Cheating in Scrabble

These descriptions of ways of cheating are presented in order to increase awareness of them, not to provide a roadmap. If you think the presentation should be altered to tip this seesaw, please write.

I don't believe cheating is at all prevalent in Scrabble competition -- it's merely not unheard of.


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Contents

Methods of Cheating

Clear cheating

Brailling
If tiles are distinguishable by feel, then one may, of course, try to draw favorable ones from a bag. For this reason, at tournaments, smooth "Protiles" in North America and "Tournament Tiles" in the UK are preferred or required.

Tile marking
More worrisome in the days when competitive Scrabble was run with tiles drawn from the pool kept face-down in the game box, and some players supposedly marked the backs of tiles -- as one might mark cards -- in order to improve their draw, this method still is theoretically possible, perhaps by marking the tops of tiles to aid in their identification by opponent.

Because of these possibilities, there's occasional, usually mocking, suggestion at tournaments that an opponent might object to use of the player's own set of tiles. The North American championship generally has tiles issued and collected at the beginning and end of each session.

Tile palming or disposal
Fairly ingenious (I thought, when I first was told about it), this method relies on undetected overdrawing. Draw an extra vowel, especially an 'E', and secrete it. When you draw 6 tiles needing only that one auspicious tile you've banked, just take it from its secret location. This is what one player, who was ejected from a tournament in 1995, is suspected to have been implementing.

Also, beware the player who is involved in too many games where a tile is found under the table afterward.

Tiles also can be disposed back into the bag. That's the reason for the recent rule (III.A) requiring one to show an empty palm before drawing tiles.

8 tiles may be kept on one's rack, perhaps while one hand hovers over it appearing to shuffle.

Looking at tiles
While ostensibly holding the bag at eye level, preventing seeing its inside, the player pushes the bag to horizontal, thus getting a peek. This is the reputed method of one suspected tournament cheater.

Before drawing from a raised bag was required by the rules -- now augmented to requiring looking away from the bag -- one player in a club I frequented always drew from the bag held in her lap, in a twitchy manner. This either was justified by her mild disability, or just a cover. In any case, she no longer plays in tournaments.

Using word lists
A player may not refer to anything during a game other than a preprinted tracking sheet. Although keeping the previous game's scoresheet with any words written technically violates this, I and at least some others feel it's overlookable. I've only heard one report of an apparent violation of this. The overdone instance involved a player riffling thru dozens of previous game sheets.

With the advent of the Franklin Electronic OSPD, the rule was added that a player may not leave the room during a game unless it is before drawing replenishing tiles.

Computer aids
The day is surely approaching when an electronic assistant is small enough for a player to conceal while playing competitively. I don't know of this having happened, but as with cryptography, some may have access to more advanced technology than the rest of us know about.
Fiddling with the clock
Any time no one is looking at the clock, theoretically one can shift the clock hands. I haven't heard of this being done.

There are also reports of maladjusting the speed of analog clocks. Watch out for someone who insists on having one on a particular side of the board.

Ambiguous situations

Miscalling the score
The score can always be corrected before the tournament scorecard is signed, so one might think miscalling one's score is inherently harmless. But players often make choices based on the score. Intentionally miscalling the score is thus unquestionably improper. The ambiguity arises because it's hard to discern intent.

Observing opponent's writings
Players are allowed to take notes to record or stimulate their thinking, and to track tiles. It's not clear that observing what opponent has written is improper, but it certainly is ill-reputed.

Observing opponent's dropped or otherwise visible tiles
If you knocked them over by carelessly turning the board, it seems clear you mustn't look -- who can tell you didn't knock them intentionally?

What opponent drops, I think you may look at, of course at your own risk. It's an unwritten rule that a player shouldn't expose his or her tiles until making a play, and I think it's not improper to take advantage of your opponent's violations. Perhaps, however, a canny opponent can reveal a truth in order to convince you of a falsehood.

For reasons I can't yet articulate, I draw the line at turning my head to see what opponent has dropped. Perhaps just because it seems tacky; perhaps because it's too much like looking under the table when opponent drops a tile to the floor.

Coffeehousing
Speaking during a game to mislead the opponent is designated by the rules as "Inappropriate behavior". Examples include mispronouncing what one has played. ("RE-STING" is the classic example.) I call this ambiguous, because it's sometimes hard to discern intent, and there's often no sharp boundary: grumbling aloud to complain of bad tiles to try convincing opponent not to block is clearly improper, but is one obligated to look happy, or neutral, when one has good tiles?

Appearing to hit the clock
This one raises whether something which is clearly not provided against in the rules can be cheating. (I think so.) In this ruse, a player who doesn't want to play a word if it will be challenged places the word, then swipes at the clock, merely appearing to hit it. Opponent is lured into verbalizing a challenge, which might be ruled as null, as the turn is not over.

Abuse of the rules
Even playing in compliance with the written rules can be abusive. For example, calling hold on every play (or even an unreasonable number) to gain time or reduce opponent's time to think or increase one's own, or simply to unnerve, is improper.
Playing phonies
A few who play under British and Australian rules (where challenges carry no risk to the challenger) see phony words as violating the rules, and so consider intentionally playing them as improper. (Even in countries where "double-challenge" applies, the set of words form part of the rules for each game, but not rules which are "violated" in a cheating sense when one gets on the worse side of them.)
Challenging unnecessarily
Under British and Australian rules, where challenges carry no risk to the challenger, it is either improper or considered very poor form to challenge a word whose acceptability one doesn't genuinely doubt.

Opponent probably lacks an obligation to help

Player fails to hit clock
It's courteous to inform an opponent who hasn't hit the clock after making a play, but not required. Many players think failure to do so is against the spirit of the game, but a sizeable number think it's perfectly okay to let opponent suffer from his or her own error.

What to do about cheating

Becoming aware of the possibility is a good start, but can be distracting. (I found it so at one tournament where I made a compact with others, who were reporting a now-deceased player's being suspected of palming tiles, that one not paired with her would keep her under surveillance.)

But once you suspect a specific player of some approximately particular (!?!) way of cheating (e.g., doing unreasonably well or uncannily blocking your spots doesn't constitute good cause, unless perhaps they seem to be craning their necks to look in the ceiling mirrors), do report this to the director, even if just to heighten scrutiny, not make a specific allegation seeking redress. People get away with things for years because no one pays close enough attention.


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Steven Alexander (stevena@teleport.com)