A Loss For Words

By

In my profession—I’m a college English professor—I see a lot of cheaters. Some are more proficient in their craft than others. Since I teach at a regional state university and not at an Ivy League school, the deceivers tend to be the criminal equivalent of petty thieves, students who begin essays with simplistic, barely acceptable prose: “In today’s modern society, a big problem is drugs. Should drugs be banned? Should all drugs be banned or only some drugs be banned?” Two paragraphs later, the language changes to “Drug liberalization is the process of eliminating or reducing drug prohibition laws. Variations of drug liberalization (also spelled liberalisation) include drug relegalization, drug legalization, and drug decriminalization.” No sources are given, though in this particular instance the sentence comes from Wikipedia, the Bible of mediocre college students.

My feelings when I catch a plagiarizer are almost always mixed, a dissonant symphony of anger, sadness, frustration, and, sometimes, relief: anger, because what the student did was unethical and stupid; sadness, because very often the student is a nice person going through some personal problems; frustration, because I will have to be the one to decide on and mete out the suitable punishment (which ranges from a failing grade on the essay to expulsion from the course and, possibly, the university); relief, because, in some especially problematic cases, the little mother-fucker has finally been caught.

The strains of this disturbing melody came back to haunt me when a fourteen year old was caught cheating in my division at the National Scrabble Tournament in Orlando. I had played this person last year, and kind of liked him although he’d gotten both blanks and every single s and slaughtered me by over two hundred points. (One does not forget these things.) I even congratulated him when he won the division amidst growing rumblings that he’d bamboozled his opponents. I liked him less this time around when he once again got both blanks and every single s. (He placed his fourth s onto ovum to make the phony ovums. I let it go only because it allowed me the one big play of the game with my only big point tile—the x.)

The media quickly picked up on the Scrabble scandal, though none of the writers speculated as to why the young man might have cheated. In the long run it doesn’t really matter, I suppose, though the few adults caught cheating in Scrabble have probably done so out of some pathological need for esteem. It’s a phony, short-lived satisfaction; while there is prestige in winning a tournament, the true cachet is knowing one has played one’s best, that the hours spent studying words and analyzing games has paid off.  Most people play tournament Scrabble because they love the game and want to get better. One way to measure “betterness” (not an acceptable word in the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, though good in Collins, the world Scrabble dictionary) is through gains in ratings points. That’s why most players, if given the choice between ratings points/prestige/self-satisfaction and no money versus money and no ratings points/prestige/self-satisfaction would choose the former.

Most serious Scrabble players are aware of the apocryphal story involving Chris Cree, a Scrabble legend of sorts and co-president of NASPA (North American Scrabble Players Association). In 1995, Cree played in the Scrabble Superstars Showdown in Las Vegas. He didn’t win the 50,000 dollar first prize, but did walk away with over 250,000 gained at the blackjack table. He made it very clear he’d have rather won the Scrabble tourney and the lesser monetary prize.

The prize for first place in Division Three this year was two thousand dollars. (Keep in mind this is the biggest tournament of the year.) To an adult, two thousand dollars is a nice but not enormous sum. If you fly to Orlando from, let’s say St. Louis, and have to pay for five nights in a hotel and meals and Starbucks and registration, you might go home with five hundred bucks. If you are a fourteen year old whose parents pay for your trip and meals and hotel, you go home with two thousand.

To a typical fourteen-year old, two thousand dollars is a small fortune.

It’s sad to see a young person cheat for money (if that, indeed, was the only reason.) It’s even sadder when the unethical behavior is the result not of a spontaneous, irrational decision but is pre-calculated, a long time in the making. A friend and Scrabble player in Division Two looked online to see how this young man had fared in other tournaments this past year. He pointed out that in these smaller, less profitable competitions he probably did not cheat—he lost enough games to keep his rating low enough to play in Division 3. There is no way a player who doesn’t know that ovum does not take an s (and, no, it was not a strategic play on his part) could have won a higher division even if he’d had every blank in every game.

There’s a ripple effect when someone is caught cheating. When I nab a plagiarizer, the entire class is affected. “How much did he borrow?” students ask one another, as if stolen words can easily be returned to their rightful owners. “The professor is a bitch,” they sometimes say. Some students are sad because the plagiarizer is a friend, though their sympathy is often tinged with a sense of self-righteous superiority.

