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Nigerians Dominate Scrabble Tournaments Using Five-Letter Word Strategy (wsj.com)
295 points by vincentbarr on May 22, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 80 comments

If I understand this correctly, they are applying the Chess strategy of thinking n-moves ahead to Scrabble, where the opponent's tiles are hidden and ones own future tiles are mostly unknown.

If you use all the tiles, on the upside you get +50 extra points. The downside is that you leave a lot more room for the opponent to score big since there are more letters on board after your move. Also, you have no control on your next 7 tiles and this can negatively affect your scores for the next 3-5 moves.

The benefit to keeping a few good tiles for future moves comes at the cost of fewer points in the immediate round. The upside is your opponent has fewer open tiles to score big on.

In general, the first strategy beats the second because of the bingo advantage, however their secret sauce is a list of 5 letter words that the opponent can't build on to score big points. So these inert words make the second strategy better for now.

I haven't written any Scrabble AI but I wonder if most of them optimize for the immediate move or look further down the game? Unlike Chess, there are many more unknown variables per move in Scrabble - tiles you both might get, x-y position of n-tiles placed per round, scores of each tile placed, tile bonuses (double/triple letter/word) etc. If anything, the Nigerians' victory has shown that there is a lot more room for optimization in Scrabble and scoring the max per round may not be the globally optimal solution.

>> If I understand this correctly, they are applying the Chess strategy of thinking n-moves ahead to Scrabble, where the opponent's tiles are hidden and ones own future tiles are mostly unknown.

Yep, Scrabble is a hidden-information, stochastic game (the opponent's future tiles are also randomly drawn).

Scrabble is probably more similar to poker and other card games in that respect. The key difference is that the distribution of letter tiles is skewed: the number of tiles is not the same for each letter [1]. This is different than, say, playing cards, where you get exactly 4 of each card (plus the, I think two, Jokers).

Which means it's easier to make a prediction for what's coming out of the opponent's bag, possibly (they're more likely to see the more common tiles).

>> they are applying the Chess strategy of thinking n-moves ahead

Well, that's a universal m-player game strategy, not specific to chess. Minimax and all that, ja? Did I misunderstand what you mean?

Except of course in this case the optimal strategy for Scrabble seems to be under dispute (long or short words best?) and so programming an AI player with minimax might not be that straightforward.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scrabble_letter_distributions

On an unimportant note, jokers are not included in poker, nor in almost any other game. It is my understanding that they exist to use as replacement cards in the case of a lost or damaged card (rather than having to throw out the deck.)

Jokers are actually used in occasional uncommonly played poker games (certain variants of 5 card draw). For the most part those games haven't been played much in public card rooms since 10-20 years ago but you can occasionally come across a game.

"they are applying the Chess strategy of thinking n-moves ahead to Scrabble"

That isn't new, what is new is that they (learni from analysis of games played by computer) show is that the conventional strategy favours scoring points too much over keeping a rack that allows you to score decently in future moves and preventing your opponent from scoring heavily.

This is presented as a totally new strategy, but looking at the video showing an example game, I get the impression it is more of a slight, but important adjustment. For example, the Nigerian does have a seven-letter move in that play.

And, by the way, I would expect this:

"Mr. Jighere and his teammates kept to themselves, going to bed early […] his opponent, Mr. Mackay, spent the evening before their big match at a pub."

also influenced the result. McKay probably saw this as a bit of a holiday, while the Nigerians saw it as work. 449 vs 432 is not a crushing defeat.

OK you guys. Here's the serious bit then:

>> McKay probably saw this as a bit of a holiday, while the Nigerians saw it as work.

That's probably his way of unwinding and managing his psychology after a match. It's a bit misleading for the article to bring it up as a disadvantage since he's obviously a strong player who has probably competed for some time, so he should be expected to know what works for him.

Also, you can perfectly well go to the pub without coming back with your pants on your head. I usually drink half a glass of wine, then go home and code. No reason why the guy didn't have a light drink then got back to his hotel and trained.

By contrast, the Nigerian's practice of playing 48-hour games and studying non-stop during their flight sounds more performance-degrading to me (having played a board game competitively, I won't say which). But, again: what works for them works for them.

