crosswords or scrabble? what kind of puzzle-solver are you?

CrosswordWhich do you prefer, crossword puzzles or scrabble?

Your answer might say more about you than you think.

What if understanding what kind of puzzle-solver you were could help you break out of a rut, find a creative solution to a vexing problem, or make a really difficult decision a lot easier?

Me, I’m a crossword puzzler.  I like words — but more than that, I like thinking about the meanings of words. I love wrestling with a tough bunch of clues attached to a frighteningly blank grid of black-and-white squares.  I especially love sparring with my opponent — the puzzle designer — whose goal is to try to deceive me, baffle me, or at least temporarily confuse me, by the carefully selected and cryptic clues at the bottom of the page.

Now, lots of friends of mine are addicted to Scrabble. That is, they are addicted to the wildly popular online versions of a Scrabble-like game that is no longer called Scrabbulous. They know how much I love crosswords, so they wonder why I do not join in.  It’s the same thing, right? Placing letters onto a grid to form intersecting words? Only instead of competing against an unseen puzzle writer, I’d be competing against other people!

I used to wonder why I didn’t care for Scrabble, too. I mean, it’s okay. I think I own a copy of the game, somewhere. But I’ll tell ya, I don’t keep a game of Scrabble in the bathroom, and I don’t keep a set of letter tiles next to the bed. That’s where the crosswords live, in my world.

Well, it turns out that there is a difference — a big difference — between crosswords and Scrabble.

It occurred to me the other day, while I was reading something for school.

In a crossword puzzle, there is always an answer. Crossword puzzles don’t get published unless they obey a number of very strict, sometimes really esoteric rules.

In Scrabble, you are given a handful of random letter tiles, out of which you may or may not be able to form a word (in combination with a letter or letters already on the gameboard).

In crossword puzzles, you know a solution exists.

In Scrabble, you don’t know if a solution exists or not.

I like crosswords for the same reason that I always liked geometry — and disliked algebra — when I was in high school.  When you are solving a geometry proof, you know that the lines and angles need to obey certain rules, and that they have certain properties that you can trust. You can rely on a right angle to always be 90 degrees, you can rely on the angles that make up a line to equal 180 degrees… and parallel lines will never, ever touch.

I loved solving proofs in geometry and knowing the answer was there, somewhere, if I only looked at it in just the right way, if I just had enough time, and could focus, and knew all the rules.

(By the way, even though I am generally a fan of algebra, I didn’t like algebra once I was introduced to equations in which more than one answer was possible. Although when that happened once in a crossword puzzle in the New York Times, I have to admit it was pretty cool.)

Scrabble skeeves me out.  Scrabble is random. Scrabble does not guarantee a solution. Scrabble introduces more uncertainty into an already uncertain world. Scrabble is an unreliable narrator, and it’s for people who are much more comfortable with existentialism than I am.

So what does this have to do with anything?

Well, I’ve been wrestling with a number of intractable puzzles myself lately.  Writing projects that require creative ideas and persuasive arguments that I don’t currently have on hand. Interpersonal relationships that require sensitivity and tact that can occasionally be difficult to summon. Plans for the future that require nimble moves and rapid adjustments, when fear and doubt might instead turn my mental muscles slack and my intrepidity… anemic. (I told you I liked words.)

And the other day, when I remembered why I love crossword problems, I realized that I might be able to apply the same logic to my own problems.

Just assume that there is a solution.

Then find it.

See, when I fear that there might not be a solution, that’s when I panic, and my puzzle-solving synapses fizzle and sputter.  But if I just pretend… if I just act as if there is definitely a viable solution, then everything calms down and I can think.

So I tried it. And, for three consecutive mornings, I woke up with the answer — the solution — to each of my most pressing puzzles just sitting there, fully formed, in my head.

What if you’re a Scrabbler? Can you play a similar mind game on yourself? I’m not sure; I don’t know the mind of the Scrabbler as well as I know my own. But I would love to find out. Are you a Scrabbler? Can you play a similar trick on yourself, to force yourself to find the solution you crave?

