Q & A with Kenji Matsumoto

Kenji Matsumoto is the founder of Breaking the Game.  He has won numerous Western and Northeast tournaments and has finished in the top 5 of each of the last three Nationals.  He is currently rated #3 in the US (#6 overall) and is the author of Secrets of Scrabble.


Q: Where are you from?

Kenji: I’m originally from Aiea, Hawaii, but I’m currently living in Reno, Nevada.


Q: How did you get into Scrabble?

Kenji:  My parents thought that Scrabble would be a good way to accelerate my English skills.  So my parents decided to play Scrabble for allowance money, where for every point that I won by, I would get 10 cents for my allowance.  As a result, I started to study Webster’s dictionary looking for words that would give me an advantage against my parents and won a good deal of money from them in this way (until they discontinued Scrabble for a more traditional allowance.)


Q: How did you know you were into Scrabble?

Kenji:  So my high school was about 4 miles away from Scrabble club.  The previous week, there was this cute girl who I met, and so I decided to take a shower after walking to club.   So about a half mile away from club I found an abandoned house with a hose in a small backyard encased by trees, so I decided to use the abandoned backyard as a shower.

As I was taking a shower, I tripped on the hose and fell through the trees and down a hill, and as I got up I noticed that I was over a freeway during rush hour traffic.  Needless to say, it was embarrassing, especially since I was a really sheltered kid.  Immediately, I ran up the hill, put on my clothes, and ran to club, pretty much blowing any shot I had with said girl.  That night, I wondered what I was doing, and I just decided that Scrabble would be a part of my life.


Q: How do I get better at strategic thinking?

Kenji:  I think the main thing you have to do is avoid generalities and make sure that any concepts or ideas that you believe in have been thoroughly analyzed.  Try to come up with examples, and make sure that any examples are occurrences that frequently occur.  If you think in logical terms, and you think in terms of specifics, it will be a lot easier to develop your strategy.

Also, try to think up a converse rule and a contrapositive rule, and see if those make sense.  For example, let’s say someone tells you that “you should take more risks when you’re ahead, since you can afford to.”  That line of reasoning seems logical, until you realize the converse (take fewer risks when you’re ahead) seems reasonable and the contrapositive (when you’re behind, you should take fewer risks) doesn’t make sense.


Q: How did you become good at Scrabble?

Kenji: For me, it was pretty simple: I emulated players I admired, and tried to figure out why they did what they did.  Everyone is always thinking something: even if they make a mistake, there is always a reason, especially at the upper levels at any game.  If they do something odd, that’s even more of a reason to watch, because it probably means the rest of their game is probably really solid.

Once I got a solid foundation, then I tried experimenting with new ideas.  I watched players with unusual strategies and tried to see if their ideas had any merit.  I started thinking about other games, like backgammon and poker, and tried to apply ideas and strategy from those games to Scrabble.  You’d be surprised what you can learn from games that on the surface seem completely different from Scrabble.


Q: What are some tips for improving your game?

Kenji: I don’t think there’s any difference between excelling at Scrabble and anything else.  The best way to improve is to overtrain: to push the envelope and try to do more than you have to do.  Try to do it faster, try to make it harder than it needs to be, so that whatever you’re trying to excel at becomes easy.  It forces you to develop rules of thumb to make your goal more attainable.

The hardest thing for most people is finding plays.  If you think finding 7 letter words is tough, try to find 9 letter words or 10 letter words, or find a 7 letter word with a blank.  Try to give yourself 20 seconds to find a play instead of 3 minutes, or force yourself to play on a board upside-down.  I know it sounds crazy, and maybe even sounds impossible, but if you stick with it you’ll force yourself to adapt, to find a solution subconsciously, even if you aren’t aware of exactly how it’s happening.  And when you go back to playing Scrabble, it’ll seem so much easier.


Q: Tournament Scrabble players have a reputation for being really quirky and nerdy.  Is that really the case?

Kenji: Some of you might have read Word Freak and think that everyone in Scrabble is like that.  Yes, some people are both nerdy and quirky.  But some are everyday, “normal” people.  But just like any gaming community or really any group of people: most people are in between.  Personally, I don’t have a lot of experience in dating, and I’m not the life of the party, but I don’t think that I’m especially nerdy.  And I think a lot of Scrabble players are the same way.


Q: What is your high word and high score?

Kenji: My high word is WALTZERS for 320 points.  The Z was on the DLS and the W and S were on the TLS squares.

My high game is something like 673.  I don’t actually remember.  Kind of embarrassing that I can memorize all those words but I can’t remember my high score, isn’t it?

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