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The Nigerian Scrabble Team says “Shorter is Better”

Wellington Jighere, Scrabble

It is old news that the current world Scrabble champion is a Nigerian, Wellington Jighere. He defeated Britain’s Lewis Mackay, last November, in the final of Scrabble’s 32-round World Championship in Australia.

What is new is the revelation that it was due to a Strategy that was once thought to be a Scrabble taboo.

At the last tournament, most Players Stuck to the similar “long word” strategy—mastering thousands of seven- and eight-letter plays. But the Nigerian came with a different strategy – shorter is better.

The Wall Street Journal reports that recent games analytics aligns with this theory, exposing the hidden risks of big words.

Here are the risks:

Risk one: Every extra letter on the board is another opening for an opponent to land their own seven-letter blockbuster.

Risk two: Every letter played gets replaced by a random tile from the bag. A bad draw can—and often does—leave players stuck for several turns without vowels or decent letter combinations. After millions of computer-simulated games, Scrabble strategists have concluded that Bad Draws happen more frequently than previously assumed.

So the Nigerian team avoided these risks by opting for shorter words, adopting a strategy called rack management. This involves hoarding precious tiles like E-D or I-N-G and playing efficient little words that do not give the opponents openings on the Scrabble board, exploiting the board’s geometry.

Here is the strategy at work in the final game of the tournament between Wellington Jighere and Lewis Mackay.

The coach, Prince Anthony Ikolo was the first to know the potential of the shorter-word strategy. In the late 2000s, the university mathematician had two apps—Quackle and Maven—that let him simulate tens of thousands of possible game scenarios that would result from a given move. The data showed how often a long word would leave the player vulnerable to a counterstrike or a series of bad draws.

Using the analytics, the Nigerian team came up with a secret list of the five-letter words that are hardest for opponents to utilize, code-named “ajuwires,” Nigerian slang for an intern. “If you know your five-letter words you can beat people playing seven-, eight-, nine-letter words,” he said.

Well it seemed the strategy worked.

Here is to the Nigerian strategy re-writing the rulebooks for the game. Kudos.

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The Nigerian Scrabble Team says “Shorter is Better”


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