[Image courtesy of ThreeSixtyOne.gr.]
Statistical analysis is changing the world. The wealth of available data on the Internet these days, combining with our ever-increasing ability to comb through that data efficiently using computers, has spawned something of a golden age in data mining.
You don’t need to look any further than the discovery of Timothy Parker’s plagiaristic shenanigans for USA Today and Universal Uclick to see how impactful solid analysis can be.
But it’s also having an impact on how we play games. Statistical analysis is taking some of the mystery out of games you’d never expect, making players more efficient and capable than ever.
We discussed this previously with the game Monopoly — specifically how some spaces are far more likely to be landed on than others — and today, we’re looking at two more examples: Guess Who? and Hangman.
Guess Who? gives you a field of 24 possible characters, and you have to figure out which character your opponent has before she figures out the identity of your character. Usually, if you end up with a woman or someone with glasses, your odds of winning are low, because some aspects are simply less common than others.
But is there an optimal way to pare down the options? Absolutely.
Mathematician Rafael Prieto Curiel has devised a strategy for playing Guess Who?, based on an analysis of the notable features of each character, breaking it down into 22 possible questions to ask your opponent:
Based on this data, he has even created a flowchart of questions to ask to maximize your chances of victory. The first question? “Does your person have a big mouth?”
Yes, not exactly a great first-date question, but one that yields the best possible starting point for you to narrow down your opponent’s character.
It’s certainly better than my first instinct, which is always to ask, “Does your person look like a total goon?”
Now, when it comes to Hangman, the name of the game is letter frequency. Just like a round of Wheel of Fortune, you’re playing the odds at first to find some anchor letters to help you spell out the entire answer.
But, as it turns out, letter frequency is not the same across all word lengths. For instance, E is the most common letter in the English language, but it is NOT the most common letter in five-letter words. That honor belongs to the letter S.
In four-letter words, the most common letter is A, not E. And it can change, depending on the presence — or lack thereof — of other letters.
From How to Win Games and Beat People by Tom Whipple:
“E might be the most common letter in six-letter words, and S the second most common, but what if you guess E and E is not in it?” In six-letter words without an E, S is no longer the next best letter to try. It is A.
In fact, Facebook data scientist Nick Berry has created a chart with an optimal calling order based on the length of the blank word.
For one-letter words through 4-letter words, start with A. For five-letter words, start with S. For six-letter words through twelve-letter words, use E. And for words thirteen letters and above, start I.
Of course, if you’re the one posing the word to be guessed, “jazz” is statistically the least-likely word to be guessed using this data. And your opponent will surely hate you for choosing it.
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