Cheating in Scrabble
These descriptions of ways of cheating
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.
[ up to the Scrabble FAQ ]
- 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
North America and
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
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.
- 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
- 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.
- Speaking during a game to mislead the opponent is
designated by the rules as
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.
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.)
- 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.
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 (email@example.com)