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August 22, 2012 5:38 AM   Subscribe

The Case of the Stolen Blanks — The real story behind the cheating scandal at the National Scrabble Championship.
posted by cenoxo (52 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Beyond personal validation, there’s little at stake. [...] Self-policing rules.

Competitive Scrabble or MetaFilter, you decide.
posted by OmieWise at 5:50 AM on August 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


That article (which is quite good) would be worth it for this link alone.
posted by OmieWise at 5:50 AM on August 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


The Atlantic has a similar story, Sports Illustrated ran an article in '95: Seemingly civilized and cerebral, championship Scrabble is actually a cutthroat world where guts, guile and gamesmanship are pushed to the limit. WIRED has an article on crushing your friends, with words.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:50 AM on August 22, 2012


You get this in chess tournaments, too. Usually the motive is just money; the larger ones have prizes up to about $10k in the amateur sections. Before smartphones, the main cheating method was collaboration with third parties. People have tried everything. In-ear transmitters, entering amateur divisions under false identities, stronger players who observe the game and pass on encoded suggestions. Now you have to worry about people analyzing a position with a program in the toilet, as well.
posted by thelonius at 6:11 AM on August 22, 2012


Seeing this makes me miss Forrest Tellis, an affable, large, black homeless man that was a fixture in this TriBeCa neighborhood for years. He preferred the term hobo. He had broken 1200 in tournament play in Boston. Having played Scrabble with him a few times, seeing those scores of 4 and 5 hundred seems awfully low for a champ. The last I heard he was hospitalized in Chicago with chronic circulation problems in his legs, due to a life of sleeping in a sitting position.

If anyone one here works in that hospital, you will almost certainly know of him. He was easy to talk to what with the fluency in dozens of languages. Say hello for me.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:23 AM on August 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


There are always some incredible characters around these scenes. Eccentric, brilliant people, some of whom don't cope with life outside the game board too well.
posted by thelonius at 6:26 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


If we re-arranging CHEATING we get TEACHING, and I think from this we either LEARN SOMETHING or have l
posted by twoleftfeet at 6:26 AM on August 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


Well, that was a LONE NIGHTMARE
posted by twoleftfeet at 6:27 AM on August 22, 2012


Everyone knows there's no money in Blank Robbing.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:28 AM on August 22, 2012 [11 favorites]


There was an overall defensive tone to the article, but I suppose that's only to be expected. What really jumped out at me, though, was this:

“While necessary, there is certainly no joy in having to punish a [kid] for such an offense,” Moore said.

What on earth did he actually say? What could possibly have been redacted here, and why?
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:28 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


"People shouldn't care about this cheating so I'll write an article about it."
posted by smackfu at 6:29 AM on August 22, 2012


People who are serious about cheating at Scrabble get most of their tiles on the blank market.
posted by twoleftfeet at 6:32 AM on August 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Idiot99
posted by Fizz at 6:38 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


scrabble. star wars. spelling bees. karaoke. still don't get why people obsessively suck every bit of fun out of trivial diversions.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 6:57 AM on August 22, 2012


You get this in chess tournaments, too.

Heck, a known-chess-cheater was accused of cheating at a Sudoku tournament a few years ago.

One slightly amusing aspect to this cheating story is listening to all the journalists who have to confess that they're scrabble enthusiasts. It seems to me that this story got a lot of press that, say, the Sudoku cheating story didn't get, simply because there were a larger proportion of journalists competing. I also find it sort of interesting/problematic that Fatsis is positioning himself as a Scrabble enthusiast outside the 'mainstream media,' considering he is a frequent reporter/commentator for NPR.
posted by muddgirl at 7:09 AM on August 22, 2012


A while back I listened to Marc Maron's interview with Matt Graham, who is an...interesting...person. That let me to watch Word Wars, a documentary about competitive Scrabble and includes Graham's (and others) trip to the National Scrabble Championship.

Both are fascinating.
posted by beowulf573 at 7:40 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


The apologist author should become a pro cycling fan and then he can really experience cognitive dissonance when loving an endeavor that gets spoiled cheaters.
posted by dgran at 7:50 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Everyone knows there's no money in Blank Robbing.

"I love you, HEY BONY NUN."

"I love you, MINK PUP."

(BOTH STAND UP, DRAW PISTOLS)

"Everybody be cool, this is a BORER BY!"

