Bending the rules in sports and games may have just gotten its biggest global exposure at the Olympics, where we learned, among other things, that losing in badminton and soccer is an actual strategy (and one the International Olympic Committee officially frowns upon).
But now cheating has moved into a more puzzling arena: competitive Scrabble.
The game’s national championship tournament, held over the last five days in Orlando, Fla., was shaken by the disqualification of one young player for pocketing blank tiles in an attempt to cheat.
Suspicious opponents flagged him, and the young man fessed up, tournament officials said.
They would not release his name because he is under 18, but in the small world of the game’s culture, the news is already a bombshell.
“People were just appalled," said Stefan Fatsis, author of the book “Word Freak," about competitive Scrabble, who was competing at the tournament. “It’s easy to poke fun at Scrabble, but people who play it competitively take it very seriously. The community prides itself on integrity and honesty and sportsmanship."
But as with anything that involves winning and losing — particularly with money involved — it is not above cheating. The national tournament is the biggest in the country, with 350 competitors ranging in age from 11 to 81 playing in four divisions. The experts, in Division 1, vied for a $10,000 top prize, won this year by Nigel Richards, a 45-year-old from New Zealand who has won four times.
The boy in question, playing in Division 3, apparently pocketed two blank tiles before a game to use in that game. Blank tiles are the game’s wild cards and are used to complete words. When his opponent suspected he had done so, he called for a tile recount before the new game. The boy was confronted by the tournament director and admitted it.
“The reaction has been a combination of amused and appalled," said John D. Williams Jr., executive director of the National Scrabble Association, who said British media outlets had been particularly interested in the story. “But the Scrabble players are taking it very seriously. The only sympathy he’s getting is from people who know him well and believe he got caught up and made a bad decision like young teenagers do."
Williams, who has been the tournament director for 25 years and is an author of the book “Everything Scrabble," said it was the first case of confirmed cheating at the national championships. There have been instances at lesser tournaments, of which there are about 200 a year.
Matt Graham, who was a top-level competitor and is a New York-based comedian, said he remembered one national championship in which a $1,000 prize was being offered for the highest-scoring word including the letters “M" and “B," in honor of the game maker Milton Bradley.
“Two players from the same club in Texas formed the same winning word: ‘jumbles,’ " Graham said. “You couldn’t prove it, but the odds against it were astronomical."
Graham once finished second in the world championships, in 1997, and he said he made enough money to keep living in New York instead of moving back to Indiana. He tells that story in his biographical show that he is performing in the Fringe Festival in New York.
The prize money has shrunk over the years as the current game owner, Hasbro, has decreased its financing of the competitions. But players say the competition has not gotten any less intense. Players come from all walks of life, Williams said, and all levels of income and education.
“People ask me all the time to describe the typical Scrabble player," he said. “You can’t."
Players describe the national championships as exhausting. Competitors play 31 games over five days, having spent much of their free time preparing by studying words and game strategy. There are Scrabble clubs and weekend tournaments, online games and lists of high-scoring words to memorize.
“It is the hardest thing I will do all year, and that includes any physical activity I do," Fatsis said of the championships. He also said he was crushed by his performance this year. Competing in Division 2, he had a chance to finish in the top 10 before faltering on the final day, Wednesday. “I’m wounded," he said. “You put so much into it, work so hard."
That is part of what fueled the outrage against the boy who was disqualified. It is not so much that a lot of money was at stake, or that no one has ever cheated before. It is the mental challenge of matching wits with others for five days, only to find someone trying to tip the scale in his favor.
“The top guys, I know they wouldn’t cheat," Graham said. “I can play them online, and they won’t cheat; it’s a matter of honor."