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Wordle Wisdom in Two Dimensions

Max Stearns


For a long while I avoided it. I feared I’d be drawn in even having been told that as addictive games go, Wordle, a once-a-day mind exercise limited to six guesses, was low risk. I played only once, hitting it on the second guess (beginner’s luck) then put it down. That is, until my kids introduced me to Quordle. Quordle is four simultaneous Wordles. After that, there was no turning back. I even started playing Wordle again, although I haven’t yet repeated my early success. By now I’ve played enough to form some impressions, even including ones that relate to more significant issues in our troubled world.


I think of these games as morning calisthenics of the mind. They’re a quick (most of the time) work out that compels accessing different cognitive files—vocabulary most obviously, but also strategy, especially Quordle.


More notably for me, the games operate in two dimensions. Wordle gives six shots at finding the right five-letter word; Quordle gives nine at finding four five-letter words. As I’ve mulled friends’ postings of their Wordle exploits, I’ve thought a bit about what it means to do well. Or, as my youngest child used to ask when his older sisters introduced a new game, “how do you win?”


In most games the goal is to maximize whatever is required along a single scale, or dimension. If it’s points or money, get the most. If it’s time, do it fastest. If it’s elimination, empty out soonest. You get the idea.


Wordle doesn’t work like that. Contrary to some postings, getting the right word on the first try isn’t winning. It’s luck—a random guess that succeeded with no demonstrated skill. The game really only works if your first guess is wrong, letting you rely on acquired information as you play each subsequent round. The goal is to get the right word early, but not so early that strategy never enters at all. Winning Wordle means getting it right as early as you can starting in round 2 but not later than round 6. For Quordle, a lucky opener (I’m waiting for one) still invites strategy and skill over the three remaining boards.


Quordle’s the more strategic game. On some occasions at rounds 3 or 4, I’ll have just one or two remaining letters to fill in on one of the boards, but enough free letters to form multiple words. In Wordle, the strategy’s clear—take your best shot. But in Quordle, it’s more intriguing. If you pick a word by choosing between two obvious alternative letters that both could work (say “house” or “mouse”), guessing wrong wastes a round of play. The better strategy is to play one of the other boards with a word that might eliminate one or both of those letters, thus revealing the right word in the foregone board while providing helpful information for those that remain. This means that on the first board, getting the correct word later, say round 4 or 5, rather than 3 or 4, is the wiser strategy.


Those who read this blog (thank you!) might have noticed that I’ve not posted for a while. This sometimes happens when I resume teaching. Even so, posting on Wordle might seem an unusual choice at a time when Russia has invaded the Ukraine, President Biden has just announced the first African American woman nominee to the Supreme Court (congratulations to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson), and when our nation’s sharp divisions over COVID continue to place more and more lives and health, beyond 935,000 lives already taken in the U.S., plus millions more around the globe, at risk.


A defining challenge of our time is the all-too-common delusion that complex questions demand simple answers. Our politics pushes ever more strongly toward extremes. Conservatism should always prevail. Or progressivism. Or whatever it takes to acquire and maintain power.


I have long since abandoned the idea that we can meaningfully cast our politics on a simple right-left divide. Even so, I generally regard myself as center-left. It’s a position that draws fire from extremes on both sides, or, or perhaps more accurately, from all around. I’ve sometimes observed that whereas Republicans get in line, Democrats form a circular firing squad. Neither extreme—always opposing the other side or never being satisfied with inevitably imperfect leadership—is appealing. Our politics is eminently complex, and no one has all the right, or yes, all the wrong, answers. Beyond teaching, I’ve been working toward devising a way we might avoid succumbing so often to simplistic wrongheaded choices.


For now maybe we might start with a bit of Wordle Wisdom. Sometimes it’s better to slow down and focus more on getting things right than getting things done. And before committing to our most consequential decisions—especially ones that put others at risk—it never hurts to do some warm-ups.


I welcome your thoughts.




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