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One thing that sets Wordle apart from other games is that you face a grid with no clues whatsoever at the start. You get to make the first move, and gameplay follows from your choices. Your starting word matters—so what do you choose?

A few things are obvious. It’s strategic to use five different letters (TRAIN rather than TATTY), and you probably want most or all of the five to be common letters in English; as I’ve explained elsewhere, I use the mnemonic ETAOIN SHRDLU (pronounced like “Edwin Shirdloo”) as my guide.

But that still leaves a lot of possibilities, and everybody has their own preferences. Some folks like to get their vowels set as early as possible; AUDIO and ADIEU will get you off to a good start there. Others could care less about the vowels, and would prefer to knock out as many consonants as possible in the first guess: TRASH would be a good starter for that approach. Another equally valid approach is to screw strategy and throw in whatever word is bouncing around in your head that day. I used UNION every day that we were on strike, and never lost.

What the computers say

While only trial and error can tell you what you prefer, computers have been hard at work on calculating the mathematical properties of certain words. The way a computer thinks about this, there are only so many five-letter words that can be valid solutions. (Wordle’s creator chose about 2,300 words for the solution list, leaving out a lot of obscure ones that most of us are happy to ignore.)

Each time you guess a word and see the resulting colored tiles, that original word list has been divided into two groups: words that could be the answer based on what you now know, and words that definitely cannot. For example, if you guess PLANT and get a green P, we know that PURSE is still possible, but SPARE is not (because it does not start with a P).

By that logic, you can score a word based on how well it narrows down the solution space. This turns out to be a difficult problem to figure out whether you have solved it optimally, making it exactly the kind of problem that computer scientists love. A recent paper out of MIT performed an analysis of the ways different guesses can break down the solution space, and claims that with the right strategy, all Wordle games can be solved in five guesses or less. Here are their picks for the best starting words:

  • SALET
  • REAST
  • TRACE
  • CRATE
  • SLATE

That’s in contrast to the New York Times’ WordleBot, which used a reportedly less computationally intensive approach to come up with the following favorite starters:

  • CRANE
  • TRACE
  • SLANT
  • CRATE
  • CARTE

How to follow up a good starter

Choosing a good starter is just the beginning, of course. Where do you go with your next guess? The authors of the MIT paper helpfully include a tool to help you find the next word to play after SALET. Just take note of your greens and yellows, and find the matching row of colored blocks on page 14. Play the word it tells you, and chances are you’ll be able to solve the puzzle quickly.

I tried out the chart on a few rounds of Dordle, and can confirm that it narrows down the possibilities very efficiently. (The authors say they have created a website, wordleopt.com, for even easier use, but at the moment it isn’t loading for me.)

One problem with this approach is that often the best word to narrow down your possibilities is not, itself, on the 2,300-word list. GHYLL, for example, is never going to be a Wordle solution even though the puzzle accepts it as a word. Is your goal to make sure you never lose? If so, guessing obscure words that narrow down the possibilities is a good strategy. But if your goal is to win in as few guesses as possible, you probably want to give yourself more chances to luck into an early hit. (SALET is not on the word list; guessing SALET and GHYLL means the earliest you could solve is on your third move.)

Personally, I like to use a starter that is both itself a valid word, and lends itself to a second guess that also meets starter criteria. For example, I’ve been starting lately with ARISE. I might then follow that up with TOUCH. By the time I’ve played both, I now have information on nine out of the 12 letters in ETAOIN SHRDLU (plus C, which is the next-most-common letter after those). My brain is no supercomputer, but my stats indicate that I’ve solved 35% of all my Wordles in three guesses or less.

Tell me in the comments: What is your favorite starter word? And, most importantly, what factors went into choosing that one?

   



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