Wellington writer Nick Ascroft has published award-winning collections of poetry. He’s also a competitive Scrabble player, and previews the national finals this weekend.
I am about to go head-to-head, boko-à-boko, gamer-versus-gamer with the best Scrabble players in New Zealand. It’s the 2019 nationals, this year in Wellington over Queen’s Birthday weekend. I’m no slouch at this game and have in fact dedicated far too many waking hours that should’ve been employed more gainfully elsewhere memorising stacks of words and recalling them on command from their jumbled-up counterparts. Yell at me in the street: ‘STAND plus OR plus a Y’ and … actually I can’t recall that one right now, but I know there’s an eight-letter-word there from my mnemonic.
And this is the problem. Rot. I spent years learning all these little raggy bits and bobs. I spent further years continually revising them and then like every good story I grew fat and complacent. I am currently in 20th place in the New Zealand rankings but falling fast. TARDYONS! That’s the word.
In 2003 having read Stefan Fatsis’s book Word Freak I sought out the local Scrabble club in Dunedin. I already loved the game, but to discover there were tournaments and an authoritative wordlist, I was juiced.
This was also the year of my Burns Fellow residency at Otago University. With all that time on my hands and of course no intention of doing any writing (as if!) I began cramming the wordlist through my eye sockets and into the memory bank. Picture a shredder, and the Penguin from Batman Returns sticky-taping it all back together on the other side. Before attending club I realised I had to know all the two and three letter words cold. The embarrassment if not, right? Wrong. I was immediately in the top half of the club, just knowing those. From there, my rise was meteoric if meteors fell mostly upwards.
The meteor has certainly bumped around a bit. I’ve had a couple of rankings nosedives. In the UK I battled into the top 150 until a series of terrible tournaments, including the one where I lost eight straight games in a row. The tournament was an eight-game affair. For fans of maths, that’s all of them.
Psychology is a factor in Scrabble. You have to stay cool, take each play as it comes. What’s the best move with the tiles you have and the board as it stands to increase your chances of winning the game? That’s the only question every move. But when you’ve lost six in a row, in some cases to people you would be expected to steamroll, your psychology says STAY COOL AAARRRGHH STAY ARRRGGHHH. I go a little red in the face and my eyes sort of sink into their skull holes as if to hide from shame. We can be dumb little mammals at times like these. I’m not a poor loser per se.
But seven games into a losing streak I wasn’t thinking that hey perhaps I should swap when my rack is UUVIIOW. I was thinking I MUST NOT LOSE THIS GAME TOO ARRRRGGHH. I lost it.
And that happens in Scrabble even at the height of one’s powers. Luck is a big element in the game. Generally it evens out. But on a good day everything falls into place without you having to think. You might play four simple everyday bonus words in a row while your opponent gags. Other days, your luck flips and nothing will go right. I call it poison fingers. You reach into the tile bag and the poison gravitates to your hand: three of the same vowel, multiple Rs, the Vs, W and U together, the Q that seems to offer hope but is just an albatross you carry from turn to turn unable to shed. You swap or play off the worst of the bunch and more garbage floats up.
Here’s where the best players in the game show their mettle, however. While the schlubs in the B and C grades gripe about their terrible racks, the grandmaster plays their way out of trouble. Why does world number one, Nigel Richards from New Zealand, win such a high percentage of his games? Knowing all the words helps, but assessing each situation and scoring about 20 points more than you or I would’ve off what looked like losing positions while blocking his opponent is a nice extra. Given the same letters, Nigel or a good computer would likely make a better play for most of your moves. Improvement is all about lowering that number. Nigel is also unflappable. Me, you can flap.
As it was at my last tournament, the Masters. New Zealand’s top players gather every Easter at this three-day 23-game event. It can accommodate 24 players only with priority given to the top 24 in the rankings and then, if any can’t attend, those progressively further down the echelons. It was held in Whanganui at the Rita Angus retirement village. What a venue! As part of a new sponsorship deal with NZ Scrabble, Rymans and their villages are bringing in Scrabble and offering tea, cakes and prize money. It was swish, with background music that leant heavy on Rod Stewart, a pool table, and a ping pong table where a spry fashion-forward octogenarian despatched all-comers.
On the drive up with two previous nationals winners, Dylan Early and Howard Warner, we tested each other with difficult anagrams. Howard’s knowledge of the wordlist is not quite Nigelian but it’s close and his recall is lightning fast. I would dredge up arcane words on my phone from one of the word study apps, call out the letters out of order and he would instantly say REMUEUR or whatever.
To Howard’s brain there is no intermediary mnemonic that helps him track where he might know those letters from and opens that particular cupboard for a rummage. It’s just accessible. This string of letter in any order equals this word or these words. He learns and revises them like that in long lists. The words with the letters written in alphabetical order (called an alphagram) are presented to him in the Zyzzyva app and he types in the answer.
