This Turkey has been sporadically playing interactive games via computer since long before there was such a thing as the Web. I don’t play a lot because I lack the reflexes for shoot ’em ups and I lack the patience for real-time card and board games, which entail baseball-like pauses in the action while the opponent makes a move, a bet, or whatever. In the past few years, I settled on a couple of board games on Facebook, both of which allow players to make their move and go do something else while waiting for the other guy to move. One such game is the Dot Game, a computer version of dots and crosses, and the other is Scrabble, which is the subject of this article.
I’m pretty certain that you all know what Scrabble is—a crossword game in which players earn points for valid words they spell out on the board. The on-line version is identical to that which you would play at home on a card table, at least in terms of the mechanics and rules of the game. However, there is a significant difference in how players determine which words they will play.
In the card table version, players agree in advance on house rules regarding the use of dictionaries or other aids in various situations. Bending those rules is not possible without agreement among the players. In the on-line game, a spelling validator and a list of valid two-letter words are provided to each player with the intent being to level the playing field. It is assumed that all players have access to these tools and that they are free to use them. However, there is generally no discussion among the players about the use of aids.
When I started playing on-line Scrabble a couple of years ago, I noticed that I was being clobbered with regularity by people from diverse backgrounds with varying levels of education. While I have a pretty robust vocabulary, these people were coming up with words that I had never encountered in nearly six decades of reading. It didn’t require consultation with a Mensa member to figure out what was going on. At least some of my opponents were using computers—either via the Internet or local—to generate plausible words, including some rare ones that stuck out like sore thumbs. What to do? I decided to fight fire with fire.
I did a little research to find some convenient Scrabble crutches on the Internet. The simplest are anagram solvers, which merely generate all the words that can be formed with the letters one inputs. On the next higher rung are anagram solvers with sensitivity to Scrabble boards, where the user inputs the letters on hand in the rack plus potential prefixes, suffixes, and internal letters on the board. This one allows the user to input “blanks”, the Scrabble equivalents of wild cards and it generates words with specificity to the board situation presented to it. One more step up is a program into which the entire board can be entered, along with the contents of the user’s rack. This nifty tool will, in split seconds, tell the user exactly what the best play is on the entire board. With certain browsers, this program has a plug-in that allows it to import the board in one fell swoop. Finally, at the top of the heap of cheats is a fully automated “bot” that runs on a local computer and will play one’s opponent without human intervention once it is turned loose.
Experimenting with anagram solvers, I found that many times the program would find words I would have missed. Moving up to the program that keeps the state of the entire board saved in memory and displayed on the screen, it was pretty easy to stay on top of the heap. However, being an honest Turkey, I quickly developed conscience pangs, so I began to tell opponents that I was using a crutch. A few of them gave me an “lol”, stating that everybody else did, too, but no one usually tells anyone about it. “Sometimes,” said one, “I only use it when I get stuck.” Oh yeah, well that makes a big damn difference, doesn’t it! LOL!
After playing this way for a while I decided that it was getting boring. I was leaving the heavy thinking to the computer. There was no real joy in winning. It wasn’t my brilliance doing the winning; it was a 3 GHz Core2Duo. [Read more…]