Agreed. The time before a competition is all about stress management.

48 hours of non-stop practice does sound a little extreme, but keep in mind that this is a one-time event in the middle of their training. Not right before the competition.

Avoiding burnout is certainly important in the long run, but short bursts of intense training, with recovery time afterwards, can indeed work well.

Stop.Just stop.You guys always begrudge success when Africans do good things.It is pathetic and low.You ought to learn to appreciate and celebrate people when they work hard to achieve success rather looking for ways to belittle their achievements.

Did you post this under the wrong message? I didn't write anything that sounds like I'm begrudging the Nigerians their victory.

You are projecting your personal issues into this conversation. Nobody has done what you just said.

>> McKay probably saw this as a bit of a holiday, while the Nigerians saw it as work.

Nah. A British gentleman will always go down his local for a pint after work :P

That last sentence is the real piece of news here - the absolute core of the issue: Nigerians have been doing extremely well at Scrabble by applying non-greedy strategies. It seems obvious in retrospect that a game like Scrabble is not played optimally by making greedy choices.

My friend was cheating against me in words with friends by looking up the biggest words. I beat him pretty handily with defensive play.

In words with friends you can easily control the double and triple words by avoiding plays that open certain areas of the board. There are more double words in Scrabble so WFF is more strategic in that regard.

Quackle[1] and Elise[2], two of the best Scrabble AIs, do look ahead.

[1] http://people.csail.mit.edu/jasonkb/quackle/doc/how_quackle_... [2] http://www.codehappy.net/elise/

Back in the day (2001) I worked on the PalmOS version of Scrabble. One thing that surprised me when I was tuning the AI was that it played better when all words of seven or more letters were removed from its vocabulary. Apparently searching through the longer words was a worse use of time than searching for other placements of shorter words (except on the highest difficulty, where it was given a larger time budget).

We ended up giving the lower difficulty levels a restricted dictionary anyway, but this was to affect players' perception of the difficulty rather than the actual difficulty (the AI on "beginner" mode shouldn't be playing a lot of words you've never heard of). We adjusted time budgets so that difficulty still ramped up as the dictionary expanded at higher levels.

> We ended up giving the lower difficulty levels a restricted dictionary anyway, but this was to affect players' perception of the difficulty rather than the actual difficulty (the AI on "beginner" mode shouldn't be playing a lot of words you've never heard of)

It seems to me like a restricted dictionary or smaller time budget (or, for that matter, dumber search algorithms) are all sensible measures of a low difficulty level. Otherwise you're using "difficulty" to mean "difficult for me to program cleverly" rather than "difficult to beat" or "like a human expert".

I think you missed the point that a restricted dictionary actually increased the difficulty to the user.

I don't think so? The restricted dictionary is for the AI, not the user.

"it played better when all words of seven or more letters were removed from its vocabulary."

Oh, I see what you mean now. Thanks, I think you're right.

More counterintuitive Scrabble facts: the French Scrabble world champion is from New Zealand and doesn't speak French.


He memorized the entire scrabble French dictionary in a matter of weeks!

To be fair, he can now speak French words. He just has no idea what they mean.

I doubt he can speak them, per se. French pronounciation can be quite tricky.

He probably can speak them, but maybe it will cause the opponents to start chuckling about his bad pronunciation. This would probably only help him as it makes him look stupid.

Eh, it's much less tricky than English.


The article really bungles the strategy talk. In the actual game, there are 14 tiles unseen.


If Wellington plays his 86 point bingo, he empties the bag and if Lewis bingos back, the game ends and he'll get the value of Wellington's final rack added to his score. By not emptying the bag, Wellington keeps control of the game and prevents the only way he can lose.

It's not some crazy strategy, it's a pretty clear decision for a high level player.

Source: Played tournament Scrabble and memorized something like 50k words for about 4-5 years.

"Nigeria is beating the West at its own board game"

I know that the definition of "the West" is pretty vague, but this journalism seems a decade or two behind its time with its "us and them" style. Scrabble doesn't belong to Europe/USA and Nigeria fits geographically, politically, economically, and religiously into common definitions of "the West".

