AI Can Love Countdown, Too (and why I love it)

I love the game show Countdown. I’ve watched it every time I’ve been in England since the now long-past Carol Vorderman days. I’ve even had near-spiritual experiences watching it in my days at uni (I even blogged a little about it). Well, maybe not transcendentally spiritual, but I did feel like I was on the horizon of great things, and Countdown was a symbol of a time I loved as I studied games and AI.

Yet, somehow, for all my love of the game, for the unscrambling of letters and numbers, I am very, very average at it. How can that be? After all, I’ve been a professional proofreader for over twenty-five years—so long that I’ve proved even to my skeptical self that I am no imposter—and thus knowing and spelling words is not a problem. And I have a master’s in computer games tech and I write code nearly every day for AI systems, and while one could argue that that is only obliquely math (or maths, in England), I am in fact quite good at it. So I should be applying to be an octochamp right now, surely!


Few things make me more anxious than the idea that someone will somehow sign me up for Countdown and I’ll suddenly be a contestant on the show; my nightmare is that I’d get zero points, probably spell something using American English, become fixated on a letters game that spells a naughty word (the other day “shithead” appeared, and it became the only word I could see in that bunch of letters), and generally embarrass myself in front of people I respect.

There are two problems here: one is the obvious anxiety, a massive fear I have of appearing to be smart but really turning out to be rather full of hot air (and clichés), which stretches into impostor syndrome and other issues that would be difficult to go into here; the other is just in the way the mind works. For instance, although my living is made correcting mistakes in spelling (among other things), I can’t “correct” a random group of nine letters into properly lengthy words. I can get 5-, 6-, 7-, or occasionally 8-letter words, but it often seems to be one letter short of what the contestants find or what Susie Dent finds in Dictionary Corner. When the future octochamps find their nine-letter words in thirty seconds, I know that my mind just doesn’t work that way or that quickly; I’d have been left in the studio long after the cast and crew have gone home, suddenly crying out in the darkness, “Oh! I’ve got an eight-letter word!”

To be honest, I am better at the math(s), but there is still a point at which the twists and turns on the trail to the answer leave me in the thickets (much as this sentence has been lost in the alliteration). I can see the basics–multiply, divide, subtract, and add in a slow, deliberate way–but not the strange and wonderful combos that sound like they belong in a video game: “Multitraction uppercut!” as we subtract 4 from 75 to then multiply by 8 to get 568, or “Number Crunch Kick!” by going up to 5000 and then back down to 203 in five easy steps, thank you, Rachel, I’ll take my trophy now, please …

There are certainly strategies to improve on all this; just watching for a few weeks, I’ve managed to average slightly more in the letters games and see a bit more in the way the maths can work. But it looks like some people can just somehow … see the letter combos, feel the way the numbers can come together. I particularly see this in conundrums, where the best of the best get the words in a second or two. I very rarely figure out the conundrum at all. It just doesn’t come to me.

Is this really a thing, or am I clever at making excuses? According to a study by Peter Sargius and a team at the University of Calgary (as described in Gizmodo [] and in full at Cortex [])  on the related game of Scrabble, players who are good at rearranging letters use a different part of the brain from those who are not as good at it. Whereas neophyte players tend to use the parts of the brain dealing with language, the experts use areas dealing “with visual processing and working memory.” So while it is important to know the words are words in the first place, which, say, a proofreader such as myself would be expected to know, a Countdown octochamp is able to visualize the various combinations of letters, perhaps hold them better in working memory, and reach a lengthy solution.

This jibes with my own impression of how good Countdown players just seem to “see” the words, while I sit around feeling like I’m manually moving letters around one at a time. I tend to do better when I can “see” them in blocks (like knowing there’s a “tion” or an “ing” in the letters), but even then I have trouble remembering (in working memory) which letters are left, and I still feel like I’m manipulating the remaining letters individually.

Although the maths element requires a different kind of manipulation, my guess is that it would still require good working memory and very possibly visual processing to sort the various calculations, especially to see exotic (to me in the moment) combinations of operations. However, I also imagine that it would use different parts of the brain from the letters games, which would explain why players who are good at one might not be quite as good at the other.

The Calgary researchers hope that one can “train” one’s brain to be better at these tasks (and therefore be able to use these different parts of the brain in other situations, or be able to recover from disease or injury); all I can say is that I’ve gotten a little better at Countdown these last few weeks, but I’m not sure how to know whether I’m using the right parts of my brain for this task or whether I can switch over to them. I just need a spare fMRI machine, I guess.

So Can I Train My AI to Play Countdown?

The simple answer is “Sure!” But it would merely use the speed of a computer and brute force to sort through all the possible combinations of letters and compare them to the dictionary. The more human-like solution would be to somehow give your AI the equivalent of a visual processing center and have it do what the best players do (and what I have trouble doing).

But, for this game, why would you do that? Unlike Scrabble, which builds a game space filled with different letters with different values and where often the best move is not the one using the most letters, Countdown straightforwardly asks for words created from the most letters each turn, and those turns do not affect any other turns. No letters are worth more than any others. So why not, if your computer is fast enough, just go through every 9-letter word in the dictionary and compare it to the letters to be used that turn (and then every 8-letter word, etc. if necessary)?

I guess in this case my desire to have an AI be more human would trump (or at least modify) my desire to have it be a brute and power through games winning every time. (This would also make for more interesting games.) But instead of just hamstringing the algorithm, I’d rather give it a “personality.” This then would affect the way the AI accesses its word-finding algorithm–maybe it’s the kind of player who gets more nervous as time goes on, and this nervousness and anxiety affects its ability to find words. Maybe it’s the kind of player who becomes fascinated by certain combinations of letters (swear words or not) and either tries those or has to take a lower-scoring safe-for-TV word. One could study how personality and emotions affect players’ abilities in games such as those in Countdown and utilize this in creating a whole crowd of AIs, each interesting to play against in a different way.

This might not help me in my quest to become an expert Countdown player. But it certainly would be fun.

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