"Any of you PICK CRUNK FIGS move, and I'll execute every last one of ya!"
posted by Strange Interlude at 7:52 AM on August 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


What's apologist about the Fatsis piece? I didn't read it as apologist, but rather as a bit of nerd-defensiveness. "Of course people try to cheat at Scrabble. Why wouldn't they? Why is this aspect of Scrabble, and no other, newsworthy?"
posted by muddgirl at 7:53 AM on August 22, 2012


The apologist author should become a pro cycling fan and then he can really experience cognitive dissonance when loving an endeavor that gets spoiled cheaters.

Did you read the piece? The history seems to suggest that cheating is not very prevalent in Scrabble. This would make the coverage outsized for the crime, and there is nothing apologist about saying so. It would also make any analogy with cycling laughable.
posted by OmieWise at 7:57 AM on August 22, 2012


It's good to see this article by Fatsis. Most other news reports missed crucial details on how he got the blanks, how he was caught, and the prior accusations of his cheating.

The world of tournament Scrabble players is an interesting subculture with a lot of fascinating characters, which can be seen in the film Word Wars, mentioned above, and the book Word Freak, written by Fatsis. An internet friend is a high level player and it's been fun seeing his interactions with the scene over the years.
posted by zsazsa at 7:57 AM on August 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Am I missing something obvious here? How is cheating using extra blanks supposed to help you and how on earth do you avoid being caught? There are only two blanks, everyone knows that so if you slide one out of your sleeve, won't you quickly be found out if later the other player gets both?

(also, I heard about this on twitter the moment it happened because the official referee at the event was the father of someone I follow on twitter)
posted by mathowie at 7:57 AM on August 22, 2012


What's apologist about the Fatsis piece?

On the second page the author laments the inevitable taunting by the media and proclaims "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." The author seems a little defensive about it all.
posted by dgran at 7:58 AM on August 22, 2012


mathowie: The cheater took the two blanks from the set of tiles that they were about to play with. It's up to the players to bag the tiles up from the previous match for theirs, and at lower levels, there's not much scrutiny.
posted by zsazsa at 8:00 AM on August 22, 2012


Everyone knows there's no money in Blank Robbing.

My daddy was a blank robber/
But he never hurt nobody/
He just loved triple word scores/
And he loved to spell real funny
posted by Rangeboy at 8:01 AM on August 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


What on earth did he actually say? What could possibly have been redacted here, and why?

I had the same thought. The only thing that makes sense is if he didn't say anything at all.

(also, I heard about this on twitter the moment it happened because the official referee at the event was the father of someone I follow on twitter)

The referee tweeted about it? That seems...odd.
posted by morganannie at 8:03 AM on August 22, 2012



There was an overall defensive tone to the article

"People shouldn't care about this cheating so I'll write an article about it."


Stefan is sort of the god of Scrabble journalism ever since his book Word Freak came out. I agree that there is some defensiveness going on here, but there are some good reasons for that. First, Stefan's main coverage now is for the School Scrabble "circuit", and the involvement of a kid is going to make this particular story even more important to him than it would be otherwise. But the cheating scandal DID distract from one of the absolute greatest finishes ever to one of these championships, and there were many in the Scrabble community (and I count myself among them) that wished the cheating had never happened because the finish between David and Nigel needed more coverage in its own right. But perhaps the biggest reason for this article is that there was so much incorrect information out there that really needed to be set straight. The kid was not one of the top players in the country--he was in the fourth of five divisions--and there were many details that were originally reported that turned out to be false.

The big question right now in the Scrabble world is how much punishment should happen in this case and how much will happen. As you can imagine, most of the top (and thus most vocifereous) players in the country tend to be on the OCD side of things (again, myself included), and they take nothing more seriously than the rules themselves. The kid will be suspended for years, I would think, but many don't think that's enough. They're truly out for blood. Some want him banned for life. (I don't think he'll ever come back anyway.) Some want him to have to pay back the money he won last year. (More on this below.) Some want his name plastered everywhere so that he can be crucified repeatedly online and off. It essentially boils down to what you should expect from a kid that age with regard to a moral compass, but it's also sort of a Pete Rose situation: you make an example out of someone so that the integrity of the game is placed on a pedestal with all of the concerns for the individual shoved over into the darkness. The problem is that in Scrabble it will turn out just as it did in baseball. People may stop breaking the rules in that particular way, but they're still going to find ways around the system.

