The Singapore Youth Scrabble System Is Broken

Originally published 26/2/15, latest minor revisions 20/6/17.
Note (20/6/17): Some of the information in this essay is outdated but, having reread it, I stand by the conclusions. In the two years since I first wrote this, little has changed. In fact, there are no longer the player numbers to sustain a C Division, and the B Division seems like it might be next to go. To be fair, that cannot be pinned entirely on the problems I detail below, but I think one could not go far wrong in saying that they are mostly to blame…

In most sports and mindsports, inter-school competition has talent development as a foremost priority. We would find it absurd if the inter-school system failed to identify young talent, give them the appropriate coaching, and prepare the best of the best to move on to higher tiers of competition. Even as we acknowledged our other priorities, such as awakening young people to the value of hard work and effort, teaching them the importance of sportsmanship and integrity, allowing them to learn the power of camaraderie and friendship and so on, we would not therefore be okay if all this was achieved by sacrificing talent development. In fact, we might even see that those other goals would be impossible to achieve without pushing those involved to excel precisely because competitive pursuits lose meaning when excellence is not a foremost goal.

Or we might not. Certainly, when it comes to inter-school Scrabble, we don’t. Most students come out of the inter-school system with little idea about how to play the game, no appreciation of it’s inherent beauty, and insufficient skill to even do well in Division C, the lowest tier of competitive play in Singapore. It is essentially analogous to the average graduate of the school track-and-field system being unable to outpace a decently fit amateur jogger — which is ridiculous.

Even the best of the inter-school players generally only have as much ability as is required to win the Inter-School National Scrabble Competition, or ISNSC, which is organized by The Scrabble Academy (TSA). If I had to estimate that level of ability in terms of the Singapore Elo rating system, it would be no more than 13-1400. For contrast, the highest rated under-18 player in Singapore at the moment has a rating of 1875. The next best is rated 1826. The one after that is rated 1715. If you’ll allow a slightly more permissive definition of “youth”, Singapore’s highest-rated player currently is the 24-year-old GM Toh Weibin, a former World Youth Scrabble Champion, rated 2026. He started playing as a student as well. (All ratings are accurate as of 21 Feb 2015.)

But wait, you say. If the school system is so broken, then why are there any good youth players at all? Well, if you’re truly interested in bettering your game as a student, you join the Scrabble Association, Singapore (SA), and take part in their tournaments. If you’ve only ever played in inter-school tournaments, it is a whole different board game. You get exposed to seasoned international players who know what the game is really like. You realize that you’re going to have to get a lot better if you ever want to really be competitive. And so you improve.

The problem with the school system is twofold. One, it just isn’t as competitive as SA tournaments. As I just said, the best school players wouldn’t be out-of-place in the bottom tier of an SA tournament, and it goes downhill from there. (The standard of competition does rise sometimes, mainly when SA players take part. Which, by the way, used to be disallowed by the ISNSC until a few years ago.) We are motivated to get better by the desire to be competitive, to overtake our rivals, and so forth. There’s no point getting better if there isn’t any competition.

Now, TSA claims that they aim to cater to beginners rather than seasoned competitive players, which was the justification for the former ban on SA players. Okay, fine. Except that the natural thing to do with beginners is to help them improve. Of course there’s no shame in starting as a beginner; everyone did! It’s much more questionable if four years of inter-school competition leaves you a beginner — and almost every graduate of the school Scrabble system is a beginner in the eyes of a Division A or B player. And four years is a long time. According to data analysis published by GM Ricky Purnomo, some GMs even manage to achieve GM status in less than four years. His analysis indicates that out of the 10 currently-active GMs who had no playing experience before their first SA-rated tournament, 5 achieved GM status after approximately four years of play. Now, while not everyone is as talented or hardworking as these five, this alarming disparity points to a significant qualitative difference between four years playing SA tournaments and four years in the inter-school system.