Wikipedia's "Cultural Definition":

"From a cultural and sociological approach the Western world is defined as including all cultures that are directly derived from and influenced by European cultures, i.e. Europe (at least the European Union member states, EFTA countries, European microstates);[31][32] in the Americas (e.g. Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, United States of America, Uruguay, Venezuela), and in Oceania (Australia and New Zealand). Together these countries constitute Western society."

I don't think I've ever heard any definition include any African country.

Not even South Africa?

I can't think of any time I've thought of or heard someone speaking of South Africa as a western country. Influenced by the West, sure.

Honestly I hardly heard anyone referring Venezuela or Cuba as the West either. In practice it's really down to Anglo-Saxon + European first world countries.

Same goes for North vs South. There is a funny quote by a US president (that I can't seem to find right now) listing some countries in the southern hemisphere, and they're all actually on the northern hemisphere.

I disagree. Japan is frequently referred to as part of "the West" (despite obvious geographical issues). They don't fit this "derived from" idea (which itself seems a suspect concept)

I would rather see "western" culture as lead by democracy, freedom, justice and fairness for all under rule of law. It seems better to have a culture where we have a shared destination to strive towards rather than a common ancestry

Japan is also frequently considered not to be part of "the West", I don't what proportion of people think which way though. I'd never consider them included, and in discussing either marketing or sales in business I've never heard them included as part of the West.

Scrabble quite literally was invented by and belongs to an American company.

And you're basically just asking for the definition of "the West" to be rewritten for some reason:

- culturally, I think it's a disservice to Nigeria to call it "Western", which usually means descended from the European tradition. Nigerians have their own ancient history, whereas direct descendants of European immigrants (e.g. most Americans) do not.

- religiously, Nigeria is >50% Muslim.

- economically, Nigeria's per-capita GDP is 10% or less of most "Western" countries

As you said, it's vague, but it remains a pretty useful adjective (what else do you call Europe + the Americas + Australia etc. without a long-winded explanation?) as long as it's not being redefined for who knows what reason...

Was actually invented by an American man who sold it to an American company.

- religiously, Nigeria is >50% Muslim.

You know, I might be misreading this but I think you mean Western society is, by contrast, Christian.

The West has made a big todo about being secular on a national level, regardless of what the population believes or does not believe. In some countries, the people are also largely a-religious. There's culture war, check, but to say that a nation's religion plays any role in whether it belongs to the West or not is, dunno. Dangerous?

I don't disagree that in the past cultural lines were drawn along religion, but, surely we 've come a bit of way since? Maybe not if you look at current wars, but still: is that really, really what we think the West means? An alliance of Christian nations?

'Cause that, like, sucks.

You are misreading. Do you say that Japan and S. Korea are part of the West? Certainly "Westernized", but not "West", given the different history and cultural traditions. One example is religious differences like Shintoism, but there are many others.

I believe the argument is that Nigeria should be seen the same way. While Westernized, to place it under the category "West" also serves to minimize its own long historical and cultural history which is independent of the European tradition.

If you say that Japan is part of the West, then I can agree that Nigeria could also be part of the West, but disagree that it's a useful categorization. We have other terms, like "industrialized", which are less culturally burdened.

Otherwise, Nigeria is not part of the West in the same way that Japan is not part of the West.


>The concept of the Western part of the earth has its roots in Greco-Roman civilization in Europe, and the advent of Christianity.[2][3][4][5][6] In the modern era, Western culture has been heavily influenced by the traditions of the Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, Age of Enlightenment—and shaped by the expansive colonialism of the 15th-20th centuries. Before the Cold War era, the traditional Western viewpoint identified Western Civilization with the Western Christian (Catholic-Protestant) countries and culture.

>Christianity remains the dominant religion in the Western world, where 70% are Christians.[38]

I fail to see why YeGoblynQueene is being downvoted. I was under the impression that the downvote button was to be used for posts that do not contribute to the discussion or are inflammatory etc. His contribution is relevant despite being wrong.

