What would you play?

As mentioned in my Silly Saturday recap (game #11), I’m looking at a board situation that I found very interesting. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time during the game to go through too many options.


I ended-up playing Q(I) at 7M for 21 points, but I’m not sure if that’s the best play. I would be interested in knowing what other plays I could have made as I lost the game by one point. Here is what I was thinking:

  1. Q(I) for 21
  2. 15M DEN for 21
  3. 5L S(IN)K for 15

Depending on what I pick-up, I wasn’t sure of what to play, but that sequence seemed reasonable. I also assumed Alex had the last blank.

I thought about Q(I)S for 22 but then didn’t think it was worth it. I ended-up playing QI but Alex played (QI)s/sAY at O7 for 26 points.

Lessons from National Scrabble Championship 2009

Well, I finished in 27th place with a record of 17-14 (+234). Not great, but not too bad considering the lack of preparation leading up to the tournament.

Having played at my second national tournament, here are some "lessons learned":

  • Stay calm: In several games, I would fall behind but managed to pull out a win because I stayed calm and played the tiles that I had. No need to panic if your opponent opens with a bingo or plays a high-scoring word.
  • Study word hooks: On a few occasions, I wasn’t able to capitalize on opportunities because I didn’t know the front/back hooks to words well enough. For example, I knew DUI doesn’t take an S, but I couldn’t remember DUIT. That cost me an opportunity to lay down a bingo and take advantage of a TWS and block my opponent from scoring at the same time.
  • Minimize low scoring plays: After looking at several of my games, I realized that the winner had the fewest low scoring plays. By "low scoring", I mean <10 points per play. These low value plays can come back and haunt you.
  • Try and score 30+ per turn: As a follow-up to the previous point, I took Shaun Goatcher’s past advice about trying to maximize each turn and score an average of 30 points per turn. If you don’t, winning becomes that much harder.
  • Check the bag for tiles: On two occasions, there were incidents involving tiles at the end of the game: one was a "missing tile" that fell on the ground and the other was a tile left in the bag. Check the bag to make sure it is empty! Also, look around to see if any tiles were inadvertently dropped on the floor.
  • Have fun: Seems like a no-brainer, but I realized that it’s important to have fun. Scrabble is a game and should be enjoyed.

While the above hold true for playing in the tournament, the one major lesson I learned is that I need to study. Hanging around other players (especially Kevin Turner) made me realize just how poor my word knowledge is. Here’s to my goal of studying 30 minutes each day.

The next two national championships are in Dallas. Hope to see you there.

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A second opinion on some analysis

Recently, I did some analysis of a game and reported some of the simulation results done by Quackle.  Allen Pengelly, a director of the Cambridge club, contacted me and offered a second (differing) opinion and pointed out some flaws of my analysis.  Here’s his response and commentary:

I did my own analysis for your game vs Geoffrey

If I’m not mistaken, what Quackle does during the SIM is actually calculates your win percentage if the scores were even at that point – not taking into account the 70 point difference.

If you run the "Ask Championship Player for choices" instead, then it
calculates the point spread into the percentages.

That is the reason why it says that JAB only has a 25% chance of winning – becuase most of the time your opponent will counter with a Bingo along the bottom line when you play JAB, whereas when you play PIG, JIGS, PIGS or JOW then the only way for the opponent to bingo is if they have the tiles for LOAMIEST at B2.

The really interesting part is that when you run the SIM, the best option from the championship player (PIGS) is not mentioned at all.

PIGS, JIG, JOW, and JAB all result in a 100% win rate, but the option that will give you the best average point spread is PIGS. PIG is worse than any of these options because it creates a 1 in 8 chance that the player will lose by 1 point.

The best play does change depending on how far ahead or behind the player is though. JAB becomes the best play if the player is between 20 and 23 behind – because it creates a 1 in 8 chance of winning (when the blank is in the bag), whereas all the other plays can’t generate enough points to win.

