Super Scrabble players push brain ability beyond what was thought possible

Word recognition behavior can be fine-tuned by experience and practice, according to a new study by Ian Hargreaves and colleagues from the University of Calgary in Canada. Their work shows, for the first time, that it is possible to develop visual word recognition ability in adulthood, beyond what researchers thought was achievable. Competitive Scrabble players provide the proof. The study is published online in Springer’s journal Memory & Cognition.

Competitive Scrabble involves extraordinary word recognition experience. Expert players typically dedicate large amounts of time to studying the 180,000 words listed in The Official Tournament and Club Word List. Hargreaves and colleagues wanted to establish the effects of experience on visual word recognition. They compared the visual word recognition behaviors of competitive Scrabble players and non-expert participants using a version of the classic word recognition model – the lexical decision task – where subjects need to make a quick decision about whether the word shown to them is a real word.

In a series of two experiments, the authors showed participants words presented both vertically and horizontally, as well as common concrete (e.g. truck) and abstract (e.g. truth) words and measured how quickly, and how, they made judgements about those words. The first experiment among 23 undergraduate students established a baseline i.e. what we might typically observe in individuals. The second experiment compared the performances of 23 competitive Scrabble players and 23 non-expert controls of the same age, to account for the effects of age i.e. older adults are likely to have a larger vocabulary and have had greater exposure to printed material over the years.

Competitive Scrabble players’ visual word recognition behavior differed significantly from non-experts’ for letter-prompted verbal fluency (coming up with words beginning with a specific letter) and anagramming accuracy, two Scrabble-specific skills. Competitive players were faster to judge whether or not a word was real. They also judged the validity of vertical words faster than non-experts and were quicker at picking up abstract words than non-competitive players. These findings indicate that Scrabble players are less reliant on the meaning of words to judge whether or not they are real, and more flexible at word recognition using orthographic information.

The authors conclude: “Our results suggest that visual word recognition is shaped by experience and, that with experience, there are efficiencies to be had even in the adult world recognition system. Competitive Scrabble players are visual word recognition experts and their skill pushes the bounds of what we previously considered the end-point of development of the word recognition system.”

Hargreaves IS et al (2011). How a hobby can shape cognition: visual word recognition in competitive Scrabble players. Memory & Cognition. DOI 10.3758/s13421-011-0137-5


  1. If Scrabble players have unusual brains, why not Chess players? I mean, Chess is obviously more complicated than Scrabble (my playmates say I’m very good at both).

    • Chess obviously more complicated?

      Then you don’t understand Scrabble, at least the higher end of it.
      In chess, you’re making logical decisions concerning what-if scenarios involving pieces that are seen and known by both players.
      In higher level Scrabble, the opposing player’s pieces are unknown except as probability values, and the uncertainty decreases during the game as more letters are exposed.
      If you think it’s complicated dealing with dangers you can see, how is it easier when they’re mere probabilities and you have to make similar cost-benefit analyses? If you show me your letters, damn straight I know what my play should be.
      Of course it’s not as simple as whether your opponent has full knowledge of the game pieces at your disposal, and vice versa, but seriously…??
      Until you understand, for instance, what’s involved in a 2-in-the-bag endgame, you’d be well advised to reserve your opinion on which game is more complicated.

  2. Scrabble seems like a classic game task better performed by computers. There’s a defined board, defined set of letters to play with, and a defined word list. There’s some strategy in there, but that logic can be added. Even with so-so game logic,the computer would likely be good enough to get wins due to the superior word and reward placement (triple word, double letter, etc.) choices.

    • Your comment implies that strategy is a very minor part of it, and something that can be easily taught to a computer with a set of simple heuristics, whereas there is much more complexity to Scrabble strategy. Some of the best tournament players can beat the very best computers about 50% of the time (these computer programs use look-ahead — Monte Carlo simulations with several plies and hundreds of iterations — to determine which plays have the best chance of winning in the long run). The fact that human beings can remain so competitive against a computer with perfect word knowledge implies the game has a deeper strategical depth than you seem to imply.

  3. It’s gaming pattern recognition, rather than lexical (reading) recognition – in the same sense that an expert Chess player see patterns in the placement of pieces on a board, and has a large book of tricks (mental rules), an expert Scrabble player has trained themselves to see patterns in letters matching the Scrabble Dictionary Phase space, and has a books of tricks (rules) to increase the probability of correct validation – If you want to see massive confusion or increase of error rates, take the subject outside of the dictionary space they’re used to – been there, done that.

  4. In other news, being a professional basketball player makes you more likely to be physically fit that a person who is only a moderate basketball player.

    • I love your comment, tm. You are so on the ball. I was reading down through all the fore-going crap and out of the blue the first words that actually make sense. Well said.


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