In the climate of political correctness many truths get swept under the table. The west IS Christian in outlook and structure. Its laws, mores,history are all derived from a Greco-Roman tradition filtered through a sieve of Christianity. It may be that some people wish to change the outlook to a philosophy of secularism but note that even this opposition bases its attack against a religous 'enemy'.

Bertrand Russells book -A History of Western Civilization should make very clear to anyone where certain ideas are derived from.

And yes. It may suck to you but the fact is that the perception of westerners is as an alliance of (lapsed!) Christian Nations.

You're also about 20-30 years behind if you're considering an East-West dichotomy. If you want to create a (Manichean) divide, consider Global North vs Global South.


Nigeria fits geographically, politically, economically, and religiously into common definitions of "the West"

Not really. I can't see a single definition of "the West" on the Wikipedia page[1] that would fit Nigeria. I'll concede it it part of West Africa, though!

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_world

I think there's a couple of memes being mixed here:

- There's North/South, meaning Rich/Poor. Australia and New Zealand are in the North, though of course most rich countries are in the Northern hemisphere.

- There's West/Rest (or East, if you like), and this one is a bit harder to define. You can go way back and say it's to do with having intellectual roots in Greek/Latin parts of Europe. That's certainly what many people who studied Classics would say. You could also argue that the liberal democratic tradition is what defines it. That would make Germany, Italy and a number of other countries temporarily non-western. Or you could go with religion and say it's to do with Christianity. That would make Russia a western country.

So, where's Nigeria? Well, it's not rich. Politically it's inherited a colonial system from the British, though corruption perceptions are not close to what people normally expect of western democratic countries (IMO part of western political tradition is to act scornful of corruption). On religion, it's a mix of Christian and Islamic.

I wouldn't say Nigeria fits into the common ideas of what the west is.

> Nigeria fits geographically, politically, economically, and religiously into common definitions of "the West".

The common definition of "the West" would be western Europe (we could take this as the parts of Europe which did not affiliate with an Eastern Orthodox church, or as the parts of Europe which did not affiliate with the Soviet Union), the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Geographically, Nigeria is not located in any of those places, or related to any of those places. It is located in the part of the world referred to as "sub-Saharan Africa".


> Kin-selective altruism has made its way into Nigerian politics, resulting in tribalist efforts to concentrate Federal power to a particular region of their interests. Nationalism has also led to active secessionist movements such as MASSOB, Nationalist movements such as Oodua Peoples Congress, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta and a civil war. Nigeria's three largest ethnic groups (Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba) have maintained historical preeminence in Nigerian politics; competition amongst these three groups has fuelled corruption and graft.

> president Olusegun Obasanjo, acknowledged fraud and other electoral "lapses" but said the result reflected opinion polls. In a national television address in 2007, he added that if Nigerians did not like the victory of his handpicked successor, they would have an opportunity to vote again in four years.

> As in many other African societies, prebendalism and high rates of corruption continue to constitute major challenges to Nigeria. All major parties have practised vote rigging and other means of coercion to remain competitive.

(from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigeria#Government_and_politic... -- this is the lowest of low-hanging fruit)

Economically, Nigeria is nothing like "the West".


> According to a 2009 Pew survey, 75% of Nigeria's population were Muslims. A later Pew study in 2011 estimated that Christians now formed the majority of the nation, comprising 50.8% of the population, while Muslims comprised 47.9%.

( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Nigeria#Religi... )

All four of your claims appear to be nonsense.


GDP - per capita $1091.64

Are you talking about Niger, not Nigeria? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_%28PP...

Nigeria has a GDP per capita of about $6100. Have I misunderstood that page?

Not that far off some EU countries.


    Country                CIA[4] 2010 Estimation
    Moldova                1,433
    Kosovo                 1,813
    Bosnia and Herzegovina 3,500
    Albania                4,000
    Ukraine                4,350
    Republic of Macedonia  4,669
    Belarus                5,500

Yes, you have misunderstood: it's GDP per capita at purchasing power parity (PPP), not actual dollars. Roughly speaking, the hypothetical average Nigerian has an actual dollar income of $1000, but the spending power of somebody earning $6100 in the US.

While some of those countries may be European, none are EU member states. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Member_state_of_the_European...

