Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What, Me, Study?

It's funny to admit this as a person who holds three degres (a high school diploma, a B.A., and a J.D.), but I'll admit it: I always hated to study.

Until I met Scrabble, that is.

One of the things that I think often vexes civillians about Scrabblers is that we...gasp!..."use weird words!"

A good illustration of this was when Heather and I had lunch a few months ago with a former landlady of mine, who loved Scrabble. I'd played several games with her when I lived in her basement (which, as I recall, she soundly trounced me in), and she seemed to fit the prototype of someone who might really enjoy tournament Scrabble.

So, we started teling her about it. Tournaments, clubs, how much fun it was. She sounded somewhat intrigued.

Until we mentioned the words. Those pesky words.

"Oh, you're like my friend who uses weird words to play Scrabble that no one's heard of."

Well, no disrespect to my former landlady, but someone's heard of them. They didn't just sprout legs and walk into the dictionary. So maybe I didn't know APRAXIA (a speech pathology term), and would consider it a "weird word," but it's something Heather interacts with all the time. Meanwhile, Heather might think NOVATION odd, but anyone who's lived through a first year Contracts class knows it's a perfectly valid word (albeit, a very annoying concept.) (NB: NOVATED* is no good. Heather and I both learned that in Pontiac.)

So, really, there are no weird words. Just words you don't know. And, if you want to be any good at tournament Scrabble, you need to remedy that.

This is a revelation that comes to all Scrabblers, sooner or later. Epitomized by Tina (and stolen by Heather) as "STUDY MORE." Stefan Fatsis, in Word Freak, mentions there came a point when he had to confront the brutal truth: To be better, he'd need to learn more words.

OK, so I realized, I needed more words. But how? I ran into a problem from my academic days: I didn't quite know how best to study.

I started interrogating other, better, players on the Scrabble scene. (When you're a 615-rated player, as I was at my nadir, finding a better player is not hard.) Their tactics ranged from writing down the word, its inflections, and its definition, to printng out lists and going through the whole list to cram before tournaments.

Somehow, nothing spoke to me.

Then, inspiration appeared in the form of a good ol' fashioned butt-whoopin'.

I was playing Waylena McCully at the Fenton Late Bird in January. Waylena seemed to know all sorts of odd words, so I asked her the same question I'd been asking everyone: How did she learn all these words?

Waylena pointed me to Anahack (that's the link you'l usually find it at, although I couldn't open it while drafting this post.) It's pretty simple: the program flashes 36 alphagrams at you (an alphagram is the letters making up the word, so my name's alphagram is ACEHILM), and you have to try to solve them.

At first, I felt like it was pointless. Alphagrams would flash in front of me, I'd enter the wrong word, and it would say I was wrong. Surely, I was getting nowhere.

So, I tried something else. Whenever I'd miss an alphagram, I'd write the alphagram on the front (unlined) portion of the card, while writing the words on the back side. Then, I'd separate the cards into piles or the number of letters in the word (4, 5, 6 & 7), and then further divide them by those I'd figured out and those I hadn't.

This was great. I learned some really cool hooks (that an S can go in front of TIME, or that an A can go behind LIP.) I started to be able to anagram faster and recognize bingos on my rack. And I was learning words. Cool words, like PEDALO(S) and AXMEN.

There were only two drawbacks that I could see: One was that Anahack flashed things at you in a rather random order. But that was okay, I figured, insofar as there were a lot of words, and I needed to learn them all eventually (although, I will admit, the relative likelihood of AEMNX showing up in your rack...come on, you can figure it out, I just gave it to you in the last paragraph...was not great.)

The second problem was a bit more, to coin a phrase, EIGNVX (work on it. Work on it. OK, here's a hint, a good Scrabble player looks to group endINGs in their alphagrams.) You see, the more cards I got, the more space it took up, and the more cluttered my dresser became. Beyond that, every time I wanted to go through a pile of cards, it was taking longer and longer as I added more words. Sometimes, I would spend forty minutes just going through one group of words. While I didn't mind spending that much time studying, I did mind that I was spending a good deal of time flipping through words I had long ago committed to memory.

By the way, my last sentence reminded me of something I started to say. While I was never a huge fan of studying from Kindergarten through the day I passed the bar, such was not the case when it came to Scrabble. I find learning new words fascinating, and the process of decoding anagrams exhilerating. (Yes, yes, I'm weird, I know.) I greatly enjoyed the process.

Nonetheless, the issue of time and space. (You might call it the time/space continuum. But only if you were an incorrigible smartass.) Just as things were getting really desperate, a lady at my club mentioned she'd been enjoying using Zyzzyva. Zyzzyva is a program (and, yes, ZYZZYVA is good, if INCREDIBLY low'd need the Z, both blanks, a Y, a V and an A, all at once) which has a number of different ways to study things. It's also the way we adjudicate challenges in Scrabble (a whole 'nother ball of wax.)

The coolest thing, I've found, about Zyzzyva is the "cardbox" method. When you decode an alphagram correctly for the first time, it "schedules" the alphagram to be shown to you within a day or two. The second time you get it right, it's scheduled for 3-5 days later. And so on, until you're only seeing words you really know cold every thirty days or so. If you miss it, back to the front it goes, and you'll see it practically every day until you get it right.

The problem, of course, is that if you miss a few days, your cardbox gets very full. My goal was to have about 50-150 questions a day. Unfortunately, I missed several days in the process of being in Pontiac for the three-day tournament, and found myself with 501 3s to do.

Nonetheless, the good news is that these 501 3s are in my hard drive, not on my dresser. I think I have found a study method that works for me. And best of's kind of fun! HOW EKNW I CDLOU EJNOY DGINSTUY?

C'mon. You can figure it out. :)

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