Elliott Manley, the programmer of the FSL software, really surprised me. I was expecting to talk to a computer scientist who likes to play Scrabble now and then. But Elliott is a man who makes you wonder: When does he sleep? And how did the 57-yearold manage to fit all the different things he’s done, and still does, into one lifetime? Let’s hear what he’s got to say!
Elliott Manley is addicted to Scrabble, dance, poetry and more
Elliot, tell me briefly, who are you?
I’m a fat, middle-aged Englishman. I get bored easily. I’ve been a masseur, a teacher of meditation, a pot -washer, an international banker, a business analyst, a quality consultant, a publisher, managing editor of a very dull journal, an internet entrepreneur, and a modern jive taxi dancer, a composer of music for contemporary dance, a short story writer, and a poet. I founded The PintPot of Fire storytelling competition. Once I hitch-hiked from London to Johannesburg. I am currently focused partly on digital artwork.
This sounds a little crazy and incredible! You do so many things! Among them some language- and art-related things. Is there any special fascination you have with words and language?
Yes, I am fascinated by language. I did, briefly and unsuccessfully, study linguistics for a while. I have had a couple of times when playing Scrabble has taken over too much of my life and I’ve had to completely stop.
Sounds like you really became addicted to Scrabble! When and how did this fascination begin?
As a child I often played against my mother. Then there was a gap of several decades before I discovered online Scrabble about eight years ago. I joined UKOSL (UK Online Scrabble League), then run by the Australian Adam Kretschmer. Adam has since left online Scrabble to concentrate on promoting the social game through pub events in South Australia.
Adam managed the league with spreadsheets he had created, but it involved players sending him their results and even though the league was much smaller than FSL, this meant he had to manually process hundreds of messages.
I saw an opportunity to make life easier for Adam and offered to program a system to automate the league scores. I thought about it and planned how it would work, but never had the time to actually do the work. I then left the league, as I do from time to time, when the fun trips over into addiction and I need to go cold turkey!
Now you already mentioned the automation system you created. What happened next? You said you didn’t have the time to work on it?
While I was away, Adam stopped running his league and another administrator had inherited Adam’s spreadsheets. But it was also taking many days between rounds for the results to be chased and recorded. I made my offer to help again. This time I had the time. I spent Christmas 2013 snowed in and then ill in bed – propped up with my laptop, I created what is now ScrabbleScores.com. We ran with it for a few weeks, but the administrator felt she was disempowered by the automation and chose to return to spreadsheets. But many players preferred the automation. The pros are: fewer disputes, less work, less confusion and only a millisecond turnaround time between rounds. With spreadsheets it was 3 to 7 days. So some people carried on using ScrabbleScores regardless! But Daniel (an admin of the Facebook Scrabble League) felt that a support group was needed for those who remained and set up the FSL group page.
The Facebook Scrabble League: 64,633 games and 694 games in two years
So actually the program works on its own and there is no admin needed?
The philosophy behind the program is that it will run with as close to zero admin input as is possible. It was originally built with an admin control panel, mainly to pander to the desire of the original admin to change rankings and promotions she didn’t like. This has now been deleted and the only remaining admin facility is the ability to ban players for misconduct. ScrabbleScores just runs, generating new FSL rounds every two weeks, whether anyone comes to play or not. But they keep coming!
How many people are playing in the Facebook Scrabble League? Let’s say, right now?
The current two-week round of FSL has 1446 games. In the two-year history of the Facebook Scrabble League we have processed 64,633 games and 129,266 results among 694 players.
What feedback do you get from your players?
They love it. Once I needed a new server and asked for donations. £800 was donated in a few days. I think the fact that we are by far the biggest online Scrabble league speaks for itself.
Elliott on strategy advice programs: It’s like being a secretary to a computer
Cheating is a problem in the FSL. For any word game you can find anagram software, Scrabble cheats, Words with Friends cheat and so on… What is your personal opinion on these programs and on cheating?
There are three types of cheating. The first two are those who use anagramming software and those who use strategy advice programs.
My personal opinion, which is very much not the opinion of FSL, is that I am not much bothered about playing people who use anagrammers. They tend to play the longest word they find with little regard for strategy and it does them few favours.
There are also people who use strategy advice programs. These programs have a very valid use in the retrospective analysis of games. But those who cheat by using strategy advice programs are nuts. Why on earth would you want to spend your time acting as secretary to a computer?
So can you say that you never used Scrabble cheat?
I have used anagram software, but only when playing against someone else who was also using it – and with full disclosure. Also I (not FSL) would be interested in hearing from people who would like a league where everyone openly uses anagram tools.
Let’s tie my last question to the beginning of our talk – the long list of things you’ve done. What are your future plans in the Scrabble world? And besides Scrabble, is there anything else you’d like to add to your list of things you’ve done?
There is another Scrabble program I co-wrote with Dale Ross. The OWLS Word game enhancer, a Chrome extension that provides free tile tracking and a host of other useful features for EA Scrabble and other Scrabble-type games. I would love to work with Dale again to integrate between this extension and ScrabbleScores. The potential exists to automate the start of games without having to become Facebook friends, to automate the recording of scores, and to save the games so they can be re-created and analysed later.
Apart from that, ScrabbleScores has an interface that works but could be greatly improved aesthetically. I would also like to organise it so that the games needing most urgent attention appear at the top of the page.
About my plans outside the Scrabble world: my real passion is dancing. I am a good modern blues dancer, but I would love to be as good at Argentine Tango. They say it takes 30 years to become an expert tango dancer, in which case I need to go back and start 20 years ago.
I have another ambition, which I am very excited to have just learned is coming true. I am having a one-man exhibition of prints of my digital art in March 2016.
Elliott, thanks very much for the interview and good luck with all your plans!
Here you can find our anagram programs for several word games
(Of course, the Scrabble Cheat should not be used for games in the Facebook Scrabble League, but it’s useful for training.)