Friday, May 20, 2016

Scrabble Strategy

[Prefatory Note: Family members will confirm that the Scrabble strategy unveiled in today's Wall Street Journal was first devised not in Nigeria, but by the Founding Father and Executive Director of this blog decades ago. It proved then, and appears to have proved again, that it is the best strategy for winning. Indeed, a lifetime record of more than 500 wins and fewer than 3 losses pretty well confirms it]

[Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal]

LAGOS—Nigeria is beating the West at its own word game, using a strategy that sounds like Scrabble sacrilege.
By relentlessly studying short words, this country of 500 languages has risen to dominate English’s top lexical contest.
Last November, for the final of Scrabble’s 32-round World Championship in Australia, Nigeria’s winningest wordsmith, Wellington Jighere, defeated Britain’s Lewis Mackay, in a victory that led morning news broadcasts in his homeland half a world away.
It was the crowning achievement for a nation that boasts more top-200 Scrabble players than any other country, including the U.K., Nigeria’s former colonizer and one of the board game’s legacy powers.
“In other countries they see it as a game,” said Mr. Jighere, now a borderline celebrity and talent scout for one of the world’s few government-backed national programs. “Nigeria is one of the countries where Scrabble is seen as a sport.”
Once, almost all of Scrabble’s champions hailed from North America or Europe. Most stuck to a similar “long word” strategy—mastering thousands of seven- and eight-letter plays like QUIXOTRY, a 365-point-move in American Michael Cresta’s record-breaking 830 point win in 2006.
That seems smart Scrabble. A player who can unload all seven tiles gets an extra 50 points, in what is called a bingo.
Global competition and computer analytics have brought that sacred Scrabble shibboleth into question, exposing the hidden risks of big words.
Risk one: Every extra letter on the board is another opening for an opponent to land their own seven-letter blockbuster.
Risk two: Every letter played gets replaced by a random tile from the bag. A bad draw can—and often does—leave players stuck for several turns without vowels or decent letter combinations. After millions of computer-simulated games, Scrabble strategists have concluded that bad draws happen more frequently than previously assumed.
So while Scrabblers still fancy bingos, they increasingly hold off on other high-scoring moves, such as six-letter words, or seven-letter terms that only use six tiles from the rack. Instead, by spelling four- or five-letter words, a player can keep their most useful tiles—like E-D or I-N-G—for the next round, a strategy called rack management. The Nigerians rehearse it during dayslong scrimmage sessions.
Also, thanks to a design quirk, the board is oddly generous to short words. Most of the bonus squares are just four or five letters apart.
Nigerian Wellington Jighere defeated Britain’s Lewis Mackay at the Scrabble world championship in November. His strategy–to use shorter words–sounds like Scrabble sacrilege. Here’s how the game unfolded. Photo: Rob Alcaraz/The Wall Street Journal
“The geometry of the Scrabble board rewards five-letter words,” said Mr. Mackay, who lost to Mr. Jighere in the world championship final, during which the Nigerian nabbed a triple word score with the antiquated adjective KATTI, meaning “spiteful.” “It’s a smart tactic.”
For decades, a computer revolution has been building in Scrabble, each improvement advancing the science of rack management, said Stefan Fatsis, author of “Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players.” These days, competitors use applications to analyze, in real time, the wisdom of every letter laid, comparing their moves to those artificial intelligence would play.
“ ‘What would the robot do?’ is now the key question in Scrabble,” said Mr. Fatsis. Often, he said, the robot plays five letters: “There are inefficiencies in the game that you can exploit by having a mastery of those intermediate-length words.”
Nicknamed “The Cat in the Hat” for his taste in fedoras, Mr. Jighere, 33 years old, is Nigeria’s Rachmaninoff of rack management. At his first tournament in 2007, intimidated by the extravagant vocabulary his Western opponents were spelling, he stuck to midlength words, hoping to limit their play.
“We had this inferiority complex,” Mr. Jighere said during a recent 12-hour tournament in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. “These guys are the owners of the language, they know so many words, we better be careful.”
