In the world of competitive Scrabble, I’m known less for my playing ability than for writing a lot about the board game invented during the Depression by a guy named Alfred Butts. In 1,603 tournament games over nearly 25 years, I have a winning percentage of .484. If I were a Major League Baseball team, that would place me between the all-time records of the Milwaukee Brewers and the Arizona Diamondbacks. Which is about right. I’m the Milwaukee Brewers of Scrabble: solidly, historically, consistently mediocre.
After a New Year’s tournament where I blew so many endgames (five) that I had to flee the playing room to break down in private, I thought the next piece I’d write about Scrabble would be one announcing my retirement. I was done with the frustrations and failures, the lapses in memory and judgment, the embarrassing, panic-driven decisions that made me wonder if there’s something wrong with me. I also feared the inevitable decline to come.
But then, in a Sheraton conference room in Kingston, Ontario, this month, during my 116th career tourney, I was on the happy end of everything that can make Scrabble a borderline mystical experience, and impossible to quit—an inexplicable meld of timing, skill, serendipity, and enough improbability to keep a statistics class busy for a semester. “Divine inspiration,” said 2017 North American champion Will Anderson, who figured in the events centering on two words of South African origin.
It started at dinner two Saturdays ago, where the conversation turned, as it does at tournaments, to words that were played that day and words that were not. In the latter category, a top expert named Josh Sokol mentioned that Anderson had missed a crazy play: HIGHVELD. Anderson was competing in a division that uses the international English word list, which is based on the British dictionary Collins. With 281,698 acceptable words from two to 15 letters long, the Collins list is more expansive than the North American list under which I was competing, which contains 192,111 words. Among the many differences: a bunch of words from Afrikaans, like highveld, which the Dictionary of South African English defines as “the inland plateau of southern Africa.”
With its unusual mix of low-frequency letters—both H’s from the pool of 100 Scrabble tiles, one of the two V’s, one of the three G’s, and one each of the four D’s and four L’s—HIGHVELD is extremely unlikely to show up in a game. There are 42,150 eight-letter words in the Collins lexicon. HIGHVELD ranks as the 37,662nd most probable. Using various sites and software, serious Scrabble players study words based on the ranked likelihood that they’ll be drawn from a full bag of tiles. So, from a study perspective, there are 37,661 eight-letter Collins words more useful to learn than HIGHVELD—that is, more likely to materialize during a game.
That’s a shit-ton of words to learn. Only the very top players get that far down the list, and can look at that particular group of letters arranged alphabetically—DEGHHILV—and unscramble the word instantly. Anderson is one of those players. He told me later that he had definitely seen HIGHVELD before: “I’ve seen every word at least once.” He wasn’t thrilled that he’d missed it in the game but didn’t kick himself too hard because, well, it was freaking HIGHVELD, among the least-common bingos—plays using all seven letters on your rack at once—in all of Scrabble.
Anderson’s game was livestreamed on Scrabble’s official Twitch channel. On the turn in question, he held a rack of, in Scrabble notation, EGHILV?, with the question mark denoting a blank. His opponent, 2015 North American champ Matthew Tunnicliffe, had just played the bingo TAPENADE, floating the D in open space and providing an avenue for Anderson to lay down HIGHVELD, using the blank for one of the H’s. On Twitch, Sokol and another expert commentator, Jesse Matthews, immediately raised the possibility of HIGHVELD—not because they’re more knowledgeable than Anderson, who is the highest-rated Collins player in North America, but because viewers were analyzing the game with the Scrabble bot Quackle and offering suggestions in the chat. “Oh my goodness, HIGHVELD!” Sokol exclaimed. “If Will spots this, that is going to score almost 100 points … and if anyone’s going to spot that word, it’s going to be Will.”
But Matthews noted that the blank on Anderson’s rack might be a liability. Counterintuitively, low-probability words with odd collections of letters can be relatively simple to find—precisely because they’re so odd. There’s usually only one solution, and usually only one logical way to arrange the letters. HIGH makes sense, and so does VELD, a type of grassland. But you need to know that uniting the two forms an acceptable Scrabble word, and only a handful of players in Anderson’s position would have known that. Holding a blank, though, leads you to focus on other, more traditional patterns: words ending in -S, -ED, or -ING, or starting with DE- or SH-. That the blank could be a second H, to go along with a G, an L, and a V, wouldn’t automatically cross your mind, or even that of Anderson, whom Sokol described as “the king of blank bingos.”
Anderson’s mistake, if you can call it that, turned out not to be costly. He bingoed on the next turn (with the pedestrian HORNETS, making the blank the S) and won the game handily. But his “failure” gave us something to talk about at dinner that night. “My bingo success rate is high enough that if I miss one it’s a conversation starter,” Anderson told me. “I’ll take that as flattery I suppose.”