All that having been said, I personally have no problem with even a lifetime ban for the kid, though I do wish people would quit attaching his name in the comments to these articles just out of spite. My own reasons are that I was one of the individuals who saw the kid cheat last year. But he wasn't in my division, I had my own game going on, and by the time I could tell someone about it, no evidence was there. I wasn't alone; an investigation did occur. But they couldn't absolutely prove anything. (Actually, the most damning evidence was a statistical analysis of his games. He scored over 500 points for several games in a row. Even the best players in the world were more likely to win the lottery twice in a row than do what he did.) So everyone knew he had cheated last year, and then he does it again this year. Pretty ballsy. (Yes, that's an acceptable word in Scrabble.) But he basically stole $2K from people last year and was trying to do it again this year. Throw the book at him, but keep his name out of it so that it's not the only thing he's ever known for for the next twenty years.


That article (which is quite good) would be worth it for this link alone.

If I myself ever were to do anything Scrabble-related that would be considered unethical, it would be to steal that book of David's. He started playing Scrabble before we had all of the computer study aids that we now have, and that book is just an incredible document of how he went about accumulating his word-knowledge. So cool....

Next year, it might be harder for people to cheat. We're in VEGAS! The eye-in-the-sky should keep us honest. But god help the Scrabble community with that many OCD people in the casinos at one time.
posted by zeugitai_guy at 8:03 AM on August 22, 2012 [18 favorites]


My own reasons are that I was one of the individuals who saw the kid cheat last year. But he wasn't in my division, I had my own game going on, and by the time I could tell someone about it, no evidence was there.

How did you concentrate on your game and watch him cheat at the same time? That seems like it would be hard. I'm intrigued by this scrabble world, for sure.
posted by morganannie at 8:09 AM on August 22, 2012


Q: Why do you rob blanks?
A: That's where the verbiage.
posted by chavenet at 8:15 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]



How did you concentrate on your game and watch him cheat at the same time? That seems like it would be hard. I'm intrigued by this scrabble world, for sure.

First, I was interested in the kid because he was blowing away the competition and putting up such high scores. But the truth is that during that particular game, I was playing against a notoriously slow player who was burning a lot of his clock. Most of the time, when my opponent is playing, I too will be spending the time thinking about possibilities, but if my opponent takes forever, and my plays are pretty obvious, then I'm going to be looking around. This especially happens in longer tourneys where I feel the need to sort of pace myself and the drain on my brain power--which is quite limited. But the truth is that the kid wasn't very careful about how he brought tiles back up to the board, and I thought it would be obvious in later games as well. I'm still surprised they didn't catch him in the act last year.
posted by zeugitai_guy at 8:19 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


What on earth did he actually say? What could possibly have been redacted here, and why?

I had the same thought. The only thing that makes sense is if he didn't say anything at all.


It's possible they were combining two sentences or shortening a quote to make a word count limit, rather than redacting something offensive.
posted by capricorn at 8:37 AM on August 22, 2012


The author seems a little defensive about it all.

Defensive != apologist.

Fatsis is defensive because competititve Scrabble doesn't get the same respect as, say, backgammon. The media coverage of the cheating feels cheap because the tournament would be completely unreported, otherwise. Compare to cycling, where the Tour de France is covered above and beyond a list of cyclists who have been caught cheating.
posted by muddgirl at 8:47 AM on August 22, 2012


“While necessary, there is certainly no joy in having to punish a [kid] for such an offense,” Moore said.

What on earth did he actually say? What could possibly have been redacted here, and why?


My guess is that he gave an age: "punish a XX-year-old . . ." I don't think Stefan published that info and there were conflicting reports about the age of the kid in the first place.
posted by zeugitai_guy at 8:49 AM on August 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


My guess is that he gave an age: "punish a XX-year-old . . ." I don't think Stefan published that info and there were conflicting reports about the age of the kid in the first place.

Ah, that would make sense. Thanks, zeugitai_guy. (I don't think "zeugitai" is a valid Scrabble word.)
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:55 AM on August 22, 2012


Could someone explain the concept of a point spread please?
posted by divabat at 9:08 AM on August 22, 2012


Could someone explain the concept of a point spread please?

In this instance, it's the total number of points you scored over your opponents' scores in the previous games you played. They use it as tiebreaker. If you won 10 games by a total of 100 points, you would beat another player who also won 10 games, but only by 99 points.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:16 AM on August 22, 2012


At the risk of posting way too much in this thread...

Could someone explain the concept of a point spread please?

