(my way to) Write a Hangman AI

I was asked to write a hangman AI as a challenge last week. I was asked not to leak the detail, so I will not post my solution here. However, the hangman problem itself is a well-known problem, I would like to share some thoughts that I used to build my hangman solver.


There is a hangman page provides detailed information for hangman game. However, I would like to describe it in a shorter, more programmer’s way.


You will receive an serialized object containing following information:

  • state: The state is a string that reveals your correctly guessed characters in the string. For those unrevealed characters, a _ is placed in those positions. For example, say the answer is “apple” and you guessed p, the state string will be _pp__. Please note that the state could contain multiple words, a sentence.

  • remaining_guesses: How many times you can make a wrong guess before the game is over.

  • status: It could be one of {WIN, ONGOING, LOSE}. The game will start as ONGOING. If you reveal all characters before you used up all guesses, you WIN the game. If you make too many wrong guesses, you LOSE the game.


For each game, you will start with a empty state. You must keep giving out a character as a guess until the status is WIN or LOSE.


Before we talk about anything, I need to clarify one thing: I am not familiar with NLP(Natural Language Processing) techniques. I might use some dumb way to solve this problem, but, well, it’s at least something that my intuition leads me to.

Initial Guess

If the state is all unrevealed, I will do an initial guess. The initial guess uses vowels, the famous a-e-i-o-u. However, I use a little variation here. I do not guess the vowels in this order, I sort it by the frequency of characters appearing in dictionary. I guess by e-i-o-u-a. The initial guess stops whenever a character works, then we go to word attack mode.

Word Attack

Since I don’t have any knowledge in the language model, I will launch a word-based attack. In my implementation, I only attack one word at a time. It is very important that we choose the right word to attack. If we pick the wrong word to guess, the probability to produce a correct guess will decrease. First, I assume that, in most cases, the word-to-be-attacked will be included in my dictionary. If we don’t make this assumption, it is hard to do optimization since you have to assume you have no knowledge regarding the context.

Which Word?

The best word to attack, in my opinion, is the word having most characters solved and having longest length as possible. Now, to decide it, the formula I used is:

$$ f_{cost}(w_i) = \frac{f_{unsolved}(w_i)}{f_{strlen}(w_i)^2} $$

The best word to attack will have smallest cost from this formula. It first calculate the percentage of unsolved characters in the word, so the word with most portion of its characters revealed now having the smallest cost now. However, say we have a word a_, the word is now 50% solved but to finish the second character, you only need one move. It sounds good, but it does not generate any side-effect. Say now we have a word co__ec__e__ and you already know the full word is correctness. You can now confidently send answers [r, t, n, s]. You may reveal characters in other words in the process, thus increase the overall probability of making right guesses.

The n-grams

In the fields of computational linguistics and probability, an n-gram is a
contiguous sequence of n items from a given sequence of text or speech. An
n-gram could be any combination of letters. However, the items in question can
be phonemes, syllables, letters, words or base pairs according to the
application. The n-grams typically are collected from a text or speech corpus.

Since I’m not a NLP guy, I will just quote the definition of n-gram from Wikipedia. In my solver, I use two type of n-grams: A bigram table and a unigram table. Before I calculate those, I will filter the dictionary to a smaller version by eliminating words using the current state and guessed words. For example, the state of the word I’m attacking is a__le, and I haven’t guessed [p, z]. I will generate a regular expression of a[pz][pz]le and apply it on my dictionary. Then, I calculate those n-grams table in current reduced context.

Unigram table

My usage for unigram is very simple. I merely calculate the frequency of a characters shows in my dictionary.

Bigram table

The bigram I’m trying to build is based on the connection for two continuous characters. I will split each word into bigrams using the following ruby code:

def bigram_split(str)

>> bigram_split("hello")
=> [["^", "h"], ["h", "e"], ["e", "l"], ["l", "l"], ["l", "o"], ["o", "$"]]

I collect those bigrams and calculate the frequency for each of those showing up among whole bigrams space for current dictionary.

The Attack

Now everything that we need before launching the attack is prepared, we can start to work on a guess. The first step is to acquire bigrams from the word state. The only bigrams we need is those with one of the character unsolved, but not all unsolved. In a more direct way, what we need is [*, '_'] ['_', *] but not ['_', '_']. For those unsolved bigrams, I use the bigram table I just calculated to get a count on how frequent of a character shows up after or before a known character. I then sum the count for all bigrams in the word state and pick the character with highest count as the guess. It’s that simple.

Falling back

Well, sometimes you just don’t have any clue. In that case, my program will first falls back to attack on second best word and so on. If all words are tried, but we still have no clue. I’ll just fire a random guess using unigram table. However, it is really a wild guess, the success rate of making a correct guess using unigram table is not high.

Future Work

There are many ideas that can be implemented to improve my solution. Like implementing a word bigrams to further weight the possibility of characters bigrams could be useful, but it would require more research into NLP field. I think it is really a fun challenge. If you got some spare time, try it!