Beating Wordle: One Helpful Trick

Weary of the news, the Spirited Reasoner has decided a break is in order. Don’t worry, though. We won’t be taking our eyes off the brave people of the Ukraine for long. We’re just recharging our batteries.

For those Spirited Reasoners who may be hiding under rocks, its time they knew that the game of Wordle has been sweeping the English-speaking world and may even be popular in non-English speaking countries, for all we know. The object is straightforward: correctly determine a hidden five-letter using a series of five-letter guesses of your own. You get only six guesses. Both the hidden word and each of your guesses must be found in Wordle’s dictionary of five-letter words. In other words, you can’t guess “XQZWK” even if you just want to eliminate those letters. “XQZWK” is not a valid word. (I’ve never taken the time to check it out, but I imagine there’s a website where you can find Wordle’s dictionary. It’s not really necessary, though, because you don’t lose anything by trying a word that’s not in the dictionary. The Wordle computer will tell you that word is not allowed and that you must try a different guess without penalty.)

There’s a new hidden word every day.

If any of the letters in your five-letter guess happens to be found in the hidden word, the Wordle computer will inform you by changing the color of that letter. If the letter turns green, that means you’ve correctly nailed not only the correct letter but also it’s position in the hidden word. If the letter is yellow, that means you’ve found a letter, but you’ve placed it in the wrong position.

Here’s the Spirited Reasoner’s strategic trick for today, using yesterday’s word, “WATCH.” Hopefully, by oversimplifying the following illustration, I can help you win more Wordle games in the future. This is only one of many tricks of logic, but I think you’ll quickly understand that the principle underlying it can be used in a variety of ways.

Let’s suppose that when you played yesterday’s WORDLE game, you were lucky enough to guess the word “PATCH.” If so, you would have discovered that the last four letters of “PATCH” were now colored green while the “P” remained black. What should you do now?

Most folks would begin a guessing game at this point. For all they know, the hidden word could be “LATCH” or “CATCH” or “HATCH” or “MATCH” or “BATCH” or even “NATCH” (if that word is in the Wordle dictionary), not to mention the word that turned out to be the hidden word, “WATCH.” In other words, you’re looking at six or seven possible answers, but you’ve only got five guesses remaining. At this point, some folks get lucky and others won’t.

But there’s a better way for Spirited Reasoners to ensure that we find the correct hidden word before we run out of guesses:

On the second guess, we could choose the word “CLIMB.” Why “CLIMB”? Because we can use it to examine four possible consonants using only a single guess. If “C” is colored green, then we know the hidden word is “CATCH,” because we’ve already determined the places of the last four letters. If, on the other hand, “C” is colored yellow, we know our hidden word is not “CATCH,” because the yellow “C” is merely pointing to the fourth position of the word we tried in our first guess. I eliminate that possibility. If “L” is yellow, I know the hidden word is “LATCH.” If “M” is yellow, I know the hidden word is “MATCH.” And if “B” is yellow, I know the hidden word is “BATCH.”

But yesterday’s Wordle game, my “CLIMB” attempt would come up empty-handed. All five letters would be black. But see how much I have learned! I’ve eliminated four possibilities (catch, latch, match, and batch) with only one guess. I now know that the hidden word is either “HATCH,” “NATCH,” or “WATCH.” Herein the key strategic lesson: often you can use a guess for informational purposes only, not for the purpose of correctly jumping to the final answer.

Having made only two guesses, I can feel free to try “HATCH,” “NATCH,” and “WATCH,” knowing that at worst I’ll find the correct hidden word in five guesses (which would have been the case yesterday). Or, once again, I can use my fancy trick. This time, I would guess “WINCH.” I know in advance that the final “C” and “H” will be lighted green, like they were after my first guess, because they are back in their correct places. My focus, though, is on the color of the “N” and “W.” If “N” is yellow (we know it won’t be green, because our first guess told us that “T” belongs in that spot), then I know that the only reason it’s yellow is because it’s my missing letter. I can safely play “NATCH” as the winning word on my fourth try.

If the “W” in “WINCH” turns green, we know our answer is “WATCH,” as, in fact, it turned out to be. I can safely play “WATCH” as the winning answer on my fourth try.

If neither “W” nor “N” had changed color, then we would know our hidden word must be “HATCH,” the only option remaining. (But, of course, we know the winning word was “WATCH,” not “HATCH.”)

Now, you’re wondering what I would have done if I hadn’t gotten so many green letters on my first guess. That’s the subject for another blog on another day.

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