Better Gaming With Math and Statistics!

[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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Puzzle Plagiarism, Part 3: Parker Out

After months of nothing, things are suddenly moving forward with the Universal Uclick/USA Today puzzle plagiarism scandal.

A quick recap: Programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in the New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

Parker “agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords” in March.

Last week, there was finally a new development, as Universal Uclick stated that they’d confirmed “some” of the allegations against Parker, and he’d be taking a three-month leave of absence.

That underwhelming semi-admission of Parker’s guilt led Lone Shark Games and Mike Selinker to call for a boycott of USA Today and Universal Uclick, and many other game companies and puzzle constructors have followed suit.

So where are we now?

Well, as reported by Oliver Roeder of FiveThirtyEight, Christopher Mele of the New York Times, and Deb Amlen of Wordplay, Timothy Parker is out as editor of the USA Today crossword.

According to Gannett, who publishes USA Today:

No puzzles that appear in Gannett/USA TODAY NETWORK publications are being edited by Timothy Parker nor will they be edited by Timothy Parker in the future.

This still leaves some important details up in the air. For one thing, Parker is still employed by Universal Uclick, even if USA Today and Gannett won’t be using any puzzles he’s touched.

We also don’t know who will be taking his place providing puzzles for USA Today and other Gannett publications.

According to Oliver Roeder:

Fred Piscop, who has been interim editor, told me that his position was temporary unless he was officially informed otherwise, and that there was nothing else he could tell me at this point. A call to Universal Uclick was not returned.

Clearly things are far from settled for Parker, Universal Uclick, and USA Today.

Regarding the #gridgate boycott, Mike Selinker and the team at Lone Shark Games had this to say:

As far as we can tell, USA Today and its parent company Gannett just vowed not to use puzzles edited by Timothy Parker ever again. That bold statement — sure, months late, but welcome nonetheless — was all we were looking for. If they stick to their word, we’ll stop our boycott. We can’t claim credit for the result, but we can say that our friends shining a flashlight on the wrongdoing did help get USA Today to speak out publicly and settle the score.

We’re maintaining the boycott of Universal Uclick, though. They’re continuing to employ someone they’ve admitted is a plagiarist—someone who apparently plagiarized our friends’ work. And just because USA Today isn’t buying Parker’s puzzles doesn’t mean no one else will. We can’t even be sure if the person editing the puzzles isn’t Parker, because he’s made a habit of hiding behind pseudonyms. So we’ll keep this boycott going until we’re sure they’ve got a plan for puzzles that aren’t edited by someone they think is a plagiarist.

Uclick, the ball’s in your court.


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Puzzle Plagiarism, Part 2: Uclick Responds

It’s Follow-Up Friday, but it doesn’t feel right to open this post with our usual exuberant intro.

Today, I’m returning to the subject of Timothy Parker and the USA Today/Universal Uclick plagiarism scandal.

crossword-finals-shady

You know, when I first wrote about this topic, I suspected I’d be returning to it in Follow-Up Friday fashion, and sadly, that’s proven true.

If you don’t recall, or you hadn’t heard, here’s a quick rundown of what happened. Programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in the New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

Back in March when I first blogged about this, Parker “agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.”

usa-today-crossword-online-puzzle-5

Well, Oliver Roeder from FiveThirtyEight has reported that Universal Uclick has completed its investigation, and despite the fact that they’ve CONFIRMED some of the allegations of puzzle repetition — they don’t explain which allegations they’ve confirmed — they’re only giving Parker a three-month leave of absence.

According to the Universal Uclick press release:

During his leave, Mr. Parker will confirm that his process for constructing puzzles uses the best available technology to ensure that everything he edits is original. We will work with Mr. Parker on this effort and redouble our editorial process so that there is a stronger second level of review.

Roeder points out that Universal also doesn’t say if the last two months count toward Parker’s three-month leave of absence, since Fred Piscop has been serving as interim editor since the scandal broke.

As you might expect, some in the puzzle-game community are underwhelmed, to say the least, with Universal Uclick’s decision.

For instance, Mike Selinker, puzzle constructor and head honcho of Lone Shark Games, sent out a release last night regarding Parker’s situation, stating that he and his team will boycott both USA Today and Universal Uclick.

From their Tumblr post:

But USA Today and Universal Uclick, two important providers of puzzles to the world, have abandoned all pretense that originality and credit for content is important to them. So we’re abandoning them. As of today, we’re boycotting both companies.

Up until now, we liked USA Today. We thought that a newspaper of its size would be violently opposed to plagiarism. But they do not appear to be. It’s way past time for USA Today and Universal Uclick to take a stand against plagiarism and for creators’ rights, and maybe it takes some creators to stand up for those. So we’re doing it.

I suspect Mike and the wonderful crew at Lone Shark Games won’t be the only ones giving USA Today and Universal Uclick the cold shoulder. Kudos to them for taking a stand against plagiarism and standing with friends and colleagues in the puzzle community.

You’d think a major publication like USA Today would be against plagiarism instead of downplaying it like this. I doubt they’d tolerate plagiarism anywhere else in their paper.

It will certainly be interesting to see where the story goes from here. Here’s hoping Universal Uclick does the right thing and stands with content creators, not against them.

I’ll conclude this post the same way the team at Lone Shark Games concluded their release:

If you share this on Twitter or Facebook, please tag @usatoday and @UniversalUclick to tell them that you stand with the puzzlemakers, and add the hashtag #gridgate. Or, if you want to talk to USA Today directly, send them a note addressed to Reader Feedback/Letters saying that you find plagiarism in any department unacceptable. Now would be awesome.


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Puzzle Plagiarism?

[Image courtesy of PlagiarismToday.com.]

Today’s post isn’t the usual Follow-Up Friday fare. Instead of returning to a previous subject, I’d like to discuss a topic that I expect I’ll be returning to in Follow-Up Friday form in the near future.

There is a certain pride and sense of accomplishment you experience as a puzzler when you come up with an exciting, innovative, unexpected theme idea for a puzzle, or when you pen a terrific clue for a word. Whether the wordplay is spot on or you’ve simply found a way to reinvigorate a tired bit of crosswordese, you feel like you’re adding something to the ever-expanding crossword lexicon, leaving a mark on the world of puzzles.

Unfortunately, there’s also the flip side of that coin, and those who would pilfer the hard work of others for their own gain. And in a story broken by the team at FiveThirtyEight, there may be something equally unsavory going on behind the scenes of the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword.

You can check out the full story, but in short, an enterprising programmer named Saul Pwanson created a searchable database of crossword puzzles that identified similarities in published crosswords, and it uncovered an irregularly high number of repeated entries, grids, and clues in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which are edited by Timothy Parker.

More than 60 puzzles feature suspicious instances of repetition — the word “plagiarism” comes to mind, certainly — and it has sparked an investigation. In fact, only a day after the story first broke, Universal Uclick (which owns both the USA Today crossword and the Universal syndicated crossword) stated that the subject of the investigation, Parker himself, “has agreed to temporarily step back from any editorial role for both USA Today and Universal Crosswords.”

I’ve heard that oversight of the USA Today crossword has already passed to another editor of note in the crossword world, constructor Fred Piscop (author of last Wednesday’s New York Times crossword), but I wonder if more examples of crossword duplication are lurking out there.

With resources like XWord Info and the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project out there, the history of crosswords is becoming more and more accessible and searchable. I can’t help but wonder if more scandals are lurking down the pike.


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