Scrabble Champion Banned From Professional Competition After Accusations Of Cheating

11 hours ago
Originally published on November 14, 2017 10:13 pm
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ELISE HU, HOST:

Kelly, give me a five-letter word to describe swapping out Scrabble tiles you don't like.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

C-H-E-A-T.

HU: Oh, what?

MCEVERS: And it's one thing if your cousin tries that move at the kitchen table. It is another when you are one of the world's top Scrabble players.

HU: Stefan Fatsis is author of the book "Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius And Obsession In The World Of Competitive Scrabble Players." We asked him to spell out the allegations.

STEFAN FATSIS: He was basically accused of peeking at the tiles immediately after drawing them from the bag.

MCEVERS: He is Allan Simmons, 60 years old, former U.K. national Scrabble champion, co-author of "Official Scrabble Words." So it's pretty scandalous when somebody like him is accused of returning tiles that he didn't like for new ones.

FATSIS: For something like this to become public, it's extremely rare.

HU: But it does happen. In 2012, a young player at the North American championship broke the rules and was immediately kicked out of the tournament.

FATSIS: He was discovered to be taking the blank tiles before the game started and palming them and then pulling them out and using them.

HU: Rules in these competitions are rigid. In timed matches, players are supposed to hold the bag with the tiles above eye level and show an empty palm to their opponent before reaching in.

FATSIS: In the old days, cheating was a little easier because Scrabble was played with the wooden tiles that come with the box. And because the letters are grooved and the blank tiles, which are the most valuable tiles in the game, are not - they're flat - players used to sort of feel both sides of the tile. And you could tell which one was a blank. And that would be a desirable one to choose. And that strategy was called brailling (ph).

MCEVERS: Allan Simmons denies he cheated. He told The Times of London that maybe held the bag lower than the rules call for, and maybe he didn't open his hand before reaching in. Stefan Fatsis is skeptical.

FATSIS: He was asked what happened here, and he basically was making excuses. He was basically saying, oh, Scrabble is so intense that I wasn't following the rules.

HU: In 2008, Simmons won the U.K. championship and spoke about the game.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALLAN SIMMONS: There's lots of ingredients to Scrabble, really. There's lots of strategy involved, lots of words to know. And it just brings everything together. I feel like I now know no words whatsoever. I'm completely exhausted Scrabble-wise.

MCEVERS: Now he can get his rest. Allan Simmons has been banned from competitive Scrabble for three years. We tried to reach him today. A woman who answered the phone said he didn't want to speak to the media.

HU: In other words, he had no words for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF DR. DRE SONG, "THE NEXT EPISODE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.