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Friday, October 27, 2006

Quixotry

There's a funny article on Slate today about the new record for individual and combined scores in Scrabble. The publication being Slate, the predominant tone of the article is contrariness, as Stefan Fatsis (author of Word Freak) wonders if the record is that impressive, given that both players made multiple strategic mistakes during the game. That is, in privileging offense over defense, the players left certain plays unguarded and posted hopes on unrealistic plays that somehow happened to work out. The magic word, QUIXOTRY, was perfectly suited to the situation!
Technically, Cresta's strategy was unsound. Fishing for a once-in-a-lifetime play might be understandable in a casual game, where winning is less urgent. But in competitive play-—even in a club setting, where there's less on the line than in a rated tournament—-exchanging letters three times, as Cresta did, to enhance some combination of Q, U, I, and X is unorthodox at best, suicidal at worst. (The strategically correct move was to dump the cumbersome Q and move on.) In Scrabble, the player who waits for the miracle word usually loses. The implication: Cresta wasn't terribly worried about whether he won or lost.

One of Slate's readers posted this challenge to Slate's contrariness about the record-setting game: Records often involve strategic mistakes. The post raises the example of Cal Ripken, Jr.'s record-setting streak for consecutive games played--were there games when it would have been better strategy to sit Ripken? Neat idea. I've been thinking about it all day.

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Blogger Ben on Fri Oct 27, 05:18:00 PM:
I remember Michael Lewis talking about this type of phenomenon in his 2001 NYT Magazine profile of a 15-year-old stock manipulator.

The boy in question, Jonathan Lebed, initially got the stock market itch after his team won a grade school competition to get the highest equity returns on a fictional investment. He and his friends figured out that the smartest strategy for the average investor--a balanced portfolio--would never post the highest returns. Only shoot-the-moon bets on tiny, volatile companies--bets that most likely would lose everything--had a chance at winning.

It's a big problem with our culture that the most visible and celebrated successes are people whose path to the top should not, or cannot, be followed. As a teacher, I found it hard to compete with the glory of a handful of rappers who make getting rich look easy. Thanks, Kanye "College Dropout" West. Dealing drugs is even worse -- it seems like something you can immediately make money at, when in reality it's a low-margin job for the great majority of dealers (per Freakonomics)