Puzzles are, in the entirely standard meaning here employed, that special category of problems that can serve to test ingenuity or skill in solution.  Dictionary illustrations are ‘jigsaw puzzle’ and ‘crossword puzzle,’ Consider the jigsaw puzzle whose pieces are selected at random from each of two different puzzle boxes.  Since that problem is likely to defy … even the most ingenious of men, it cannot serve as a test of skill in solution. In any usual sense it is not a puzzle at all. Though intrinsic value is no criterion (of goodness) for a puzzle, the assured existence of a solution is.”  (Kuhn, 1962)

Kuhn, T.S. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL.

6 Thoughts.

  1. I love both crossword puzzles and Scrabble, but for very different reasons. Your take on crosswords is very apt, but with Scrabble you’re off the mark.

    Scrabble isn’t a puzzle game it’s a war game. You have:

    tiles – assets with limited distribution and different values
    the board – real estate to control
    drawing from the bag – random events that affect your outcome
    intelligence – knowing tile distribution and tiles left in the bag

    Sure, you also have to make words from your tiles but you also have to shape how your opponent can play theirs. Building a vocabulary of root words helps to chain together, or build out, shorter words. Using words that can’t be added to or pluralized is also an effective strategy.

    So how do I use this in my everyday problem solving? I face each problem/opportunity in a similar way. Understand my resources and what events I can control, adjust accordingly during the process and trust my knowledge and experience to carry the day.

    My Scrabble Fu is strong.

  2. Jim, thank you for that awesome insight into what Scrabble is really all about! I understand its appeal so much better now — and have a better understanding of why I continue to be incompatible with it. (I was also always very bad at/not interested in RISK, which I am starting to see some parallels with.)

    And you do a great job of extending the metaphor of how it helps you with problem solving. I love your emphasis on knowing what you can control and what you cannot, and the implicit trust in yourself and your abilities to see you through.

    Because you always have to count yourself among your assets in the first place.

    (Along with a wheelbarrow, which is also always handy to have around.)

  3. Interesting article, but I just don’t see how Scrabble and Crosswords are exclusive – why only one? I love them both: Scrabble when I feel social, and Crosswords when I want to curl up alone with a pencil. It seems you are limiting yourself to only one mode of problem solving, when you could choose so many more. Some problems may not have one right answer you have to tease out. Or may require some level of randomness for something really fabulous to emerge. If you want to go to a completely different set of skills still inside of the word game genre, go for Apples to Apples. This game requires much less knowledge about a word (although nuances and irony are great additions) as it does knowing the person who will be judging the answers. People who want there to be a right answer HATE this game. But people who are good at this game are good at reading other people. Play ’em all!

  4. You’re right — they’re not exclusive. My point was merely that there is a substantive difference between the two, which I had been eluding me for some time. It is also certainly true that there are many, many ways to solve problems, and to go about it; I’ve been interested lately in discovering which ways work best for me, and why. Once I understand that, I find it’s easier to move out of the comfort zone and into playing with other cognitive models. I’m a very solitary person — I get recharged by spending lots and lots of time alone, in silence — so crosswords are almost meditative for me. I tend to be, quite honestly, inappropriately competitive with games like Scrabble, which not only makes it less fun to play (for both me and my opponent) but also distracts me from HOW to play, and makes me far less capable at the game.

    I’ve *never* heard of Apples to Apples — but it sounds fascinating. Less about problem solving and more about solving the problem of the person across from you… very cool!

  5. Your comment about being inappropriately competitive made me smile. My family playing Scrabble nearly defines inappropriately competitive :) Your insight on the differences definitely makes sense…and I have thought about your post over this long weekend of playing lots of games with the kids about what kinds of games they enjoy and what that says about them. Definitely interesting. And after many sessions clocked with “Sorry”, cards, Hearts, Apples to Apples (super fun – I recommend it, but it’s not rocket science), and what not, I was definitely ready to check out for awhile with the Sunday Times Crossword. A long while :) Thanks for a thought provoking post.

  6. Interesting… as I read your description just kept thinking I play Scrabble with the mindset that there IS a solution and I just have to find it. That’s how I did math too (which I love btw) and how I do my art too. :) To me the joy is that you can approach it from various angles or employ whatever means you need to reach that goal (and that goes for Scrabble, math and art too) – there’s no one path to get there. Crosswords to me are rote information and rather dull, the answers may be certain but the path to finish it isn’t very creative or interesting.

    I admit I can also be inappropriately competitive. 😉 Moving to the UK changed that.

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