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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Lessons learned from tournament mistakes

I’ve been playing competitive/tournament Scrabble® for almost two years now and have learned quite a bit about how to and how NOT to play the game – mostly from making mistakes.  Here are some suggestions for players just picking up the game:

  1. KNOW THE RULES:  This one sounds pretty obvious, but I think it’s important to state.  I’ve seen too many players not know the rules and then either make procedural errors or get "bullied" by someone who seems to know the rules better.  In a recent tournament, my opponent challenged a word of mine, but only wrote down one word on the challenge slip.  When she got to the computer for adjudication, she wrote down another word – a violation of the rules.  Had I known the rule, she would not have been able to add another word.  If you’re not sure about the rules, call the director over for a ruling/clarification.  However, I think it’s best to know the rule(s) for yourself.
  2. COUNT THE SCORE YOURSELF:  Count your opponent’s play to verify the score.  Your opponent can make calculation errors and announce an incorrect score.  It’s in your best interest to make sure the play is scored correctly.
  3. ASK FOR A RECOUNT:  Ask for a recount in games when the outcome is decided by <10 points.  Counting and adding mistakes happen.  A few points here or there can change the outcome of a game.  I had a game in which I made an adding error (91+41 does NOT equal 121).  I ended up losing the game by 8 points, but should have won the game!
  4. CONFIRM THE RECOUNT:  Related to the above tip, I would add that you need to recount and confirm everything, especially if the score changes.  I was victim to this during a tournament in Ottawa when I had won by 3 points.  My opponent asked for a recount and "found" a scoring error that gave her 6 points.  I wasn’t quite myself and took her word for it and ended-up losing the game.  I only realized this error after the tournament was over and I was reviewing the game at home.
  5. USE YOUR TIME WISELY:  Many players start off a bit unnerved being required to play with a clock and tend to go over time.  I’m the exact opposite and tend not to use enough time on my turns.  Regardless, you have 25 minutes to make your plays – use this time wisely either by budgeting time or by using the time to find better plays.  Also remember that if you go over time, use the entire/full minute to think as you’re penalized by the minute.
  6. RELAX:  This one was probably the hardest for me to learn.  When I first started playing in tournaments, I was pretty excited and had the adrenaline going.  I’d get psyched seeing good tiles and crushed with a loss or bad tiles.  I’ve learned that playing is about controlling your emotions and riding out the highs and the lows.

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Experts are made, not born

Partly because of my training, but mostly because of my nature, I like to look at things and see how they work and try to make them better (i.e., “evaluation”). Ever since I started playing Scrabble®, I’ve tried to approach the game systematically so that I can win as often as I can – I’ll admit, winning is much more fun than losing 🙂

One of the questions I’ve been exploring is “how to become an expert”. Players like Adam Logan (currently the highest rated player in North American and the only one with a rating of 2000) seem to play this game differently than I do with the ability to play obscure words and anticipate moves in far in advance. I think to be called an “expert” in the competitive Scrabble® world, you must have a rating >1600. However, ratings seem to be coming down with fewer and fewer players in the 1800s and 1900s (Only five players in the 1900s as of January 2008! When I first started, there were at least a few dozen in the 1900s).

In the past, I did some analysis of Scrabble® ratings to see if I can gain some insight into how to become a better player. As I started to focus on trying to score rather than trying to prevent my opponent from scoring, game seemed to improve. Then, I started putting into practice some of the tips from Wordfreak on becoming a champion. Those tips helped, but for some reason I wasn’t entirely convinced that this information alone would propel me upward.

I came across two articles (“The Expert Mind” and “The Making of an Expert“) that conclude that “the amount and quality of practice were key factors in the level of expertise people achieved. Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born.”. This conclusion suggests that innate ability is not the determining factor. If you want to become an expert (in almost any field), you can because:

motivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability in the development of expertise. It is no accident that in music, chess and sports–all domains in which expertise is defined by competitive performance rather than academic credentialing–professionalism has been emerging at ever younger ages, under the ministrations of increasingly dedicated parents and even extended families.

I don’t know about you, but I find this conclusion very reassuring. There is hope for me to reach those elite levels. I’ll end with a quotation that is an excellent summary of the two articles.

The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts. It will take you at least a decade to achieve expertise, and you will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in “deliberate” practice—practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort. You will need a well-informed coach not only to guide you through deliberate practice but also to help you learn how to coach yourself. Above all, if you want to achieve top performance as a manager and a leader, you’ve got to forget the folklore about genius that makes many people think they cannot take a scientific approach to developing expertise.

I read these two articles last year and as a result, I made a deliberate decision to play less and study more. I’ll be honest – studying is not fun. But losing isn’t much fun either. I’m trying to give myself the best chance to win. The thing that scares me is the part about requiring nearly 10 years of dedicated study/practice. I hope that with the help of some technology, I can speed up the process a bit.

Good luck on your journey to excellence.

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Does shuffling Scrabble® tiles help you find more words?

