I was going to stop playing. Then something completely crazy happened.

In the world of competitive Scrabble, I’m known less for my playing skills than for having written extensively about the board game invented during the Depression by a guy named Alfred Butts. In 1,603 tournament games over nearly 25 years, I have a .484 winning percentage. If I were a Major League Baseball team, that would put me between the all-time record Milwaukee Brewers and Arizona Diamondbacks. Which is about right. I’m the Milwaukee Brewers of Scrabble: solidly, historically, consistently mediocre.

After a New Year’s Eve tournament where I missed so many endgames (five) that I had to flee the game room to privately crack, I thought the next article I would write about Scrabble would be the one announcing my retirement. I was done with the frustrations and failures, the lapses in memory and judgment, the embarrassing and panicky decisions that made me wonder if there was something wrong with me. I also feared the inevitable decline to come.

But then, in a Sheraton conference room in Kingston, Ontario, this month, during my 116and career tournament, I was on the happy ending of everything that can make Scrabble a borderline, unstoppable mystical experience – an inexplicable mix of timing, skill, serendipity and enough improbability to occupy a statistics course for one semester. “A divine inspiration,” said 2017 North American champion Will Anderson, who featured in the events centering on two words of South African origin.

It started at dinner two Saturdays ago, where the conversation turned, like at tournaments, to words that were played that day and words that weren’t. In the latter category, a top pundit named Joshua Sokol mentioned that Anderson missed a crazy game: HIGHVELD. Anderson was competing in a division that uses the International English Word List, based on the British Collins Dictionary. With 281,698 acceptable two- to 15-letter words, the Collins list is larger than the North American list I was competing under, which contains 192,111 words. Among the many differences: a bunch of Afrikaans words, like highveldwhich the Dictionary of South African English defines as “the interior plateau of southern Africa”.

With its unusual mix of low-frequency letters – the two Hs from Scrabble’s group of 100 tiles, one of two Vs, one of three Gs, and one each of four Ds and four Ls – HIGHVELD is extremely unlikely to appear in a game. There are 42,150 eight-letter words in the Collins lexicon. HIGHVELD ranks at 37,662n/a most likely. Using various sites and software, serious Scrabble players study words based on the ranked probability that they will be drawn from a bag full of tiles. So, from the perspective of the study, there are 37,661 eight-letter Collins words that are more useful to learn than HIGHVELD, i.e., more likely to materialize during a game.

It’s a shit of words to learn. Only the best players get this far down the list and can look at that particular group of alphabetized letters – DEGHHILV – and decipher the word instantly. Anderson is one of those players. He told me later that he had definitely seen HIGHVELD before: “I’ve seen every word at least once.” He wasn’t thrilled that he missed it in the game, but he didn’t kick himself too much because, well, it was freaking HIGHVELD, among the less common bingo – games using all seven letters on your rack at once – in all of Scrabble.

Anderson’s game was streamed live on Scrabble’s official Twitch channel. On the trick in question, he was holding a rack of, in Scrabble notation, EGHILV?, with the question mark indicating a blank. His opponent, 2015 North American Champion Matthew Tunnicliffe, had just played TAPENADE bingo, floating the D in open space and giving Anderson the chance to lay HIGHVELD, using the white for one of the H. On Twitch , Sokol and another expert commentator, Jesse Matthews, immediately raised the possibility of HIGHVELD, not because they are more skilled than Anderson, who is the highest-rated Collins player in North America, but because viewers were analyzing the game with the Scrabble bot Quackle and offering suggestions in the chat. “Oh my God, HIGHVELD! exclaimed Sokol. “If Will spots that, it’s going to score close to 100 points…and if anyone is going to spot that word, it’s going to be Will.”

But Matthews noted that the blank on Anderson’s rack could be a liability. Unexpectedly, low-probability words with collections of odd letters can be relatively easy to find, precisely because they are so strange. There is usually only one solution, and usually only one logical way to organize the letters. HIGH makes sense, as does VELD, a type of grassland. But you should know that putting the two together makes an acceptable Scrabble word, and only a handful of players in Anderson’s position would have known that. However, holding a blank causes you to focus on other, more traditional patterns: words ending in -S, -ED, or -ING, or beginning in DE- or SH-. That white could be a second H, to accompany a G, an L and a V, would not automatically occur to you, or even to Anderson, whom Sokol described as “the king of bingos in white “.

Anderson’s mistake, if you can call it that, turned out to be inexpensive. He played bingo in the next round (with the pedestrian HORNETS, making white the S) and won the game easily. But his “failure” gave us something to talk about at dinner that night. “My bingo success rate is high enough that if I miss one, it’s a talking point,” Anderson told me. “I’ll take that as flattery, I guess.”

