A G Thing

The real story behind the alleged cheating scandal at the Scrabble World Championships.

As soon as I saw the ubiquitous reports about the strip-search/tile-stealing allegations at the 2011 World Scrabble Championship, I cringed. Like the freak-out earlier this year over GRRL and THANG getting added to the Scrabble word list (they are, just not in North America) and last year’s “news” that the game is permitting the use of proper nouns (it’s not), I suspected that the truth was buried under a big pile of tiles. When it comes to Scrabble and the media, the most applicable letters are LCD.

As best as I can piece together from speaking to players and officials and from reading reports on the Yahoo group World-Scrabble, here’s what actually happened last week in the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in Warsaw, Poland.

In Round 7 of the 34-game event, Edward Martin, an IT consultant from London, was playing Chollapat Itthi-Aree, a math instructor from Bangkok. Near the end of the game, Martin realized a tile was missing; instead of two tiles in the bag there was only one. How did he know this? Competitive Scrabble players “track” the 98 letters and two blanks as they are played. That way, when the bag is empty, each player will, if he has tracked correctly, know what tiles his opponent holds. This is when Scrabble turns from a game of imperfect information into one of perfect information; a player can map out the endgame with full knowledge of his opponent’s possible gambits.

After recounting several times and concluding his tracking was correct, Martin called over the tournament director. She ascertained that both players believed they had started the game with all 100 tiles. (At the end of tournament games, players lay out the tiles in a grid, typically either four 5-by-5 squares or one 10-by-10. That way the next two players can bag the tiles knowing that they’re all there. One theory for how Martin and Chollapat—Thais often go by only first names—didn’t detect the missing letter in advance: The tiles might have inadvertently been laid out in a 9-by-11 grid.)

The director had Martin and Chollapat search for the tile—in the bag, under the board, on the floor, on their chairs—but they turned up nothing. The director then ruled that, since the players thought the game had begun with a full allotment of tiles, the missing letter—a G—should be procured from another set and placed in the bag. Chollapat was entitled to the final two letters. Since Martin had determined how the game would likely play out, it was clear the addition of the G would change the outcome from a three-point win for Chollapat to a one-point win for Martin. (The G is worth two points.) 

According to John Chew, the co-president of the North American Scrabble Players Association and assistant director of the world championship, Chollapat then asked the director to check that Martin was not concealing the missing tile on his person. Martin agreed to stand up and pat down his pockets to show nothing was inside; Chew, who witnessed the exchange, told me Martin’s clothing was tight enough to make that clear. The director asked Chollapat to do the same. I’m told that Chollapat—whose spoken English is limited—did not request, as was reported in media outlets around the world, that Martin be subjected to a strip-search in the bathroom. Play resumed. Martin used all of his remaining tiles on the next turn—a bingo, EQUINES (using a blank for the Q)—and collected, per competitive Scrabble rules, two times the sum of the letters on Chollapat’s rack. Final score: 402-401, Martin.

The game occurred in the last round of the first day of play, last Thursday. Though the Thai players complained about the ruling en masse the next day, the dispute wasn’t even known to many of the 106 competitors, and it didn’t hit the media until the tournament ended on Sunday, with Nigel Richards of New Zealand solidifying a claim as Scrabble GOAT with his second world championship on top of three North American titles. So how did it become a worldwide story? 

The tournament sponsor Mattel, which owns the rights to Scrabble outside of North America, no doubt recognized that a story including the words Scrabble, cheating, and strip-search would be media catnip. On Saturday, in its Twitter feed from the championship, Mattel began spreading the news: “Fuming Thai player calls on Brit Ed Martin to STRIP @worldscrabble11 as game ends with G tile missing—but judges refuse and Ed wins by 1pt.” In conjunction with the news of Richards’ victory and $20,000 first prize, Mattel’s public-relations staff mentioned the incident to reporters. (A Mattel spokesman told me a reporter for the Independent who was attending the event heard about it from players. The newspaper’s story, filed after the conclusion of the tournament, led with the tale of the G.)

The upshot? Scads of publicity, for sure. But consider the plight of poor Ed Martin, by all accounts a nice fellow and a world-class Scrabble player, who was publicly accused of suspected cheating at the game he loves despite there being no evidence that he’d done anything wrong. Martin wrote on the World-Scrabble listserv that the widespread media reports had caused him “considerable distress,” complete with reporters showing up at his house uninvited. “This has taken quite a toll on my family and me,” he wrote.

And the source of the contretemps, the missing G? Martin posted a message he received from Hubert Wee, a player from Singapore. Wee had sat at the same board as Martin and Chollapat during the previous game. Wee reported that, prior to his game, he had dropped several tiles on the floor and put them back in the bag. What he didn’t notice was that a lone tile had fallen into his jacket pocket. Wee found the missing letter at dinner, but he didn’t realize its significance until he heard the news after returning home.