Now, his method is changing the game. Champions have studied his defensive style, including his decision to put REPAIR on an S during the final, for 30 points. He could have earned 86, including a 50-point bingo, spelling PEREIRAS. Instead, Mr. Jighere kept an “e” for the next round.
“It’s this sort of strategic thinking that the Nigerians are embracing,” said American Chris Lipe, runner up in the 2014 world championship, who called Mr. Jighere’s performance a Scrabble master class.
Mr. Jighere has been playing since he was 14, taught by his older brother when they were growing up in the oil-rich, swampside city of Warri.
Players at the 2015 North American Scrabble Championship in Reno, Nev., in August.
Players at the 2015 North American Scrabble Championship in Reno, Nev., in August. PHOTO: STEVE YEATER/HASBRO/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Nearly every day, a stranger pesters him on Facebook to play the Scrabble-style game Words With Friends. Schools invite him to talk about the game—and reveal his secrets. His own Wellington Foundation for Scrabble and Mind Development in Africa lobbies the government to add Scrabble to the national curriculum, alongside math and science. Upstarts are eager to dethrone him.
“It has not been easy, handling the pressure,” said Mr. Jighere, who says the fame has put him off his game, because there’s no time to practice.
Across the developing world, more governments are funneling money and organization into the sport. In Pakistan, 700-plus people competed in last year’s national championship, which was televised live. A Gabonese man’s second-place finish in the French-language world championship sparked a national Scrabble league in that African state.
“It was a moment of pride,” said Gabon’s President Ali Bongo in an interview. “Incredible.”
Nigeria’s Scrabble ambitions date to the 1990s, when several local fans convinced the dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha to make the game an official sport, a designation that brings funding. Nigeria was ostracized from the world then. Scrabble offered one area where the country could redeem its image abroad.
Competitors in a 2014 Scrabble tournament in London.
Competitors in a 2014 Scrabble tournament in London. PHOTO: GARETH CATTERMOLE/GETTY IMAGES
Nowadays, the country of 187 million stages daylong tournaments in stadiums on an almost weekly basis, often with small prizes on the line. Dozens of Scrabble clubs scout high schools for talent, sometimes poaching players. Several of Nigeria’s 36 states have a Scrabble coach on the payrolls.
Of them, Prince Anthony Ikolo was the first to glimpse the potential of the shorter-word strategy. In the late 2000s, the university mathematician had two apps—Quackle and Maven—that let him simulate tens of thousands of possible game scenarios that would result from a given move. The data showed how often a long word would leave the player vulnerable to a counterstrike or a series of bad draws.
Using those analytics, his team came up with a secret list of the five-letter words that are hardest for opponents to utilize, code-named “ajuwires,” Nigerian slang for an intern. “If you know your five-letter words you can beat people playing seven-, eight-, nine-letter words,” he said.
To train his players, including Mr. Jighere, he sent them word lists to study. They met in hotel rooms to play 48 hours of nonstop Scrabble. “It was like a marathon,” said Mr. Jighere. “No sleep.” On their way to Australia, they had their dictionaries open on their airline trays.
Wellington Jighere with his trophy after winning the world championship.
Wellington Jighere with his trophy after winning the world championship. PHOTO: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
At the tournament, while Scrabble champions from the Western world generally socialized, Mr. Jighere and his teammates kept to themselves, going to bed early. Each morning, the Nigerians met the Kenyans in their hotel to pray.
By comparison, his opponent, Mr. Mackay, spent the evening before their big match at a pub.
At game time, Mr. Mackay, exhausted from days of Scrabble, watched as a visibly relaxed Mr. Jighere slang a succession of terse, defensive words, such as DACOIT (36 points), YOW (34) and AAH (17).
The Brit broke into a lead with AVOUCHED—an eight-letter bingo for 86 points—but spent the next five rounds managing awkward racks, playing words that scored in the low 30s and high 20s. With QUIZ (93), Mr. Jighere popped ahead.
At the final score, which was 449 to 432, the winner’s teammates lifted their champion around the room, singing a Nigerian pop tune: “We Done Win.”
Then President Muhammadu Buhari called to congratulate.
The winning word, for 36 points? FELTY. It was five letters long.

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