The Man Behind Zyzzyva
Michael Thelen

Michael Thelen is the creator of Zyzzyva - the Scrabble world's favorite word-study program. But first, I thought you might like to see who we're talking to. So here he is ..

Zyzzyva Creator

Hi Michael. Can we start with a brief description of the guy behind the photo?

I'm 32 years old, married with three young kids. I live in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, Utah, and I work as a professional software engineer. In addition to playing Scrabble, I love to read, write, play golf, and observe the night sky.

Zyzzyva is absolutely free? Are you crazy?

That's right! That is to say, Zyzzyva is free, but I'm not crazy. I think a major reason so many people use Zyzzyva is because it's free. If I forced people to pay for it, I don't think it ever would have become so popular. Anyone can download it and start learning words right away, and it makes me happy when other people are happy.

Of course, I'm also happy to accept donations! If anyone enjoys Zyzzyva and would like to send a donation, there is a PayPal link on the main Zyzzyva page.

Can you tell us the story behind Zyzzyva's creation and why existing Scrabble helpers, like Lexpert, weren't enough?

I try to avoid using Windows whenever possible, and Lexpert was a Windows-only program. When I first started studying Scrabble words, I wanted a study program that would run on Linux, but I couldn't find a good one. Since I'm a programmer, I figured I could write a decent program myself, so I did.

Once I had produced something usable, I decided to make it freely available because I didn't think other people should have to write their own software just to do something simple like word study. Now, anyone can study words for free by using Zyzzyva on nearly any version of Windows, Linux, or Mac OS X.

How well has Zyzzyva been received? Is there any way of estimating how many copies have been downloaded?

The feedback has been very positive, whether people are using it for word study, anagramming, or word adjudication at Scrabble tournaments. Zyzzyva is used as the official word judge program at most Scrabble tournaments in North America, including the U.S. National Scrabble Championship and the U.S. National School Scrabble Championship. I just discovered it was also used at the 2009 Victorian Championships in Melbourne. Cool!

Zyzzyva has been downloaded about 24,500 times since January 2007. Over the past month, it's been downloaded an average of about 30 times per day. Thanks for nudging me to check out the statistics. I hadn't ever checked them before. Even I didn't know Zyzzyva was that popular!

And what's with your strange choice of product name?

I wanted to pick a fun word that was somewhat unique. I knew "zyzzyva" was one of the most improbable words to be played in a Scrabble game, and I liked the sound of it.

Later on, after I had picked the name, I realized that since "zyzzyva" was also the last word in alphabetical order (it has since been replaced by "zzz"), I could call Zyzzyva "the last word" in word study. I wish I could say I was smart enough to come up with that slogan from the start.

Who does all the design and development?

I do the actual development pretty much by myself. I hold myself personally responsible for the entire software cycle including design, programming, testing, and release management.

However, I also have to give a lot of credit to the users of Zyzzyva who have given me valuable suggestions and feedback. I'm quickest to implement features that I want for myself, but many users have suggested features that I never knew I wanted until I heard the suggestion! Also, several users have been very patient and helpful as they help me debug problems that I can't recreate on my own computer.

Zyzzyva is a much better program because of its fantastic users.

Who actually owns Zyzzyva?

I own the copyright on all the source code, and I make it available under the GNU General Public License. That means that anyone is free to examine and change the code as much as they like.

However, if they distribute a modified version of Zyzzyva, they must also distribute the modified source code. This ensures that Zyzzyva will always be freely available to anyone who wants it.

And finally a Scrabble Helper with word definitions! Who should we be thanking for all that work?

Most of the OWL definitions came from John O'Laughlin, an American Scrabble player. Most of the CSW definitions came from Barry Harridge, an Australian Scrabble player. I've done a fair amount of tweaking of the definitions myself, including formatting them nicely for Zyzzyva.