Dylan uses the app as well, but for learning he employs mnemonics. The filthier the mnemonic the more likely you will remember it, some say. I refuse to comment.
After the first day in the retirement village I was doing poorly. My ranking suggested I should win about half my games, but I was losing – and losing to the wrong people. In the end I scraped to 19th place on 8 wins (out of 24). I had beaten two of the best players (one of which, Dylan, haha) and hadn’t played terribly as such, but … Analysing the games and some of the words I missed or chickened out of was chastening. I played far too many everyday words for bonuses, a sure sign that the stranger words were a little deeper in the recesses of the memory. I’d recognise them if someone else played them, but wouldn’t find them myself. I missed at least three clear game-winning plays. I’ll make dumb mistakes in a tournament. That’s fine. I know who I am and don’t beat myself to death over a couple of clumsy fumbles. This was more endemic. Despite the poison fingers I hadn’t managed to drag myself ahead, to overcome, to surmount, like a better player would.
The tournament told me one thing. Nicholas you are coasting. You are sitting on a ball of lint you mistook for your laurels. Six or seven years ago I had a regular programme of study and revision. I was always learning new sets of words: six-letter-word V-dumps, all the words ending in WORT, WISE, WART and WOOD, all the five letter words with any three of W, Y, F, H, K and V. I used to use the Zyzzyva app and its demanding card-boxing system.
But I stopped. Life happened. Laziness happened. The words started to slip from the memory. I moved back to New Zealand. I had a son. I became generally a little less enthused. I still did well enough at tournaments to not overburden myself. My other obsessions flooded in: up-tempo indie jangle, the solar system. I wrote a lot of shrill poetry. I tried to start a business. I tried to be a novelist. No, said the Whanganui Masters. Screw all that. It’s time to knuckle the flip down.
So I am back in the fight as the Pretenders once said, like a pigeon from hell. I began by revising all the four and five letter words that contained J, Q, X or Z. They used to be my strong suit. Wham there goes USQUE or XYLOL or … oh? I didn’t know CEZVE, but now I do. I had forgotten JOMON. What do they mean though? says the snaggle-toothed PE teacher at the back of the bus to himself. I don’t know and unless it helps me remember that one doesn’t take an S on the end, I don’t care. Well I care a little. Words are beautiful things.
Next up it’s the 3500 most probable seven and eight letter words. For this list I’ve used an old app that mentions Windows XP as it loads. It’s called Lexpert. It’s like an old friend. You can make custom lists of words from it and test yourself against them. That’s about it. But I need nothing fancy. To pull the list I have asked Lexpert to bring in all the seven and eight letter words you can build from the most frequent tiles in the bag.
Anything there is four or more of. In the case of the letter E, as there are 12 of them in the set, three Es are added to the pot, and so on. The list builds from the letters A, A, E, E, E, I, I, O, O, U, D, L, N, R, S, T. I should know all of these but I don’t. I discovered ALUNITE to my surprise. It’s a very high-probability word, so it’s odd that I haven’t seen it in gameplay.
Then last Wednesday, when playing Frank Robinson at the Scrabble Wellington club night in Brooklyn, the letters floated onto my rack. Frank is like a Liverpudlian Larry David and is famous for surviving the Wahine ferry sinking. His challenge of ALUNITE went down like the aforementioned. If I was superstitious, and I am, I would say this is a good omen, and I will: this is a good omen.
I’m doing the minimal in terms of revision before this tournament really. There is years of work ahead to restore my word memory to what it was. I should be working on my C-words and F-words for instance (both are oddly my weak points). That said, I’m better now than my younger self in the strategic elements of the game. My endgame is no peach, but I’m better at securing a win when ahead by a small margin. A lot of games before the tournament helps too. I love the Facebook Scrabble app and play a few turns every day (but not every hour as I did when at the height of my addiction). Even if I had a moral backbone I wouldn’t quit FB because of my need for Scrabble.
The rest of my programme of swot before Queens Birthday is focused on crucial knowledge as opposed to fancy shooting. Low-hanging fruit, as they say at my work, while I die a little inside. The four-vowel five-letter-words. The two-I fives. A few stems I have old mnemonics for to recall sevens and eights. I’ll test myself thoroughly on all of these. Seeing the words isn’t enough. You have to recall them, either from the letters mixed up or cold out of nothing, for instance I might write down 20 of them, cover the paper and recall those same 20. The act of recalling reinforces the memory.
But the day before the tournament I’ll just eyeball any list or random hand-written scrawl of missed words from a previous event, anything and everything I can, just hoping that the old exam-cram memory shelf can hold onto something odd and useful. I will not get back to my best, but I’ll be sharper than my opponents will expect. Like a piece of A4 snatched too quickly off the printer. Unless they read this.
The 2019 National Scrabble Championship will be held at the Wellington Bridge Club in Thorndon this weekend, June 1-3. Newsroom wishes Nick Ascroft well and looks forward to his subsequent report from the event.