Is nothing sacred? Cheating scandal at Scrabble tournament

I enjoy playing the board game Scrabble, starting with my family when I was a child and playing with my own daughters when they were young. And now that they are grown and have moved away, I am still able to play with them thanks to the app Words With Friends.

It seems like a game that should be impossible to cheat at and so I was shocked to read of a national tournament where a leading player in Division 3 was thrown out for cheating.

How did he cheat? Apparently at the end of one game, he did not put the two blank tiles (which can be used to represent any letter of the player’s choosing and hence are highly prized) in the bag along with the other tiles, but dropped them to the ground to recover and use for the next game. He was observed by a player at another table and confessed when confronted by the tournament director.

I am not sure exactly why I was so surprised by this news since cheating at competitive events is not uncommon. I think it is because although I have never played competitive Scrabble, I had this vague sense that Scrabble players had a strong honor code culture, like golfers.

What next? Doping? The tournament director says that players have been known to take minerals that are thought of as ‘brain boosters’ but no reports of steroid use as yet. John D. Williams, Jr., executive director of the National Scrabble Association joked that “It gets pretty deep. We’re one step away from drug testing.”

(Via Gawker)


  1. says

    I love Scrabble, but am wary of electronic versions of it, because the rules just don’t translate well to asynchronous Internet play. The option to bluff by playing any combination of letters, as well as the ability to challenge any word at the risk of losing one’s turn, are both pretty big components of the game. Every electronic version that I know of, including both Words with Friends and the official iPhone Scrabble App, simply won’t allow you to play a word that’s not it its dictionary. This allows you to try all sorts of combinations of letters until finding one that’s a real word, which really changes the dynamic of the game.

    Even if a version of the game was developed that more closely emulated the “real” rules by allowing bluffs and challenges, it would be trivially easy to cheat, and so it would be basically pointless to play against anyone you didn’t know personally and trust to be honest.

  2. Mano Singham says

    I agree. Initially I was horrified by the fact that one could play around with guesses in the way you describe because my daughters would play words that neither they nor I had heard of nor knew the meanings of.

    I decided to look on the electronic version as a different game, not Scrabble but similar to it, that works according to different rules. This has saved me a lot of heartburn!

  3. left0ver1under says

    Computer versions often don’t allow players to decide on the dictionaries used, which a group of players around a board can. Some games use foreign words, non-standard spellings, names, and other obscure words or even non-words and acronyms.

    Many computer versions are created by Americans. Some of those I’ve seen reject common English and Canadian spellings of words (e.g. colour, spelt) or they reject archaic English spellings of words (e.g. thine, gaol). The point of the game is to encourage creative thinking, not limit it, but some versions fail at this.

  4. jimmy60 says

    Scrabble is a great game. I found a good way to make it more fun for younger kids, let them have more tiles. You get seven, they get eight to ten. It gives them a much better chance. If they play seven tiles they get the 50 point bonus and plenty of praise for being smart.

  5. M Groesbeck says

    Doping for something like Scrabble might not even have to be a joke. Considering how many students in my physics department responded to the level of competition (curved grading in upper-division courses where everyone’s desperate to be in the 15% of the class to get an A) by investing in a supply of Adderall…

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    Perhaps in time we will evolve an innate code of Scrabble honor, or even engrave the rules in our DNA – but this will require that all the rest of us not reproduce with cheaters!

  7. says

    How was the cheat supposed to work? At the end of the game, SOMEONE would have noticed there were double the usual number of blank chips, right?

  8. Mano Singham says

    I spoke to a colleague whose son takes part in these tournaments and it appears that at the end of a game, one person remains at the table while the other person moves on to another table to be replaced by a new opponent, so that the new game proceeds with the same bag of tiles. So all he would have to do was take one less tile out of the bag and add one blank tile to his rack when he needed to.

  9. says

    Exactly. Words with Friends is a slightly different game than Scrabble, and not just in terms of the differences in letter distributions, scoring, etc.. Vocabulary and word memorization are de-emphasized somewhat (though still important; it would be impractical to engage in skillful play without a good knowledge of 2- and 3-letter words), and of course the bluffing aspect is missing entirely — but instead you have a stronger focus on strategic play, particularly in regards to tile placement.

    They’re just different games, and both very fun. I actually appreciate the de-emphasization of word memorization, because while I am excellent at memorizing things compared to most, I don’t find it particularly fulfilling. I get much more pleasure expending mental energy to develop a winning tile placement strategy than I do from sitting around memorizing useful word lists.

  10. says

    I believe WWF takes “gaol”, but don’t hold me to that.

    But yeah, the arbitrariness of the words lists is problematic. That’s one reason I started the catalog of differences I linked to previously. But it’s hard to get anything comprehensive iwth the word list…

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