Saturday, August 18, 2012

Scrabble scandal

"The Case of the Stolen Blanks"

The real story behind the cheating scandal at the National Scrabble Championship.


Stefan Fatsis

August 17th, 2012


I had just hung on for a 395-352 victory in Round 24 of the 2012 National Scrabble Championship on Tuesday when an official pulled me aside: A boy had been caught palming the blanks and ejected from the tournament.

The news ricocheted through the ballroom at the Orlando resort where 342 people—men, women, and a handful of children—were gathered for Scrabble’s annual five-day, 31-game championship marathon. Many players were familiar with the boy, who had competed in school and rated Scrabble tournaments for a couple of years. But they didn’t know of him as “one of the top young Scrabble players” in America, as he was described in news reports. Rather, he’d gained renown because of a performance at a previous tournament that seemed too good to be true.

So the mood after the revelation was less shock that someone had cheated—cheating is rare in Scrabble, but as in any competitive endeavor, it happens—than relief that the fraud had been unmasked. And beneath that, sadness—for the adolescent boy, who would no doubt be facing shame and scorn in and out of the Scrabble world, and for the game, which I knew would be taking another turn on the media dunk tank.

As of Friday, the “scandal” had netted about 500 media hits, according to the National Scrabble Association. The news was first posted on the tournament’s website. A Merriam-Webster executive attending the event tweeted it. Scrabble players posted on Facebook. When the Associated Press got wind of the story, it was off to the races. The New York Times played it on the sports front. Brian Williams talked about it for a minute on MSNBC’s Rock Center (complete with a foreboding soundtrack and a Scrabble board tipping over ominously in dark shadows). Deadspin called the expelled boy a “dumbass.”

And these two glib hairdos on something called Good Afternoon America thought it would be fun to have members of their studio audience hold up giant Scrabble tiles spelling CHEATER. That the cheater in question was a child apparently didn’t register with anyone at ABC. “If you can’t count on the integrity at the Scrabble championships, then what has this world come to?” one of the hosts, former ESPN smartass Josh Elliott, cracked.

As I’ve written before, Scrabble is an easy target for the mainstream media. The game fits many stereotypes, none especially flattering. To most people, it’s a dorky boxed board game, something grandma plays at the kitchen table. In that context, “competitive Scrabble” seems oxymoronic. But Scrabble is arguably no less sophisticated than chess or backgammon. The difference is that chess and backgammon have been around for centuries (Scrabble was created in the 1930s and ’40s), are universally recognized as highbrow pursuits, and, crucially, are in the public domain while Scrabble is owned by a company (actually two, Hasbro in North America and Mattel everywhere else). It’s difficult to hold two conflicting ideas at once, in this case that a game can be both a simple, over-the-counter pastime and a rich, complex riddle worthy of deep thought, study, and analysis.

It’s the latter interpretation that moves people to spend hundreds of hours memorizing tens of thousands of words and to spend thousands of dollars to travel to events like the National Scrabble Championship. When people compete, they want to win. And some people will do anything to win. As anyone who plays the Scrabble knockoff Words With Friends knows, “cheating” in the digital sense of Scrabble usually involves employing an anagram finder to unscramble your letters. Over the board, though, cheating has taken many forms.

Scrabble transitioned from living-room novelty—nearly 4 million sets were sold in 1954—to competitive passion in the 1960s, when it landed alongside chess, backgammon, and bridge in smoke-filled games parlors in New York City. Scrabble hustles evolved quickly. In those days, the tiles were placed face down in the box top during play. Regulars could spot the blanks, which were lighter than other tiles “because they spent half their time on one face or the other,” says my Scrabble friend Lester Schonbrun, who frequented the clubs. When the tiles were placed in bags during games, unscrupulous players could feel around for the blanks because they had no grooves, a tactic known as “brailling.”

Plastic tiles—in a rainbow of colors!—have made brailling obsolete. The North American Scrabble Players Association has a 53-page rulebook governing club and tournament play that anticipates almost every conceivable situation (“Players who are physically abusive will be immediately ejected and disqualified”) and possible method for cheating. There are many. There’s “banking points,” or announcing an incorrect score for a play and then “correcting” it later in the game. There’s choosing new tiles quickly before an opponent can inspect and potentially “hold” and then “challenge” a play. That’s known as “fast-bagging.”

In the National School Scrabble Championship a few years ago, a team of two players took advantage of their younger, inexperienced opponents by playing one made-up word after another to rack up as many points as possible and improve their chances of winning the event. (In Scrabble, placement is decided based first on win-loss record and then on difference between points scored and points allowed, which is known as spread.) Technically, that wasn’t cheating—the other team could’ve challenged the words off the board, if they’d been sophisticated enough to know they were being had. Still, this phony-palooza led to the imposition of point-caps in school events.

And then there’s what the boy did in Orlando, and others have done before him: palm the good tiles.

There are different techniques for pocketing tiles. One player with an expert-level rating kept the tile bag above his head as prescribed by rule. But he also kept a baseball cap pulled low, craned his neck and eyes up toward the bag, and scanned the tiles in his hand at the bag’s opening before placing them on his rack (or returning them to the bag). Describing the scene, one opponent called it “a protracted conversation between his eyes, his hand, and the contents of the bag.” The player was suspended in 2008 and became eligible to play in tournaments again in June.

