So one Joshua Lewis has demonstrated pretty conclusively that the letter-value distribution in Scrabble is disproportionate to actual letter frequency. Nick Carr, from whom I learned about this, points out that fixing those proportions wouldn’t necessarily make Scrabble a better game:
But Lewis’s plan is founded on a misunderstanding. By accounting for recent changes in word frequency and transition probability entropy, he seems to believe that he can return the Scrabble scoring system to a statistically pristine state. But that pristine state, that Eden where all the numbers line up, never existed. The points system was a kludge from the get-go, as the analytically minded have long known. The game’s inventor, Alfred Butts, “calculated a value for each tile by measuring how frequently each letter appeared on the front page of the New York Times.” Explains John Chew, of the North American Scrabble Players Association, ”Butts had a selection bias in favour of printed newspaper English which many people have suggested ought to be rectified.” But changing the system at this point, Chew says, with considerable understatement, would inspire ”catastrophic outrage.” It would also make the game less fun, because it would make it more difficult for novices to occasionally beat veteran players. The scoring system’s lack of statistical rigor, it turns out, has the unintended but entirely welcome effect of adding a little extra dash of luck to the game.
But in fact, Lewis does understand that there’s a trade-off that might not be perfectly desirable. “If they were to re-do the values of the tiles that would reduce the level of luck,” he says. “That might be desirable in tournaments but it might not be as good in casual play where you want the less skilled players to have a shot periodically at beating the more highly skilled players.”
Not everyone gets this, though, and over the years people have demanded that the letter values be adjusted to match actual frequency (and presumably re-adjusted from time to time if those proportions change). Reason demands it!
Which reminds me of a scene from Pride and Prejudice (which this month turns 200, by the way) in which Caroline Bingley talks with her brother:
“I should like balls infinitely better,” she replied, “if they were carried on in a different manner; but there is something insufferably tedious in the usual process of such a meeting. It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing were made the order of the day.”
“Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball.”