Whether you like to start with the vowels, focus on common letter pairings, or rely on a large vocabulary and a good eye, there are loads of strategies for solving a word in a classic game of Hangman.
But what about when the tables are turned and it's your turn to pick the word? Short of clever misdirection or out-and-out cheating, the one and only way you can boost your chances is to pick the hardest word you can think of.
Time to reach for some lengthy, obscure bit of scientific or technical jargon, right?
Not so fast. Believe it or not, the hardest Hangman word in the entire English language is only four letters long and is easy to spell.
Just ask Jon McLoone, director of business development for Wolfram Research, the company behind popular mathematical modeling tool Mathematica. McLoone was inspired to investigate the English language's hardest-to-guess word after his six-year-old daughter asked him how she could beat her Hangman computer game.
He wrote a program that would play Hangman with all 90,000 words in the dictionary, attempting to guess each one in a semi-random way similar to a method a good human player might use. In total, he simulated some 15 million Hangman games, tying up several office PCs for a weekend in the process.
And one word topped the rankings in all the permutations of the basic Hangman game he tried.
Sure, the A might be a gimme, but your poor opponent is probably going to have to work through most of the alphabet before hitting the J or Z. Chances are they'll be strung up long before they get either.
This, however, is only going to work once, and only on people who don't already know the trick. As a long-term strategy for Hangman dominance, it's got some issues. But you can still apply the principles that make "Jazz" such a tough word to picking your own hard-to-guess words. These three rules should help:
1. The shorter, the better
That might seem counter-intuitive, especially if you're accustomed to games like Scrabble, where longer words are the way to big wins. But that's not true in Hangman: the longer the word, the more chance your opponent's letter guesses will hit home. Shorter words means fewer letters and more missed guesses.
2. Pick your letters carefully
Take a look at the Oxford English Dictionary's list of the frequency of the letters of the alphabet. Words with Es and As? Not so good. Less common vowels like U and especially Y are, however. For consonants, stay away from the Rs, Ts, and Ns, and head for the letters that make you wince when you draw them in Scrabble: Z, J, and Q.
3. Double up
Under some circumstances, words with double letters can be excellent choices. If they're uncommon letters, they'll tie up two spaces for the price of one, keeping your opponent guessing — and keeping them guessing is the key to victory. McLoone suggests "powwowing", "bowwowing", and "huzzahing" as food for thought.