I can share the numbers with you later on if you want to see them, but I just wanted to show you that PIG is not the best play.

Allen Pengelly

So, I guess the lessons here are that a) I’m not using Quackle properly (or at the very least as well as I can), and b) getting comments and analysis from other humans can yield more insight.  Thank-you Allen.

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What would you play?

So here’s a board situation that I found interesting in my game against Paul Wigley.  The situation is presented below:

Hans: Turn 7
   A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O   -> Hans HEMPQTZ 119 
   ------------------------------     Paul ####### 116 
 1|=     V       =       '     =| --Tracking----------------------
 2|  -   I   "     C "       -  | DEEILLNORRSN?IOAGT?AT
 3|    - D     '   U       A    | ILSSVYFMNUAA
 4|'     E       W R O N G S   '| EEEUATAJOOY
 5|      O W     I     -   H    |
 6|  "     R "   R E B   O E "  |
 7|    ' P I C K E R     U N    |
 8|B L E A T     D       T     =|
 9|  I F       '   '     I '    |
10|  "       "       " A E   "  |
11|        -           X        |
12|'     -       '       -     '|
13|    -       '   '       -    |
14|  -       "       "       -  |
15|=     '       =       '     =|

I’m curious to know what people would play with the tiles I had (HEMPQTZ).  Here is what I was thinking:

  1. J10 – HEMP 42 points
  2. 9L – Z(I)P 36 points
  3. 2B – PH(I)Z 36 points
  4. J10 – HEP 32 points
  5. J10 HEM 39 points

I ended up playing option #2 Z(I)P because I didn’t feel comfortable with the leave if had played HEMP (QTZ).  The ZIP play results in EHMQT as the leave, providing a bit more flexibility in terms of the next play for only 6 points less.  Also, I was a bit concerned about playing HEMP because it provides a juicy bingo lane for my opponent.  I thought that HEMP would be available to me on my next turn if I needed it, while ZIP might not.  I briefly thought about Q(I) at 2C, but that play scored only 11 so I quickly dismissed it.

What would you have played in this situation?  Any particular reason?

I looked at this game on Quackle, and I was surprised at the results.  Here are the choices:

  1. C2 HEMP 45 points – I completely missed this play!
  2. J10 HEMP 42 points
  3. J9 THEM 40 points
  4. C2 TEMP 36 points
  5. J10 HEM 39 points
  6. J10 HEP 39 points
  7. 12J HEMP 32 points
  8. J10 METH 35 points
  9. 2B PH(I)Z 36 points
  10. 9K Z(I)P 36 points

Wow – my play of Z(I)P was the 10th "best" choice identified by Quackle.  Other than C2 that I completely missed, Quackle seems to think taking the TLS and the resulting points is worth being stuck with QTZ.  I’m not sure if I feel comfortable with Q and Z on my rack.  I suppose this situation was still early enough in the game (turn #7) that you wouldn’t get stuck with the Q or the Z.  Perhaps the thinking is that you can score with those two tiles because the board is still fairly open with plenty of tiles still unseen/unplayed.

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A look at ratings #2 – the ELO system

In a previous post, I took a look at some of the statistical correlations between a player’s scoring averages and their Scrabble® rating.  Over this past year, I’ve seen my own personal rating jump by over 400 points (in tournament play) and about 200 points at club play.  Seems like everyone likes to talk about ratings – either theirs going up or down.

In this post, I’m taking a closer look at the rating system.  For those of you who don’t know, here in North America, the National Scrabble® Association (NSA) uses the ELO system originally developed and still used for chess.  I won’t go into too much detail, but this system is based on estimating a player’s "true skill" by using statistical measures of interpreting wins & losses.

