Weekend Word Wrap: Mental Jotto

David K. Israel

For those word game lovers out there who've had the privileged of knowing Leonard Bernstein (or any of his friends or family) or, alternatively, read my novel Behind Everyman, you already know how to play Mental Jotto.

For those who didn't know him or his posse and haven't read my book (and judging by my Random House quarterly statements, that's most of you), it's time to learn one of my favorites.

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The object of the game: to guess your opponent's secret word. (The only real difference between Mental Jotto and the paper/pencil version is that with the former, the only thing you have to work with is your brain. So it's a) harder! and b) perfect for long drives or flights, or anywhere you need to pass some time.)

How you play: One player picks a secret 5-letter word. Any 5-letter word will do, but it mustn't contain any repeating vowels or consonants. Why? It'll be obvious by the end of this post.

1. Once you have a secret 5-letter word, your opponent must guess the word by offering up 5-letter words of his/her own. 2. For example: Let's say you and I are seated next to each other on a plane and strike up a conversation. After some time, I decide to teach you Mental Jotto, because, I'll admit it, I'm actually rather boring off-blog and wouldn't have much to say to you otherwise. Okay, so we decide to play and it's my job to come up with a secret word and your job to guess it. 3. So my secret word is plane "“ P-L-A-N-E "“ plane. (Notice: no repeating vowels or consonants, each letter appears only once.) 4. You try to guess my word by figuring out how many letters in your guess word are also in my secret word. So you offer, say, the word stump. You say, "David, how many in the word stump?" Meaning, how many letters are in common with my secret word. 5. I say, "Well, planepal, (I just coined that: it's your pal for the duration of a flight who, afterward, you'll never speak to again as long as you live), there is one letter in common with my secret word." Namely, the P, but you don't know that yet. 6. Next, trying to eliminate letters in the alphabet, you say, "And how many are in the word stamp?" By substituting the letter A for the letter U, you might learn something. 7. I say, "Two." Because hey, now we have the P and the A in common. By this point, you should know two things: first, that there's no U in my word. And second, that there's an A in my word. 8. If you then offer: "How many in the word stomp?" I change my answer from two to one, and you now know my word has no O in it. 9. The smarter you are, and the better your memory, the sooner you'll eliminate all the letters that aren't in my word and come up with the five letters that are in my word. Chances are, you'll probably get an anagram first, like NEPAL, or PANEL or PENAL. But it doesn't matter. 10. Because when you next ask, "How many in the word panel," I have no choice but to say, "Five!" "“ and it's just a matter of time before you do the anagram and hit on plane. 11. Besides getting my secret word, obviously one of the challenges in Mental Jotto is to figure out the letters in as few guesses as possible. (In the paper and pencil version they give you 35 tries.) That's why a strategy like the one I started above, Stamp, Stump, Stomp, etc., helps because you're focusing in on the vowels first. It's much harder if you just start with random words in the beginning like, "How many in Egypt? How many in viola?" etc., because one guess doesn't inform the next. 12. Now, why can't you pick apple as your secret word or your guess word? Because if I were to ask, "How many in plant?" What would you say, three or four? It's too confusing and too misleading.

I never had the chance to play the game with Bernstein, but he was known for playing in multiple languages at the same time. Which meant the secret word could be in Spanish, French, English, etc. One never knew!

For an even harder version of the game, try 6-letter Mental Jotto. It's killer!

I know we've never written instructions on the blog before, so if you have questions, by all means, drop them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer quickly. Meanwhile, Jot on word lovers, Jot on. And if you're ever seated next to me on an airplane, don't hesitate to invite me to play, or at least offer me some gum.

Check out all past Weekend Word Wraps>>