Spelling Trouble: Did a Scrabble Champion Cheat?

Spelling Trouble: Did a Scrabble Champion Cheat?


Nicky Huitson, who is overseeing the Broadstairs Seaside Special in southern England next year, said the ban was “not very positive for the game, and that’s why most of us don’t want to talk about it.”

When the news of the ban broke on Monday in The Times of London, Elie Dangoor, a leading figure in the Association of British Scrabble Players, said in a statement that Mr. Simmons had been “a huge part of the game’s development,” adding, “There’s no one person bigger than the game.”

The tournament rules require players to show opponents their empty hands before they draw letter tiles from a cloth bag, so that they cannot be accused of dropping unfavorable letters back in. The bag is also supposed to be held at shoulder height, to prevent players from peeking at the tiles.

Mr. Simmons, 60, could not be reached for comment on the accusations against him. But he told The Times of London that he had suffered the same “untimely bad luck from the bag as anyone else.”

Mr. Simmons had written a weekly column for the The Times of London, but the newspaper said on Monday that he would “no longer be a contributor.”

The Scrabble group’s inquiry began with a complaint about Mr. Simmons’s behavior in the British Masters tournament last June. The organizers of the 2016 Scottish Masters tournament then came forward with similar allegations.

“The natural conclusion had been that he had been cheating,” Mr. Dangoor said. The inquiry into the complaints against Mr. Simmons ended several weeks ago, but news of the ban only recently reached a wider audience.

This is not the first cheating scandal in competitive Scrabble. In 2012, at a major tournament in Orlando, Fla., a young man confessed to pocketing blank tiles — the game’s wild cards — in an attempt to cheat. His name was not released because he was under the age of 18.

“It’s easy to poke fun at Scrabble, but people who play it competitively take it very seriously,” Stefan Fatsis, author of the book “Word Freak,” about competitive Scrabble, said at the time. “The community prides itself on integrity and honesty and sportsmanship.”

In the latest episode, Lewis Mackay, a Scrabble player who filed a complaint against Mr. Simmons, used a Facebook post last week to publish an excerpt from an email he had sent to the organizers of the British Masters.

It read: “On Sunday, at the Masters tournament, I witnessed Allan Simmons behaving suspiciously during our game. As a result, I strongly believe he was cheating. I should give some background to this incident.”

It continued: “In September 2016, in Lille, I was sat waiting for my opponent for a round on day three. I was idly watching several other players play their games. One of those players was Allan. At one point, I was surprised to see him draw a tile, look at it, and return it to the bag, all at shoulder height. I thought I was seeing things at first — I was shocked to witness this at all. I said nothing to anyone at the time. On reflection, perhaps I should have.”

In the drama of Mr. Simmons’s exclusion, Amy Byrne resigned as chairwoman of the Association of British Scrabble Players, saying it was unusual to publicize bans. Contacted by telephone, Ms. Byrne declined to comment.

For his part, Mr. Simmons told The Times of London, “While I believe I always showed an open hand before drawing fresh letters, if drawing one or two at a time, I may not have always had an open hand for each dip of the bag.”

“Likewise, holding the bag may not have always been strictly at shoulder height,” he added. “You have to remember that at the top level, games can be quite intense, and there’s a lot going through one’s mind, let alone remembering to religiously ensure tile-drawing rules are followed meticulously.”

Mr. Simmons said he would not try to overturn the ban, in order to avoid creating a “distraction.” In any event, he said, he had already been thinking about retiring from competitive play.

“I will rise above this issue and get on with more important things in life than playing Scrabble,” he said.

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