Phonying and Challenging

So I wrote an article on phonying a while ago – it was meant for The Scrabble Players Handbook as a counterpoint to Ed Martin’s article on phonies, but feedback to the article has not been forthcoming, despite a number of reminders. I gather that the team’s mostly busy with the publicity efforts, so I’ve decided to put this on here first – don’t mind it being added on to the publication if interest picks up.

I disagreed with Ed’s mantra of “not phonying” chiefly because focussing on playing valid words, especially with imperfect word knowledge, puts unnecessary stress on the player and, perhaps more importantly, causes one to forgo great opportunities in the interest of “safety”. What I advocate instead is a systematic way of satisficing, which is described in the article. This, as an alternative to optimisation, is a risk management strategy (yes, I draw inspiration from management theory) which recognises that one (and potentially one’s opponent) has imperfect word knowledge. I go on to describe the conditions under which one should consider attempting a word he/she is unsure of.

This article seems to depart from the orthodoxy surrounding Scrabble strategy, but I do think it is important to understand why phonies are played and left unchallenged, even by some of the top players in the world. I’m also aware that this strategy is by no means easy to master – I make many misjudgements myself. If any Scrabble players are reading this, I’d like some thoughts on this!

Why Phony?

The penalty for getting your word challenged off is large, and can change the result of a game. It may thus seem that there is no reason at all to play a word you are unsure of. That, however, is untrue. In some cases, doing so can be the best chance you have at winning a game.

In fact, by avoiding words you are unsure of at all costs, you may be making bad decisions. People often “chicken out” of perfectly valid words, thinking that they might have confused it with something else. While getting your phony challenged off is rather suboptimal, continually missing out on opportunities just because you are slightly unsure of some words may cost you a lot more in terms of winning chances.

Moreover, not all phonies are challenged off. There are many reasons why players do not challenge words that look suspicious – it could be because they do not wish to be penalised for making an incorrect challenge, or because they feel that leaving the play there might afford them some advantage, for instance. In such cases, it can arguably be better to take a risk and hope the play is not challenged.

There are several things you have to consider before playing a word you are unsure of. Generally, these can be grouped into several categories – challenge rules and challenge mentalities, word knowledge, game scoreline and position. Players should think about which of these factors matter to their decision and decide if it is worth the risk.

Challenge Rules and Challenge Mentalities

It is the most unprofitable to play a word you are unsure of when you are under free challenge. As there is no penalty to making a wrong challenge, players challenge the most under this challenge mode. You should also make use of this facility, challenging any word you are remotely uncertain of.

Oddly enough, some phonies still remain on the board under free challenge. Perhaps, players perceive the effort of neutralising the clock, writing the word on a challenge slip and walking over to the challenge computer (or alerting a runner) as a chore. Sometimes, players trust experts to make valid plays all the time, and avoid challenging so as “not to waste time”. So, there appear to be certain intangible costs to even free challenge, but don’t let that deter you from challenging freely – these costs are usually minuscule compared to the costs of leaving a phony on the board!

The fact that some players do not challenge should not encourage deliberate phonying (this can be construed as “bullying”, especially when a high-rated player does it against a complete novice just to eke out a high score); but it certainly gives more leeway for trying words you are unsure of.

Under point penalty challenge (generally five or ten points), it may be slightly more profitable to try a word you are unsure of, since there is a small deterrent to an incorrect challenge. Don’t let that fool you into trying all sorts of words, though – people still do challenge quite regularly under this challenge rule, and you should do the same.

Double challenge is perhaps where phonying can pay off most often – there is a strong deterrent to challenging, and hence players mostly challenge when they are rather sure the word is not valid.

Word Knowledge

In a competitive game of Scrabble where both players know every word (i.e. perfect word knowledge), it is definitely a bad strategy to play a phony.  If the play is of no use to the opponent, it will certainly be challenged off; if the play is useful to the opponent (e.g. providing the requisite letter for an 8-letter bingo), it may be left on to give the opponent a huge advantage on his move.

