Dock Ellis 7:42 p.m., Jan. 21
- Community Blog
- Memorial Life
There's No Cheating In Scrabble
Five years ago, I started playing Scrabble on an Internet site which shall remain nameless.
I didn’t know how to play Scrabble, but the game is simple to catch on to, and addictive, and the people there were really friendly and were always inviting me to play; the boards were so crowded you often couldn’t get a game unless someone invited you to play a foursome. For those who don’t know, Scrabble is a word game. Roughly the game goes like this: Two to four players draw seven tiles at random, each tile has a letter, the players form words with their letters and take turns playing those words on a board, joining the words to other words, until all the tiles are drawn. Each letter has a value, common letters like S worth 1 point, rare letters like Q worth 10. The board the tiles are played on also has squares where letters and words are worth more. Whoever has the highest score at the end of the game wins.
There are two authorities when playing games in English, TWL, which is the American Scrabble version, and Sowpods, which is the UK Scrabble version. I played TWL at first, but was persuaded to try Sowpods and after a while preferred it. Roughly half or more of the people playing on that site were from the UK or former holdings of the British empire. The UK people were very matey, so it was great fun playing with them, loads of laughs; playing with them was as much or more about socializing as about playing the game. I lost a lot of games at first, but I learned.
I noticed that people were making words that scored big points. Someone explained to me that you could score fifty extra points on a word if you used all seven letters in your rack, and that this was called a Bingo. I was so excited the first time I made a Bingo that I took a screen shot of the board and printed it out, taped it to my computer. I had been playing a long time before I made that first Bingo, and it was a long time before I made another.
To win at Scrabble, it helps to learn a lot of uncommon words, you also need to play strategically, and make Bingos when possible. I was weak in strategy, and I don’t have a great memory for weird words, but after a time, I was very good at making Bingos, especially right out of the box; this is helpful when your opponent plays defensively because before you know it, a good defensive player can block up the board so well you can’t play a Bingo even when you have one on your rack. The best time to play a Bingo is on your first turn if you start the game; that may be your only opportunity, and it helps to start out with that big point advantage. My Bingo skills helped me climb the ranks. I eventually became one of the top-ranked players on the site.
It ain’t all cake and glory at the top. The pressure to maintain high ranking was a killer; all the other top-ranked players want to take you down, each game becomes a battle to the death. I cracked. Began to lose games. My ranking started to slip. This slippage was hard to take at first; no one enjoys losing, and if you’re at all competitive, it’s even worse, but after some time decompressing, I began to adjust. At the mid-level ranking, which is where I eventually ended up, I attracted more players and played more games; most players avoided top-ranked players because of the potential big point/ranking loss, so a top-ranked player could sit forever on a board waiting for a game. My new ranking enticed more players to take me on, and, if they didn’t bother to check my stats page (every player had a stat page linked through their username), disguised the fact that I had two advantages, experience, and I could easily score multiple Bingos in a game against a less skilled player.
The site where I played had weekly leagues, including one for Bingos, and a “monetary” incentive to win. The competition was tough; everybody watches the league tables, and the players who want to win them watch them very closely and adjust their play according to where they are on the tables. I started winning the Bingo league whenever I put some effort into it, and just by virtue of playing to win the Bingo league, often won one or more of the other leagues as well. It became a challenge; I would lose games I could have won, even quit games where I wasn’t making Bingos against a defensive player, because all my focus was on playing for bingos. It got to where I could read a rack and slam a Bingo in seconds. Slamming one Bingo after another got my opponent’s attention; one strategy to win is to simply demoralize your opponent by playing fast and hard. Some opponents, when I beat them badly, simply took it as growing that muscle; some laughed it off, some were nice about it, some weren’t. A few people got so angry they quit the game. Often not before accusing me of cheating.
The first time I was accused of cheating I was surprised and protested my innocence. It happened again. And then again. And then often. I posted a tutorial on the message board on how to make Bingos, and laid out my strategy, which was very simple: Play or throw away letters that won’t make Bingos, build words off endings such as -s, - ed, -ing. I also invited people to look at my stat page. In Scrabble, the most common way of cheating is to use an anagram program to make Bingos; you type your seven letters into the program and out comes a list of legit but likely very obscure, unusual words. One sign of possible anagram cheating is finding Bingo lists of those kind of words on a person’s stat page; virtually all of my Bingos were the same simple words, based off either S - T - A - R - L - I - N - E or S - A - T - I - N - E. Still the accusations didn’t stop. After a while, I just shook my head and didn’t argue: Whatever. Most of the time, I would play against robots (the site had the option of playing automated opponents) so I could get all the Bingos I wanted without having to listen to the gripes from a sore human opponent and because playing a robot didn’t affect your win/lose ratio (because they had an advantage, your Bingos counted, but the games didn’t count).
