Monday, May 23, 2016

Who Knew?... Of Scammers and Scrabblers

from WikimediaCommons

Turns out (to my surprise, and I assume others) that the country which harbors perhaps the greatest reservoir of ludicrous, over-the-top email scammers, Nigeria, also is home to a bevy of championship-level Scrabble players! Further surprising, they have developed their own contrarian strategy on how to winningly play the long-popular game. And that strategy is both linguistically and mathematically interesting.

Previous commonplace play revolved around using as many letters (out of 7) as possible on each turn to spell out words as long as possible. Nay, nay, say the Nigerians... who prefer instead to employ 4-5 letter words, saving some of their best tiles for future planned use. Five letters, properly played, can capture a couple of bonus-scoring spaces, while also denying opponents access to key spaces. In the long run, more words, and more and easier scoring takes place with shorter words, and also doesn't open up as many possibilities to your opponent.

Most may have heard this story from the Wall Street Journal, but here is another piece about the approach:,_and_It_Is_Not_What_We_Thought

And the Nigerians DON'T even need to be fluent in English to win: "Rather than using robust vocabularies to win at Scrabble, many of them just memorized the combinations of letters that made up words -- without knowing or caring what those words meant." (from the article)

All of this got me wondering if there was currently computer software capable of playing championship-level Scrabble (the WSJ article briefly mentions it). With the success of chess and Go-playing programs, one would think it possible, but the only related information I found in a quick search was this Wikipedia article:
Anyone know any further or updated info?

One last thing: despite all this seeming ingeniousness, Nigeria... I'm still not opening your damn emails.

ADDENDUM:  Thanks to "Jared" (in the comments) for passing along an extended Slate piece offering more context to the spin of other popular links to this story. Try to find time to read it for a more-nuanced, less-hyped view:

1 comment:

Jared said...

An important (relatively speaking, of course) corrective to the WSJ article: