How to guess well at Wordle: Fans reveal their best start words

Each choice is precious on the addictive game – and that first word is all-important

I’m usually an ADIEU person, but to mix it up, I sometimes start with CHAOS.

If that objectively strange (and definitely confusing) sentence makes sense, then you are probably one of the millions who begin or end their day with Wordle. For the uninitiated, Wordle is a deceptively straightforward word game that debuted just last October, in which players get six chances to guess a predetermined five-letter word. A green brick indicates whether the letter is correct and in the right place, a yellow brick means that the letter appears in the word but in a different location, and a gray or black brick indicates the letter isn’t present at all. Each guess is precious, and that first word is all-important.

The addictive challenge has sparked much debate about strategy as friends and family engage in some friendly competition by showing off their results on social media. A cottage industry of sites has even popped up offering tips; you can learn to optimise your game using information theory or head to FirstWord, a site that will grade the efficacy of your opener.

One popular strategy is to start with a vowel-heavy word, like ARISE, SUAVE or my trusty ADIEU. By getting three or four vowels out there from the jump, one can quickly narrow down the list of possible solutions.

But not everyone is convinced that vowels are the way to go. "My hot take is that vowels are overrated, because your brain naturally fills in vowels more easily than consonants," said Erin Parker, a beauty educator in Los Angeles. She points to vanity plates as proof of her theory; the vowels are always missing, but the meaning is still clear.

Parker doesn’t have a go-to opener; on the day we spoke, she said her first word was ITCHY, because her dog happened to be scratching herself at the time.

Actor J Smith-Cameron, who plays the shrewd attorney Gerri Kellman on Succession, focuses on the process of elimination rather than vowels or consonants. "You know it's a five-letter word, so it's very likely a one-syllable word," she said. "So then as you go along, you think, OK, if this vowel is in this place, does it start with a consonant blend, like a TH, or ST, or SH? Or if you've ruled out E and S and D, what does it end with? Does it end with NG, like STING? You do naturally start strategising."

She said she likes to switch up her opening word; SUAVE, ATONE and SLATE are her recent favourites.

But for some players, too much strategising defeats the purpose of the game. Wordle is meant to be relaxing, more like yoga for the brain than work. Glen Mazzara, a TV writer and producer best known for his work on The Shield and The Walking Dead, has incorporated the game into his morning routine alongside journaling and Transcendental Meditation.

“It’s a little bit of a brain tease, but it’s never frustrating,” he said. “It’s just a very pleasant puzzle; it’s not a two-hour crossword where your frustration can build over time. I know there are strategies or certain words you should play, but I don’t look at any of that stuff, because I have enough shoulds in my life already.”

He usually opens with EARTH, but he’s also a fan of PIVOT.

The game's touching origin story also helps explains its popularity. Josh Wardle, a software engineer, created it as a gift for his puzzle-loving partner and never planned on taking it public. (Even when it did go live, it was decidedly low-tech, and the number of players grew exponentially without any corporate marketing push, jumping from 90 users on November 1st to millions of players by the end of January, when the New York Times Company acquired it in a seven-figure deal.)

"So many games are devised because it's somebody's job, and this was created out of love," said Monica Lewinsky. "There's something very sweet about that grand gesture."

Lewinsky, who recently wrote about her Wordle habit for Vanity Fair, cycles among a few opening words, including STAIR, HOIST and ARISE.

Perhaps as a result of its humble beginnings, many players feel protective of the game. After the acquisition by the New York Times (NYT), some users began to complain that the words were getting harder and the game had become less accessible to the average person.

Jonathan Knight, general manager of games at NYT, said those concerns were unwarranted. "Since acquiring Wordle, we have not made the puzzle harder," he said in a statement. "We have not added any words to the solutions list, which was already predetermined by the game's original creator." He added that a few obscure words, like AGORA, were removed to make the puzzle more accessible and that potentially insensitive words may be scrubbed in the future.

As viral sensations go, the game is charmingly analogue. It’s an antidote to all-you-can-eat digital bingeing, so low-fi that it lives in a browser, not an app.

Wordle has also created a new kind of social language, by enabling people to share their efforts without revealing the actual words. Those colourful squares posted on social media are an undemanding and novel kind of virtual connection with others.

In a small way, Lewinsky said, it’s reminiscent of the early pandemic ritual where neighbours applauded to celebrate essential workers. “It’s a little touch point we can have with other people.”

Janine Loetscher, a lawyer in Minneapolis, discovered Wordle when her son caught Covid-19 in January. His symptoms were mild, but the whole family had to quarantine. When she saw friends posting those intriguing squares on Facebook, she went digging and found the game to be a welcome distraction. "I was very scornful of the people who tried the same word every day, but then my husband started scoring better than me using that strategy."

She swapped strategies a few weeks ago and currently uses TEARY as her opener.

Everybody gets the same puzzle, on the same interface, for the same amount of time, making for a rare water-cooler conversation starter

For Smith-Cameron, Wordle has become a welcome way to decompress. “It lets you take your overactive mind and depersonalise it, and use it for something low-stakes,” said Smith-Cameron, who went through a phase of playing the game in the middle of the night when she couldn’t sleep. “It’s like your engine’s idling, and you’re just trying to wind it down.”

And as our online lives have become increasingly individualised both by our own choices and by algorithms mining our data, Wordle is noncustomisable. Everybody gets the same puzzle, on the same interface, for the same amount of time, making for a rare water-cooler conversation starter.

"Everybody's life is so curated, down to the point where nobody's having collective experiences anymore," said Biester, the English teacher. "I think Wordle is like a throwback to the days when there weren't very many TV channels and everybody kind of watched the same shows and would talk about them the next day. People are craving that." – This article originally appeared in the New York Times.

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