I have never played Scrabble. I may have tried once, but certainly gave up very quickly, before even finishing the game. I like words, but I don’t particularly like games. I can’t see the point of Scrabble, and would prefer to read a book, in which the words are assembled to convey meaning. Unscrabble. I do not for a moment doubt that Scrabble requires intelligence. Players have to think of words and their spellings in terms of letter beginnings, middles and endings. I doubt I could do that with any diligence and flair, and congratulate those who can.
I presume it is less challenging than chess, which is in turn less challenging than Go. Scrabble has a random element in that the letters are drawn from a bag, but that is not a major complication for detecting a player’s ability in the long run. I don’t know how difficult it would be to create an artificial intelligence Scrabble player, but imagine it would be easier than for chess. Each letter combination would be checked against a dictionary, and rated for letter frequency points. Technically, it might be quite simple to get to a reasonable level of performance from an AI implementation. “Maven” is pretty simple, looking two moves ahead and “Quackle” is said to be the current front runner at championship level. As an outsider to the game, I note that Scrabble cannot be truly universal, because it is language based, and it is hard to gauge the equivalence of the different 29 language versions and their players. Unlike chess, there are definitional issues about words, and random allocations of letters, whereas in chess the rules are set, and there is no quibble about the win, lose or draw outcome.
I consider Chanda Chisala to be an African Hereditarian, championing the intellectual abilities of African elites, mostly in Nigeria, and I wish him the best of luck, because it would be good to find more intellectual elites, to trace their origins, and to compare them to the brightest groups from other continents. Every region of the world probably has intellectual elites (an Al-Rashidi privately claimed that to me, regarding the Arabian peninsula) and they will probably be commercially and academically successful, and very picky about who their children marry. Chisala argues that if many Africans are among the top players of Scrabble and other board games, Africans cannot be as dull as psychometric testing suggests. I think this is a promising line of argument, particularly when one doubts a set of measures, or it is difficult to get large and representative samples for psychometric testing.
La Griffe du Lion used chess tournament winners in Russia to estimate the intelligence of the sub-populations of Russia, and was able to show that Jewish origin Russians were over-represented among winners. He required that there should be equal access and motivation to play the game in question (which he assumed from the massive benefits which accrued to anyone who could play chess well in the Soviet Union), accurate data on winners and their racial/cultural backgrounds, and accurate measures of the base populations from which the winners are drawn. Any errors in those parameters creates bigger errors in the calculation of population intelligence levels. Here is the link to his full explanation:
1) A threshold of performance must be found that depends purely on cognitive ability.
2) The threshold must be unequivocally defined.
3) The rates at which the target group and the control group cross the threshold must be established.
4) Opportunity must exist for both groups to cross the threshold. That is, the target group cannot be restricted by political considerations from fair competition.
5) An overriding motive to cross the threshold must exist, being sufficiently strong that virtually all those capable of crossing the threshold do.
It can always be argued that poorer countries have more difficulty in practising for and taking part in international competitions, so on point 4 Africans could claim they do not yet have equal access. Also, I don’t know if there is strong encouragement to play Scrabble in Africa, but there must be some advantages for successful players. There is a case to be made that African success in Scrabble is an under-estimate. Anyway, it is worth considering the current results. If Africans are over-represented among winners of Scrabble tournaments, then Chisala is right that IQ estimates for Africa are called into question. One would have to make allowances for the fact that Scrabble is simpler than chess, but it would be interesting to estimate by how much, and also to make some allowance for individual countries deciding to encourage, pay and train Scrabble players, as Nigeria, Pakistan and Thailand reportedly do. Such training raises an interesting interpretative dilemma: if training makes some countries much better than others, then it could be argued that a) intellectual abilities can be trained and IQ can be boosted or b) training does nothing to boost intelligence, but siphons off the brightest people and boosts performance in a narrow domain by teaching them strategies.
Starting with Scrabble, the World Championship History 1991-2016 produces the following country totals: United States 7, England 6, Canada 5, Thailand 5, New Zealand 4, Australia 1, Malaysia 1, Nigeria 1.
My impression is that England and their descendants play this game well; that Thailand plays almost as well; that the big difference between Australia and genetically similar New Zealand suggests that whether the game is taken up at championship level is a bit random, and that Australia, Malaysia and Nigeria have shown promise. Frankly, although I do not go out of my way to defend the French, the universal English language is not yet universal enough to pass any judgement on nations, so one has to look separately at the French results. Chess is a far better test in that regard.
Bluntly, I think it would be difficult to argue that English people are bright on the basis of these results, nor to impute too much about what this means for national intelligence measures. Nigeria and Thailand give government sponsorship to the game, so the requirement of equal access is partially invalidated. However, sponsorship is also a measure of what can be achieved with encouragement, as the UK have found by their crafty gaming of Olympic medal totals (the concentrate on games which give many medals).
On the WESPA Scrabble rankings http://www.wespa.org/aardvark/cgi-bin/rating.cgi more Africans can be found on this list. I count 25 in the top 100, mostly from Nigeria.
Do good African results on Scrabble call into question the results of IQ testing? To my mind there is no question that they might do so. Real life success is the criterion; examination and intelligence test success only the potential predictor. Chess would be more informative, and a general pattern of elite performance in Maths and Science would be pretty convincing.
Estimating Nigerian ability is made a bit more difficult by a rapidly increasing population size: Nigeria has been ignoring the 1980s World Health Organisation posters which assured us that all the world was limiting family sizes. That same august organisation now guesses that Nigeria may have 1 billion people by 2060. The 2015 estimate is 182 million citizens, with a projected 262 million by 2030. Let us stick with 182 million. The Lynn database gives 70 for Nigeria (based on 16 studies, with the best sample by far being the 17th study, which is just about to appear so not included in that estimate). I will take Nigerian IQ70 as the estimate to be disproved, and the Rindermann estimate of African intelligence of IQ75 (which makes allowances for sample deficiencies) as the best estimate for Africa as a whole.
If Nigerian IQ is 70 there will be 5,764 Nigerians with an IQ of 130 and above. Some of them will play Scrabble. If really good Scrabble playing requires an IQ of 140, then there will be 278 Nigerians able to excel at this game.
The Economist magazine calculated that half of Africa’s intellectuals have left Africa. I presume most go to make their fortune, and succeed. Some then go back to assist Africa. They have probably paid more attention to banking than Scrabble or other board games, and go to catch the biggest game available in the financial districts of New York or London.
So, although I like the method, I think that Go and Chess rankings would be more informative than Scrabble. Scientific publications and patents would be a real clincher, as would international Maths and Nobel prizes in Science.