The ELO rating system
Basically, each player has a rating.  This rating is then compared with your opponent’s rating and an "expected" win % is determined based on how far apart you and your opponent’s ratings are.  After each game is played, you calculate the difference between the expected % of wins and our performance.  If two players are equal in skill, then in theory, they should each win 50% of the time against one another.  A higher rating would thus suggest higher skill and higher likelihood of winning any particular game against lower rated players.  The same works when playing against higher rated players.  The theory is that over time, your true skill should be reflected in your rating because your "good and bad" playing should even out over time and your true rating should emerge.

For a more detailed explanation of the ELO system, please view the Wikipedia entry titled "Elo rating system".

Complaints about the rating system(s) in Scrabble
In the recent issue of Scrabble News (#218 I believe), there was a note about the formation of a ratings committee.  This group is going to suggest an alternative ratings formula and come-up with something for use by 2009.  I’m not sure why people feel a need to change the current system, but I’ve heard the following complaints:

  • Ratings have been decreasing/"deflating" (read below for some more info about this)
  • Point "spreads" should be acknowledged – for example a player winning by 500 points should be recognized
  • Similar to the point above, "all wins aren’t equal"
  • It’s too easier to "lose" rating points but harder to gain them

Personally, I’m not sure what all the complaining and clamoring is all about.  No system is perfect.  In science, it’s what we call "measurement error" in that every measurement we take has some sort of error involved.  For things like measuring the height of something, we can be pretty good, but with things like measuring someone’s intelligence, it can be hit or miss.

Ratings deflation in Scrabble®
In the case of people complaining about ratings "going down", the Wikipedia entry has a very interesting example that describes this phenomenon of ratings decreasing even though a player’s skill level remains the same (it’s about halfway through the section titled "ratings inflation and deflation").  Because of the way the system is set-up, if only a few players improve their skill while everyone else stays the same, what happens is that the player who got better gets a big jump in ratings while the others who stayed the same decrease in ratings – thus the "deflation".

I believe this is what is happening in Scrabble today.  Players who used to be in the 1500-1600 range have had their ratings drop a good 200-300 points in the past few years.  What I’ve seen as a new player is that more players are getting better and at a quicker rate.  We can see this in some of the younger players getting involved, but mostly because of the better study tools available.  Computer simulation software allows players to analyze games and become better.  We also see this in the decreasing number of (active) players in the 1900s and 2000s.  What we don’t see, however, is a change in the relative rankings of players.  The top players are still at the top in roughly the same order as they were before.  It’s those players who haven’t improved much over the past few years who have seen their ratings plummet.  They aren’t any worse than they were before.  It’s just that everyone else is getting better and so gaining and/or maintaining a rating is much more difficult.

In my example, based on my play at my local club, I’ve felt that I was about a 1150-1250 player and yet my tournament/NSA rating was about 800 for over a year.  Once I figured out a few things about playing in tournaments, particularly about playing against lower rated players, I’ve seen my rating jump 400+ points to about 1205 (estimated).  I’ve jumped up so much because my true level of play is higher than 800.  Now that I’m at the 1200 level, I don’t expect to see much gains in my rating until I start improving again.  Those people who I beat would see their rating go down, not because they played poorly, but because they played someone who was rated lower than them.  Similarly, I would expect it very difficult to keep my rating if I start to play against opponents who are getting better.  We’re all on this treadmill of needing to improve or else see our ratings go down.

What people also complain about is the fact that unlike in chess, Scrabble® involves quite a bit of randomness and luck.  Sometimes you get some crappy tiles and it’s almost impossible to win.  Unfortunately, there’s really not much to do.  In the card game Bridge, the solution was to create "duplicate bridge", where every team plays the exact same hands/cards.  The theory is that if everyone plays the same cards/hand then those with better skill should do better.  It’s like having everyone take a standardized test and getting a score.  Unfortunately, I don’t think this is likely to happen in Scrabble.

Final thoughts
So after a brief look at the ELO system, I’m not sure if any new system that may (or may not be introduced) will fair any better.  Personally, I think the secret is not to worry about the rating and focus on just becoming a better player.  The ratings will take care of themselves.

