SI Vault
S.L. Price
December 18, 1995
Seemingly civilized and cerebral, championship Scrabble is actually a CUTTHROAT world where GUTS, GUiLe and GAMES MANSHIP are PUSHED TO THE LiMiT
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December 18, 1995

Your Words Against Mine

Seemingly civilized and cerebral, championship Scrabble is actually a CUTTHROAT world where GUTS, GUiLe and GAMES MANSHIP are PUSHED TO THE LiMiT

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There is something strange, yes, but also something admirable about Sherman's naked drive that makes him vaguely heroic He cannot relax, and as his second-place finish at the world championship in London would later show, the same neediness that makes Sherman great is also his worst enemy. Yet despite the awful tiles—all vowels—pulled from life's Scrabble bag, despite a body that, when he leans over a board, resembles nothing so much as a battered suitcase refusing to close, Sherman has this attitude: You deal me faulty health? Fine. I'll use the one organ you left untouched, I'll uncover the one skill I have, and I'll be excellent. Meanwhile he has found a like-minded community of obsessive friends.

"It's not just a game," Upton says. "Every one of these tournaments is a family reunion. We all love each other." Sherman, just walking by, overhears. He stops and smiles a surprisingly sweet grin.

"That's not true," Sherman says. "There are at least three people in this room I can't stand."

Did he do it? In Vegas, that was the only question whenever Louis Schecter padded into view. Did he cheat?

Last June, Schecter, 43, the 37th-ranked player in the country, was in a match against Charlie Southwell in a tournament in Stamford, Conn. Suddenly, Southwell pointed out, a tile was missing. He called over the tournament director, who demanded that both players empty their pockets. "I didn't like that," says Schecter, a bookkeeper from Brooklyn. He refused. He was disqualified, and word spread like a line out of Damon Runyon: Did you hear? Louie palmed an E....

There was no proof, of course; who can say what happened? Though that was as close as Scrabble gets to a Black Sox scandal, the Schecter incident was hardly unique. During the four-day Superstars competition, a Q dissolved into thin air during the Darrell Day-Johnny Nevarez match; it was later found. "That could've been cheating," says Joe Edley, a two-time U.S. champion. "But nobody wants to cheat; otherwise they lose a significant part of their life." Even those at the top aren't immune: Nyman's father was once reprimanded after one such mishap. "He's very absent-minded," says Nyman. "And he got caught with eight letters on his rack. If you'd met my dad, you can never imagine him doing it. It was just a slip."

Maybe, but it is impossible to know. Scrabble is a game of personal honor; opponents police themselves and each other. As a result it is rife with feuds and imagined slights and muttered complaints. Players are as sensitive as flowers to any sign of "coffeehousing"—the practice of trying to throw off an opponent by slurping a drink, writing loudly...or talking during a match. After losing to Sam Kantimathi in Las Vegas, Geary stomped out of the room, growling, "The one guy I didn't want to lose to." Why? "He's an ass. I just don't like him. If I could find a way to kick his ass, I would. He tends to rattle his tiles whenever you play but manages to be so quiet when he's playing. Aggghhh. Sam. Sam I am."

Actually, though, there is less open confrontation than there is sniping. Edley, the only player to win the nationals twice and thus the closest thing Scrabble has to a Babe Ruth, is constantly under fire for his perceived arrogance, his unique status as both player and associate director of the Scrabble association, and his alleged coffeehousing. Sherman calls Edley Darth Vader. And after losing a match at Superstars to Edley, Charles Goldstein buttonholed Williams for 10 minutes to complain about Edley's demeanor. "He's a better player than I am," Goldstein says, "but that's beside the point."

Edley shrugs off Goldstein's complaints, but he has seen firsthand what can happen if enough Scrabble players decide you're not right. Schecter, he says, was "ostracized in Las Vegas." And it's true: In his first tournament since Stamford, Schecter drifted about quietly, and usually alone. When an S disappeared from his game with Robert Felt, it was taken as further evidence of his guilt—never mind that the tile was later found to have been misplaced in another bag. He finished 53rd out of 54.

In the end, only one player stood up for Schecter, the same player who went to Schecter's room in Stamford that night and found him on the verge of tears. "He was being shunned like a dog," Richie Lund says. "But I'm convinced he didn't cheat. I think he took a bad rap."

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