Inside Scrabble's Cheating Scandal: 'And Then His Hands Went Below the Table'

Yesterday, those outside the inner echelons of the competitive Scrabble-playing world were shocked to hear of a scandal beyond anything we could have imagined, cheating at Scrabble Nationals. Some of those within the scene were less surprised.

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Yesterday, those outside the inner echelons of the competitive Scrabble-playing world were shocked to hear of a scandal beyond anything we could have imagined: Cheating at Scrabble Nationals, resulting in the eviction of a player from the tournament, and all manner of unfortunate, if amusing, media attention. But for those inside the community of competitors, this was less funny and more galling, particularly as the player is just 13 years old and has been suspected by a number of his competitors of cheating since 2011.

John D. Williams, executive director of the National Scrabble Association, calls him "one of the top young Scrabble players in the country," and while Williams declined to name him or reveal his exact age due to his youth, both the player's name and age is well known in the tight-knit community of organized competitions. For those of us who don't compete and may not even play Scrabble, such dastardly behavior hiding beneath a certain apparent word-nerdiness was simply funny, an insight into a subculture revealing unexpected truths. But even before the ruling on Tuesday, the swirling speculation about this player's tactics means that cheating has been a hotly debated topic long before some 350 people gathered this week in a large ballroom in Orlando for Nationals.

This game is not just a hobby. The competition ranges from 1 to 4, expert to novice. "Most of the people there study word lists and play Scrabble every single day," said Max Karten, winner of division 4 of the national championship in 2009. The top prize in that division is $2,000. In division 1 it's $10,000. There are 28 rounds of the games prior to the finals on the last day; it was during round 24 that the cheater was caught. We sought out the player through his coach a supporter and Scrabble coach, Katya Lezin, but did not hear back.

Art Moore, who was playing the underaged player and reported him for hiding tiles, revealed in an online forum for Scrabble enthusiasts that his game began much like any other competition until he noticed something odd: "the two blanks were sitting next to each other in one of the quads on my opponent's side of the board. Knowing who I was playing this immediately drew a red flag. I'd played him the day before and won handily even though he had drawn both blanks." Moore continued:

He arrived and we started loading the tiles into the bag. He started from the side opposite the blanks and worked his way across. As he got nearer to the blanks and the collapsed bag was filling, I grabbed the top of the bag with both hands to let the bag stand up and make space for the other tiles. This doubled as a ploy for me to watch his hands. He grabbed the blanks with his left hand and slipped them into his clenched pinky, ring and middle fingers. Along with the tiles in his right hand, and the tile or two in his left hand (thumb and index) he dropped what appeared to be the remaining tiles into the bag.

And then his hands went below the table.

This was not the first time this player had met with suspicion. "I actually played him [in 2011]," said another Scrabble player who requested anonymity when he spoke to The Atlantic Wire. "He didn't seem like a very strong player last year; but he was putting up these numbers that were unprecedented, based on what I saw, I was like, How is this kid doing this? I was playing right next to him in one of the final rounds, and I saw him draw tiles out of the bag, put his hand in his lap, then put his hand in his pocket." The player called the directors over, but, he says, "I just didn't think of counting the tiles, so they didn't get him. To me it was pretty clear—that, and that he was breaking like every record known to man."

Unlike what happened in 2011, in 2012, the proof was there. Keeping his eyes on his opponent, Moore called for a director and told him what he'd seen. "The tile bag was dumped onto the table to search for the blanks. While the search was going on, a player from another table who was watching this unfold suddenly blurted out 'He just dropped two tiles on the floor.'"

With that as evidence, a confession was eventually extracted, and the player ejected from the tournament.

"There is a self-policing aspect in Scrabble," Williams at the Scrabble Association said. "[In 2011, this player] had what some described what as a suspicious run of luck, a statistically improbable winning streak, and it was questioned by a lot of competitors. There were some people just keeping an eye on him." However, it's very difficult to prove cheating in Scrabble, and a lot of circumstantial evidence, while incriminating, doesn't do the job, he said—"Unless you have an eye-witness or a confession, it's hard to prove."

Afterward the player who reported him in 2011 canvassed the opponents of his competitor and found he had somehow managed to draw "close to 90 percent of the blanks," which is very nearly impossible. Still, that wasn't a confession or an eye-witness account that resulted in the perpetrator being caught in the act, nor was any discussion of how it was statistically impossible for the kid to be so good. "The committee, they just didn't have proof," said the player, "So he was never technically caught." Williams stands by that decision: "What he achieved last year was possible," he said. "It would have been difficult, but you can't prove it."