For the most part, Scrabble tournaments have their winners decided based primarily on win-loss record. Different pairing systems are used--round-robin, Swiss pairing, etc.--but most tournaments determine their winners through overall wins during the tourney rather than by winners proceeding through brackets or the like.

But often people end up with the same number of wins (a tie counts as half a win). So then cumulative points spreads come into play. In each game, you win or lose by X points; this is the point spread by which you won or lost (in which case it would be -X). Your point spreads for all of the games are then added up into a cumulative point spread. That cumulative point spread is the tie-breaker. So this year, going into the final game, one player (Nigel) not only had to win the game, but he also had to win by at least 170 points. Otherwise, they would have ended up with the same win total, but the other player (David) would have had the better point spread and would have still won the title.
posted by zeugitai_guy at 9:17 AM on August 22, 2012


Fatsis is defensive because competititve Scrabble doesn't get the same respect as, say, backgammon.

Really? I'm at least aware of the fact that there is genuine competitive Scrabble out there. Heck, I watched Word Wars--a whole documentary devoted to the game. I couldn't even tell you if there's such a thing as a national backgammon competition.

This just seems to me the classic case of the man-bites-dog rule. Someone caught cheating at Scrabble is news precisely because it's unusual. The fact that a Scrabble tournament was held--well, that's news only to Scrabble fans.
posted by yoink at 9:26 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I couldn't even tell you if there's such a thing as a national backgammon competition.

Competitive backgammon is culturally similar to poker, and indeed many professional poker players also play professional backgammon. No, it doesn't get as much press as poker, but you also don't see a lot of 'kid cheats at backgammon tourney' articles, either.
posted by muddgirl at 9:32 AM on August 22, 2012


Backgammon has a world championship and all that stuff.

I remember this huge fat guy used to come to the World Open (chess) in Philly to hustle backgammon. That's clever! Chess players tend to have big egos and to think they are really smart, and a lot of them probably lose a lot of money before they figure out that the guy who sleeps in his car and plays backgammon all day is BETTER than them.
posted by thelonius at 9:35 AM on August 22, 2012


This thread needs a link to that video of the guy throwing over a table at a Magic Gathering tournament, but it doesn't come up on page one of my you tube search.
posted by bukvich at 9:50 AM on August 22, 2012


What a d mba s.
posted by cjorgensen at 10:32 AM on August 22, 2012


you also don't see a lot of 'kid cheats at backgammon tourney' articles, either.

Hard game to cheat at, I'd have thought. But then, if someone were caught cheating at the backgammon national champs, it's be a natural candidate for the "ho ho ho wacky human interest story" of the day. We like stories about cheaters. We're amused by the idea of people cheating to win something that we don't consider very important. If someone were caught cheating at, oh, I don't know, the national cornhole tournament (yeah, there is one), I'm pretty sure that that story would be an easy sell to your local paper. It's not that there's some kind of "Scrabble players are all filthy cheaters" stereotype out there. Quite the opposite.
posted by yoink at 10:42 AM on August 22, 2012


Hard game to cheat at, I'd have thought.

Not really, from what I've heard. Manipulating dice rolls has got to be one of the oldest tricks in the book.

But then, if someone were caught cheating at the backgammon national champs, it's be a natural candidate for the "ho ho ho wacky human interest story" of the day.

Cheating in the title match? Sure, that might be newsworthy. A kid playing in Div. 3 or Div. 4 caught cheating? It happens all the time and no, it doesn't get national press. Maybe because backgammon is more popular in Europe than the US? Because journalists don't tend to play backgammon? Or is it because we find something inherently humorous in the idea of someone cheating at a 'family game?' Or maybe all of those.
posted by muddgirl at 10:54 AM on August 22, 2012


(OK, cheating doesn't happen in backgammon 'all the time,' but it probably happens about as often in backgammon tournaments as in Scrabble tournaments, with the added fact that you don't see a lot of Scrabble hustlers trying to work over gullible gamblers.)
posted by muddgirl at 11:27 AM on August 22, 2012


I don't play backgammon, but I have some friends who do (professionally.) When they get together they start talking about all these intricate implications of games they played ten years ago, and they know what each other is talking about. They are usually bridge and chess champions on the side, but apparently this backgammon thing is deep. And like ballet, you don't have much of a chance if you didn't start young.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:24 PM on August 22, 2012


I wondered when this would show up on the blue. My wife and I are both tournament Scrabble players but we didn't get to go to the nationals because we don't have that much vacation time. We do know the kid involved, though - I have played him multiple times in other tournaments. It's a real shame because the cheating allegations against him last year were abandoned partly because several people who know him vouched for him. His trajectory since 2011 was pretty weird. He went up about 400 rating points after the 2011 nationals (about like doing the same with a chess rating ... very unusual to jump that quick, plus Scrabble has luck involved), then slowly lost back about 300 of those over the next year. For a kid who is getting better and supposedly studying words all the time, that is odd. His word knowledge also was way less than what you'd expect from a player of his rating.

