Scrabble: It's man vs. machine
At first, it looked like it'd be a rout in this Scrabble stunt set up Friday at lunchtime outside Westlake Center. It wasn't looking like...
Seattle Times staff reporter
At first, it looked like it'd be a rout in this Scrabble stunt set up Friday at lunchtime outside Westlake Center.
It wasn't looking like the best Scrabble player in the U.S. could beat a computer program designed to play the game. Jim Kramer, 48, a soft-spoken proofreader from Roseville, Minn., was getting trounced in Game 1 of the best two-out-of-three competition.
So much, it seemed, for those who might believe there was something about the intuitive way humans think that no computer could match in a game.
There was Kramer, spending a couple of minutes pondering his next move, and there was "Genius," as the computer was named, literally making its move in a tenth of a second.
In that split of a second, Genius had rifled through its catalog of some 120,000 words with eight letters or less: just about all words used in a Scrabble game. In that flash, Genius would match those words against available letters on its board and make its pick.
Pretty soon, the score was Genius 289, Kramer 193.
The stunt had been advertised as "Man vs. Machine" by RealNetworks, a Seattle firm that creates digital media services and software, including its new computer Scrabble game. Its casual-games division accounted for about a fifth of the firm's overall revenue this year. Scrabble is the latest addition to the downloadable games it carries at www.realarcade.com.On a stage, Kramer sat inside a plywood booth that had been painted blue. It had windows so the audience could watch him. He was wearing sound-muffling headphones so he could concentrate, and presumably so he wouldn't hear any tips yelled at him.
What IS that word?
Scrabble players need to know hundreds of words, especially short ones. Knowing what they mean isn't necessary, but it is interesting. So here are a few that Jim Kramer used in his win over "Genius," the computer:
Dacite: Fine-grained volcanic rock
Vug: A cavity in a rock or lode, often lined with crystals
Obia: In West African folklore, a gigantic animal that steals into villages and kidnaps girls on the behalf of witches
Standing outside was a security guard, looking properly intimidating in black and sunglasses. He was handcuffed to a briefcase holding $10,000 in cash, the prize Kramer would get if he beat the computer.
But things weren't going very well for Kramer, the 2006 U.S. Scrabble Open champion. He said later he was getting bad "racks" — the seven tiles players use to construct their words. He said he was always missing a letter needed to make a high-scoring word.
Kramer scrambled up the word "zooid," which Merriam-Webster defines as "one of the asexually produced individuals of a compound organism," and earned 30 points.
In return, Genius laid down "lutings," defined as "a substance for packing a joint or coating a porous surface to make it impervious to gas or liquid," and earned 66 points.
Game 1 ended Genius 466, Kramer 419.
But things turned around dramatically in Game 2.
"The game is maybe 25 percent luck," Kramer said. "Maybe you draw fantastic and win easily."
Which he did: 417 to 406, with some lucky draws. He put together "violate" for 76 points and "tequila" for 69 points.
It all came down to the 11th move in the third game. There were five tiles left to be picked up.
Kramer had the choice of spelling a five-letter word and picking up all the remaining tiles.
Rather, he used four tiles to complete the word "meeter" on the board, leaving one available tile and confounding the computer.
Kramer explained that if he had picked up all the remaining tiles, the computer would have known exactly what he had in his rack. But by leaving one behind, he stymied it.
"That's just something hard for the program to solve. There are too many possibilities," Kramer said.
The final score was Kramer 442, Genius 441.
Kramer walked away with $10,000. He said it was a victory that he wouldn't expect five years from now.
The computer programs will be much more sophisticated, he said. "They'll just have much more brute force."
But, Friday at Westlake Center, the human held on, if only by a point.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or email@example.com
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