Scrabble face

This from Lifehacker caught my attention recently, and while the study was done on poker, I’m really more interested on how a slight smile might affect your opponent in a Scrabble game.

But, do facial expressions and body language really matter at all in a game of Scrabble? After playing the game for a number of years, I tend to think otherwise – at least for master-level players. Here’s a list of reasons why:

1. Winning in Scrabble is based on progressive scoring, unlike in poker

In poker, the win depends on the strength of the hand and the betting process. And there’s only one win per round (or hand). Hence single actions and reactions are rather important in making betting decisions. In Scrabble, the importance of body language is diluted by the comparatively larger number of moves (which each contribute uniquely to the end result, win, lose or draw). This makes body language of little significance, because move-by-move forecasting (and subsequent paranoia/ overconfidence) will hurt rather than aid a player’s game. So, unless there are close endgames where your opponent’s rack will determine an easy win/ loss, I wouldn’t think looking at your opponent’s body language is essential. But even then…

2. Very imprecise forecasting

Especially in open boards, it’s quite difficult to forecast what your opponent might play, even if his body language forecasts a good move. It might be a play through 3 disconnected letters, a bingo or a convenient dump, depending on what gives him satisfaction! It might even be an exchange which he is confident of drawing well to. Or just a resigned smile… Since it’s difficult to tell what your opponent might play even with significant emotional information, it’s even harder to make an accurate choice based on what your opponent is forecasting. Especially midgame, it would be quite unwise to give up good plays to block plays predicted by body language. Blocks, IMO, work best when there is real knowledge of possible bingos (see below), rather than the supposed knowledge of the good tiles your opponent is holding.

3. Easier to tell based on factual information available

Best information to look at: Tiles left in bag (are they score-conducive? Do they yield many possible bingos on the board?), Opponent’s previous move (Is he fishing? Did he just make a major tile dump? Why didn’t he play this tile off too?) In general, this information is, I would say, infinitely more important than details like body language, which experienced players would be adept at concealing.

Even if there are situations where body language would be a very telling sign of the opponent’s rack, there are still better factual indicators that can tell you more about what your opponent is thinking. If, with 2 tiles in the bag, he plays 1 tile off with Q in the pool, he may be avoiding the Q pickup. Or, if he opens a additional bingo lane to play through when he’s a bingo behind, his intention is obvious – IMO it would be better to block the most probable bingo rather than predict which line he would pick based on his facial expressions.

So, has observing your opponent’s body language ever played a major part of your game? Do you think there are many players in Scrabble who give away too much through their body language? Feel free to tell me your opinions!

Random comment: It’s good that Facebook Scrabble introduced a “Word Of The Day” feature, however I’d really appreciate it if they didn’t pick their words all from the high-vowel list. And it would be a much better feature if they defined the words properly (there was a mistake with EUOUAE, which is actually a Gregorian cadence and TAENIAE is defined as TAENIA, which isn’t really useful)

One comment

  1. Andrew Fisher · · Reply

    Notwithstanding your conclusions, I certainly aim to remain completely deadpan throughout the course of a serious game. Not that I always succeed.

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