Thursday, November 27, 2008

Scrabble. I just can't quit you...

Or so two out of three directors tell me. That's right, I am talking about resigning or "forfeiting" if you prefer. I can not think of any other competitive two person game that does not allow a person to stop playing when they believe they are going to lose. The majority of chess games end in resignation, tournament magic is the same (here is a link to more info on this game ) poker players always have the opportunity to fold. Even tennis and golf players have the ability to "withdraw" when a match or round is going badly. Only scrabble insists on the sadistic (literally, the enjoyment of another's forced suffering) practice of continuing the game regardless of the chance of a comeback or the mental state of the participants. Or does it? The official tournament rules ( ) have this to say about forfeits: If you must leave a game in progress, and you and your opponent cannot finish at a later time agreeable to both of you and the Director, you receive a forfeit loss for that game. If you are ahead in score when you leave, 50 points are subtracted from your total spread. If you are behind, 50 points plus the amount you are behind are subtracted from your total spread.
Byes and forfeits are not used in computing new ratings.
A game that begins with both players present and is then forfeited is rated as a completed game.

So what is going on here? Well, imprecise phrasing causes a contradiction near the end (they are trying to say that games are rated if two players show up and do not if only one player is there).

More interesting though, is the simple word "must" at the beginning. This is a very subjective term and I have heard a different interpretation from each director I have asked about it. These are all people who have taken the time to study and pass a test devised by the N.S.A. and either run sanctioned clubs and/or multiple rated tournaments. You would think it would be an issue that is unequivocably resolved by the governing body that runs a game, or at least that an accord would be reached by those who mange the nuts and bolts of running tournaments. Instead, some directors rely on hearsay "well I heard that they did this at a tournament in ____ so let's do that" or suddenly become doctors "well it says 'must', do you have a fever?" or worst of all, have no knowledge of the rules whatsover: "the rules say you can not forfeit". This is where things get particularly sticky. Going to a scrabble club or even a scrabble tournament is not like going to a Denny's (aside from how many old people are there) where you can expect a similiar experience regardless of where in the U.S. you happen to be. Instead it is more like pulling off the highway and going to a locally owned restaurant that is the only place food is available on the exit. There will be some similarities such as food, seats, and the exchange of money, but service and the overall experience will vary greatly. In other words, tournaments and clubs (like small restaurants) are owned by their organizers and directors and can be run however they want. I mention this not to disparage any particular individuals, but rather whatever (mis)governing body in the N.S.A. allowed matters to reach this state. The CGP "discussion" forum recently had a long running argument over whether directors should be allowed to play in their own tournaments. Whatever you feel on this issue, the larger concern is that there is no official policy. Where do frustration and lack of oversight lead?.... Hazing! Seriously though, I am getting really tired of hearing justifications of why it's taboo in scrabble to resign that are basically: "It felt horrible the other day when I had to suffer through a blowout loss and it was just your 'turn' to go through that experience". I am sorry that anyone has to go through it. There is something fundamentally wrong with any game that features prominently the trapping and mental torture of its players, whether it is "equally divided" or not. But what about spread? Well join me next time when we take a look at the root of a lot (maybe most) of organized scrabble's problems: the silly specter of spread.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Questions and Clarifications

Before we move on to a new topic, I would like to take a moment to review and think a little further about the issue at hand. Several people have talked to me about the last couple posts (though unfortunately not through the forums which are a little more productive and much longer lasting than an ephemeral text or phone conversation). Several recurring themes emerged from these conversations. For instance: some people play scrabble for fun and not neccesarily to improve. That is obviously a person's individual choice and they have every right to make it. I started this discussion becasue of my own curiosity. Not to be repetitive, but outside the insular world of scrabble very different decisions are often made by the majority of individuals confronted with similiar situations. How efficiently another individual chooses to practice (or not practice) does not infringe upon my rights. Insults and dispersions cast on my character or others making similiar choices, likewise are annoying, but not particularly harmful. My twofold goal simply was to understand why others were making a particular choice and furthermore, why they cared so passionately about it. Why do those who have made clear that they do very much want to improve make certain choices? I pose this question in an earnest and civil manner, but continue to receive many responses like Winter's that states he wants to "bludgeon" ISC "cheaters". I am aware of the hostility that exists, but questions of its origin and specific manifestations remain unresolved. The poll results (with a few days to go) are essentially what I expected. The majority chose no aids under any circumstances even with my hyperbolic phrasing. There was very little midle ground and a few admitted (albeit annoymously) that they believe and/or practice a no holds barred approach for ISC. This may simply be an issue like abortion (though obviously of much less importance) where dissenting sides either will not or even can not have a discussion without giving in to the extremely negative connotations they have with the other side's beliefs. Where does this excessive vitriol originate? I have a theory, but it will have to wait until next time when I examine opposing perceptions of resigning/forfeiting in scrabble and the rest of the world.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I.S.C.ontroversy Continued

