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Collins pros and cons

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This page discusses the pros and cons to playing using the Collins lexicon when coming from a background of playing NWL, and is part of our introduction to Collins (SOWPODS) in North America. For brevity, we will refer to the North American and International lexica as NWL and CSW respectively.

While the cons are certainly not intended to discourage anyone from playing CSW, it is useful to be aware of them before committing to learning and playing the CSW game.

The items here are largely given from the North American perspective, as this is the dominant community in English language Scrabble that does not use Collins already.

Some of the "pro" arguments given below are later matched by their converses in the "cons" section that comes after, but others may not be given explicitly in both directions in the two sections.

The list given here is not definitive and ultimately each player will form their own viewpoint.

What Are the Upsides to Collins?

Many of these arguments are well-rehearsed, having been advocated by some players since the 1980s, and after the first World Championships in 1991, played then and ever since to SOWPODS and later CSW.

The upsides of Collins for the individual can blend into general arguments for the community as a whole to play to one English language word list instead of two, but here we focus on the pro- arguments at an individual level.

Ability to play with the world community
To most of the tournament playing world, NWL Scrabble is English Scrabble with about 25% of the words disallowed, with no memorizable pattern. It is thus inaccessible to most, and consequently played little. Collins opens up the world English language Scrabble community to the NWL player that would otherwise largely be unseen. This is especially relevant now that online play has become more prevalent after COVID-19.
More words allowed
Many words in NWL that players are surprised are invalid are allowed in Collins. Greater inclusivity gives better lexicon consistency in some areas, such as -INGS and -ISE vs. -IZE words, although the overall lexicon integrity is not necessarily any better, and is in some ways worse because more obsolete words are present.
More choices of plays
Similar to more words, a typical Collins move has more play choices. Depending on personal preference between play-finding and strategically selecting between found play choices, this may be good or bad, but most players prefer things such as the bingo or the Q on their rack to be playable than not.
Better Zyzzyva definitions
The Collins definitions in Zyzzyva benefit from the extensive work over many years of former UK dictionary committee member David Sutton, and are comprehensive and of high quality at all lengths from 2 to 15 letters.
Less punishing challenge rule
An unsuccessful challenge generally results in a points penalty, typically 5 or 10 points per word or per move, and puts less of a premium on rote dictionary memorization, including of the inconsistencies in the dictionary that both lexica contain, and an arbitrary-seeming boundary between what is valid and what is not resulting from the dictionaries that the lexica are based on being abridged. (The boundary is not actually arbitrary: dictionaries have inclusion criteria based upon citations, etc., but from the player point of view it might as well be.)
More global English
English is a global language, and more of its variations are reflected in Collins, not so much by the number of countries the source dictionaries are from (only the UK is added), but from the overall greater inclusivity.

What Are the Downsides to Collins?

As with pros, we concentrate on points pertinent to the individual player, as opposed to the community as a whole.

It is difficult to play well in both lexica
While one does not have to study many words to play CSW quite well, it could become difficult when playing NWL again to remember which words are only acceptable in CSW. This difficulty of remembering can inhibit the CSW-er's play in NWL because any word that is CSW-only is likely to be challenged off by an NWL player who is not familiar with it. Having a word challenged off is one of the worst things that can happen in a game with respect to optimal play, worse than playing no move at all because your opponent has seen some or all of your letters. While CSW contains more obscure words, simply using the maxim "if it's weird, it's Collins" will lead to many mistakes.
Smaller North American community
While the number of CSW players is growing, the North American community contains far more NWL players, and in many clubs there are no CSW players at all. In tournaments, the fields are often small, with uncertainty in some about whether an event will happen because a minimum quorum of 4 players is needed for rating. If the event does happen, you will more likely encounter the same players frequently, or have to play them multiple times. The CSW field is also dominated by highly rated players who are often motivated to play Collins because of the opportunities for international play. And because the fields are small, usually all players are in a single division. While having many top players may be good or bad depending on your point of view, currently, if you are not a top player, you will likely lose a lot of the games that you play in a CSW tournament.
The challenge rule may be less challenging
Some players like the double-challenge rule and feel that it is an essential part of the game. While there is still a penalty for an incorrect challenge, and there is no reason a CSW game cannot remain double-challenge given the rules, 5 or 10 points per word is a more common de facto standard. This is enough to make you at least pause before challenging, so the aspect of the game embodied by double challenge is not completely lost, but it is not the same decision making process.
CSW is not North American English
CSW reflects a more global usage of the language and as such is not just reflective of the language in the U.S. and Canada. However, this is also true for all of the countries that use CSW when it is considered in relation to their usage of English.
There are obscure words in Collins
While NWL contains obsolete and archaic words, the CSW contains more of them.
The existence of CSW play splits the U.S. SCRABBLE scene
While the large majority of North American players are NWL, a significant number of top players either play only NWL or only CSW. This divides the top divisions of tournaments and lowers the prestige of winning any particular one. Because the Scrabble community is relatively small, fragmentation in general is bad. There are, however, many other ways in which the scene is fragmented. For example, we have School play with the School lexicon; unsanctioned, recreational club, competitive club and tournament play; online and in-person play; and a long list of variant rules that people like to try. It is part of the strength of the basic game that its many variations appeal to different people. Officially sanctioned CSW play lets us keep players who prefer it to NWL play in the fold, and encourages immigrants and tourists to join our community.
There is no single official Collins dictionary with all the definitions
The published Collins English dictionary does not contain all the words in CSW. This is because some words are only in the North American dictionaries, and some are in the Collins language corpus but not the printed dictionary. However, keep in mind that the U.S. lexicon is also spread over more than one dictionary (5, in fact), and that a companion volume to CSW, the Collins Official SCRABBLE Dictionary, contains short definitions for the 2-9 letter words, in a similar manner to OSPD. The Collins edition of the Zyzzyva word study program likewise contains short definitions, for all word lengths up to 15 letters. Nevertheless, the lack of a coherent published dictionary-standard set of definitions is a notable downside to an official lexicon for a word game.
Existing study may have to be redone
A player who has spent a lot of time becoming expert in NWL is understandably reluctant to undertake the effort again merely to become proficient in another version of a game at which they already were. This is why it is important to note that a player expert in NWL can do well in CSW with a relatively much lower level of study. But there is still work for them to do, and, depending on the study method, it can add up. For example, using "stems" of 6 or 7 letters combined with mnemonics to know which combinations make a bingo will require significant revision because extra letters make bingos (see, e.g., here).
A Collins player can take advantage of a NWL player
Although as mentioned a NWL player can do well in CSW by learning relatively few words compared to what they learned for NWL, this does mean that an expert Collins player can use their knowledge of the lexicon to take advantage, by, for example, deliberately playing obscure words they know to be CSW only, or setting up and using CSW-only hooks. (For example, your author once played WHOW, then later hooked it to EWHOW for a lot of points, albeit in a rated tournament against another expert player.) This taking advantage is mitigated somewhat by the challenge rule, but penalties for challenging can still add up, and with new hooks the opponent may not even know there is a possible play.
Differing strategy
The relative importance of different aspects of strategy, such as offense versus defense, may change, meaning that those players particularly skilled at one may be disadvantaged. However, these aspects are not publicly well quantified. For more details, see How Collins differs.

Please direct comments about this page to its author, Nick Ball.