What tiles are players trying to hoard? Not just the blanks. The aforementioned cheater was lifting desirable letters, too—A, E, I, N, R, S, and T being the most useful because they are the most commonly used in English and therefore combine with other letters to form thousands of highly probable words studied by Scrabble players. For instance, a player could grab more tiles than necessary while replenishing his rack, drop the extras in his lap or pocket, pluck out the desirable ones when needed to make a “bingo”—a word using all seven tiles that’s rewarded with a 50-point bonus—and clandestinely return the chaff to the bag.

At the conclusion of every game of tournament Scrabble, players arrange the 100 tiles into four five-by-five squares, to ensure none are missing. The next players at the board together place the tiles back into the bag. After Round 23 in Orlando, Arthur Moore, a 43-year-old Florida computer technician, saw his next opponent, the boy, sitting at their designated table. (They were competing in Division 3, the second-lowest classification out of four. I played in Division 2, on the opposite side of the ballroom.) Moore left the room to clear his head before their game. When he returned, the boy was missing, but Moore noticed that the two blanks were side by side in one of the five-by-five tile quadrants, on his opponent’s side of the table.

Moore had played the boy a day earlier. The boy had drawn both blanks, but Moore won anyway. Aware of scuttlebutt about the boy’s suspiciously strong performance at the previous tournament, Moore saw the side-by-side blanks as a potential red flag. Each player filled the bag with tiles from his own side. As they finished, Moore grabbed the top of the collapsed bag with both hands to allow the tiles to settle. That also allowed him to watch his opponent’s hands. Moore told officials he saw the boy grab the blanks with his left hand and close his pinky, ring, and middle fingers around them. The boy dropped some other tiles into the bag with both hands and then moved his hands below the table. Moore loaded the remaining tiles on his side into the bag, placed it next to him, and called for a tournament director.

Moore told the director he saw the boy palm both blanks. The director dumped the tiles onto the board to search for them. At that point, a player at an adjacent table said: “He just dropped two tiles on the floor.” Moore saw that one was a blank; the other landed facedown. The boy picked them up and put them on the table. He was taken from the tournament room, questioned by tournament officials, and, with his mother present, ejected from the event. All of the players who had lost to the boy were subsequently awarded wins.

Moore finished second in Division 3. At the awards ceremony, when he was called up to receive his $800 prize, Moore got a standing ovation. He told me he’s glad he did what he did, but distraught about what the boy and his family must be going through. “While necessary, there is certainly no joy in having to punish a [kid] for such an offense,” Moore said.

Cheating in Scrabble is rare; according to NASPA, there have been just five suspensions for cheating since 2008. Why? Beyond personal validation, there’s little at stake. First prize in Division 1 in Orlando was $10,000, and apart from the winner, 45-year-old New Zealander Nigel Richards—who won for the third time in a row and record fourth overall, and who has won at least $200,000 playing Scrabble in the last dozen years—no one is making much money playing the game. Scrabble games aren’t individually refereed. Self-policing rules. Most players love the game—whether at the intellectually rich level of the top of Division 1 or the less rigorous plane of Division 3—too much to take a risk. As three-time national champion Joe Edley put it in a 1995 Sports Illustrated article by S.L. Price (which helped inspire me to play and write about Scrabble), “nobody wants to cheat; otherwise they lose a significant part of their life.”

That’s why the media storm over the cadged blanks feels so cheap, and so unrepresentative to those of us who love Scrabble so much. “Is the cheating incident really seen, even by us, as more noteworthy than one of the most amazing tournament finishes ever?” a top expert, Jim Kramer, posted Friday on the Yahoo listserv Crossword Games-Pro, where the posts have been about the cheating incident and media fallout, and little else.

Kramer’s right, so let me shift the focus. Richards was facing another Scrabble legend, former national champion David Gibson, a 61-year-old math instructor from South Carolina, who won, in 1995 and 2003, the only two Scrabble tournaments that awarded a $50,000 prize to the winner. Heading into Round 31, Gibson was first with a 22-8 mark and a point spread of 1,740. Richards was second at 21-9 with a spread of 1,402. To win the tournament, Richards had to outscore Gibson by 170 points in the finale. If he won by 169, the two would share the crown.

Either outcome seemed unlikely. While Richards is considered an offensive master, Gibson is known for defending cautiously. But Gibson blundered on his second move, and Richards pounced with a bingo, TRAPLIKE, for 80 points. (You can replay the game here.) Four moves later, Richards bingoed again—ADJUTANT for 98, using a blank for the N. On the very next turn, Gibson missed a bingo of his own: NORTHING (which means movement toward the north). Three turns later, Richards bingoed a third time with MELANITE (a black variety of garnet) for 61. Gibson, whose annotated Scrabble dictionary is a book of wonder, uncharacteristically missed another bingo, ARCIFORM (having the form of an arc).

Despite all that, Gibson still had a chance to hang on to the title. But he couldn’t do it, the game ending with the second blank unused on his rack and the score 475-298, a difference of 177 points. Two of the greatest players of all time, joined in one of the most remarkable finishes Scrabble has ever seen, and all anyone wants to talk about is a kid who made a terrible mistake.

No comments: