So you're playing Scrabble and five letters below a triple word score there's an F. Your letters are ACIIPST. What do you do?
If you're Stefan Fatsis, a sportswriter and competitive Scrabble player, you do this (see bottom for the answer).
It gets better. In his book Word Freak, Fatsis describes one of the greatest plays he ever saw. It was a nine-letter word that used all of the player's tiles (a bingo) and two letters already on the board. The two letters were not adjacent. They didn't come at the beginning or end of the word. The audience collectively gasped and then either high-fived or shook their heads in wonder.
Competitive Scrabble players are crazy good. They wade through a staggering number of possible plays on any Scrabble board. And they don't really control it consciously. They just have to look at the board and wait for their brains to shout out an answer.
Scrabble requires two primary skills. 1) You have to know the Scrabble dictionary (including words like AINSELLS and VUGGIEST). The meaning of these words is irrelevant, and top Scrabble players don't know them. 2) You have to be able to fit those words on the board, preferably seven at a time on triple word scores.
The Obvious Difference: Practice
What's different about Scrabble players? Top Scrabble players memorize the dictionary when they have a spare moment, and they carry mini scrabble games everywhere. They practice a lot. It's always hard to weigh the contributions of talent versus practice. But practice appears to be the main contributor.
Fatsis's own story illustrates the value of practice. He was a journalist who was challenged to try Scrabble and, without any particular talent, became a top player. Other journalists have done the same in books about memory and poker.
What Else Is Different About Word Freaks
It's not just practice. According to an article published today in the journal Memory & Cognition, by Ian Hargreaves, Penny Pexman, Lenka Zdrazilova, and Peter Sargious, competitive Scrabblers see the world differently from matched control participants.
The research showed that Scrabble players were better than controls at reading words presented in vertical orientation, which slows most people down. Most people also slow down when reading abstract words (liberty) as compared to concrete words (statue). The Scrabble players, who are used to ignoring the meaning of words, did not slow down as much. These findings suggest that we can change—and improve upon—our basic visual word recognition processes through experience, even as adults.
The researchers also ran the participants throught a battery of cognitive assessments. The Scrabble players weren't cognitively superior to the control group—except they were much better at Scrabble skills, like anagrams. This supports other research suggesting that Scrabble players are made, not born.
And given ACIIPST with an F, Stefan Fatsis played PACIFIST. On two triple word scores. It took him five seconds.