That hasn't stopped players like Karten from trying to fight what he considers a degradation of the sport: "Every year the number of attendees gets smaller and there are fewer divisions, with many people blaming the people who run NASPA as the reason for its continual downfall," he wrote to me in an email. "[Those officials] are also trying to take credit for catching him cheating, saying they took it very seriously last time and have been watching him, when in fact, he has been allowed to keep playing for a year, and the only reason he got caught this time was because his opponent was willing to make a director's call, and then when they made him stand up this time ... he admitted he cheats." Update: John Chew, Copresident of the North American Scrabble Players Association, responded to the allegation that attendees are fewer and divisions less by email, writing, "The number of players this year was 339, competing in 5 divisions, compared to 329 last year, competing in 4 divisions. Larger and more, not smaller and fewer. Our organization, the official governing body for competitive Scrabble play in the United States and Canada is thriving and growing, and is not in a state of 'continual downfall.'" He added, of the player, "He cheated at Scrabble to win some money. He's 13. He has not been accused or convicted of a crime. With support and luck, he will learn from this, and by the time he grows up, he will better understand the basics of ethics, and become a good and productive member of society.... He now faces a serious disciplinary process, will likely have to make substantial restitution, and be suspended for a lengthy period of time."

Scrabble competitors in various online forums have continued to discuss the matter with varying degrees of anger and resentment. As Karten explains it, "Nationals is the one tournament all year where you can really win a substantial amount of money, and [in 2011 this player] took that away from them." As he wrote via online forum to Lezin in August of 2011:

OPINION: Averaging a higher score per game than anyone, ever, when you are 12 years old, have played in 6 tournaments over the last 15 months, and amassed a rating around 1100 with 0 wins, is highly suspicious. 

FACT: The first time in 19 rounds he failed to break 400 points was the same round that the director stood behind him and watched the game, due to a complaint that tiles were in his lap and pocket.

Karten told me, "Every single day these people study words and play Scrabble. It's really upsetting. The [officials] knew and they let him do it last year, and they let him do it another 23 games this year."

Unless the player admits to cheating last year as well, however, the 2011 Nationals records will remain the same. "Might he come forward now in a cleansing attempt? That's possible," Williams told me. If he did confess, the money he'd won would have to be returned and the rankings of winners would be revised. In the aftermath of yesterday's confession, his 2012 opponents have received credit for wins and also have been awarded an additional 50 points. "It's like he was never there," Williams said. After the tournament, officials will put into motion a procedure involving taking statements, hearing from witnesses, determining the full circumstances, and deciding whether the player will be allowed to compete in the future. For now, Williams said, "I don't imagine he'll be playing again soon." Our anonymous source says that the ejection of the player does give some satisfaction: "I was so happy yesterday. It was good to see retribution. Hopefully people will keep a closer look out for this in the future."

This is not the only cheating instance in Scrabble. "No one expects this," Williams said. "They expect it in a professional sport, but who would cheat at Scrabble? But we've had cheating and disciplinary sanctions; people have had to return money or been suspended. Not very often, but it happens." Other forms of Scrabble cheating overdrawing tiles, banking points (adding points when you really didn't make them), and, in the old days, brailling, when a player would attempt to feel the tiles to grab the smooth ones; the blanks. "Now we have braille-proof tiles," said Williams.

Karten said cheating happens all the time, but "what really got me upset was not that he cheated ... I honestly am not sure he is old or mature enough to even know better. What got me so upset was that the adults whose responsibility it was to enforce the rules knew he cheated, ignored it, and then told those of us saying differently that we were jealous, sore losers and needed to shut our mouths. Then they conducted an investigation in which they didn't interview him or his opponents, and concluded that he did not cheat, despite knowing exactly how he cheated, and having all the evidence back it up. This indicated they had their mind made up all along, and the honor of the game was not even close to the number 1 priority."

Our anonymous player added, "It's not just a title, the kid walked away with $2,000, and a lot of people worked hard on this." At the same time, he says, "I'm not going to let a kid take away my passion. There is a lot of other great stuff happening, it's a shame that the tournament has this black mark on it."

With that in mind: In today's finals the top players from each division were pitted against each other for 3 more rounds; the highest prize was $10,000 dollars, awarded to the top expert winner, followed by what Williams calls "a menu of different divisional and niche prizes." Aside from the cheating scandal, there've been some high moments. "Until yesterday, a woman was poised to win for only the second time in history. She just had a run of bad tiles and will probably finish somewhere in the top 10," he said. Today brought "one of the most exciting finishes in history; two of the best players are next and neck," he said, referring to Nigel Richards, a New Zealander who lives in Malaysia and works as a security analyst, versus David Gibson, a college math professor from Spartanburg, South Carolina. "They're two of the winningest players in the history of Scrabble," said Williams. Scandal only nets you 10 points as a single-letter score in the game, for what it's worth.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.