Want to Win at Scrabble? Play Shorter Words

The conventional wisdom has always been that a good Scrabble player is someone with a hefty vocabulary—the kind of person who can drop an eight-letter word you’ve never heard, complete with q’s and z’s to boot. Now, a new class of Scrabble champions are turning that strategy on its head.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Nigeria now has more top-200 Scrabble players than any other country in the world, including current World Champion Wellington Jighere.

Jighere and his fellow Nigerian Scrabble champs are ushering in a new era in competitive play both in who is represented and how the game is being mastered. In brief, their strategy is to play four- and five-letter words, even if longer ones can be played. If that seems crazy to you, let’s break it down.

While there’s certainly an advantage to going big (like when a competitor plays all seven tiles at once, earning a “bingo” worth an extra 50 points), that move also comes with certain handicaps. For one, it gives the person across the board more letter opportunities, as well as making you vulnerable to a bad draw the next time around. Playing shorter words and holding onto adaptable tiles is a safer—and it seems, smarter—bet.

Analytics on millions of simulated games have shown the merits of the short-word strategy and proved faults in the old game plan. Computer programs are also helping players in real-time, helping them to compare their own instincts with that of an app, informing decisions as they go.

While it will take time to see where Scrabble play goes from here, it’s clear that there’re still things to learn about this 78-year-old game, especially as more countries in the developing world (many where it is regarded as a sport) hop on board.

Check out the video above for a play-by-play breakdown of last year’s championship game.

[h/t The Wall Street Journal]

Banner image: iStock.

Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images
Want to Live as Long as an Olympian? Become a Chess Grandmaster
Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images
Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images

It’s well known that physical fitness can help prolong your life, so it’s not surprising that elite athletes, like Olympians, tend to have longer lifespans than your average couch potato. But it seems that “mind sports” can help keep you alive longer, too. According to BPS Research Digest, a recent study suggests that international chess grandmasters have lifespans comparable to Olympic athletes.

The study, published in PLOS ONE, examined the survival rates of 1208 mostly male chess grandmasters and 15,157 Olympic medalists from 28 countries, and analyzed their life expectancy at 30 years and 60 years after they attained their grandmaster titles. They found that both grandmasters and Olympic medalists exhibited significant lifespan advantages over the general population. In fact, there was no statistical difference between the relative survival rates of chess champions and athletic champions.

There are several variables that the study couldn’t take into account that may be linked to chess players’ long lifespans, though. Grandmasters often employ nutritionists and physical trainers to keep them at their best, according to the researchers, and exercise regularly. Economic and social status can also influence lifespans, and becoming a world-champion chess player likely results in a boost in both areas.

Some research has shown that keeping your mind sharp can help you in old age. Certain kinds of brain training might lower the risk of developing dementia, and one study found that board game players in particular have slightly lower rates of dementia.

If keeping the mind sharp with chess really does extend lifespans, the same effect might apply as well to elite players of other “mind sports,” like Go, poker, or competitive video games. We’ll need more research to find out.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

David Franzen, Library of Congress
You Can Thank 1950s Suburban Architecture for ‘The Floor Is Lava’
David Franzen, Library of Congress
David Franzen, Library of Congress

No one knows who, exactly, was the first kid to play "The Floor Is Lava," the simple childhood game that has only one rule: You can’t touch the floor. But as Quartz reports, a new paper contends that the game wouldn't have come about if it weren’t for the rise of American suburbs.

Published in the Social Science Research Network, the analysis by Tim Hwang of the MIT Media Laboratory argues that architecture was a vital factor in the spread of the folk game.

In the new suburban housing developments of postwar America, builders began to market the relatively new idea of the family room, an informal room designed for the social needs of the whole family. This room was separate from the formal living room and dining room, both of which were more likely to contain the inhabitants’ good furniture and fancy china. In building plans popular in the 1950s and 1960s, they were also set apart from the kitchen. One 1965 poll found that seven of 10 new houses built that year contained a family room.

And these factors, Hwang argues, are integral to playing The Floor is Lava. Family rooms provide big couches, coffee tables, and other furniture that kids can move around, climb on, and use as props for the game. Bedrooms would be too small, and formal living and dining rooms too full of potentially fragile items that Mom and Dad would be livid to find disturbed. And kitchens were seen as a mother’s domain, meaning that she would likely be there to put a stop to any shenanigans.

"What is unique about the family room space is both the quantity of space and permission that it affords to the play of The Floor is Lava,” Hwang writes.

However, this is just a hypothesis, and no one can really identify who started playing the game first. Kids in urban apartments can also theoretically jump all over their parents’ living room furniture, if allowed. During my childhood, the game typically took place on a playground rather than inside, requiring players to avoid the ground rather than the family room floor. There are games that originated elsewhere in the world that also revolve around avoiding the floor—Hwang notes examples from Kenya and the UK. But given how the spread of suburbs in the U.S. during the postwar period affected home design, it makes sense that a game might arise from the new spaces children lived in. We may never truly know how The Floor Is Lava was invented, but architecture seems like a good clue.

[h/t Quartz]


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