“I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating.” --Sophocles
It is a five letter word which, when played in this most familiar of American board games, is worth ten points. That’s assuming the tiles are not placed on any bonus squares. The game is Scrabble, and I confess I am a Scrabble aficionado, a geek, a fan, and lifelong enthusiastic player. If Scrabble were an Olympic event I’d have dreams of winning a gold medal. I’ve loved Scrabble since our family first played it around the dining room table, perhaps on a rainy summer vacation day or a post holiday afternoon, when we were looking for something fun and challenging to do together as a clan.
Scrabble is truly old school, retro, first invented in 1938. The elements of the game are basic. A board marked by a 15 by 15 grid. Ninety-eight wooden tiles, each affixed with a letter from the alphabet and point value, save for two which are blank. Then all you need to play are a pencil, a score sheet, a dictionary and curiosity about language. It is wildly popular. Scrabble is sold in 129 countries in 29 different languages. Millions play online Scrabble or variations of the game every day. 150 million games have been sold and it is estimated that one third of all American households own it. Your copy is probably tucked away on a closet shelf or dusty bookcase or at the cabin or cottage, just waiting to be unpacked and played again.
Oh and that five letter word? C-H-E-A-T. For last week the Scrabble universe was rocked by its first major cheating scandal, which happened at the National Scrabble Championships in Orlando, Florida. OK, maybe “rocked” is too dramatic a word, though if you played that, it’s worth 13 points. But I digress. (9 points and even better, seven letters…sorry, can’t help it!)
The cheating happened in one of the tournament’s final rounds when a player, setting up for a new game, surreptitiously placed two blank tiles on the floor beneath his seat. Blanks are like gold to a Scrabble player. They can be used anywhere on the board to make or complete a word. An opponent saw the cheater’s duplicitous deceit, called over a judicious judge and the wayward word thief fessed up to his feckless fraud and was summarily suspended. (To love Scrabble you gotta love words!)
I guess I’m not surprised that cheating has now infected the Scrabble community. It does seem that wherever in the world competition happens, or a prize or honor is at stake, or when we humans imagine no one else is looking, we cheat.
On the same day as Scrabble-gate, Melky Cabrera, the leading hitter in Major League Baseball’s National League, was suspended for 50 games for cheating, taking testosterone to enhance his skills. The Internal Revenue Service routinely loses a big chunk of its tax collections to tax cheats, most often from folks who under-report (lie) about their income. $385 billion dollars was lost in 2006, the most recent year for when data was available. Companies cheat too. In the last year the Securities and Exchange Commission collected a $285 million settlement from Citi Group, owner of Citi Bank, the nation’s third largest bank, for betting against investments it had cheerfully recommended to its own customers. Goldman Sachs was caught doing the same shell game and paid the largest securities settlement in U.S. history, $550 million.
Cheating. You can try to dress it up in an expensive suit and drive it away in a limo, spin it with lawyerly words or rationalizations, but still its deception. Doesn’t matter whether we “just” hid a Scrabble tile, or juiced to get more hits, or fudged the bottom line on our taxes or committed fraud against trusting customers. It’s rigging the game. Hiding a card up your sleeve. Stacking the deck. Deceiving another. Breaking the law. Breaking a moral code. Breaking God’s law. Lying.
So here’s an alternative word, both for the game of Scrabble and the game of life:
H-O-N-E-S-T-Y. Play it right and you’ll score at least 13 points and also have the gift of knowing that when it came time to compete and to play, it was a fair game all around. Then the best person wins. Trust wins. Integrity wins and claims the champion’s crown.
Anyone up for a game of Scrabble? No cheating please.