However, players tend not to have perfect word knowledge, and this makes the decision far more interesting; both because you have imperfect word knowledge, and because your opponent too has imperfect word knowledge. Of course, this section is generally irrelevant to the Nigels and Ganeshes of this world – but I reckon there are not many of them around!

Since you have imperfect word knowledge, you may be asking yourself “is this word valid?” when you are pondering your move. Some helpful questions you may then ask are: “Where might I have seen it before?” “What might I have confused it with?” If the word you are thinking about is in past tense, for example, you may also try to remember if it can be spelt in present continuous tense, etc. It may also be a good idea to think if the word generally makes sense, though a lot of valid words admittedly don’t appear so to the layperson! All in all you should be trying to arrive at an idea of how sure you are of the word.

Your opponent’s level of word knowledge should also factor into your decision. The stronger your opponent’s word knowledge is, the likelier she is to know if your word is valid. Couple this with your opponent’s “challenge mentality” and think about whether your opponent will challenge. The more she challenges, the less you should play your word.

Game Scoreline and Position

The most valid reason to attempt a word you are unsure of is to attempt to win an otherwise unwinnable game. This usually happens during the endgame, where players play a plausible-sounding word, trying to snatch victory from the jaws from defeat. Where there is no other way to win, doing so may be the only possible chance at winning.

However, this reason is also the most often abused by players who think they cannot win a game except by attempting a word. Because playing a bingo is the most intuitive way to close up a deficit, many beginners who fall behind by a bingo mid-game try words or hooks they are unsure of, thinking that there is no other way to catch up. This causes them to lose their turn (usually) and fall even farther behind. Hence, before making a “desperation” attempt, check that there are no other ways of winning – the best strategy might even be to play a valid word and hope your opponent makes an error.

There is a school of thought that encourages deliberate phonying on the first move, when you require common floaters to form a bingo (e.g. IORSTUV which forms a bingo with any vowel). For such cases, it depends on what response you think you will elicit from your opponent. If you believe your opponent will challenge and play the requisite tile, it may be advantageous to adopt such a strategy. However, most players nowadays, being cognisant of such a strategy, will just challenge the play off and change their tiles. Some may even elect to keep the phony play on, especially if it destroys rack synergy!

There are a number of other factors you should take into account. You would not want to phony in a close match, especially since you might cause yourself to lose your game because of your attempt. Playing a phony when you have a bad rack is likely to leave you with two consecutively low scores, and should be avoided. If you attempt a bingo you are unsure of, remember that you are letting your opponent see all your letters!

How to Make the Most of This

Avoiding phonying at all costs can cause undue stress during gameplay. Try to find a balance, or a systematic way, to remember if a word is a phony or not. Attempting a word you are not 100% sure of can sometimes work out well, and you can identify these opportunities by thinking about the risks you are exposing yourself to.

Even when you are unsure of a word, play it with confidence. The last thing you want to do when laying down tiles is to say “I’m not very sure of this but I want to try it anyway…” – honesty may be a virtue, but bogus confidence will probably win you more games.

Don’t get too worked up if you play a phony, and it gets challenged off. It doesn’t always mean you have lost the game – it just means you have made a poor judgement.  Players don’t always lose a game because they phony, but a lot do because they become demoralised and play badly after their phony gets challenged off.

To avoid leaving phonies on the board, challenge frequently, especially under free challenge. If your “challenge mentality” is to challenge all words you are unsure of, your opponents will not want to try words against you. On the other hand, if you are afraid of challenging, opponents who know this may take advantage of this weakness.

Finally, revise lists, even ones that you have gone through before, to make yourself more certain of your words. When I took a long break from word study, I realised that I was still spotting words, but was unsure of many more of them. This caused me to forgo many good plays, and lose more games as a result. Improving your word knowledge also means that you challenge valid words less often.

One comment

  1. […] games (where information on the type of the other player is incomplete) seems very applicable to my earlier post on phonies, specifically the part on challenging mentalities. I imagine it to be useful to model […]

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