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.
As a result, my fascination with on-line Scrabble quickly abated. I didn’t play again for a long while until recently when a few friends started playing on Facebook. I have more fun playing with people I know than with random combatants as I had before, although I did sprinkle in a few games with randoms so I had something to do between moves by my friends. Once again, especially among the random opponents, I saw the same thing I had initially observed a couple of years earlier. Why would I expect anything different? Words that I had never encountered were yet again popping up, such as marron (an Australian crayfish; this Scrabble game is only accessible from the U.S. and Canada, so no Aussie crayfish would be playing) and sulu (I still can’t fathom this one as a common noun—I don’t think George Takei’s Star Trek character is eponymous with anything).
I know, I know! Obviously, the better one gets at Scrabble, the more handy but obscure words one learns, such as za, qad, and xis. I would expect great players to have a mental store of some pretty weird words of four letters and longer, too. However, surely all these on-line players were not Scrabble champs, yet the killer words kept coming at me: ridgel, xebec, stang, crit, qaids, wiss, aecia, etc. I was losing consistently because of my deficient vocabulary. (A Turkey’s vocabulary is limited to gobble, gobblegobble, gobblegobblegobble, and squawk.)
This time I resisted the temptation to fight fire with fire. Recalling the boredom of my first go-round with on-line Scrabble, which resembled
The Battle of the Machines,
I had no interest in trying that approach again. What a waste of time that would be, as if I don’t waste enough time on Facebook already! On the other hand, by playing against the body snatched robot facilitators I’m learning scads of new words, words that will make me a better player, and—God forbid—find their way into this blog during football season.
Still, I have to wonder about what sort of pleasure anyone derives from “winning” a Scrabble game using the computer crutch. The computer will always find the optimal word in any situation, so any element of Scrabble skill is nullified. When both opponents use computers, player skill sets cancel out, leaving the luck of the draw as the game determinant. You might as well flip a coin and get it over with much more quickly! Would you play golf with a surrogate doing the shots for you? You and I out there on the course with a screen between us so we can’t see that you’ve got Phil Mickelson playing your shots and I’ve got Tiger Woods playing mine. Wait! That’s exactly what we do when we sit our lazy asses down to watch golf on TV. So, yeah, that’s it! Letting the computer do the work for a pair of Scrabble opponents reduces them to bystanders who are merely sitting on their asses watching the game play out. How lazy can you get?
I’m just sticking my two cents in. You’ve read this far, so I’ll lay it on you as I see it. I refuse to let the computer tell me how to play. I can’t shake hands with it if it wins for me. I’d get my hand all mangled by the CPU cooling fan. That’s no fun at all. I could kick it if it lost for me, but then I would have to replace it, which would only be fun if I thought I needed to upgrade to the latest 10.5 THz 32-core i77 or something. But I digress. What it boils down to is that playing with computer assistance is a total, complete, major fucking bore, plain and simple!
I feel squeaky clean, playing with no aids. (Plus, it is desirable to be HIV-negative.) I swell with the warm glow of accomplishment if I win and I taste the bitter agony of defeat if I lose. It’s all me, baby.
So, go ahead, you on-line Scrabble players out there. Play the game any way you see fit. You can even boast of your great victories if you want. If your conscience can handle it and you won’t lose any sleep, so be it. But inside, deep down inside in your heart of hearts, in your brain of brains, and in your ass of asses, lazy though it might be, you know that you’re only as good as that Pentium at your side. You’ll never really know if you could have knocked me off without it.
How about giving it a try sometime?
Meanwhile, don’t be a wiss. Keep on blithely sailing your xebec where you can avoid the stang of my crit and may your aecia always bear fruit and provide prolific fungus.