Scrabble flashback, and why Tyler Cowen is being too hard on Sarah Palin

Nov 28 '09

This comment by Tyler Cowen on Sarah Palin’s poor Scrabble strategy reminds me of my blog a few months ago with six suggested Scrabble reforms. Without further ado:

1. Change one of the I’s to an O. We’ve all had the unpleasant experience of having too many I’s in our rack. What’s the point?

2. Change one of the L’s to an H. And change them both to 2-point letters. The H is ridiculously overvalued.

3. V is horrible. Change one of them to an N and let the remaining V be worth 6 points.

4. Regarding Q: Personally, I’d go the Boggle way and have a Qu tile. But I respect that Scrabble traditionalists enjoy the whole hide-the-Q game, so for them I guess I’d have to keep the Q as is.

5. Get rid of a bunch of non-English words such as qat, xu, jo, etc. Beyond this, for friendly games, adopt the Ubs rule, under which, if others aren’t familiar with a word you just played, you (a) have to define it, and (b) can’t use it this time–but it becomes legal in the future.

6. This brings me to challenges. When I was a kid we’d have huge fights over challenges because of their negative-sum nature: when player A challenges player B, one of them will lose his or her turn. At some point we switched to the mellower rule that, if you’re challenged and the word isn’t in the dictionary, you get another try–but you have to put your new word down immediately, you get no additional time to think. And if you challenge and you are wrong, you don’t lose your turn. (We could’ve made this symmetric by saying that the challenger would have to play immediately when his or her turn came up–that seems like a reasonable rule to me–but we didn’t actually go so far, as challenges were always pretty rare.)

Regarding points 1, 2, and 3 above: I know that traditionalists will say that all these bugs are actually features, that a good Scrabble player will know how to handle a surplus of I’s or deal with a V. I disagree. There’s enough challenge in trying to make good words without artificially making some of the rare letters too common. I mean, if you really believed that it’s a good thing that there are two V’s worth only 4 points each, why not go whole hog and get rid of a bunch of E’s, T’s, A’s, N’s, and R’s, and replace them with B’s and C’s and suchlike?

Also interesting is this chart showing the frequencies of letters from several different corpuses. I’m not surprised that, for example, the frequency of letters from a dictionary is different from that of spoken words, but I was struck by the differences in letter frequencies comparing different modern written sources. For example, E represents 12.4% of all letters from a corpus of newspapers, whereas it is only 11.2% in corpuses of fiction and magazines. I wonder how much of this is explained by “the.”

Check out the comments for much more. Bottom line: I’ll accept qat. But I’m holding the line on xu, jo, cee, aw, and the frequency of I’s and V’s.

And, to return to Cowen’s original point, I think he’s too hard on Palin for writing this:

Everybody in the family played Scrabble and took great pride in hoarding Ks and Qs and slapping them down in long, fancy words on triple-letter scores.

Different people have different Scrabble strategies. I remember when I was a kid that my dad thought it was basically unsporting to do a block. He also would never trade in his letters. He didn’t mind when I did it, but he basically felt it was contrary to the spirit of the game to not play what you have. This attitude always annoyed me at the time, but, in retrospect, why not? Ultimately the goal of playing is to have fun, not to win.

Hey, maybe this does shed some insight into Palin’s political strategy!