Mixing Memory

The Cognitive Psychology of Scrabble?

I kid you not:

Halpern, D.F., & Wai, J. (2007). The world of competitive Scrabble: Novice and expert differences in visuospatial and verbal vbilities. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 13(2), 79-94.

Competitive Scrabble players spend a mean of 4.5 hr a week memorizing words from the official Scrabble dictionary. When asked if they learn word meanings when studying word lists, only 6.4% replied “always,” with the rest split between “sometimes” and “rarely or never.” Number of years of play correlated positively with expertise ratings, suggesting that expertise develops with practice. To determine the effect of hours of practice (M = 1,904), the authors compared experts with high-achieving college students on a battery of cognitive tests. Despite reporting that they usually memorize word lists without learning meanings, experts defined more words correctly. Reaction times on a lexical decision task (controlling for age) correlated with expertise ratings, suggesting that experts develop faster access to word identification. Experts’ superiority on visuospatial processing was found for reaction time on 1 of 3 visuospatial tests. In a study of memory for altered Scrabble boards, experts outperformed novices, with differences between high and low expertise on memory for boards with structure-deforming transformations. Expert Scrabble players showed superior performance on selected verbal and visuospatial tasks that correspond to abilities that are implicated in competitive play.

There’s actually something to this. They hypothesize that expert Scrabble players will remember the words that the spend 4 hours a week memorizing through a representation of the word form only, and not the representation of word meaning. As the results described in the abstract suggest, however, even the Scrabble experts who say they don’t look at meanings when memorizing words do better than “high-achieving college students” on a task requiring them to define words. I guess that’s kinda cool. And in the discussion, they write:

At the same time, experts learn to attend to and utilize visuospatial arrays on the board. Working memory is often conceptualized as relatively independent pools of resources (e.g., Logie, 1995; Shah & Miyake, 1996), one for verbal or phonological tasks and one for visuospatial tasks, which makes competitive Scrabble, with its reliance on both skills, an excellent paradigm for understanding how these two types of resources are developed and utilized. (p. 92-93)

I guess so.


  1. #1 Katherine
    June 28, 2007

    I read a really neat article on scrabble experts once. It may have been in the Chronicle of Higher Education about 2 years ago, but I’m not sure. In any case, it was about how experts learn very obscure words from common letters in scrabble (like a’s, e’s, etc) so that they’re likely to be able to make something out of any letter combination they’re dealt. Also, one of the people in the article who was competing at a national level didn’t speak or read English in spite of being a scrabble champion (for English words). So, I wasn’t surprised to see in your summary that experts don’t often look up the meanings of words when they learn them.

  2. #2 Tim Byron
    June 28, 2007

    Haha, this is awesome, he says, speaking as a cognitive psychologist who plays scrabble reasonably respectively if not at a nationally competitive level (I’d be disappointed if I got a sub-300 score). I haven’t memorised a whole bunch of the odder words, beyond the 2 and 3 letter words. Maybe that’s why I’m not consistently getting competitive scores. I mostly rely on visuo-spatial abilities and psycholinguistic knowledge – e.g., I try to put together words from the bottom up, starting with common prefixes and suffixes and seeing what I have – and trying to play strategically. But I think the study is right from my anecdotal experience – those in scrabble who just rely on spatial strategy or just rely on word knowledge don’t get far – you have to be able to use one to effectively use the other.

    There was a similar study that I’ve read in regards to chess (though I can’t point you to it – I have a suspicion that Herbert Simon mentions it in his Science paper of 1974 talking about chunking ability, or maybe I’m thinking of something by Nelson Cowan?) – in any case, expert chess players have much much better memories for the configuration of a chess board than the average.


  3. #3 Jayant Agarwalla
    June 29, 2007

    This topic often comes up for debate in the lobbies of many Scrabble websites. When a pro Scrabble player uses a word that he doesn’t know the meaning to, novice players think they are cheating.

    However personally I feel Scrabble is both, a fun family game, and a super competitive game. It just depends what kind of a player you are. The psychology of pro players is to improve with each game while that of newbies and novices is to probably just have some fun and keep their brain active. Thus, novices will perhaps spend more time learning the meanings of the words they play while the pro players will care less about that.

    It is often observed at Scrabulous – a free Scrabble site – that when playing against the robots, then novices often back out after the computer plays words unheard of. But pro players stay glued to their screens and try to absorb the words into their vocabulary.

    Anyways, however you see it, SCRABBLE RULES :)

    (http://www.scrabulous.com – Free Scrabble)

  4. #4 Mikko
    June 29, 2007


    As the paper remarks, a part of the expert players sometimes memorizes the words. Could you explain how the authors verified that it is not the players actually memorizing the meanings, who get higher in the distribution and thus, make the average higher? A simple average will not tell you this, nor will just looking at the distribution. One could verify it by looking at the distribution of just those who say they never memorize words. Did they?

  5. #5 Chris
    June 29, 2007

    Mikko, I’m not sure I fully understand your question. Most of the players indicated that they rarely or never looked at the meanings of the words. Are you asking if these are the people who make the average knowledge of definitions higher? If so, then no, they didn’t look at that unfortunately. The distribution and a correlation would be nice to see, you’re right.

  6. #6 Chris
    June 29, 2007

    Tim, there’s actually been a ton of research on expert chess players. Much of what we know about expertise comes from that research. And Simon has done some of it. In the paper, they cite a bunch of that research.

  7. #7 Mikko
    June 29, 2007


    Yes, my question was how large portion of the higher average was due to those who never memorized. After all, it could be that none of it – in which case the research would be quite irrelevant.

    The problem, of course, is that without knowing the correlations, it is hard to see how this research helps us understand. A more detailed analysis is definitely necessary.

    This reminds me of a thing about writing papers I’ve learned in my own field (computer networking). Average quality papers have run tests on implementations to show that they have made a system and that it works. High quality papers know which measurements are important to make the point the paper has. Not having correlations in this one drops it down in quality and usefulness, quite a lot.

  8. #8 Mikko
    June 29, 2007

    Oh, and by the way – most of the players did not indicate that “they rarely or never” looked at the meanings. The study states: When asked ?When you study Scrabble words, do you try to learn what the words mean??, only 7 of 109 (6.4%) competitive players (total sample size varies slightly from question to question because of missing data) responded ?always.? Of the rest, responses were evenly split between ?rarely and never? and ?sometimes.?

    This means that more than 50% of the expert group memorized the meanings at least sometimes leaving plenty of room for problems.