I've contributed several hours of my own time, but not nearly as many hours as you would think, thanks to those two gentlemen. I'm afraid to list names of other people who have helped, because I know I will forget someone, but some others who have been very helpful are Richard Buck, John C. Green, and Dominick Mancine.

What if people want to use a different dictionary?

Several lexicons are provided with Zyzzyva, including the official word lists for Scrabble tournament play in North America (OWL2) and Scrabble tournament play throughout most of the rest of the world (CSW).

If a user wants to use a lexicon of their own, they can tell Zyzzyva to create a "Custom" lexicon from a plain text file. Currently, this is the only way to use a word list other than the ones provided with Zyzzyva.

Are there any copyright issues around using Zyzzyva that users should be careful about?

Not that I know of.

What are you like at Scrabble yourself?

I like to think I'm a decent player, in large part due to my use of Zyzzyva. My current Scrabble rating is about 1700, which makes me one of the top 200 players in North America. I hope to attain an even higher rank than that!

Are you a fan of any other word games besides Scrabble?

I like to do the occasional crossword puzzle, though I'm not very good at them. Other than that, I don't get much time for other word games.

Another reason I don't play many other word games is because my friends and family avoid word games around me!

Is Zyzzyva being used much outside of the Scrabble community? What other word games do you think it could be useful for?

I think Scrabble players represent the vast majority of Zyzzyva users. But I've always envisioned Zyzzyva as a general-purpose word study program for any type of activity where you have to jumble, find, or unscramble words.

For example, I think Zyzzyva would definitely be useful for anyone who wants to improve at Boggle, or wants to beat all their friends at Word Twist on Facebook!

Can you tell us a cool Zyzzyva tip that many users may not know about?

Sure, here's one that I use all the time. When searching for words using a Search tab, you can place a group of letters inside square brackets to tell Zyzzyva to match any of those letters. You can also put a caret symbol inside the square brackets to tell Zyzzyva to match any letter EXCEPT the ones in brackets.

For example, to find 5-letter words consisting of a vowel followed by four consonants, do the following search (for this example, I'll consider Y a vowel):


In OWL2, this finds only two words: ANGST and ANKHS. In CSW, it finds an additional three words: AWDLS, EMPTS, and ILLTH.

[I followed Michael's instructions, and sure enough here is what it looks like in Zyzzyva... Word-Buff]

Zyzzyva Example

How do users let you know about problems or requests?

Many users send me email at the address listed on the main Zyzzyva page. This is a good way to reach me, though I must admit that I can be pretty bad at responding to email in a timely manner.

Instead, it's often a better idea to send a message to the Zyzzyva Users mailing list, which is read by many smart and helpful people. Whenever someone asks a question on the mailing list, it is usually answered fairly quickly. I also read and respond to the list, and I take feature requests that way, too.

Here's where you can join the Zyzzyva mailing list.

Are there any upcoming features you can tell us about?

I have a lot of big ideas, but I'm not sure which one I'll work on next.

One thing many people have requested is the ability to print word lists directly from Zyzzyva. Currently, you have to save the list to a text file, then open it with Wordpad or a similar program to print it.

I'd also like to allow users to make personal notes within the program, which could be used for giving yourself hints or reminding yourself of words that are related to the current word you're looking at.

Have you produced, or are you working on, any other products that might be of interest to word game addicts?

The only thing that comes to mind is a collection of mp3 files that I created a few years ago. These audio files present you with a set of letters in alphabetical order, followed by all the valid words that can be made with those letters. It's an interesting way to learn words on your iPod! They are also available on the main Zyzzyva page. Unfortunately, the audio files are only available for OWL2, not CSW.

Thanks for all this background information Michael. I really appreciate your time.

Thanks. It's been fun!
And don't forget, if you like reading about people, books, and handy resources from the world of Scrabble, Crosswords, and other word games, feel free to pop your name and email address in the box below.

I'll put you on the Word-Buff Stuff! mailing list, and when something interesting comes along, you'll be the first to know...

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