Have you ever wondered if shuffling your Scrabble® tiles helps you find more words?  For me, I seem to find more words when I can touch, move, and shuffle the tiles compared with just seeing the letters on paper or on the screen.  Well, according to one study, “more words were generated with physical manipulation [i.e., shuffling] than without”.

Based on my personal experience, I’d probably agree with the overall conclusions of the study.  Unfortunatley, from a “scientific basis”, I still have some issues with the study.  I have two main concerns:

  1. Small sample size:  I usually don’t harp about sample sizes, but two groups of ten individuals is not a very large study.  Since this study was performed in a university setting, I’m curious that the authors couldn’t get more students to participate.
  2. Participant characteristics:  I know that according to theory, “random” assignment to groups is supposed to account for any differences.  However, I think it would have been nice to get some additional information about the participants apart from “all native English speakers” and “high proficiency in the language” to ensure that the two groups were in fact comparable.  Maybe if the study was expanded slightly, having participants with a more broad range of language proficiency and/or word knowledge would be very interesting to test to see if the results would still hold true.

I know I’m being somewhat nit-picky about the study.  Overall, I think it was an interesting study, especially in how the anaysis was conducted.  As I mentioned previously, I would agree with the overall conclusions of the authors based on my own personal experiences and some of the anecdotes of my Scrabble® playing peers.

So, if you’re stuck and are having trouble finding words, try and move your tiles around a few times.  That should help get the brain working.

Best tips from 2007

Looking back on 2007, I’ve had a pretty good year.  I’ve been fortunate to get advice from expert level players throughout this past year.  Here are three “tips” I received and found most useful.

1) “Always look for a better play”
This tip is from Craig Rowland, Mississauga’s club director, and expert Scrabble player.  He’s been very helpful in giving me tips and advice regarding analyzing my own play as well as how to improve.  When I first started playing, he said that most players decide on a play within the first 30–60 seconds.  His advice is to search for another play, a better play.  I’ve started doing that of late, especially with racks that I would have given-up on.  Much to my delight, I’ve been finding some good plays.  This tip is definitely a great one to follow. 

2) “If you have a bingo, play it”
I learned the consequence of not following this tip just last week.  Both Shaun Goatcher and Tony Leah recommended playing a bingo if you have it*.  They did, however, give two caveats:  1)  Don’t play it, if playing the bingo will cause you to lose the game and 2) if you can get 35+ points and still have a great leave like ERT?, ERS? or something like that.  Otherwise, it’s best to take the points from the bingo because you’re never assured you’ll get a chance to play it (and the points) in subsequent turns.  In the past, I would sometimes forego playing a bingo because I was afraid of opening up the triple-word-score lanes.

3) “Don’t panic, even if you’re behind”
This advice is from current #1 player Adam Logan.  He gave a short session during the 2007 Michael Wise Memorial Tournament (Toronto) about what to do when you’re losing.  His advice was to stay calm and take calculated risks to give yourself a chance to win.

A closer look at Scrabble ratings

I’ve often wondered how I can improve my Scrabble rating (both at the club and my “official” NSA tournament rating). Apart from “study words” or “do well at tournaments”, there really isn’t much else to say. I’ve asked a few expert players at my club and they all seem to advocate an “open style” (i.e., keep the board open). Our club director often reminds us lower rated players to “not play scared” and to keep the board open (aside from specific situations). When I first started playing Scrabble at the club, my first instinct was to try and play as many overlapping plays as possible, making use of the two and three letter words. What inevitably happens is a “step-ladder” pattern where neither play can score as the board gets very closed. Now that I’m improving, I’m finding that I really dislike closed boards. I wondered if this change in attitude was a result of my improved play. I’ll be honest – when I first started playing a more open style, I was very nervous of getting beaten by huge margins. In any case, I decided to do some analysis and explore why expert players suggest a more open style.

Each week our club director circulates a listing of each player’s statistics: club rating, rating change, games won/lost (total for season), winning %, average points scored, average points against, high-3 game total, high game, and # of times 3–0. I took this information and did some analysis (see bottom for details on the methods used for this analysis).

After plotting the data points, a straight line can be added to suggest a trend – as the club rating increases, so does the average points scored (Figure 1). Many of the data points are clustered close to the trend line with a few points far away. You can see that the R2 statistic for this trend line (points scored vs. club rating) is 0.7529, indicating a very good “fit” of the data. R2 is a statistical measure of how well a particular line “fits” the data. Therefore a value of 1.0 means perfect fit (i.e., all the data points are on the line), a value of 0 random fit (i.e., any horizontal line will fit the data). For more information regarding R2 , you can read the wikipedia.org entry titled “Coefficient of Determination”.

Figure 1: Average points scored vs. club rating
(click on image to view full-size)

Let’s take a look at points scored against (i.e., opponent scoring).

In this case, you can also see a straight line fits the data (Figure 2), unlike with points scored (Figure 1). Unfortunately, more of the data points fall far from the trend line. The R2 statistic for average points against vs. club rating is 0.3474 (a weak value), suggesting there is more variability in this data.

Figure 2: Average points against vs. club rating
(click on image to view full-size)

What does all of this information mean?