From HIGHVELD, the discussion turned to other words ending in -VELD. Someone opened the ULU anagram app. Wow! Look at all those -VELD words in Collins! LOWVELD, BACKVELD, BUSHVELD, SOURVELD, BOSCHVELD, SWEETVELD, RENOSTERVELD. Finally, Sokol, who told us about Miss Anderson, pointed out that the North American lexicon includes only one of these words in -VELD: bush, a veldt with “abundant shrubby and often thorny vegetation”, according to Merriam-Webster. Interesting! So, what was your record today? Make fun games? How is the salad?

I had a good tournament – ​​with four games to go, a 6-5 record in the lexicon’s top North American division, and most importantly, just one infuriating choke job. (Why didn’t I just play VIG and block the last dangerous lane?) I had beaten higher rated players and dropped some cool bingos: JOYRIDES for 102 points and EQUATION for 101. ANECDOTA (plural of anecdote ), REDLINER , PUTTERER, LOVAGES, OWNER, WING TIP. Two other bingos – ENTRESOL in one game, GOADING in another – helped me steal late wins.

The next morning, after losing a close game, the tiles fell in my way. I got a first bingo, SEMINAR, for 76, then I played ENTRAIN with a blank for 68 and, in the next round, the nine letter OUTCHASED for 77 to an open ED. (OUTCHASE is a “false”, not found in the wordlist. I wasn’t sure it was a word, but my opponent didn’t challenge the game. These letters make two valid words, CATHOUSE and SOUTACHE, though none take a D at the end.)

My next rack was DEOSUVX. From a C on the board, I played COX for 36 and an insurmountable 422-204 lead. I took an H and an L out of the bag and placed them on my rack. I glanced at the letters lined up – DESUV plus the added HL – and let out a small sigh. Holy shit! Am I seeing what I think I see? Isn’t there an open B at the top of the board? Yes, there is an open B at the top of the board! Please don’t use the open B, please don’t use the open B, please don’t use…

My opponent, Anna Miransky, played QI elsewhere. And I instantly put down BUSHVELD, three-word score in the top right corner, for 113 points. “I’m not even going to argue with that,” Miransky deadpanned, “because it’s so weird it has to be real.”

Stefan Fatsis

Of the 31,522 eight-letter words on the North American list, BUSHVELD is 26,329and most likely, between SCUMBLED (to soften contours or colors by rubbing lightly) and SHLUMPED (to schlump, walk around lazily or casually dressed). I certainly hadn’t studied it, and until the night before, I hadn’t seen or heard of it, in Scrabble or in real life. Immediately after the game ended, I ran over to show my dinner mates the play. They were shocked, stunned, in disbelief. Sokol looked at the picture of the painting that I put in his face and said, “What? Who did that? You did that? It really happened? Oh. My. God.”

I asked John O’Laughlin, another top expert and co-creator of Quackle, about the improbability of BUSHVELD. After the last update of the North American word list, in 2020, O’Laughlin asked Quackle to play 6 million games (or 12 million player games) against himself in order to generate “values of playability” of words for the program. BUSHVELD, he said, was the better shot about 110 times. So a player who knows the word “should perhaps expect to play it once every 109,000 games” – or, in my case, every century or two.

Scrabble players constantly talk about rare and esoteric words. The strange combinations and bizarre juxtapositions of letters, the aesthetic beauty and alluring diversity of English. That’s one of the joys of the game. But they almost never get to play those words, because of the probability. Discuss and learn one of them, and the next morning make it appear as a signal from a distant galaxy? And then to receive and process the signal? Completely, mathematically, existentially insane.

Like the best athletes, the best Scrabble players accept pressure. They prepare for situations like these. They study more, practice more, play more. Thanks to a cocktail of brilliance, determination and composure, they reduce the risk of error and, consequently, the risk of defeat. They minimize the role of luck in a game dictated by it at almost every turn. Scrabble players like me – the least engaged and the least skilled – do the same things over and over again, hoping for a different outcome. We study less, we invite error, we rely on luck.

But this time, thanks to a synaptic twist of fate, I didn’t blow it, I didn’t let BUSHVELD vanish into the dull hotel air like a puff of smoke, unrecognized, unrecognized , uncreated. “I’m not a very religious guy,” Anderson said of the absurdity of HIGHVELD and BUSHVELD – and also, I think, the mysterious alignment of particles that produces moments of awe and wonder, a butterfly flapping its wings to turn its rare mistake into my singular triumph – “but that’s seeing God in the face of Scrabble.”

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