Photo illustration by Slate. Wordle by Josh Wardle.
Realistically, at this point, you don’t need us to tell you about the viral puzzle game Wordle—five letters, six guesses, no shenanigans. Its virtues as a collective shared experience, a moment of escape amid various current miseries, have been eloquently lauded. Our Twitter timelines are now coated with green, gray and yellow squares, and that feels fine.
Wordle may have also coated your timeline with heated opinions about how everyone else is playing it wrong. As people who spent our days thinking about how best to put letters in boxes long before last week—Nate is a professional crossword setter and official test solver for the New York Times daily puzzle—we have some humble suggestions for how to choose your Wordle guesses.
There are two optimal strategic approaches to Wordle, depending on what’s more important to you: trying to get the answer within the allotted six guesses but not really trying to win any quicker than that, or trying to win with as few guesses as possible, which almost necessarily means a higher risk of sometimes losing completely. (If you take the third strategic approach—“just have a good time for three minutes, and maybe question your impulse to optimize everything in life”—you have our sincere congratulations.)
The trick to this approach is to maximize the information you acquire from early guesses. If your first guess lands you with a satisfyingly green square—a correct letter in a correct location—it’s tempting to reuse that green letter in your subsequent guesses. But doing so gives you no new information: You already knew that letter was correct.
It can be strangely hard, emotionally, to make a guess that you know couldn’t be correct, because it doesn’t include a letter that you already know is needed to win, and meditating on that experience may or may not give you insight into either yourself or society. But if you can fight that impulse, the information-maximizing strategy is to make your first few guesses span as many common letters as possible with a set of guesses like YOURS, LIMED, CHANT or SIREN, OCTAL, DUMPY. (Confession time: Nate’s favored opening is secretly IDEAL/SOUTH; some things in life are more about taste than optimality.) Only after clearing the ground would you switch to rearranging the letters you’ve already discovered and actually trying to guess the correct solution.
Wordle has a Hard Mode where you are actively forced to reuse any successful letter guesses, thereby complicating this information-maximizing strategy. If you’re playing on Hard Mode, and if your priority is still avoiding a blowout, you might want to switch your starting guesses to include less common letters of the alphabet, instead, to cover as much ground as possible before you hit the letters you most expect to keep. In general, figuring out which letters aren’t in the word can be info just as valuable (and sometimes more so) as figuring out what is—potentially another life lesson from Wordle, if you were looking for one.
Here, discretion and judgment become more important. All you can do is pick a smart first word and then immediately optimize around any of the correct letters you’ve found; in this situation, some of the insights of professional crossword solvers come into play.
First, from experience, if you’re trying to unscramble a word, then having the first and last letters in place seems to help most of all. (You may have seen the ctue ltitle dmonestariton of our brains’ ability to decipher sentences with the internal letters of each word scrambled, although you’ll be shocked to hear that it’s a little more complicated than the RE: FW: FW: version that circulated in the early days of the internet.) As such, it might make sense to focus your mental energy on the first and last letters of the word.
In crosswords, a plurality of words end in RSTLNE—this can often help a lot when solving a crossword, by the way, because you know that words along the bottom and right edges of a grid will often be made up of mostly those letters.
However, with Wordle, we can actually go one better: You can see the entire solutions list just by viewing the source code of this delightfully minimal website, so it’s possible to fully determine the most common starting and finishing letters. (You will be delighted to hear that there are 2,315 solutions, enough for six years of Wordling.) Engineer Bertrand Fan extracted and analyzed the solution set and declared the best starting word to be “SOARE”, an archaic word for a young hawk that is suddenly in a lot more people’s vocabularies. We can go a little further; using Fan’s export of the source list, we can analyze the frequency of each letter as both the starting and the ending letter of words:
A few perhaps-surprising outcomes: S is not only the most common letter at the start of Wordle solutions but also a very infrequent letter at the end of them, so when you’re mentally rotating letters you might try S at the beginning more than at the end. (While S is super common in everyday language, as used to pluralize nouns, none of the solutions in Wordle are plurals ending in S.) Meanwhile, although E is the most common final letter, Y is surprisingly close on its heels, which makes it a stronger candidate for inclusion in your first guess than it otherwise would be.
A final wrinkle in Wordle—a source of consternation among celebrity players—is the chance of duplicated letter(s). Guessing a word with one S, say, and having that S turn green or yellow only tells you information about one S; you won’t get info about other S’s in the word unless you guess a word with two S’s or piece together that it might be there. Just how common is that? According to our analysis, almost exactly one-third of Wordle solutions contain at least one duplicated letter—this is worth keeping in mind, regardless of your strategy. (Interestingly, one of the solutions in fact contains only two unique letters, total—it’s going to be a fun day on Twitter when that one drops.)
At the end of the day, it’s hard not to sound sappy while saying that the real magic of Wordle is discovering that we can in fact have one entirely nice thing. The clever design of the “share your results” system lets us be part of a cultural zeitgeist moment in real time without any worry of creating spoilers; the not-too-complex puzzle gives us a sense of challenge and achievement without being frustrating or overwhelming; and creator Josh Wardle’s thoughtful decision to limit the puzzles to one per day prevents us all from gorging beyond the point of pleasure (although we do have to admit to sneaking in some occasional bonus rounds of Queerdle). In the end, however you want to play your Wordle, you’re playing it just right.