I'll reproduce the URLs you're giving in full, so that the invalid comparison becomes obvious:



Thank you I came into this thread either wanting to find someone pointing this out or to post it myself

This article slightly overstates how disruptive the strategy is. Of course top-level Scrabble players already knew about rack management and defensive plays, and would not always just greedily play the highest-scoring word. It's more a question of finding the optimal weightings of the different elements, and the Nigerians have shown that the conventional wisdom was probably weighted too highly towards making big plays immediately.

I've been playing Words with Friends more or less constantly for the past 5 years or so and I've come to pretty much the same conclusion. It's far more important to deny your opponent the opportunity to get valuable triple/double letter or work scores than it is to always grab them yourself.

If you do extend to get a bonus tile, make sure the potential scoring opportunity is limited. Things like:

1. Don't leave a vowel next to a triple letter score in line with a triple word score - that leaves an opening for a valuable consonant to start a word and end on the triple word score.

2. If you pass parallel to a triple letter tile, beware of having a vowel adjacent to the tile and a consonant after it. Especially if the vowel is A, I, or O as these form two letter words with Z, Q, and J respectively. If they can get get for example JO going in two directions on a triple letter that's 60+ points.

3. Always be aware of whether the J, Q, Z, X have been played or not.

4. Sometimes it's better to play a less valuable word if it helps you get rid of difficult letters like too many vowels or consonants in hopes that the next draw will even out your hand and let you play a better word.

I think WWF is a little different because the tiles permit higher scoring possibilities than Scrabble, but I imagine the strategies are much the same.

WWF forces you to focus more on the board strategy due to the mechanics of the game being different than Scrabble: the player doesn't have to actually know and/or memorize the words they are playing, they can just attempt as many high scoring combinations they want until they get a hit in the game's dictionary database.

I use this strategy when playing WWF as well, and have stumbled across words unknown to me.

I also play illegal words to check the validity of other words formed. For instance, if I wonder whether an existing word can take an -S or -D ending, I'll play a word I know is wrong. WWF helpfully comes back with a list of which words aren't valid. :)

Neither of these work against a live opponent so I play WWF a lot differently than Scrabble. Like you said, strategy is different when playing - in WWF, I can focus more on rack management and scoring spaces playing WWF; in Scrrabble, I am nudged towards playing words I know because I can't test them. Back when I played Scrabble I studied the 2 and 3 letter works plus the hooks and didn't find that aspect of the game all that fun.

In my younger years I played Scrabble quite obsessively, sometimes in 36 hour long sessions with a dozen of us playing. Against mere mortals (i.e. those that dn't know all 102 two letter words) I considered myself unbeatable.

However, several years after my 'peak Scrabble' days, I found myself in a rural pub with not a lot to do than play the game, against someone who really didn't have the wordplay for it. Much to my horror I lost!!! His 'strategy' was to play 2 or 3 letter words, nothing longer, ever... He just lacked the tiles and vocabulary for longer words. Consequently the whole top left of the board had no places to go, totally locked out by little words.

Amongst my normal Scrabble playing friends I always played an open game, in contrast my 2-3 letter competitor played a closed game, not that that was deliberate.

Therefore, if you are not playing against a pro, try 2-3 letters rather than five - you really could win against those far more experienced than you.

As a Nigerian, this makes me absurdly proud. As a mathematician, I am especially proud of the game-theoretic aspect of the win.

I'm interested in how the odds change as tiles are played. When, say, the J and both Vs and Ws have been played, the remaining tiles are less dangerous.

I'm curious though by your characterization of this as being "game theoretic"... It seems like this strategy is a consequence of correctly analyzing the game state tree, which doesn't on the face of it seem to involve game theory to me (in the way that term is usually used in economics.)

They are treating this as a stochastic game. They are accounting for their opponent's likely response when deciding their own move. That is enough for me, anyway.

A couple of comments are slightly misconstruing the "rack management" strategy. Using all your letters for the 50 point bonus is sometimes OK.

>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.

My paraphrasing: "unless you are using all your tiles for the 50 points bonus, make sure you have decent letters after your turn; even then, consider whether the bonus is worth it."

