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A Computer Program Wins Its First Scrabble Tournament

When Deep Blue first defeated chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, the computer program's victory was hailed as a watershed moment for artificial intelligence, and rightfully so. But in November, another program reached a gaming milestone of its own, and no one seemed to notice. The Wired Campus intends to fix that.

At a Scrabble tournament in Toronto, a piece of software called Quackle triumphed in a best-of-five series over David Boys, a computer programmer who won the world Scrabble championship in 1995. The open-source program's chief designers include Jason Katz-Brown, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who also happens to be one of the top-ranked Scrabble players in the world.

Quackle's win did not come easily. Mr. Boys leapt out to a quick lead against the software, winning the first two games thanks to words like "pithead" and "redyeing." But the computer program roared back and took the final three tilts, making a couple of outstanding plays — like "deviating," placed through two disconnected I's that were already on the board — that even top-level human players would be hard-pressed to spot.

Quackle earned the right to play Mr. Boys by edging out another Scrabble-playing program, Maven, in a series of games against expert human players. (Quackle finished the Toronto Computer vs. Human Showdown, as the event was called, with a gaudy 32-4 record, while Maven could only muster a 30-6 showing.)

Mr. Boys seemed to have no trouble keeping a sense of perspective after the loss: "It's still better to be a human than to be a computer," he said. And as the former world champion undoubtedly realizes, luck plays a much greater role in a Scrabble duel than in a chess match. About a decade ago, Mr. Boys played a perfect game against a more primitive computer program — and he still lost. –Brock Read

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