Last week, there was a dustup over a teen caught cheating at the National Scrabble Championship. The news was everywhere. Like a nun smoking a Marlboro, the clash of branded rectitude with fiendish perfidy struck a scintillating chord.
The public is right to doubt that much cheating occurs in competitive Scrabble. Serious players are unanimous in noting its rarity, citing players' fear of the repercussions of being caught and a shared Scrabble ethos for lawful play. But that doesn't mean that sneakiness itself goes unrewarded, or is in any way frowned upon.
There's a difference, after all, between cheating and using the rules to one's advantage.
In baseball, players on the base paths are permitted to steal bases. And teams employ fake hand signals to decoy opponents. In football, quarterbacks can wear visors to conceal the direction of their gaze. In poker, bluffing is an essential skill. In Scrabble, there's no rule against attempting to play words that aren't actually real. In fact, it's a critical aspect of the game.
Playing a "word" that isn't really a word is completely legal. Unlike chess, checkers, go, Monopoly, or any other popular board game one could name, duping an opponent with a play that's not in the rulebook (the official word list)--or catching an opponent trying to pull a fast one--is seen as a sound and sanctioned skill.
A fake word is known as a "phoney" or "phony." (Or, as I like to think of them, "werds.") While casual players often allow each other to consult a dictionary before taking a turn, competitive Scrabble players are much stricter. Opponents can challenge a play's legitimacy before the player draws new tiles. In North America, Israel and New Zealand, games are played under the Double Challenge rule: if a play is challenged and any of the words just made is a phoney, the entire move is struck and the player loses his turn; if all the words are legit, it's the who challenger forfeits his turn.
Elsewhere in world, Scrabble is governed by the Dingle Challenge rule, under which the first incorrect challenge is not penalized; subsequent errors result in loss of turn.
To counter the risk of being challenged, wily veterans sometimes resort to a practice called fast-bagging, rapidly drawing tiles after playing a potential phoney to deny their opponents a chance to challenge before the turn officially ends.
Sadly, the explosion of online and mobile play is slashing the percentage of matches governed by the challenge rule, as it's impossible to ensure against players consulting a dictionary or any of the myriad online word generators. In fact, every form of online Scrabble--from Hasbro's official game to imitators like Words With Friends and Lexulous--permits only actual words.
But there's much to be said for challenge play. It not only rewards players who have the greatest lexical arsenal at their disposal, it complicates the psychology of the game. The loss of a challenge can discourage a player from challenging subsequent turns, opening the barn door for the more erudite competitor to attempt more phoneys. Further, it adds to the importance of playing behind an inscrutable "game face."
While playing a phoney (consciously or not) can be a risky gambit, occasionally there is no risk involved in playing one. At the end of a game, it may be mathematically impossible to win through valid words. If the opponent fails to challenge a concocted "werd," victory is delivered. Or perhaps what was imagined to be a phoney actually exists in the lexicon. With nothing to lose, why not take the gamble that something like bellish or trumble might be valid? (They're not.)
There's no shortcut to mastering the knowledge of unusual words or spotting fake ones, but studying word lists (especially the two-letter words, words that have Qs but not Us, and short words that use high-point letters) and playing lots of Scrabble against better players will help. (Heck, if I can insert a shameless plug, so might reading my forthcoming book, Is That A Word? [Chronicle Books, $18.95])
To get you started, here are 17 words that might draw a challenge but which are totally fair play. And who knows, maybe next time you're playing Scrabble and feel the urge to cheat, you can do so in a completely legal way.