In Defense of Proper Names in Scrabble

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
April 7 2010 5:11 PM

In Defense of Proper Names in Scrabble

The Scrabble community was rocked Tuesday by widely exaggerated news that an imminent rule change would make it acceptable to play proper nouns. The reports sparked a glut of hang-wringing over the alleged demise of this sacred pillar of board gaming. It was bad enough arguing over obscure medical terms without debating whether string theorist Baton Zwiebach is famous enough for his 27-point surname to count.

In fact, the new rule applies only to a European spinoff of the game aimed at a younger audience. But the most devoted Scrabble fanatics might want to think twice before celebrating. Had this news been true, it would have been the best thing to happen to human Scrabble players in almost 15 years.


Scrabble is what game theorists call an "imperfect information" system, meaning the players do not have the same data when making a move; like most card games, they know what's in their rack but not in their opponent's. (Chess or checkers, by contrast, are games of perfect information; both players can see every piece.) Master Scrabble players do not merely have large vocabularies. They can think ahead to what letters a new word leaves behind on the rack, how compatible they are, and what the other player is likely to be holding based on which letters have not yet been overturned.

It naturally follows that a computer has certain advantages in this game. In December of 1986, a program called MAVEN, designed by Brian Sheppard, went 8-2 in a match against Scrabble grandmasters, eventually finishing second in the tournament. That early version of the program, which Sheppard describes in a 2002 paper (PDF), had the official Scrabble dictionary memorized and could fine tune its strategy over time, developing a policy of "rack management" that could think ahead to future moves. MAVEN has continued to evolve, particularly in its ability to simulate games and play wisely when only a few letters remain.

Allowing proper names would be humanity's revenge against the machine. The computer can learn its countries and state capitals, but how can it follow the torrents of news and culture that introduce new words and names on a daily basis? I'll see your QUINSY and raise you XIUQUAN , Hal.

Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?


Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.