In better news, another kid from our area won the bottom division (division 4) at the Nationals this year and we are really proud of him. Even the bottom division's players are a notch above really good "living room players", as non-club players are called, and he was competing against many adults, so it's nothing to sneeze at.

Word Freak (book) and Word Wars (movie) are both really fascinating looks into Scrabble. A couple of years ago I read/watched them and thought "wow, these people are weird". Now I'm one of the weirdos.
posted by freecellwizard at 12:40 PM on August 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I should add that the lack of attention Scrabble gets is a shame because having played poker for while, I'd say Scrabble is much more visually interesting and suited to ESPN "the Ocho"-type coverage than Texas Hold 'Em in my opinion. Millions of people play Scrabble and being able to see the tiles and guess what the players will do is something pretty much everyone could manage. Chess is too hard for a large set of viewers to intelligently follow along, and poker is too binary ("will he fold or bet?"). But Hasbro, who sadly owns the game now, is pretty inept at promoting it. The number of gimmicky Scrabble sets out there (cooking Scrabble??) keeps rising, and yet you still cannot buy a set from them that would be tournament-worthy. Most players end up buying expensive custom boards and tiles instead.

Hmm ... I really did just dream of an alternate world where Scrabble is a huge spectator sport. I must be losing it ...
posted by freecellwizard at 12:47 PM on August 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Word Freak (book) and Word Wars (movie) are both really fascinating looks into Scrabble.

I have to look at those for mention of the 1200 point homeless scorer I mentioned upthread, Forrest Tellis. I remember him talking about them both with familiarity.

Since I don't have my own blog, and to flesh out thelonius's comment:

There are always some incredible characters around these scenes. Eccentric, brilliant people, some of whom don't cope with life outside the game board too well.

Here's a Forrest anecdote: (remember he is fluent in dozens of languages. He himself had lost count. Basically everything not in the Arabic family, which he said gave him a headache. Forrest was about 70 years old.)

I'm talking to him on the corner of Broadway and Chambers. He is sitting in a folding chair, surrounded by his usual massive pile of collectibles. A middle-aged Chinese man walks by escorting his elderly father. The father says something to the son in Chinese, and Forrest stops mid sentence to say, "watch my stuff I'll be right back."

He hobbles over to come up on them from behind, and starts talking in firm but not angry Chinese. The father's face goes ashen, and he starts bowing down low while walking away backwards, making apologetic sounds.

Forrest comes back and takes his seat. "Hey Forrest, I didn't know you spoke Chinese, was that Mandarin or Cantonese?"

"Neither." He says. "That was Huizhou. That's where the old gentleman is visiting from, and that's the dialect he was speaking. He asked his son if they let fat old homeless Negros sit out on the street in America. I told him I was here for a reason. Because after they take the fat old homeless Negros, they will take the old Chinese men who can't speak English, so I'm doing this for him." Touche.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:08 PM on August 22, 2012 [12 favorites]


scrabble. star wars. spelling bees. karaoke. still don't get why people obsessively suck every bit of fun out of trivial diversions.

Ego, ego, ego. People want to receive the adulations and social power of being good at X, without putting forth the effort to become good at X. Cheating is a win-win!
posted by LordSludge at 1:12 PM on August 22, 2012


Great story, Sticky Carpet. There's no justice like polyglot justice! I heard a similar story once, about some Russian players and an African-American chess master; the Russians were not aware that he was completely fluent. The theme really is immensely satisfying.
posted by thelonius at 3:08 PM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Alright, thelonius, Forrest anecdote #2. He is sitting on the street near a phone booth. He hears a guy speaking in Russian on the phone about how he is planning to firebomb a restaurant that hadn't paid protection money. He got the exact time that they would be coming to torch the place. He walked over to the first precinct and informed the desk Sargent of the plan, and the Russians were caught in the act.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:03 PM on August 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


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