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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Not good at Wordle

by Philip Martin | November 15, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

I started playing The New York Times online Wordle game around the first of the year. It's part of my early morning routine--I do stretches, play Wordle, and read the newspaper.

(Wordle is similar to a crossword puzzle or the old Hangman game; you're trying to guess a five-letter word in six guesses or less. Type in a guess, and the computer tells you if you've got any letters correct and if they're in the right position.)

I thought I was pretty good at it. My Wordle won-loss record is a Nick Saban-esque 221-2, which means I win more than 99 percent of the time. Maybe that puts me in the top five or 10 percent of all Wordle players. Maybe I am good enough to go pro; a Wordle phenom. Somebody has to be the world's greatest Wordle player, why not me?

Then, a couple of months ago, I noticed you could deep-dive into numbers generated by each day's Wordle and compare your performance with the general Wordle-playing population. And since I've started doing that, I've noticed that most days 99 percent of players eventually arrive at the answer.

I've yet to see a day when more than four percent of the players "lost" at Wordle, which seems remarkable since I would imagine at least four percent of those who start the puzzle every day would abandon it for some reason. (Maybe these abandoned games don't count in the total. I would like more transparency in Wordle statistics.)

So basically everyone wins at Wordle every day.

Which means the meaningful metric for the competitive is how many guesses it takes for you to arrive at the answer. My research, admittedly based on an incomplete sample, is that the average Wordle player takes about 3.8 guesses to arrive at the right answer. This more or less corresponds with the conclusions of the website Word.Tips, which reports the average Wordle score in the U.S. in January was 3.92 guesses. (Arkansas was a little better than average with 3.86 guesses.)

The U.S. wasn't a particularly great Wordle power; 17 countries had lower average scores, with Sweden, with an average score of 3.72, leading the way. (Egyptians were really bad at Wordle according to Word.Tips.)

All we're trying to do is establish a baseline: par for a game of Wordle. Since you can't make fractional guesses, the par for a typical puzzle would be four, what a solid player should score given no brain shanks.

My average is 4.24. Which is, I suppose, mediocre? Maybe I'm not quite terrible at Wordle, but I'm worse than average. I have 18 more bogey fives than I do birdie threes on my record.

Rationalizing my score, I don't play conservatively and often try to solve the puzzle on my second turn. But that second guess is a crucial one, and the smarter play is to go with a word that can give you the most information about the solution rather than taking a wild stab at the answer.

That often means guessing a word you know can't be the answer but contains a lot of popular letters. Say you start with "slate," one of the most popular opening words, and learn that the target word has an "a" in it. A lot of smart Wordle players will play a word like "churn" on their second turn even though there's no "a" in it.)

It's the Wordle equivalent of laying up in front of a water hazard or lagging a putt to the hole to be tapped in.

I play Wordle like I play golf: Go for the green or ram the putt in. That means when I miss I'm often left with a difficult recovery. I could have a lower handicap and a better Wordle average score if only I'd play smarter. It's more fun for me to play aggressively.

And as philosopher Bill Parcells tells us, you are what your record says you are. So I'm just OK at Wordle. You're probably better at it than me.

But before I began researching it, I genuinely believed I was pretty good.

Maybe that's part of Wordle's appeal. Almost everyone who plays the game comes away thinking they're pretty good at it because they almost always win. But they're not really winning; they're just finishing. Wordle wouldn't be as popular if it only gave a player four guesses, but it would be more true to life.

Or maybe not. Almost everybody ends up with a driver's license. And there's the old joke about what you call the person who finishes last in their medical school class. ("Doctor.") Most of us get lots of fifth and sixth chances.

And that's great. Draconian penalties don't appeal to me--I don't think we should put pot-smokers in jail. We are too eager to punish working people who make mistakes in this country. But we ought to respect and appreciate authentic excellence and understand how hard it is to be really good at anything.

If you're good at something, you probably know it's a lot harder than it looks. You probably spent a lot of hours doing things that outsiders would never realize are foundational to your performance. You understand there's a process, a system and a theory underpinning what seems so simple it might be taken for granted.

Everybody thinks they can coach basketball and practice law, a good friend of mine often says.

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled off was convincing us that all you need to get along is good intentions, faith and instinct. That "common sense" is a kind of super power that trumps scientific inquiry. That nuance and complication is the smoke they blow at you to obscure their nefarious, pointy-headed purposes.

But knowing how to use Google doesn't make you an expert on anything, any more than owning a calculator makes you a mathematician or being able to program a drum machine makes you Clyde Stubblefield. We live in a world where we are constantly being flattered--by technology and would-be intellectual mascots--because that is a proven, efficient way of mining our attention and our wallets.

So be careful when you start believing you're really good at something. If it seems easy, you're probably doing it wrong.

Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at

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