Part one of a series on Scrabble and Words With Friends.
For almost a decade, I’ve been deeply involved in a unique corner of the internet that deals with finding solutions for various kinds of word game puzzles. In particular, the team I work with got its start making products to cheat at Scrabble. What began as a fun test of our computer science skills has become an empire for solving anagrams and optimizing crosswords, and everything else. You name it, we have a tool somewhere online to provide help when you’re stuck.
This also means I know a lot about how people cheat at these games. Let me share with you some of the observations I’ve made throughout my career, and tell you the secrets about beating the cheaters at their own game.
How cheaters cheat
The vast majority of cheaters you’ll encounter are going to choose the top-scoring word from an anagram solver. The more advanced cheats go beyond your everyday dictionary website and will solve the entire board - not just the player’s tile rack - taking into account the existing words on the board and the score multipliers open for the taking. You can be reasonably sure the latter will always produce the highest-scoring word available to play. Cheaters rely on this to simply out-score their opponents until tiles run out and the game ends.
Sometimes, a cheater will be in a great position to play words on the score multipliers, “walking” around the game board to reach them. This can lead to the cheater having a string of double and triple word scores in a row. The best cheaters know how to build their boards so that they can more easily reach the multipliers, burning tiles and ending the game early with a decent lead.
The fatal flaw
The problem with a “pure cheater” is that such a player has forgotten how Scrabble is a game of skill, and that there are multiple paths to victory. When such cheaters use these apps, even the ones we make, they are often only thinking in the moment and not anticipating how their opponents might counter. Cheaters burn resources wantonly, and you can often tell when a player is cheating because they’ll use their blank tiles and high-value letters at every first opportunity.
After all, the algorithm only knows “hey, this is the highest score you can get with what you have right now.” If the word XI really is the highest scoring word available on the board at only 11 points, that’s what it’s going to recommend.
When you know your opponent is doing this, not only can you counter it, you can outright exploit it.
How the top players beat cheaters every time
When playing WWF or Scrabble, remember your goal is not the highest scoring word at any given moment. Understand that your 10-point tiles are often worth 20, 30 points or more when played in the right spot. Be aware that your blank tiles are more than just a free letter - they are the connective tissue between multiple words on the board from which you can claim extra points.
If you can’t play your top resources well, wait! Spend your turn expanding the board in a direction you know your cheating opponent is likely to go. If you can expose a DL or TL tile, you know the other player is very likely to play a word there, usually in one or two turns. Use this to set up your biggest plays. If you can guide your opponent so that she exposes a DW or TW space, you can claim it as your own for sometimes a hundred points or more. Inversely, make sure when you are expanding the board, don’t let your opponent take the multipliers you want for yourself.
Learn how different tiles have more utility than others. For example, your S tiles are only worth one point, but they can be quickly added to a lot of words on the board to make your own crossword, all while counting the resulting plural for extra points. If you’re used to adding an S at the end of your own words to get an extra point in the moment, consider if it would be more useful to add that S on your next turn to double-dip on the points from your previous word. More importantly, think about how a cheating opponent might use a dangling S to make her own word off of yours. Or, if she uses one to pluralize your word herself, if it would lead to her grabbing a nearby score multiplier to your detriment.
The board solver at WordsWithFriendsCheat.io shows how the previous word leaves open a high-scoring opportunity. How can you take advantage of it? How can you prevent it being used against you?
Additionally, don’t play your high-value tiles within reach of large score multipliers. If you place something like a W tile a few spaces in a straight line from a TW multiplier, you are going to have a bad time. Your opponent will capitalize on that if she has a decent hand. Control the board and your opponent will not understand why she keeps getting outplayed.
Of the many positive aspects about the puzzle solvers we make, I most love when the non-cheating enthusiasts tell me how our apps have taught them to be better players.
When it comes down to it, the cheaters are leaving a lot of potential on the table. The enthusiasts play the game fairly, and then import a screenshot from before their last play so they can see what else was possible. They use the board solver to theorycraft plays well into the future. They scroll through the high scores to identify patterns in how the words are distributed, and internalize that information to intuit where high-scoring words will be on future game boards. They use our apps to learn the two- and three-letter connecting words that allow them to walk around the board freely.
In other words, these apps so often used for cheating become tools for learning in the hands of a dedicated player.
And, once you know how cheaters are using them, you can pretty much read their minds.