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What is a bingo worth?

As I’ve written about the frequency of bingos, I’ve received some interesting feedback.  Most of the people who have spoken to me have had similar thoughts – they expected to bingo more.

I’ve also done some analysis about the correlation between scoring and ratings, concluding that a better player scores more points.  Sure that doesn’t sound too earth-shattering, but I have some data to support my hypothesis.  That’s probably why I’ve been trying to learn more words and also trying to bingo more frequently during games.  Bingos are the fastest way to score points.

Okay, so what is a bingo worth?  When I play my games, I often do mental "guesstimates" of how many bingos ahead/behind I am.  Here are the rough values that I use for 7 letter bingos:

Regular bingo:  60 points
Bingo + DWS:  70 points
Bingo + TWS:  80 points
"double-double" bingo:  90 points
"triple-triple" bingo:  140 points

Just to clarify, DWS means "double word score" and TWS means "triple word score".  A "double-double" is a play when two DWS squares are used and the "triple-triple" is a play when two TWS squares are used.

I mentioned these values to Craig Rowland and he thinks my figures are a bit on the high side, especially for the regular and DWS bingos.  These values aren’t meant to be perfect, but I use the to give me a sense of what needs to be done to catch-up to an opponent have an opponent catch-me.  Of course, if you are lucky enough to have some premium tiles included with your bingo, then the point value can jump up considerably.  But overall, I think the values are reasonable.

Of course, there is also the psychological value of a bingo:  it can demoralise an opponent and give you a boost, not to mention having greater tile turnover (and thus better chances at getting the better tiles).  Having been the recipient of a few bingo-bangos (that’s two bingos back to back), I know that it’s pretty frustrating and even demoralizing.  I can only imagine what it must feel like to get three bingos played successsively played against me (i.e., a bingo-bango-bong).  On the other hand, playing successive bingos is such a cool feeling and you can see your opponent’s body language just slump.  After playing a bingo, I always feel better – as if I achieved something.  It’s like making a clutch put in golf.

What do you think?  Are these values too high?  Too low?  Personally, I think the value of a bingo is much more than points.

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How often do you bingo in Scrabble®?

How often do you bingo during a typical game of Scrabble®?  Lately, I’ve been thinking about this question.  Maybe it’s because I’ve started studying words and am trying to a) justify the time spent studying and b) find a more efficient and effective way of studying.  As I previously wrote, we know that dedicated, systematic, and structured preparation (i.e., study) can lead to what we call "expertise".  But what and how should one study?

A few years back, Craig Rowland (director of the Mississauga Scrabble Club) held an afternoon of "Scrabble School" during which he shared a recommended study strategy.  I’ve been studying so that I can try to bingo more frequently because it’s the fastest way to score points – if you can get lucky, you can score huge points.

Anyway, I asked Craig how often he, and other experts, bingo in a typical game.  I expected him to say two or more, but he surprised me.  He said that on average, he bingos less than two times a game (something like 5 bingos in 3 games or 12 in 7 games), and would expect the same for other experts.  Maybe I only recall the anomalous games when a player has 4 or 5 bingos, but I honestly expected experts to bingo more than twice a game.  Granted, the examples he gave suggest something very close to 2 bingos a game, but not exactly.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have any data to back-up my assumptions.

I did a bit of digging and have compiled some statistics for the 32 games I’ve played in 2008.  Here is the data:

  • My average bingos per game:  1.59
  • My opponents bingos per game:  1.22
  • Combined bingos per game:  2.81

That’s a bit less than even I expected.  I plan on collecting this data for all of my games played and will see what happens.  I’ve been asking around at the club, and a few experts said they expected two per game, but then changed that to "under two" being a more realistic value after thinking about it.  I’d love to learn how others do – feel free to share your statistics/numbers below.  I’ll post updates on my figures later in the year to see if my studying increases the number of bingos I play.

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