Opinion

Bosak: Game critics really scrabbling for answers

Bosak argues that criticism over the letter value system in Scrabble isn’t as big a menace as the Players Dictionary.

Bri BosakOutrage. A word that earns you eight points in the current version of Scrabble.

And the word that best describes public reaction to one man’s statement that the current Scrabble tiles are either overvalued or undervalued and no longer reflect a letter’s actual worth.

Following a blog post by Joshua Lewis in late December titled “Rethinking the value of Scrabble tiles” – where Lewis made the announcement that he had developed a system for determining letter valuations in word games called Valett – the issue of proper letter valuation in Scrabble has gone viral. A post-doctoral scholar at the University of California’s Cognitive Science Department, Lewis created the program based on statistical analysis that measures the letter’s overall frequency in the English language, its frequency by word length and the ease with which you can transition the letter in and out of a word.

The result is that 14 Scrabble letters would need to be assigned new values.

Currently, the values and distribution of letters are based on original analysis conducted by Scrabble’s inventor, Alfred Butts. According to the National Scrabble Association, Butts calculated a value for each tile by measuring the frequency with which each letter appeared on the front page of the New York Times. But much has changed in the English language since the game was first invented in 1938, Lewis said.

Confirming Lewis’ statement on the English language was a recent study led by the director of research at Google, Peter Norvig, on letter frequency. The results of the study sparked yet another Scrabble article, this time by Sam Eifling of Deadspin, who said it opened “a whole new system of weighing the value of your letters.”

And introduce a whole new system he did.

Eifling, with the help of software developer and friend Kyle Rimkus, engineered a system that determines the letter frequency of every individual word in the Scrabble dictionary. Much like Lewis, Eifling and Rimkus also discovered that 14 tiles were valued incorrectly in the current version of the game.

But John Chew, co-president of the North American Scrabble Players Association, says proposals like those of Lewis or Eifling to introduce an updated version of Scrabble are not uncommon. In an article with BBC, Chew said that he hears from several people a year complaining that the tile values are incorrect.

Even so, Chew published a response which touched upon the fact that changing the value of the Scrabble tiles would take a certain amount of randomness out of the game.

“It’s always had an intentional imbalance between the face and equity values of the tiles,” Chew said.

For instance, an “S” tile or blank tile may have an equity value that far outweighs their face value because they have the potential to earn a player so many points. Seasoned Scrabble players understand that the game was carefully designed to balance both skill and luck, Chew said.

Philip Nelkon, Scrabble’s U.K. representative and spokesman for the game manufacturer Mattel concurred with Chew.

“It is not a game where fairness is paramount, it is a game of luck and changing the tile values wouldn’t achieve anything,” he said.

Nelkon confirmed that Mattel would not change the values of the current tiles. Hasbro, the company that produces Scrabble in North America, also released a statement saying that it has no plans to change the current letter values.

However, what will change things is the release of the fifth edition of the Scrabble dictionary, slated for publication next year. Since the publication of the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary in 1978, the game’s word list has grown by tens of thousands of words.

It is for this very reason that Lewis thinks that the tile values should change. “I’ve annoyed several relatives with words like QI and ZA, and I think the annoyance is justified: the values for Scrabble tiles were set when such words weren’t acceptable, and they make challenging letters much easier to play,” he said.

But I think Lewis only has it half right.

Yes, any relative, or friend for that matter, is justified in their annoyance with a fellow player for laying down a word like QI or ZA. But that does not mean that the problem lies in the tile valuation — the real problem is rooted in the damn Players Dictionary.

Yes, I said it. As an avid Scrabble player, I curse the official Scrabble dictionary for enabling others to justify words like ZA.

“It’s short for pizza!”

Oh, really?

Honestly, why should the tile values change in order to corroborate these ludicrous words? I propose we abolish the official Scrabble dictionary altogether. Instead, we should go back to the way it was done for 40 years – house rules, house dictionary.

Call my method old fashioned, but hey, I think it solves the problem pretty effectively.

And I didn’t even need to use statistical analysis software to do it.

Bri Bosak can be reached at bri.bosak@temple.edu or on Twitter @bribosak.

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