August 18, 2012

SO WHY DO THEY PLAY THE PHYSICAL VERSION INSTEAD OF AN ELECTRONIC ONE?:

The Case of the Stolen Blanks : The real story behind the cheating scandal at the National Scrabble Championship. (Stefan Fatsis, Aug. 17, 2012, Slate)

Scrabble transitioned from living-room novelty--nearly 4 million sets were sold in 1954--to competitive passion in the 1960s, when it landed alongside chess, backgammon, and bridge in smoke-filled games parlors in New York City. Scrabble hustles evolved quickly. In those days, the tiles were placed face down in the box top during play. Regulars could spot the blanks, which were lighter than other tiles "because they spent half their time on one face or the other," says my Scrabble friend Lester Schonbrun, who frequented the clubs. When the tiles were placed in bags during games, unscrupulous players could feel around for the blanks because they had no grooves, a tactic known as "brailling."

Plastic tiles--in a rainbow of colors!--have made brailling obsolete. The North American Scrabble Players Association has a 53-page rulebook governing club and tournament play that anticipates almost every conceivable situation ("Players who are physically abusive will be immediately ejected and disqualified") and possible method for cheating. There are many. There's "banking points," or announcing an incorrect score for a play and then "correcting" it later in the game. There's choosing new tiles quickly before an opponent can inspect and potentially "hold" and then "challenge" a play. That's known as "fast-bagging." 

In the National School Scrabble Championship a few years ago, a team of two players took advantage of their younger, inexperienced opponents by playing one made-up word after another to rack up as many points as possible and improve their chances of winning the event. (In Scrabble, placement is decided based first on win-loss record and then on difference between points scored and points allowed, which is known as spread.) Technically, that wasn't cheating--the other team could've challenged the words off the board, if they'd been sophisticated enough to know they were being had. Still, this phony-palooza led to the imposition of point-caps in school events.

And then there's what the boy did in Orlando, and others have done before him: palm the good tiles.

There are different techniques for pocketing tiles. One player with an expert-level rating kept the tile bag above his head as proscribed by rule. But he also kept a baseball cap pulled low, craned his neck and eyes up toward the bag, and scanned the tiles in his hand at the bag's opening before placing them on his rack (or returning them to the bag). Describing the scene, one opponent called it "a protracted conversation between his eyes, his hand, and the contents of the bag." The player was suspended in 2008 and became eligible to play in tournaments again in June.

What tiles are players trying to hoard? Not just the blanks. The aforementioned cheater was lifting desirable letters, too--A, E, I, N, R, S, and T being the most useful because they are the most commonly used in English and therefore combine with other letters to form thousands of highly probable words studied by Scrabble players. 
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Posted by at August 18, 2012 7:04 AM
  

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