From HIGHVELD, the discussion turned to other words ending in -VELD. Someone opened the anagramming app ULU. Whoa! Look at all those -VELD words in Collins! LOWVELD, BACKVELD, BUSHVELD, SOURVELD, BOSCHVELD, SWEETVELD, RENOSTERVELD. Finally, Sokol, who had told us about Anderson’s miss, pointed out that the North American lexicon includes only one of those -VELD words: bushveld, a veld with “abundant shrubby and often thorny vegetation,” according to Merriam-Webster. Interesting! So what was your record today? Make any fun plays? How’s the salad?
I was having a good tournament—with four games left, a 6–5 record in the top North American–lexicon division, and critically, only one exasperating choke job. (Why didn’t I just play VIG and block the last dangerous lane?) I’d beaten some higher-rated players and dropped some cool bingos: JOYRIDES for 102 points and EQUATION for 101. ANECDOTA (a plural of anecdote), REDLINER, PUTTERER, LOVAGES, LANDLORD, WINGTIP. Two other bingos—ENTRESOL in one game, GOADING in another—helped me steal late wins.
The next morning, after losing a close game, the tiles fell my way. I got down an early bingo, SEMINAR, for 76, and later played ENTRAIN with a blank for 68 and, on the very next turn, the nine-letter OUTCHASED for 77 to an open ED. (OUTCHASE is a “phony,” not found in the word list. I wasn’t sure it was a word, but my opponent didn’t challenge the play. Those letters do form two valid words, CATHOUSE and SOUTACHE, though neither takes a D at the end.)
My next rack was DEOSUVX. From a C on the board, I played COX for 36 and an insurmountable 422–204 lead. I pulled an H and an L from the bag and placed them on my rack. I peeked at the lined-up letters—DESUV plus the added HL—and let out a little gasp. Holy shit! Am I seeing what I think I’m seeing? Isn’t there an open B at the top of the board? Yes, there’s an open B at the top of the board! Please don’t use the open B, please don’t use the open B, please don’t use …
My opponent, Anna Miransky, played QI elsewhere. And I instantly laid down BUSHVELD, to the triple-word score in the top right corner, for 113 points. “I’m not even gonna challenge that,” Miransky deadpanned, “because it’s so weird that it has to be real.”
Of the 31,522 eight-letter words on the North American list, BUSHVELD is the 26,329th most probable, between SCUMBLED (to soften the outlines or colors of by rubbing lightly) and SHLUMPED (to schlump, to go about lazily or sloppily dressed). I certainly hadn’t studied it, and before the previous night, hadn’t seen or heard it, in Scrabble or real life. Immediately after the game ended, I raced to show my dinner companions the play. They were shocked, dumbfounded, disbelieving. Sokol stared at the photo of the board that I shoved in his face and said, “What? Who did that? You did that? That actually happened? Oh. My. God.”
I asked John O’Laughlin, another top expert and a co-creator of Quackle, about the unlikelihood of BUSHVELD. After the most recent update of the North American word list, in 2020, O’Laughlin instructed Quackle to play 6 million games (or 12 million player-games) against itself in order to generate word “playability values” for the program. BUSHVELD, he said, was the best move about 110 times. So a player with knowledge of the word “should maybe expect to play it once every 109,000 games”—or, in my case, every century or two.
Scrabble players talk about rare and esoteric words constantly. The strange combinations and bizarre juxtapositions of letters, the aesthetic beauty and beguiling diversity of English. It’s one of the joys of the game. But they almost never get to play those words, because probability. To discuss and learn one of them, and the very next morning have it appear like a signal from a distant galaxy? And then to receive and process the signal? Utterly, mathematically, existentially nuts.
Like the best athletes, the best Scrabble players welcome pressure. They prepare for situations just like these. They study more, practice more, play more. Through a cocktail of brilliance, determination, and sangfroid, they reduce the likelihood of error—and, relatedly, the likelihood of defeat. They minimize the role of luck in a game dictated by it on almost every turn. Scrabble players like me—the less committed, and less gifted—do the same things over and over, hoping for a different outcome. We study less, we invite error, we rely on luck.
But this time, thanks to some synaptic twist of fate, I didn’t blow it, didn’t let BUSHVELD vanish in the dull hotel air like a puff of smoke, unrecognized, unacknowledged, uncreated. “I’m not a very religious guy,” Anderson said of the absurdity of HIGHVELD and BUSHVELD—and also, I think, of the mysterious alignment of particles that produces moments of awe and wonder, a butterfly flapping its wings to transform his rare error into my singular triumph—“but that’s seeing god in the face of Scrabble.”