Where I am in Scrabble now

So, I’ve been playing this game for about 10 years, with about 7-8 fairly active years from 2006-present. I never imagined myself playing continuously for so many years. A few years back, I asked Marlon (Prudencio) how long he’d been playing Scrabble for, and his reply “7-8 years” at that time struck me as being really, really long! There also used to be a time when I thought that ‘experience’ counted for a lot in the game, classifying myself under the ‘inexperienced’ category. Well, I probably have reached the level sufficient to be called ‘experienced’ now. I’ve likely spent close to 10,000 hours on this game.

1. If I were to reassess my Scrabble ‘career’, I’ll say (or even ‘admit’, since I don’t appear to be that proud of my achievements) that I’ve been pretty successful thus far. I did not expect any fame or fortune when I started out playing the game back in 2004 – back then, I hardly harboured any ambition of making it into the top division. Every success I’ve achieved is a really a personal bonus. I’ve enjoyed almost all the tournaments I’ve been to – among those I remember fondly are WYSC 2006 (which inspired this ratings surge), the 8th Millennium Cup 2007 (perhaps one of the signs of impending youth domination), WYSC 2007, Nationals 2011 and WSC 2011.

In terms of the ‘Scrabble scene’ my favourite tournaments (apart from those listed above) were Manila PRR 2010, Kings Cup 2011, Sri Lanka 2011 and Northern Ireland 2012. ASTAR tournaments are also rather exciting – it’s always a joy meeting the friends I used to compete against at the WYSCs, and to see the new generation bringing their game forward. I’m looking to return to Sri Lanka this year.

This is one of the funniest games I've played - in this picture, Elie Dangoor is playing REtORT, extending ORT with a blank. I kept the board very tight throughout.

This is one of the funniest games I’ve played – in this picture, Elie Dangoor is playing REt(ORT), extending ORT with a blank. After I built up a lead, I kept the board ridiculously closed (some of it for fun), forcing him to eventually make this play.

2. I’ve learnt a lot from the game, not only in terms of cognitive ability. It’s interesting to consider Scrabble players both as bringing their own personality into Scrabble (explaining various idiosyncrasies, but perhaps also why some players are so successful) and learning from the game itself. In this respect, it’s hard to pinpoint how Scrabble has changed me – I think I might still have developed a good level of patience and introspection even if I hadn’t ventured into the game. Still, I think the friends I’ve met in the game have certainly had an influence on how I think, and how I see people. There are many players I look up to, and there remains a lot to learn.

3. It’s really an experience playing the game as a competitive sport and knowing and observing so many ‘athletes’ at the top of their game. I doubt I’d get the same level of access to the top players of most other sports/ mind sports, so this is something I cherish a lot.

4. When it comes to spending time on the game, I’ve allocated my time differently across the years. I spent a lot of time from 2006-2008 learning words (including many late-night Jumbletimes and general staring at words), but now I spend a lot of time playing the game, simulating positions and writing (stuff like this, but also various articles).

And now the problems.

5. I clearly lack motivation to improve my word knowledge. I figure I’ve seen most of the 2-8s, even without going through them systematically, and while that’s good, I don’t think I have very good word recall. I’m not sure how I can concretely improve my word knowledge – Zyzzyva would probably be the most systematic option, but it is too boring for me, and I always set goals that are too hard to achieve (e.g. finishing all the 2-7s before starting on Cardbox). Jumbletime on the other hand is fun, but retention can be difficult.

6. It’s obvious that the small things matter, but I still get them wrong a lot of the time. I hardly ever play perfect games – when I play well, I make two small errors per game (no, this is not an average – it really does happen. I include errors on simulation and minor endgame errors that cost me a small number of points, so maybe I am being too harsh on myself). This is not bad  – I get most things right, but it’s certainly not top class.

7. The biggest issue that plagues my game in terms of strategy is indecision. I often face problems deciding between close, or seemingly close moves in a game, especially early to mid-game. I’m not sure if many players face this problem, but I sometimes don’t see transitivity in my choices, i.e. sometimes, when faced with 3 choices, I prefer move A to move B, move B to move C, and move C to move A. This is not supposed to happen, since I am supposed to rank choices pretty accurately at my level. Choices in the game must be transitive, even if they are close.

8. Perhaps one way I can get better at this is to learn how to evaluate leaves better. I have very little mathematical understanding of how leaves work, and have mostly relied on gut feeling – sometimes leading to bad decisions. My only consolation here is that better players get it wrong too. I’d be most interested to explore how one can objectively evaluate leaves based on the board, but don’t know how to proceed on this. I suspect some of the players who have actually been through the mathematical detail (e.g. programmers, long-time users of Maven) have a better idea.

9. Another reason why I face indecision is because I have very little idea how to interpret opponent plays. Nowadays the instinct that seems to work out the best for me, despite the illogic, is that if a player has been fishing for a number of turns, he/she is likely not to hold a blank, and my response should therefore be to turn over tiles. Otherwise, it’s very hard for me to interpret single moves as signs of a good/ bad rack, and even harder to determine if I should change my response as a result.

10. The final problem I face is one faced by many ‘pretty good’, but perhaps not ‘top’ players – closing up deficits. I can generally play well to close up deficits that are less than a 100 points, but once it’s beyond the 100 threshold, I’m not sure what a ‘good strategy’ is.

What happens when you're behind by 100-200 points mid-game? Is it too late?

What happens when you’re behind by 100-200 points mid-game? Is it usually too late?

There are a couple of possibilities. One would be to fish and turn over less tiles in order to lengthen the game, and hope to get more bingos down – this is probably a better strategy with an open board. Another would be to recklessly open scoring spots and hope your opponent has bad racks. Obviously, the choice of strategy depends on a lot of factors, but it’s hard to decide which strategy one should adopt when both strategies are seemingly hopeless.

To illustrate points 8, 9 and 10, this is my first game against David Sutton at Swindon last month. I don’t think I played particularly badly this game, though it was slightly frustrating putting so much thought in and getting such a bad result. I was very lucky for the other games in the tournament though – my last game was a ‘revenge match’ against David which I won by almost 300.

I’d just like to end on a non-Scrabble note by commenting that the second video thumbnail here is very existentially appropriate for Singapore! Looking beyond policies to reexamine philosophy is definitely a much-needed approach. Many of the government’s retorts to policy suggestions in the past came in the form “you don’t like it this way, but there are more important things to consider” – refreshing changes were inherently difficult, given that many goals were preset by the government and were imposed as constraints upon new ideas coming into the system. I think it’s good that the government recognises that philosophy too needs to evolve.

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