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.



The End of Pregnancy

And the inevitable rise of the artificial womb.

Doctor Tests Positive for Ebola in New York City

How a Company You’ve Never Heard of Took Control of the Entire Porn Industry

The Hot New Strategy for Desperate Democrats

Blame China for everything.

The Questions That Michael Brown’s Autopsies Can’t Answer


Kiev Used to Be an Easygoing Place

Now it’s descending into madness.


Don’t Just Sit There

How to be more productive during your commute.

There Has Never Been a Comic Book Character Like John Constantine

Which Came First, the Word Chicken or the Word Egg?

  News & Politics
The Slate Quiz
Oct. 24 2014 12:10 AM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
Oct. 23 2014 5:53 PM Amazon Investors Suddenly Bearish on Losing Money
Oct. 23 2014 5:08 PM Why Is an Obscure 1968 Documentary in the Opening Credits of Transparent?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 6:55 PM A Goodfellas Actor Sued The Simpsons for Stealing His Likeness. Does He Have a Case?
Oct. 23 2014 11:47 PM Don’t Just Sit There How to be more productive during your commute.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 24 2014 7:00 AM Gallery: The Partial Solar Eclipse of October 2014
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.