You Can’t Spell That on Television

David Gibson and Trey Wright

On the last day of the tournament, Trey Wright and David Gibson squared off in the best-of-five final. (Their match will be broadcast on ESPN in October.) As is often the case in championship finals, the play was very, very good, but not perfect—presumably because nerves got in the way. Trey won the first two games, largely thanks to better tiles.

Finally, in the third game, there was some excitement.

A few years back, a dispute arose within the Scrabble community about whether players should be allowed to use vulgar or offensive words. A recreational player, who was Jewish, discovered that the meaning given for the word JEW in the Scrabble dictionary was a verb, meaning to haggle with someone over money. Not subscribing to the belief that in Scrabble the “words” have absolutely no meaning, she raised a fuss. Some people agreed with her—most notably the Anti-Defamation League—and about 170 words were ultimately expunged from the Scrabble dictionary. The standards for expurgation were inconsistent and subjective: All the obviously offensive words were removed, but so were seemingly innocuous ones like FART, PAPIST, and COMSYMP (COMmunist SYMPathizer); as well as obscure slurs that you probably never would have known were offensive, like ABO (ABOrigine) and SKIMO (Eskimo). Players protested vehemently and a compromise was forged: The official dictionary for home and school use would be censored, but the words in question would be acceptable for tournament play.

This year, the issue resurfaced because the tournament was to be televised. The National Scrabble Association made it clear that the 170 verboten words, while acceptable during the first 30 rounds, would not be allowed during the televised finals. (This was decided in conjunction with ESPN, apparently to avoid the wrath of the FCC.) The rules were made clear to all players before the tournament, and the list of bad words was provided to the two finalists the night before their match. If they were unsure whether a word they wanted to play during the game was acceptable, they were to consult an official.

In the weeks leading up to the match, many players had voiced objections to what they perceived to be hypocritical censorship. Viewers would not have been offended by many words on the list, like “ABO,” while they might very easily (if ignorantly) be offended by numerous unrestricted words like, say, FAGOTED or FAGOTING, which are forms of a verb meaning “to tie something, usual sticks, into a bundle” (or, as it’s known, a FAGOT), or by NIGGARD and NIGGARDLY, which of course just mean “stingy.” Perhaps most hilariously, one of the words on the no-no list is REDSKINS, which obviously appears on ESPN dozens of times every week during football season.

During the third game, Trey played the expurgated word LEZ—short for “lesbian”—either forgetting that it was on the list or forgetting about the list altogether. The play was the obvious one; David didn’t even raise an eyebrow and was about to make his next play when the tournament directors halted the match. They called an emergency meeting of the Advisory Committee and Rules Committee, and a 10-minute delay ensued.

Those of us watching were in an uproar. We felt vindicated: We knew that censorship would adversely affect game play. Eventually, the judges decided that because LEZ was on the list the players were given, it would not be allowed. The irony is that the ESPN producer on the scene didn’t even find the word objectionable. It turns out he was only concerned with the Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television, plus a handful of other clearly offensive epithets. Though Trey had violated a rule—albeit a bad one—he was allowed, in effect, a do-over; he removed LEZ from the board and played a different word. (Don’t expect to hear any mention of this on ESPN’s program in the fall.)

Trey Wright receives his check

As it happened, Trey’s mistake didn’t matter. He won the game by about 100 and, in a three-game sweep, became the new National Scrabble Champion, winning $25,000.

I, too, won a prize: $100 given to a Division 1 player for “Tough Luck,” based on the lowest combined margin in any six of a player’s losses. My six losses came to a total of only 37 points. But it was a backhanded compliment: We all refer to the Tough Luck Award as the “Crappy Endgame Play Award,” because in essence, the only way to lose so many games by such a small margin is to screw up a bunch of endgames you could’ve won.

I finished with 12 wins, 17 losses, and one tie, which I’d have been happy with had my hopes not been raised by my auspicious debut. Neither the $100—nor the $400 I won at a blackjack table the final night—made up for my lousy last three days of Scrabbling.