Sometimes the cheating accusation was just insinuated. Other times, said sarcastically. Sometimes the accusation was made privately, sometimes in public, that is, in the common area (we called it the lounge) where all the players could chat in real time to each other and everyone could see the chat. When it was public, all the players who knew me on the site would rise to my defense. Likewise, when a player I knew was accused of cheating, I would stand up for that person. All the top-ranked players stuck up for each other when it came to accusations of cheating because at one time or another, all of the top-ranked players had been accused of cheating.
Of course, all the seasoned players knew that some of the top-ranked players did cheat. One of the women, an American, was notorious for it; she had shared some of her secrets with me when I was top-ranked, and while I never used her advice, I had watched her employ the tactics she had shared against unsuspecting players. I could also look at her stats page, and just by perusing her Bingo list, knew that either she had a most amazing memory for extremely unusual words that happened to be Bingos, or she was cheating. Most of us on the site knew all this, but none of us had ever called her on it.
One day, another top-ranked player, a fellow who didn’t like this woman decided to make an issue of it. After this woman made a joke in the lounge about losing points to another player, this fellow said something to the effect that she was a sad little person to be so concerned about her ranking that she would cheat to get it; this was an unusual attack as the guy was a top-ranked player himself. Of course the rest of us who witnessed this accusation came in and, as was our practice, said that she was not a cheat. As it happened, this woman and I had also had a serious falling out and weren’t speaking. Still, I came to her defense, and further said that it was unseemly for one top-ranked player to be accusing another top-ranked player of cheating in public. This fellow said, merely, that he knew for a fact that she cheated because she had told him she did. At that point the matter was dropped.
The next day, without naming names, I posted a thread on the message board. I reminded people that we had had a big cheating scandal on the site four years earlier, about a year after the site had opened; some people had banded together to win the leagues. At that time, a huge fight had broken out on the message board, and ugly things were said. The site closed that loophole; another loophole was found and exploited. Since that time, at one time or another, people had been named and shamed for cheating. Each time, an explosion of nastiness came out of it. I said I was perfectly happy to have someone anoint themselves the ultimate judge on who was cheating or not, but first we had to get all the details straight. The league scammers seemed like an obvious hit since they had admitted what they had done. But we had to remember that the people involved in the league rigging scandal denied that they had cheated, because there were no rules against what they did, further said they had done it to get money together for other players who needed it, and because they were angry that fees had gone so high to play on the site. It was also a well known secret that a fake account had been opened which a select number of people could access through a shared password in order to play and win the leagues. There were many people who informally helped each other get enough wins, and Bingos, again in order to win the leagues, or to gain ranking. There were many people who let their friends make up Bingos, in other words allow words that were not valid but used all seven letters, so they could gain ranking and/or win the Bingo league. Okay, those were deliberate, but how about when people played a friendly game and when they asked for help, advised each other on how to play letters or words, was that cheating? How about when a guy played a girl and let her win just to get on with her, was that cheating? How about when someone was playing, and someone in the room, husband, wife, child, friend, lover, helped them, was that cheating? How about playing the robots for most played, or, as I did, for Bingos, was that cheating? How exactly did the robots figure into cheating, when they themselves didn’t play for ranking? If someone used an anagrammer against a robot, basically an anagrammer itself, was that cheating? The site itself encouraged “study” by posting lists of words which you could access. When I started playing, I was advised to print out the site list of two-letter words allowed by Sowpods and use it until I memorized it, which I did; I myself had passed that advice on to new players. Almost every member admitted to having written down words they had seen in a game that they thought would come in useful later. Was keeping a list of words by your computer cheating? By the way, without being in the room, how could you know if, when, and how, a person was cheating? In real life, in a real life game, in a real life Scrabble tournament, maybe no one could get away with this stuff. But we were playing virtually. There was simply no way of knowing what people were doing, and more importantly, was that important? I said that back at the time of the first cheating scandal, I had been one of those people who had questioned people’s morals and character when it came out that they were cheating, and further said then that it was lessening the honor of those who had won their titles fair and square, myself included, but since then had time to think about it and had come to realize how pointless the whole business was of accusing people of cheating on a virtual site. At the time of the first league scandal when I was getting all high and mighty with the transgressors, someone had chided me: “It’s a game site FFS.”
I had come to agree with that assessment.