When the program for Ritam Corp.'s console-computer version of Monty Plays Scrabble was ready to be tested last year, president and co-programmer Robert J. Walls pressed the button and waited. After a week passed and Monty still hadn't made his first move, Walls ruefully realized that something was wrong with the approach.
Back to the drawing board went Monty, where it turned out that, after some four man-years of pure tedium, only 10% of the original program was salvable. The 8-bit microprocessor (a Zilog Z-80A with a 3.5 MHz clock) was powerful enough, but the algorithm that was used to review his vocabulary was, it appeared, unwieldy. It looked like they might have to cut back the number of words. But co-founder Jonathan P. Isbit rethought the problem, and in three weeks came up with a solution. Within five months the program was rewritten so that even in the most advanced mode with a complicated board (to Monty, the most bewildering layout would be comprised of two crossing words, each 15 letters long), the computer now usually responds within three-and-a-half minutes.
What Isbit did was to change Monty's way of thinking about his letters. The original program had Monty figuring out what words he could make with the combination of tiles in his rack, as would a person. The words would be filtered through logical sequences of letters ("a, r, t," say), and illogical sequences ("n, n, n"). But in the end, Monty's memory turned out to be far too small to store the permutations of all the letters broken up into seven possible combinations. The lesson here is that a computer need not approach a problem like a human. Monty is capable of 2 million calculations per second, giving him not only the ability to ponder in a short period of time all the words in his vocabulary and decide if he has all the letters to make the words, but also to consider the Scrabble strategy of using them at a particular spot. Now, instead of trying to untangle the seven tiles, he alphabetically examines, and either accepts or dismisses as playable in positions on the board, each possible word.
Basically, Monty comes with 12,000 words -- some 2,000 more than the average American has in his or her working vocabulary, according to the World Book Encyclopedia. Two modules can be added to increase that to 44,000 -- well beyond the number of words an average American can even recognize. Monty cannot play all possible words; "pepper," for example, has purposely been left out of his vocabulary, as it would require two p's and a blank and would be an unlikely play. And some of his words, like "cwm," are obscure, but all exist in The Official Scrabble players Dictionary. Squeezing this into a small amount of semiconductor memory is an exceptional technical achievement. After a year of dogged work following the release of the Apple version -- which the console can beat hands down -- Ritam programmers succeeded in storing words in about one-tenth the space usually needed.
Everyone at Ritam refers to the product as "him," and actually Monty possesses a captivating, if sometimes cloying, individuality -- no worse, really, than most human opponents. And sometimes better: If a player makes a particularly good move -- say, gaining 50 points -- Monty's liquid crystal display spells out "You're a genius!" and he chirps a congratulatory tune. If a player challenges Monty's word for not being legal, the little guy is man enough to take it back and apologize.
Words are entered in a liquid crystal display that shows only part of the layout at a time. Placing a word is a matter of jockeying it around in four directions until the letters line up correctly. When everything is acceptable, Monty calculates the scores for each word, then totals them for the move. At any time during the game, Monty can be queried for the running scores of up to four players.
Monty is capable of giving even an expert player a reasonably tough go of it. When he comes to a triple-word and all-seven-letters offense, he can be relentless. He is well programmed defensively, and can play an infuriatingly tight game, making two-letter-word forays onto the board rather than opening up scoring opportunities for the next player. But he suffers a few quirks that are due, largely, to limitations of memory. He is not a brilliant "s" strategist, tending to waste them for his own convenience. (He is not allowed to play an "s" unless it attaches onto another word, but he is apt to use it gaining only minor totals.) He will not exchange letters unless his tiles make it impossible to play -- in which case he disgustedly throws in all seven at once. But engineers at Ritam are developing a memory-expanded version, in which Monty will not be so cavalier. Then, virtually unbeatable, he truly will be objectionable.
Even now, Monty has cause enough to crow. Packing a world-class (Ritam is about to do it in French, too) Scrabble program into a diskless microcomputer is a feat of technology that was being accomplished at the same time a piece in Byte magazine (December 1981) was saying it couldn't be done.
Wrote back an affronted Walls: " . . . We thank [the author] for his article. It makes our endeavor seem quite worthwhile when we learn we've achieved the impossible!"