The other thing TSA says is that they focus on using Scrabble to inculcate values and skills rather than on honing talent. Their Facebook profile picture has “WHY SCRABBLE” spelt out with Scrabble tiles, surrounded by what I think it is reasonable to presume are supposed to be the benefits of playing in TSA tournaments or training with TSA: “Independent Decision Making”, “Strategy [sic] Options & Variations”, “Confidence and Psychology”, “Life Skills”, “Intrapersonal Intelligence”, “fluid intelligence” (left uncapitalized in the original), “Spatial Intelligence”, “Interpersonal Intelligence”, “Logical-Mathematical Intelligence”, “Linguistic Intelligence”, and finally “Multi-tasking Competencies”.

Now, I’m all on board with the idea that competitive players can gain something valuable from Scrabble. I know I certainly have. The thing is, as I said earlier, the inculcation of values becomes weak and shallow when Scrabble is treated purely as a means to an end, an activity to induce those values in students. To do this is to lose sight of the fact that the value in Scrabble comes from the pursuit of excellence in a particular craft, not because Scrabble is a magic path to success in life! (I wish.) How do you teach someone the value of hard work when there’s little in the way of hard work to be done? To succeed at the inter-school level, you need to learn maybe all the two letter words and a few hundred of the most probable seven- and eight-letter words to make bonuses. Quite apart from the fact that only a few even go this far, this barely scratches the surface of what it means to work hard at Scrabble. If we’re talking about the words themselves, there are 33274 seven-letter words alone in CSW12, the lexicon used by most of the world, including Singapore. In addition, strategic acumen also has to be honed, usually by making an error and losing because of it. However, there is very little strategy at the inter-school level because of the low level of play. Here, for example, is a picture of a board from the secondary schools section of the 2014 ISNSC that TSA posted on their Facebook page:

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Yes, this is not a random sample, and it is only one board. But, from personal experience, I think it’s pretty fair to say that this is not an unfair representation of the standard of play. Also, TSA saw fit to post it on their Facebook page themselves, so it’s clear they’re comfortable with people seeing this as a good representation of what goes on at their tournaments. And, to be fair, there is a bonus on the board. But apart from that, it’s pretty bad. The board is clogged up by short words and parallel play — all hallmarks of less-skilled players. I say with confidence that one learns very little about strategy from these games, because it becomes all about drawing the right tiles to score with short words or maybe get down a bonus.

Furthermore, some ISNSC rules bizarrely deviate from best practices established by SA and the World English-language Scrabble Players’ Association (WESPA). For example, the organizer-provided scoresheet (which you must use, on pain of disqualification) has no tile-tracking grid. (Tile tracking is the process of noting which tiles have been played and deducing from the standard tile distribution what tiles are left either in the bag or on your opponent’s rack. In high-level competitive play, not tracking places you at a severe disadvantage and is unheard-of.) It used to be the case that you were not even allowed to write out your own tile-tracking grid (this rule has been recently changed). Given that the standard tile distribution is on the side of every standard Mattel board and visible to both players, the earlier prohibition was more or less perverse, and even not providing the tracking grid merely forces players to write it out themselves. How does withholding the most basic of strategic tools encourage students to become better at considering the “Strategy Options and Variations”? How does it help with thinking ahead, working from uncertain data to tentative conclusions, and so forth? (TSA also doesn’t let you keep the scoresheets, which prevents students from going back and analyzing their games.)

When it comes to the moral values, such as integrity and sportsmanship, I find that the inter-school approach is somewhat wrongheaded. For instance, inter-school rules prohibit having unchallenged phonies (non-words that remain on the board because they were not disputed by your opponent) occupy more than 33% of your total score, failing which your win is voided and the game given to your opponent. This is nonsensical. Instead of teaching students that they need to learn how and when to challenge an opponent’s words themselves, it teaches students that they don’t have to help themselves because someone else will. Furthermore, the use of phonies is not dishonest — it is just part of the game. Opponents are given a fair chance to challenge, which they should use if they feel a word is suspicious. Finally, even if we accept the dubious proposition that phonying is dishonest, using rules to teach this only encourages them to carefully limit their phonying, so that they extract maximum value from it while avoiding the penalty.

