The Case of the Stolen Blanks
The real story behind the cheating scandal at the National Scrabble Championship.
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, in the presence of the mother of another youth player, 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.
Correction, Aug. 18, 2012: This article originally stated that the boy who was caught cheating at the National Scrabble Championship was ejected from the tournament in the presence of his mother. It was the mother of another youth player. (Return to the corrected sentence.)