Well, from the two graphs, we can see that there seems to be a strong positive correlation between club rating and the average points scored. The higher your rating, the higher you are likely to score in any particular game. When we examine the points scored against, there is a weak positive correlation with considerable variability in the data. Points scored seems to be a pretty good predictor of one’s rating (based on this data).

I was a bit surprised that the points against wasn’t as good a fit as points scored. If we assume club/tournament directors try to match players of equal skill together, then I would expect that games be closely contested. Based on my personal experience, I’m finding that actual scores of games can vary greatly based on tile distributions, so maybe my original expectation wasn’t correct.

I think that the reason higher-rated players want to play a more open style of Scrabble is because they can take advantage of their opportunities better and score more. A closed board leaves fewer opportunities to make high scoring words/plays and leaves more of the score to the chance (i.e., whoever gets better tiles at specific moments). Given the same tiles, I suspect a higher rated player can generate more points per turn than a lower rated player. This makes sense because higher rated players, due to their better word knowledge and also improved strategic play, make fewer sub-optimal plays (i.e., exchanges, passes, or poor plays). Also, when higher rated players/experts do get good tiles, they can maximize their score, whereas a lower rated player is less likely to do so.

To use a sports analogy, we often hear in hockey and in soccer that “better teams” (i.e., more talented and skilled) tend to play a more attacking and open style of game. Less talented/skilled teams tend to play more defensively and try to limit scoring opportunities. The theory is that the more skilled/talented teams don’t mind allowing an opponent to score because they feel confident that they can out-score an opponent or capitalize more given the same number of opportunities. Because the less talented teams can’t score as easily, they rely more on limiting their opponents from scoring. In Scrabble, the expert players know they can make plays with tiles like U, V, J, X, Q, and so forth, wherease the lower rated players struggle to play words with those tiles (or can’t generate as many points). I would bet that this is a result of word knowledge rather than skill (the expert players know more words).

So, getting back to my original point, when experts suggest playing a more open style, they do so because an open game plays to their advantage because they can score more. That’s why they can get scores in the high 400s, 500s, and even 600s while lower rated players struggle to reach 400. To get better, the best way would be to improve your ability to score rather than trying to limit your opponent from scoring.

Assumptions & Limitations
This analysis is all fine and dandy, but we need to be aware of some assumptions and limitations:

  1. I assumed the club rating is a reasonable measure of a player’s Scrabble ability. Of course for newer players, this rating may not be a good indicator because there may not be enough “data” (i.e., games played) to get a reliable measure.
  2. I’m not sure if this analysis can be generalized to NSA tournament ratings as I don’t have the specific data to test if there are similar or different correlations.
  3. I used only a limited data set (41 points) from a convenience sample based on one club. If we expanded this analysis to include other clubs and players over a longer period of time, we may find different results.
  4. This analysis only suggests that a relationship between rating and scoring exists and thus I report only correlations between points scored/against versus ratings. While tempting, you cannot infer a causal relationship until we test this out. A good test would to examine results of duplicate Scrabble games, where the only variable is a player’s ability since everyone plays the exact same tiles/game. Could be interesting to test out. Future analysis may want to investigate scoring differentials (i.e., points scored minus points against) compared with ratings. Personally, I’m not sure that point differentials would provide better results.

For those interested, I took the weekly player statistics (club rating, rating change, games won/lost (total for season), winning %, average points scored, average points against, high-3 game total, high game, and # of times 3–0) and visually scanned the data to identify a few variables of interest. Just to clarify, “weekly player statistics” is probably a bit of a misnomer as the statistics reflect performance since the beginning of the Mississauga Scrabble Club season (September 2006) until the end of March 2007. I could have used a full season’s data, but this data was handy.

In total, there are 41 players who have played between 15 and 78 games each. After examining the statistics, I identified points scored and points against as interesting. Players are grouped by division (A, B, and C) according to ability. Divisions are grouped as <1000 (Division C), 1000–1500 (Division B), and >1500 (Division A). For reporting purposes, the weekly player statistics file is presented in this order: Division A, Division C, and Division B.

I manually entered club rating, points scored, and points against into Microsoft Excel 2002 and created graphs (see Figure 1 & Figure 2). Next, I used the “add trend line” feature to add a straight line to the data (i.e., linear regression) and report the R2 statistic.

Recipe to become a Champion (from Word Freak)

Here’s some advice that I jotted down a while back when I was reading Stefan Fatsis’s book, Word Freak. I can’t remember the name of the (champion) player who shared this advice with Stefan.

Recipe To Become a Champion

  1. The ability to desire to be the best, or desire to WIN whatever championship is important to you.
  2. Unshakable honesty within oneself to answer the questions about your own strengths and weaknesses
  3. Control your breath
  4. Finding a way to control your emotional states
  5. The X-factor: The seemingly extraordinary state that any given champion has during the winning tournament

The player also indicated:

  • To win, you need the ability to win. You have to develop your mind to the point at which seeing the plays and considering the best options over the board become possible.
  • You also need an equal or superior word knowledge as your opponent. There is no need to close the board.
  • Don’t go over words you’re never going to miss. Only look at combinations that are words you want to know.