So last time we left with the cliffhanger of how online ratings actually mean more people should at least consider "cheating" on ISC. My argument is simply this. The most efficient way for many people (myself included) to improve their skill at most games is to play with others who are better than them. Conversely, playing with someone who is significantly worse may also lower your ability. My personal experience has been that when I play scrabble with players more than a hundred or so rating points below whatever level I am at, I quickly pick up bad habits and phonies that if I am not careful will linger and manifest themselves at the worst possible time when playing higher level competition later. A couple caveats before we go on: there are lots of different ways to be bad at scrabble or even mediocre. For instance, I know several players who make poor placement decisions, but know more words than I do (or at least in specialized categories like "threes that do not take an s" or "five letter z words"). There is value to be had with these games, but I still have to be vigilant to pick up the good and leave the bad. Additionally, if a higher rated player decides to "push around" a lower rated player by mixing lots of phonies in with their valid obscure plays then the experience is not going to be very productive either. So what does all this have to do with using aids while playing online? Simply this: playing void games and using aids to inflate one's online rating allows a player access to others who are much better than the "normal" level of competition they would have available. The void feature eliminates the possibility of the stronger opponent filling your mind with bad plays so each new word that enters your brain will be playable when you see it on your rack in a later game. Observing the strategic tendencies of high level players for word placement in real time eventually begins to hard wire "dos and don'ts" into the mind as well. I know countless players who very rarely play against opponents significantly stronger than them despite playing a high number of games both online and off. Unless they increase their studying and memorization they invariably remain stagnant or slowly decrease in ability. Those who use the tactic I have described to obtain games with superior competition have consistently improved their rating and often by leaps and bounds despite doing the same (or even less) traditional studying. It may be debatable whether this decision is morally right or not, but it is not debatable that it gets results.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Welcome Back (For The First Time)

Hello again,

I have moved the blog to this location for a couple reasons.
1) Lots of people at scrabble tournaments know me as "that guy (Muppet?) with a duck. With an address and title that now reflect that, hopefully it will be easier for everyone to remember.
2) I am going to make the blog a bit more serious and topical. I have a link to the old site up and still plan to inject humor wherever I can into these discussions, but a new direction is a good time for a fresh start (or so my last therapist told me before I fired them and got a new one).
3) I will be using my name and others as well and I wanted to keep those referred to by pseudonyms in earlier posts separate from this hard hitting journalistic endeavor. Think Michael Moore with less fat and more lean analysis (and much more duck).

So Topic #1

What exactly are the rules for ISC and why?

As most serious scrabble players (and some flippant ones) know, ISC or the Internet Scrabble Club is a free service that lets people from around the world play scrabble from the comfort of their own homes or wherever they have internet access. I know a few notable exceptions, but most players who have played in more than one rated tournament use ISC (or the similar service POGO). How exactly it gets used is very different depending on the individual, though. A couple clarifications before we move on: ISC has ratings like "real life" scrabble, but there are no prizes and no official tournaments. There are options to pay for more features like multiple accounts or more detailed storage of past games, but the only necessary "cost" of playing is the minimal time it takes to set up the program and the tiny space it takes on a hard drive. So to myself and a few others, it is basically a study program similar to playing against a computer like Quackle or one of the versions that Hasbro sells for PC play. But to others...Well to some people it is a very serious experience akin to playing at a tournament. That is correct; I have met many individuals who refuse to talk and will quickly call a helper (an online equivalent of a helper only much surlier) if anything is not going their way. Debates on social niceties is a topic unto itself so lets focus on the big issue: cheating.
Is it possible to "cheat" online? I say no unless you are some sort of super scrabble hacker and can manipulate the tile distribution or how the clock operates. Obviously many people have a different definition of cheating in this context, though. Specifically, the use of word lists/dictionaries, word judge programs (when not playing void) and anagrammers. ISC has included an option to sign a "fair play agreement" and others can see what choice you have made. Of course what a person chooses to do after they click a certain button remains up to them. I do not understand why some people care so much about how a person likely hundreds (or thousands) of miles away makes their plays in an online game simulation. Taking a moral stand on fairness while playing a game (with no stakes I can detect) and a large degree of luck simply seems bizarre. People claim that they are taken advantage of when they play someone online that may or may not be cheating. But what did they lose? A few rating points that exist only in the digital world or ISC. These rating points are the only thing at stake and the reason, I will argue next time, why people who want to get better at the "real" game should "cheat" as much as possible in the online game. See you soon and have fun with the poll and links until then.