Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Melky Cabrera Fans Spread Cheating Habits Elsewhere, Including Adolescent Scrabble Tournaments

Melky Cabrera and his band of ne'er-do-wells are up to no good again, this time getting caught cheating at a Scrabble tournament:

I had just hung on for a 395-352 victory in Round 24 of the 2012 National Scrabble Championship on Tuesday when an official pulled me aside: A boy had been caught palming the blanks and ejected from the tournament.

The news ricocheted through the ballroom at the Orlando resort where 342 people—men, women, and a handful of children—were gathered for Scrabble’s annual five-day, 31-game championship marathon. Many players were familiar with the boy, who had competed in school and rated Scrabble tournaments for a couple of years. But they didn’t know of him as “one of the top young Scrabble players” in America, as he was described in news reports. Rather, he’d gained renown because of a performance at a previous tournament that seemed too good to be true.

So the mood after the revelation was less shock that someone had cheated—cheating is rare in Scrabble, but as in any competitive endeavor, it happens—than relief that the fraud had been unmasked. And beneath that, sadness—for the adolescent boy, who would no doubt be facing shame and scorn in and out of the Scrabble world, and for the game, which I knew would be taking another turn in the media dunk tank. [...]

Scrabble transitioned from living-room novelty—nearly 4 million sets were sold in 1954—to competitive passion in the 1960s, when it landed alongside chess, backgammon, and bridge in smoke-filled games parlors in New York City. Scrabble hustles evolved quickly. In those days, the tiles were placed face down in the box top during play. Regulars could spot the blanks, which were lighter than other tiles “because they spent half their time on one face or the other,” says my Scrabble friend Lester Schonbrun, who frequented the clubs. When the tiles were placed in bags during games, unscrupulous players could feel around for the blanks because they had no grooves, a tactic known as “brailling.”

Plastic tiles—in a rainbow of colors!—have made brailling obsolete. The North American Scrabble Players Association has a 53-page rulebook governing club and tournament play that anticipates almost every conceivable situation (“Players who are physically abusive will be immediately ejected and disqualified”) and possible method for cheating. There are many. There’s “banking points,” or announcing an incorrect score for a play and then “correcting” it later in the game. There’s choosing new tiles quickly before an opponent can inspect and potentially “hold” and then “challenge” a play. That’s known as “fast-bagging.” 

In the National School Scrabble Championship a few years ago, a team of two players took advantage of their younger, inexperienced opponents by playing one made-up word after another to rack up as many points as possible and improve their chances of winning the event. (In Scrabble, placement is decided based first on win-loss record and then on difference between points scored and points allowed, which is known as spread.) Technically, that wasn’t cheating—the other team could’ve challenged the words off the board, if they’d been sophisticated enough to know they were being had. Still, this phony-palooza led to the imposition of point-caps in school events.

And then there’s what the boy did in Orlando, and others have done before him: palm the good tiles.

There are different techniques for pocketing tiles. One player with an expert-level rating kept the tile bag above his head as prescribed by rule. But he also kept a baseball cap pulled low, craned his neck and eyes up toward the bag, and scanned the tiles in his hand at the bag’s opening before placing them on his rack (or returning them to the bag). Describing the scene, one opponent called it “a protracted conversation between his eyes, his hand, and the contents of the bag.” The player was suspended in 2008 and became eligible to play in tournaments again in June.

Okay, so this article doesn't have any explicit link to Melky. But who's to say he wasn't a Cabrera fan (he can't be a Sandoval fan' since "fast-bagging" isn't in the equation). Like with all of Cabrera's lies (and pathetic cover-ups), we may never know the truth.