Scrabble players read differently, researchers say

Competitive Scrabble players process words differently than the rest of us, say researchers at the University of Calgary.
Competitive Scrabble players spend hours studying lists of words to prepare for a match. (Canadian Press files)

Competitive Scrabble players process words differently than the rest of us, say researchers at the University of Calgary.

"Scrabble players have honed their ability to recognize words such that they have actually changed the process of reading words," Ian Hargreaves, the lead researcher on the study, told the university's student news paper.

The goal of the study, the researchers said, was to determine whether the intense training techniques employed by players altered the way they read words.

Scrabble basics

Scrabble is played by two to four players on a board with a 15-by-15 grid of squares, each of which holds a single letter tile.

The board is marked with "premium" squares, which multiply the number of points awarded: triple-word squares, double-word squares, triple-letter squares and double-letter squares. The centre square, usually marked with a star, counts as a double-word square.

The English-language set contains 100 tiles, 98 of which are marked with a letter and a point value ranging from one to 10, based on its frequency in standard English writing. The game also has two blank tiles that carry no point value. They can be used as substitutes for any letter, but once laid on the board the choice is fixed.

At the beginning of the game, and after each turn until there are no more tiles, players draw tiles to replenish their "racks" or tile-holders with seven tiles, from which they make plays. Each rack is concealed from the other players. The game ends when no player can create another word. Points assigned to tiles remaining on a player's rack are subtracted from the player's point count; the player with the most points wins. In addition, if a player has no tiles remaining, the sum of the other player's unplayed letters is added to that player's score.

— Wikipedia

"The average literate adult relies on three components to process and read a word: sound, spelling and meaning," psychology Prof. Penny Pexman told the news paper. "When we studied the Scrabble players, we found that there is significant flexibility in the tools they use to read words and that it can include the orientation [vertical or horizontal] of the word as well."

According to the study, Scrabble players were able to identify actual words over nonsensical words 20 per cent faster, an ability the researchers assigned to the hours the players spent studying the 180,000 words listed in The Official Tournament and Club Word List.

Betty Bergeron, who has been playing Scrabble for 11 years and took part in the study, agreed the game can sharpen word skills, but didn't think it made her smarter.

Strategy important

However, she added, her game has improved over time.

"I wouldn't say I'm smarter, it's just because the way we use the [letter] tiles," she said, describing the strategic way players add words to the board to maximize their score and minimize scoring opportunities for their opponents.

"When I first started I lost and lost all my games but I hung in there and hung in there and now I'm doing better."

Siri Tillekeratne, the head of the Calgary Scrabble Club, believes the competitive way the game combines word meanings and mathematics makes it special.

Tillekeratne, who also took part in the research study, is looking forward to October, when his club will host the 16th Western Canadian Championships .