The afternoon of the scandal I played a woman who knows the young man well, knows his family. “They’re wonderful people,” she said, “and they’re going to be devastated.” The woman is someone I admire. At last year’s nationals when I was doing badly, very badly, and feeling sorry for myself—“God hates me,” I posted on Facebook—I looked at this woman and the scarf she was wearing to hide her chemo baldness and felt chastened. Her hair has grown back after more chemo and several operations. She lost her game to me this year, distraught by what had happened: someone she knew and liked and probably trusted was caught cheating.

I felt sad for her and for the young man as well, though I was also angry at what he had done and relieved when he was caught. I was even briefly, deliriously happy—I’d won back, by default, the game I’d lost to him. But I wasn’t surprised. We are a culture of cheaters. We cheat in our marriages, on our taxes, on our resumes. Our politicians cheat, our sports heroes cheat, our religious leaders cheat, our journalists cheat. I’ve cheated in my first marriage—a fact I’m not proud of—and have been known to be a less than ethical banker in Monopoly, but these are topics for an entirely different essay.

There are different ways to cheat, even in Scrabble. Some are more clear-cut and obvious than others. A player can palm tiles, peek at tiles in the bag, miscount his or her score deliberately, or just as deliberately not correct an opponent’s error.

I wouldn’t be surprised to discover there are Scrabble players who’ve used performance-enhancing drugs such as Ritalin or Adderall to gain a competitive edge. In fact, I’d bet two thousand dollars on it. A 2005 Columbia University study has shown that as many as twenty percent of college students have taken Ritalin as a study drug; it improves memory and sharpens focus. In some circles, Ritalin is known as Ivy League crack.

I wouldn’t bet a million dollars on it, though. That’s the sum of money Boris Gelfand walked away with as the loser of this year’s world chess championship. Viwanathan Anand, the winner and perhaps the greatest chess player of all time, won a million and a half. Chess, of course, has not been untouched by doping scandals. If you Google chess doping, the first hit is The Great Chess Doping Scandal.  The Spiegel article describes how in the 2008 Chess Olympiad grandmaster Vassily Ivanchuk refused to take a urine test after he lost the title match to Gata Kamsky.

There is nothing I know of in Scrabble governance about performance-enhancing drugs. So, technically, a player who uses Ritalin is not breaking any rules. Unless, of course, the Ritalin is obtained through illegal means, whether through a campus dealer or a legitimate doctor to whom one lies: “Doctor, I can’t seem to focus on anything. Do you know of any drugs available for this condition?”

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“Is there anything good to come out of this?” I sometimes ask myself after I’ve caught a plagiarizer. Will the person be chastened to stop the unethical and ultimately self-destructive behavior?

“Is there anything good to come out of this?” I asked myself that Tuesday, day four of the Nationals. I hope the young man can mend his cheating ways. I hope his tale can serve as a warning to others who, whether for money or status, take the easy way out.

And I’m glad the person who caught the cheater is Arthur Moore. When I saw that I’d be playing a man named Arthur Moore in round seven, I imagined an older British gentleman, pasty-faced and stoic. In reality, Arthur Moore wears an earring in one ear. He is funny, good-looking, and African-American. He is the kind of person who if you beat him in Scrabble by playing a word like SEAWANT will tell you at the end of the game “Congratulations. You played really well.”

Arthur Moore won second place in Division Three. He garnered a standing ovation when he claimed his eight hundred dollar prize. The applause was not only for thirty-one Scrabble games more or less expertly played, but also for the fact that he had caught the cheater red-handed. (Or let’s say blank-handed.) How he’d accomplished this is a bit of a Scrabble detective story. I won’t go into it here as it’s been recounted masterfully by Stefan Fatsis for Slate.

I should add, though, that the entire situation was handled quickly and professionally by Moore as well as by Division Three director Dan Stock and tournament director Dallas Johnson. I was sitting at a table not too far from where the incident occurred and barely heard a thing.

There are assholes in Scrabble, but Arthur Moore is not one of them. The applause was thunderous in part because Arthur Moore did not gloat or over-dramatize his feat. He did not notify the press to show off what he had done. He seemed, like so many of the rest of us, deeply saddened.

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Second image adapted from XKCD .


Daiva Markelis is a professor of English and creative writing at Eastern Illinois University. Her memoir White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life was published in 2010 by the University of Chicago Press. More from this author →