Friday, July 8, 2011

There Must Be A Narrative In There Somewhere!

I went kayaking on Town Lake after work today. I've gone before with a friend but never just by myself. Was still 99 degrees or something when I got there, but on the water it wasn't bad at all. Relaxing. Even remembered sunscreen this time. (As pale as I am, you'd know the next day had I forgotten it, I assure you.)

So here's something. Tournament Scrabble players will already know much of this, but for the rest of you, I'll start from the start. Scrabble game scores higher than about 650 happen quite rarely. Usually, but not always, the player scoring that much is at least a low-level expert, if not stronger. However, games like this tend not to come from a virtuoso display of skill as much as from drawing incredibly well. Yes, you have to be able to find the plays, but in many 650+ games the relevant plays aren't that difficult. The North American high-score record in a tournament is 771...the Austin club has been around for over 25 years and there have been only two 700 games in its recorded history. My own highest score ever was 703, in a friendly game; in a tournament, it's 655. I've had a few other 650+ games, but only a few, and over the past eight years I've played thousands of games in person and against computers. It's rare for *anyone* to score 650.

So there's this player, usually rated in the 1700s on the player rating scale used for North American tournament play. (Quick'n'dirty scale of North American player ratings: 2100: Nigel Richards/God, 2000: in the top 10 in North America, 1900: top 40, 1800: top 100, 1700: top 200, 1600: top 350. A typical beginner has a skill level of...somewhere between 500 and 800, I don't know. Hard to say.) The player I'm talking about here has an unusual number of super high-scoring games in club and tournament play. Something like four 700 games, two of them over 740. I don't know what the exact figures are, but it's weird. She has a reputation for unusually good knowledge of the bingos (7- and 8-letter words, for you lay readers), which would seem to help the odds of having huge games. Fair enough, but however good that knowledge is, it's not better than the players in the top 20, and even they don't have as many set-phasers-on-ridiculous high-scoring games. What's going on?

I think a lot of people would first assume there's something in her playing style that maximizes the tiny chance of scoring 650+ in a game, even while sacrificing winning percentage to do so (or else she'd be rated higher). But I don't think we can assume that. If enough (good) players play enough games, someone's bound to have an unusual number of long-odds scores. However many such games she has, there's no way it's enough to be statistically significant. And I can't see any style, even one intentionally designed to produce this effect, reliably doing so against tournament-level opposition. That's asking of "style" in Scrabble something beyond the range of its powers. You could up the odds of a monster game a little, which would create more pronounced distributions at the fringes - but they're still long odds, because scores like that would seem to be so dependent on improbable runs of tiles no matter what you do. So I'd say it's random, or at least random variation is probably the dominant factor in the number of 650+ games this player has. To prove otherwise, one would have to show that stylistic considerations have much more effect on the direction of a game than has been shown by any evidence I'm aware of.

But it's a well-documented human tendency to see patterns and explanations and story lines in everything - not to say that people have speculated much on the player above; they really haven't, as far as I know. I was just using her unusual number of high games as an example of something humans might assume a causal explanation for. We don't understand randomness worth beans, and plus it's boring - it feels like there's no story, like we're left with nothing. So we can't bring ourselves to allow it as an explanation for anything...yes, I know this all has been observed more fully and better by lots of other people. But they're not here, so I'll have to fill in. ;)

This reminds me a lot of what I see all too often when following sports. This xkcd says it better than I can:   Much of sports reporting and writing is about fitting events into a salable narrative, not about what really happened. Mythmaking. If that entertains you, okay, and you're certainly not alone, but to the extent I follow sports, the myths don't move me; they're icing on a cake that doesn't need any. The game played true is enough to satisfy. I bet I would get a far less distorted and scarcely less rich sense of a season's story in any pro league by doing nothing but reading the year-end statistics and a series of just-the-facts summaries of the key players and events than I would by watching SportsCenter and reading sports pundits' opinions every day. There are some good and even great writers working in sports, don't get me wrong, but too often sports media does the unfortunate opposite of what great fiction does: instead of making the contrived feel real, it makes the real feel contrived. I don't want the Disney version.

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