Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Tangent

I know this is supposed to be a bridge blog. But I hope you won't mind if I take time out to discuss an interesting end position in a game of a Words with Friends I played recently.

I should say at the start that I'm new to this game and not particularly good at it, though I do find it fascinating. As in most games, the interest comes from balancing competing objectives. You want to make high-scoring plays. But you don't want to leave opportunities open to your opponent. You also don't want to leave yourself with an awkward combination of letters such that you will have a hard time finding a good play at your next turn. I am not yet confident in my judgment in evaluating these trade-offs. But I am confident that the key to becoming a good player is to develop that judgment. That seems to be more important than having a large vocabulary. I have memorized all the two-letter words. But I seem to have a considerably smaller repertoire of three-letter words than many of my opponents do. Just looking over a few active games, I see words like NOH, OKA, and KIR, and I can assure you that I was not the one who played them. Not knowing such words, however, does not seem to be as much of a disadvantage as one might think.

The highlight of any Words with Friends  game for me is the end position. Now, when you know what tiles your opponent has, you can plan everything out. It's almost like analyzing an endplay in bridge, except that there are more variations to worry about. Take, for example, the following end position in a game I recently played against Robb Gordon:

See what I mean about vocabulary? Robb just played NOUS. Who nous that was a legitimate English word?

I am down 51 points. There is one tile left in the bag. I cannot win unless I get a bingo. The good news is I do have a seven-letter word: MATURED. The bad news is there is no place on the board to put it. (TOYE is apparently not a word. I tried it. Although TOYO, which I tried earlier in the game, is a word. You can test words out by playing a two-letter word you know is invalid, like OO. If the game tells you OO is not word but remains silent about TOYO, you can conclude TOYO is a valid word. I was at first unsure whether such experimentation was ethical or not. But, after asking around, I discovered the consensus is that it's perfectly OK.)

Since I can't play a bingo now, it would be a mistake to play more than one tile. With only one tile left in the bag, I would not be able to play a bingo on my next turn. Perhaps, I thought, I should simply pass. If Robb's play enables me to play MATURED and go out on my next turn, maybe that's enough to win.

What will Robb play if I pass? There are eight tiles remaining: AOORRUS and a blank. If Robb has the blank, I'm in big trouble. If he has AOORRS and a blank, for example, he can play ARROYOS on C13 (making TOYO and AWES) for 55 points. If he has AORRSU and a blank, he can play UPROARS on B13 (making TOYS) for 51 points. And if he has AOORSU and a blank, he can play AMOROUS in the same spot for 50 points. It appears I am going to have to hope that the tile left in the bag is the blank. In that case, Robb has AOORRSU. What will he play then? The highest scoring word I see is OURS on C8 (making ZAGS) for 25 points. If he does that, I can play MATURED on B6 (turning OURS into TOURS) for 89 points, enough to win. That looks like my only chance. So I pass.

After passing, it occurs to me Robb would never play OURS. He can see it leaves the double double wide open. Even if he hasn't bothered to work out what letters I have, he knows it's a risky play. ROARS in the same spot is safer, and it happens to score the same 25 points. If he plays ROARS, I will lose. Then it hit me that I had made an error. Since I had to assume the blank was left in the bag anyway, I didn't need to pass. I could afford to play my U on C2, making NU for 6 points. I would then draw the blank and could still play MATURED if Robb played OURS. The difference is, now I could also win if he played ROARS. In fact, I win bigger. I could play MORTARED on B3 for 95 points. Sigh. What a moron!

As it happens, it didn't matter. Robb did have the blank and played AMOROUS as anticipated. But perhaps if I had made the correct play, the Scrabble gods would have rewarded me by putting that blank back in the bag where it belonged.


  1. My wife is one of the world's best Scrabble players and perhaps her greatest strength is this type of endgame analysis. Of course the difference between top-level bridge and Scrabble is time - in Scrabble you have 25 minutes to play all your moves, whereas a bridge player can take time from an easy hand and spend a disproportionate time on a difficult one.

    A few decent Scrabble players can be found on Words with Friends, but not many as it does not use the official international Scrabble dictionary. And, at the end of the day, it is the words that count!

    LotG, as she is known on my blog, is also a competent bridge player too (LotG's trump squeeze)

    1. You should talk your wife into doing a Gargoyle-Chronicles-style blog. I'd love to get inside the head of an expert Scrabble player and hear how she evaluates the pluses and minuses of various options.

  2. As a general rule scrabble players would contemplate an oppo passing with deep suspicion. At the start of a game the standard reply tactic is 1) play bonus if you have it 2) change tiles if you don't. Your oppo is obviously looking for a letter to play an 8 letter word. The same in principle is true here - passing will never win. You are hoping for your oppo to give you a place to play. From their point of view any neutral play will win - they do not need to score. If you had been very devious and had MATURES then you should have played it as it scored enough to win anyway!
    The only time I have ever passed with one tile in the bag was when I was about 50 ahead, and the unseen tiles were a playable bonus and an unplayable J. If I played and emptied the bag picking the J I would lose on countback, and if he played a bonus I would win playing out slowly.
    Hels (LotG)

    1. Thanks for the comment. Now I really do wish you'd start a Scrabble blog. If you do, be sure to let me know.