Examples off the top of my head: what's especially decried is using 6 of your letters leaving "Q" or 5 of your letters, leaving you with something like "LW" and 5 randoms, which makes for awkward turns.

I'm a tournament Scrabble player and while I'm glad this article has brought some awareness to our game, this is pretty standard tournament strategy. It's about balancing your rack and playing short words when needed. If you have a long word that uses all your letters, it is 99% of the time the right play.

The only reason why he passed up the bingo PEREIRAS in that endgame is because it would have emptied the bag and if his opponent had a bingo to end the game, Jighere would have lost.

Brian Sheppard's thesis "Towards Perfect Play of Scrabble" [0] has a lot of good info on Scrabble strategy which can be applied to human play as well as to AI (though obviously things like B* and Monte Carlo search aren't realistic for human players)

    [0] https://project.dke.maastrichtuniversity.nl/games/files/phd/Shepard_thesis.pdf

Pretty interesting strategy. I also play very defensively when I play scrabble to the point where I try to sabotage what I think my opponent's next move(s) is(are) which, when using short letters, makes this really, really easy.

Then again I've never played competitively so who knows about that "easy" part :)

If someone wants to experiment, I wrote a script a year ago that generates valid words from a set of letters and scores them according to Scrabble rules. [0]

[0] https://github.com/mateogianolio/scrabbler

Huh? I learned scrabble from a professional player 15 years ago, and at the time he said this was the default strategy for all serious players.

Less is more! It's cool to see disrupting new strategies in classic games.

If you watch the video, one big win for Jighere was to play QUIZ (93) on a triple word score field. This was right after a round where he did play 8 letters, which, according to the short word strategy, he should not have done.

So while he did manage this well, there was also good bit of luck involved. Or maybe it's good to have a strategy, but sometimes you need to ignore it.

Firstly a pedantic point, he played 7 letters not 8, but his 7 made an 8 letter word.

I don't play scrabble more than once or twice a year and am not great even by playing-it-with-family standards. But the concept that not using all 7 of your letters leaves you with a potentially bad next hand is one part of their overall strategy, according to the article. They also will be thinking about what letters are already gone and therefore what might be left to draw, they're thinking about what opportunities they might be opening up for the opponent, and they're thinking about their future opportunities too. And of course they're thinking about how many points they'll get, too.

His Bingo (I never knew that was a thing in scrabble before today) scored 72 points, so if he can find a way to justify it, it's something to at least consider. Looking at the board when he played it (and including the 7 tiles he put down), there are five clear spots where there is an open vowel with space to become a 4 or 5 letter word, which might make him worry less about not pulling a vowel if he reloads his letters. Add in all the other strategic thinking he has and I don't, I wouldn't be surprised if he made an intelligent rather than lucky decision. Of course, with his next draw, he was lucky that not only did he get Q and Z, but he also got a blank. But every time you get new letters in scrabble you're going to be lucky or unlucky, regardless of how well you play.

Eh, from the article it's clear it's really a "rack management strategy", not a "short word strategy." An intense rack management strategy leads to more short words than you might expect, but does not rule out long words in certain circumstances.

They might have to start donning the official scrabble championship mantle too https://espnfivethirtyeight.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/ap10...

> this country of 500 languages That caught me by surprise, until https://www.ethnologue.com/country/ng/languages

I wonder what happens when you apply Google's AlphaGo against the Nigerians.

I liked the original title - can we change it back?

I'm pretty sure "Katti" isn't an English word. Did the journalist mishear "Catty"? Is this not a word Americans recognise?

What dictionaries did you check? Did you check the one this tournament was using?

Words don't have to be English, they have to be listed in the book the tournament uses.


    In which Scrabble dictionary does KATTI exist?

    Scrabble (US/Canada)     No
    Scrabble (UK)            Yes!(9 pts)
    Official Scrabble (OSPD) No
    WordFeud                 Yes!(9 pts)
    Words with friends       No
    Hanging with friends     No
    Letterpress              Yes!(5 pts)
    Lexulous (US)            No


"Bingo" often beats going bingo.

Let me be the first to say: moneytile!

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