Anyone who knows me knows that I think there are a lot of bad heuristics in Scrabble. Some of them are just mathematically insubstantiable: i.e. taking away the star, blocking double-double lines as threats, or emphasizing turnover early in the game.
However, there are other old-school heuristics that I object to: not because they’re wrong, but because they’re not useful. “When you find a good play, look for a better one” is one of those heuristics. Despite the fact that it’s one of the most common pieces of advice in all of Scrabble, it’s also one of the most useless.
I realize that on the surface, this sounds like reasonable advice. After all, so many people miss good plays simply because they play too quickly. We all have moments where we made plays, hit the clock, and then soon realized we missed a better option.
It’s just not effective at helping players find plays. I strongly believe that most players don’t find enough candidate plays, but this heuristic just doesn’t help. While it’s certainly a useful observation that players overlook plays, this heuristic fails to help players improve their game for two primary reasons:
1. You can’t keep looking forever.
As played in tournaments, Scrabble has a fixed time limit, and as a result, we have to find the best play in a short period of time. As such, we need to have some metaheuristics: some subconscious rules that help us determine not just when and how to think, but also when and how to stop thinking.
In some cases, this is easy: we can find the best theoretical play that fulfills all our goals. (Certainly we’re not going to improve from a double-double or QI for 64 in most cases.) But other times, this is harder, and we have a much harder time knowing when to keep looking and how. We need a more specific set of parameters to tell us when to look and when to stop.
The best way to evaluate when to stop thinking is to determine whether you’re making progress. For example, if you have a blank on a bingo rack, are you finding new bingos that don’t play, or new “almost” possibilities? Are you running into the same obstacle over and over, indicating you should stop (such as seeing no spot available for the bingo, or the G being too big of a nuisance) or are your roadblocks changing?
A better heuristic would be “Keep looking for better possibilities until you’re no longer finding anything new.” As a general rule (and this follows outside of Scrabble as well) if you’re repeating the same thought pattern, you’ve reached a dead end. Over time, we can develop conditions and parameters on this rule, based on the amount of time left and the difficulty of the position.
2. The rule is not actionable.
While everyone has advice, sometimes advice is not useful. This is especially true throughout the self-help world. Saying something like “work smarter, not harder” or “reach for the stars” might make a good quotation, but it’s vague advice that’s very difficult to implement.
Simply saying “look for a better play” does not help you during the decision making process. While this rule describes a common problem for many players, it’s not actionable, and therefore, it’s not useful, other than in really obvious, unsophisticated ways, similar to ideas such as “Analyze your options” or “Play slower”.
While it’s clear that we make mistakes by overlooking plays, pointing this fact out isn’t the way to improve our Scrabble play or decision making. It doesn’t tell you how, where, or when to look for better plays.
A Better Way Forward
If we were to streamline this rule of thumb, we’d instead be saying something like “When you find a play, continue to look for plays until you’re convinced that you won’t find a better one.” And that is a better heuristic. But what’s really needed here isn’t a better heuristic: it’s a better guide to finding plays.
It turns out we’re better off using a multi-pronged approach to finding a better play. Play finding is a difficult process requiring several heuristics and techniques to be performed effectively. Like any heuristics or heuristic set, they need to be tailored to the individual based on their traits, habits, perspective, and biases, but here is a significantly better set of heuristics for finding plays:
1. Develop a set of criteria for evaluating plays. (It’s not always about scoring or playing a bingo on your next turn, although that’s usually what it is.)
2. Find at least one play that you’d be content making as a fallback option.
3. Once you’ve found that play, search for a minimum of 2 reasonable alternative plays, preferably in different parts of the board. For the next step, you want to have three plays in mind whenever realistically possible, so always try to generate a list of three candidate plays.
3a: Focus on plays that could hypothetically be better than your baseline. Look around the board for different options: while one spot might look the most appealing, evaluate your options in other potentially lucrative bingo lines, parallels, and scoring areas. If you can quickly rule out that a theoretically better play exists, go ahead and make your play.
3b: Remember to also look for similar plays and minor improvements to your baseline play. If you can keep an A instead of an O, or move that C to the DLS square, those improvements are meaningful.
3c: Also look for different types of plays, especially those that achieve different objectives or have different concepts. Even if a bingo exists, that’s not necessarily the best option. Remember to consider setups, fishing options, defensive plays, etc. that may not achieve the same options as your baseline play.
4. If the best play is not apparent, evaluate your plays (strategize). This obviously is easier said than done: it involves a rigorous process, and would be its own separate article.
At first, this may seem pretty daunting, but this heuristic set is simple. Your mind can perform amazing feats if you simply believe in yourself and train yourself to do so. At the end of the day, becoming better at Scrabble is like getting better at anything: it’s mostly about optimizing yourself, and teaching yourself a better way to think.
It’s also worth noting that sometimes this heuristic set can fail, but it’s okay. People don’t follow heuristics religiously. We’re not computers. To some degree, we have a basic idea of what we should do: guidelines like these just help us improve our instincts and streamline our intuition.