The second problem, which overlaps greatly with the first, is that the level of training is inadequate. In general, the market for Scrabble coaching is uncompetitive (in the economic sense) because there is essentially only a single provider. I do know of independent trainers here and there, but otherwise TSA has a monopoly, being the sole registered firm in the business as well as the organizer of nearly every inter-school competition. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that their training is not up to snuff, but it does mean that there is no incentive for them to raise their game since they face no competition (and no one for schools to compare them against). It is a commonplace of economic theory that there is likely to be inefficiency under monopoly, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t be the case here.

Furthermore, we do have evidence that training is not good enough — the low standard of play at inter-school tournaments! For instance, the bingo knowledge of even the good players is limited to the bonuses from the stems SATIRE, RETAIN, and TISANE. That would be 238 sevens. (Many of these stems are very fruitful — for instance, TISANE + G, or AEGINST, has 11 valid anagrams. While it is useful to know all of them, learning eleven different high-probability combinations with only a single anagram each would be even more useful. Hence, the raw number of anagrams overstates the actual usefulness of these stems.) I will make a generous assumption and say that the best players might come out knowing the equivalent of the top 1000 sevens and eights by probability. (I am near certain that this overstates the extent of their word knowledge.) That is a rather poor result for four years of training. If I managed a hundred new words a week, which is a bit less than fifteen a day, I would learn 5200 new words a year, and in four years I would have the top 10000 sevens and eights down — enough to put me solidly in Division A, which is where four years of sustained play should bring the most talented. Even a quarter as much effort would allow me to be competitive in Division A.

When we consider the added fact that many students have Scrabble as their CCA, the problem magnifies. Fifteen anagrams is not hard even if you have other commitments, but compared to the commitment other CCAs demand — hours of training at the track or in the pool, etc. — fifteen anagrams is paltry. I can only conclude that Scrabble training needs a radical shake-up.

As a result of all of the above, the competitive Scrabble scene in Singapore has grown rather moribund. It is pretty much universally acknowledged within the SA that there is insufficient fresh blood coming through the system. The combined effect of the problems analyzed above is that new generations of Scrabblers are largely unable to appreciate the beauty of the game played to the highest level. Compared to the exciting youth Scrabble scenes in Malaysia and the US, where national organizations take an active role in student play, training is taken seriously, and the standard of play is high enough that the best students regularly rise to the top divisions there, the performance of our own school system is nothing short of dismal. To me, the popularity of school Scrabble indicates that many have an active desire to play the game (although some are probably compelled to for the sake of CCA points). We don’t need school Scrabblers to join the ranks of the SA en masse. Not everyone is cut out for competitive play, and only those who enjoy it (or perhaps those who are obsessed with it) should strive to conquer it. On the other hand, it is a crying shame that because of the problems I have identified, the many school Scrabblers who had the potential to make it in the competitive world did not fully experience the beauty of the game, stymieing the growth of the motivation and interest that would have brought them far as SA players.

Here’s the good news: the solutions are easy, obvious, and pretty much already implied by my analysis of the problems. In brief: Scrabble is a mindsport. Students can play it as well as adults, and indeed pick it up faster than them. On an individual level, interested students simply need to start using the available tools — Zyzzyva, Quackle, ISC etc. — properly, attend SA tournaments, and practice regularly. (A more detailed guide to getting started, The Scrabble Player’s Handbook, can be found here. There is also plenty of information available elsewhere online.) On a larger level, coaching should be reformed to emphasize consistent and sustained word study. The expertise of the Youth Committee of WESPA, particularly Karen Richards, should be sought. Schools should only allow students who work hard to take part in competitions (which is the way it works with many other CCAs). It would be ideal to develop a competitive coaching market, with veteran SA players serving as instructors. Competitions should be governed mostly or wholly by WESPA v2 rules. Finally, school play should be seen only as a prelude to open competitive play, with the best school players playing in A Division and raising the standard of school play by guiding their schoolmates and teammates while forcing their opponents to buck up if they want to stand a chance.

Here’s the bad news: it ain’t gonna happen. As we said just now, TSA is the one running the school Scrabble show, and they seem pretty okay with the way things are right now. I strongly disagree, of course, but I have no idea what to do about it. Right now the best alternative is to get the word out to those school players with the interest and aptitude to succeed and introduce them to SA tournaments. And that’s all well and good, but it’s far short of an actual solution to the problem.

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