There’s no reason to believe that success in a sport should correlate with aesthetic appeal. You don’t always win by being the Warriors with Steph breezily trotting the other way before ball touches net; sometimes you get the grit-and-grind Grizzlies with Tony Allen smacking the hardwood and shouting “First team All-Defense.” This holds true of Scrabble, like any other high-performance sport, and the Wall Street Journal reports that the game is on the cusp of an analytical revolution, led by Nigerian innovators—real Scrabble ascetics who abstain from splashing the most esoteric rack-clearing words they can muster and instead stick to humble five-letter plays.
There’s a well-informed rationale behind this conservatism: the grand seven- or eight-letter plays, though immediately rewarding—you get a bonus 50 points for using up all your tiles—expose you to two forms of risk.
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 to avoid these hazards, the Nigerian players have adopted a strategy called rack management, which has them hoarding precious tiles like E-D or I-N-G and eking out efficient little words that don’t open up too many doors for their opponent and exploit the board’s geometry (bonus squares tend to lie just 4 or 5 tiles apart from one another).
The reigning world champion, the excellently named Wellington Jighere, plied this strategy en route to a title and “borderline celebrity” in his home country. Speaking of which, the history of Scrabble in Nigeria is fascinating and worth reading about in its own right.
Nigeria’s Scrabble ambitions date to the 1990s, when several local fans convinced the dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha to make the game an official sport, a designation that brings funding. Nigeria was ostracized from the world then. Scrabble offered one area where the country could redeem its image abroad.
Nowadays, the country of 187 million stages daylong tournaments in stadiums on an almost weekly basis, often with small prizes on the line. Dozens of Scrabble clubs scout high schools for talent, sometimes poaching players. Several of Nigeria’s 36 states have a Scrabble coach on the payrolls.
But to return to strategy for a moment, it’s fascinating to watch how much these pros restrain themselves to ensure the W. In a pivotal moment in the championship final, Jighere tactically chose to play REPAIRS over the spicier PEREIRAS, settling for 30 instead of 86—he believed it was worth the sacrifice to hang on to a valuable “E.”
This is like if Tony Allen could splash 30-footers just like Curry but chose to devote his energies to scrappy, unglamorous defense. Sometimes you’ve just got to know when to hold back and let the grind work in your favor.