If you go to John Chew’s (Math) home page here, you will find his name spelled out in Scrabble tiles. Gee. Wonder why?
Not only the co-president of the North American Scrabble Players Association, the Toronto resident is also an expert Scrabble player himself and helps organize Scrabble tournaments.
If you go to Chew’s Scrabble home page, you will see he takes the game quite seriously. For instance, as we mentioned earlier, Chew holds the distinction of having the highest tied scored of any Scrabble game in a sanctioned tournament. Both he and his opponent, Zev Kaufman, scored 502.
Chew even broke it down move-by-move on his Scrabble page, noting the decision making process and even points out questionable play of his own: “Chew still has about 15 minutes on his clock and Kaufman is 20 seconds overtime. Chew decides this isn’t the key play and slaps down a poor play right away, to score a few points, split duplicate tiles for endgame flexibility, and put Kaufman back under time pressure.”
For the full analysis, go here.
We’re thrilled to have his insight on the fun we have with words and the wonderful game of Scrabble.
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Why is Scrabble such an enduring game?
Like the board that it is played on, the appeal of the Scrabble game has both breadth and depth. The game has broad appeal, because it poses an interesting challenge to anyone who can spell and count. You don’t need to learn complicated rules, or acquire skills beyond what you naturally pick up in grade school; and while there is a luck component, you can overcome it with effort at most levels. The depth of the game’s appeal lies in its never- ending challenge: no one has ever truly mastered the game. Even if you can beat your family, you may have a friend who can beat you; if you can beat all your local friends, there’s someone on the Internet who can beat you; if you’re the national champion, you may be a long way off from world champion; and even if you’re the world champion, your chances of defending your title are poor.
Playing Scrabble makes you feel good, because it’s rewarding. On a micro level, you think hard about a puzzle for two minutes a dozen times in a game, and each time you find the right answer, you’re rewarded with a lot of points and a neurochemical feeling of accomplishment. On a macro level, if you have a competitive personality, there is always something that you can do between games to improve your play: study more words, play more quickly, learn more strategy, research your opponents’ weaknesses, and so on; and the payoff from that in your next game gives you a buzz of satisfaction.
Why do you think, culturally, we have such a fascination for word games such as Scrabble?
We play games to acquire, maintain and enhance the skills that we are mentally and physically equipped for, and which have some value in our culture. Our culture is based on communication; our communication is based on language; and our language is based on words. The ability to communicate clearly by choosing the right words to express an idea is considered a cultural leadership skill. Word games such as Scrabble tweak this by measuring the rightness of words by how many points they score, rather than on their ability to motivate the people around you. But in each situation, the important things are to know a lot of words so that you will be able to find the right one for the moment.
When did you first play? What drew you to the game?
I played every board game that I could as a child until I could beat my family at it, then set it aside and moved onto the next. What brought me back to the game as an adult were two events.
After graduating from college in Canada, I went to work in France for a couple of years, developing database publishing software, which involves storing vast numbers of words in a computer and retrieving the correct ones to communicate effectively with a user. I have found if I go more than three months without regularly using a language, I begin to lose verbal fluency in it, even if it is one of my mother tongues, like English. Scrabble had at the time just come out for the Nintendo Gameboy (the ancestor of their current DS series of handhelds), and I started playing it on my commutes to keep my English active.
I eventually returned to Canada, studied some more, including cramming for a series of extremely challenging exams. When I was done with them, I looked for something to do to unwind, and found the very first server dedicated to playing Scrabble online. I met Adam Logan, who has gone on to be a good friend as well as the World Scrabble Champion, and he steered me toward the Toronto Scrabble Club, the oldest and largest Scrabble club in North America, of which I am now the co-director.
What’s the best word you ever came up with?
I don’t really think about the game in these terms. Playing the game is about finding the best word that you can find within your available time, and then moving on to the next challenge, setting the last turn completely behind you. If you dwell on your past turns or past games, it distracts your focus from the next turn and the next game, and affects your play.
But I have an answer for the question, because I get asked it a lot. I was once playing a friendly game with Robin Pollock Daniel, one of the strongest female players in the world. The word EXTRA was on the board, and I had EEINRTU on my rack, so I extended EXTRA to make EXTRAUTERINE across a triple word score for 107 points.
Yearly, the National Scrabble Championship is held. Hundreds participate. Are you surprised by the attraction it generates?
No, not at all. It’s the annual gathering of the best and most obsessed members of our community. The tournament itself is only part of the attraction, and for many it’s not even the main part. For longtime attendees, it’s the social aspect: the chance to spend a week immersed in words with your tribe; going out to dinner at the end of the day and knowing that everyone else in the restaurant is reading the menu not to decide what to eat, but to look for interesting words and their anagrams; to be able to talk with people about what you did all day and have them really get it.
Actually, I read that some describe Scrabble as a math game. That’s because the focus is on generating as many points as possible from a word. Would you agree with that assessment? (You are working on you PhD in mathematics, right?)
Yes, I am, and I would have defended my thesis already were it not for Scrabble, so it’s a double-edged sword. There is a lot of basic arithmetic in Scrabble, in that to play quickly you have to be able to look at say EXTRAUTERINE on the board and see without counting that it scores 107 points (because it’s a 12-letter word with 7 extra points on the 8-point X, for a base total of 19 points, times three for that triple word is 57, plus 50 for using all your tiles); and when we work with kids in the School Scrabble programme, it’s certainly gratifying to see their mental math skills improving along with their spelling. There’s a lot more math to it than that though, in the strategy. If you wrote a computer program that always played the highest-scoring word, the top players in the world would be able to beat it six games out of seven.
You have to understand probability theory better than a poker player, to be able to anticipate the effect that the tiles you leave on your rack will have on your future plays, given the tiles that have already been seen. You have to understand game theory better than a chess player, to correctly analyze a much wider tree of possible moves, especially in the late game.
Do you play other word games, such as Bananagrams or the social media game, Words With Friends?
I have designed special rules for, organized and played in a few Bananagrams tournaments. I like playing Anagrams after hours at tournaments with Scrabble players. I sometimes play Boggle as a form of cross-training for Scrabble. On long car trips, I’ll play various variations of Ghost. I like doing cryptic crossword puzzles. There’s an old PC game called Bookworm Adventures that I’ll still dust off once in a while to play with the kids. I haven’t yet played WWF (Words With Friends), but that’s because I’m not looking for another activity to consume all of the spare time that I used to have; all the other games I mentioned I can play for an hour and then set aside.
Do these new games threaten the popularity of Scrabble? Or is it just a case of more the merrier?
If you’re playing WWF or Boggle, then clearly right at that moment, you’re not playing Scrabble, but that doesn’t make Scrabble less popular. It gets you in the habit of playing word games, so that when one of your friends asks you for an online game of Scrabble, or you’re at the cottage and someone pulls out the Scrabble board, you’re more inclined to accept the challenge.
Do you have any resources you’d like to let people know about to improve their game and overall fun with words?
- North American Scrabble Players Association
- 2012 National Scrabble Championship
- Word Freak, by Stefan Fatsis (second edition published last year)
- Quackle, the best Scrabble program there is
- Zyzzyva, a word study tool, for Mac, PC or iOS
- NSA Word Gear, for Scrabble gear in North America
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That was fascinating insight. Thanks to John for his contribution in helping us explore how we have fun with words. By the way, what’s a six letter word for grateful? Starts with a “T” Yes, thanks again for taking part in our blog. We’ve learned a lot.
Michael Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.