described. Pakorn’s 6 tile “leap of faith” left him 17 points behind and gave Nigel a lot of space to close down the board (which he did rather elegantly with SAPID). However this confidence in the bag resulted in his fabulous BOTAN(I)CA next move, and subsequently his 2009 win at the WSC. (There are more examples of daringness, definitely: for instance players not blocking a spot and instead playing elsewhere despite obvious danger, or “taking the points” and opening triple word spots, without knowing what the opponent might play there)
3. Word knowledge
Well, this is bound to come up in a discussion about why some players are better than others – top players don’t only know the words, but can spot them well. I had a real problem spotting some bingos during the King’s Cup Final Game 1, though admittedly I didn’t know some of them. I might have seen them in a game, but then again maybe not…
4. Excellent move-by-move forecasting
Why’s a move better than another move? No, not always because it scores more or has a better leave. This is how (I think) the strategically strong players think for some difficult moves: your opponent might play here after that, and you will have this to play; or your opponent should play here, then you’d be stuck, so you’d better not play this move.
And it’s still not that simple. If you’re behind by a lot, thinking about a move becomes a whole lot more complex – top players will try to find a way to keep the board open for multiple catchup opportunities, and that brings an entire new dimension to the thinking.
5. Time management
No, I’m not saying that Pakorn manages his actual time on the clock very well, but the point must be made that the best players spend time on the right purposes, seeing the moves faster and spending the bulk of the time on strategy (well you can say Nigel doesn’t fall into this category, but he manages his time well enough to put time pressure on the opponent anyway, which is a good characteristic). As of now, I can find most single-choice bingos on the board pretty quickly, but I struggle to find the best move when there are many bingo choices with a blank. By wasting so much time on finding the moves in the first place, I severely limit my thinking time for strategy.
On the other hand, very strong players spend time on the right moves, and don’t just use it to find possible plays. Pakorn, for instance, can give me very lengthy explanations for his choices on what I initially think of as not-too-difficult moves, and usually considers a wide spectrum of moves before deciding on his choice.
Is there anything else you think makes these players stand out in almost every tourney? Please post it in the comments!