The Scrabble Rules

RENO, NEVADA

The big day is tomorrow — the start of the 2015 North American Scrabble Championship.  We have arrived in town and unpacked.  I have registered and obtained my name tag.  I have prepared my vegan sandwiches for lunch.

Now, if I can only avoid letting my nerves get the better of me.

One of the annoying, but totally necessary, things about tournament Scrabble is that there are a lot of rules.  I don’t mean the rules printed inside the cover of the Scrabble box.  Special rules that are necessary to maintain some type of semblance of order when you have 300 super-competitive people playing in one giant room.  If you’re interested, you can see a condensed set of tournament rules here.  Then there is the Code of Conduct, which I can succinctly summarize as “Be polite.  Don’t be an ass.  No cheating.”

I am pleased to say that cheating, or attempts thereat, is extremely rare among we Scrabble people.  I can’t understand why anyone would want to cheat, but I’m told that, occasionally, we run across someone who wishes to win at any cost.  This is my ninth year playing competitive Scrabble, and I am grateful that I have yet to run across such an individual.

And yet, we engage in certain elaborate rituals to show everyone that we are not cheating.  For example, before the start of the day’s first game, as well as after each game, the 100 tiles are arranged face up on the board (typically 25 in each corner of the board) to show one’s opponent that no tiles are missing.  If there is any question that the correct number of each letter is present, either player may request a “distribution,” which involves counting out the tiles to ensure that there are nine As, two Bs, three Cs, four Ds, 12 Es, etc.

To pick letters to place on your rack, one must draw tiles out of the tile bag.  The rule is that you are supposed to show that you are choosing tiles at random, not looking in the tile bag first.  This is done by holding the tile bag up at shoulder level and looking away from the bag while drawing out the number of tiles needed.  This may seem like a pain, but after a while, you do it automatically and without a thought.  For decrepit old people like myself, by the end of the day (we’re talking about playing Scrabble for eight hours), we’re lucky if we can still lift our arms. (And after a five-day tournament, we’re stiff as boards and chowing down naproxen and ibuprofen like candy.)  Scrabble is supposedly a mental pursuit, not a physical one, but there are still times when I am convinced that it is a young person’s game.

Even the particular set of tiles you use can become an issue.  For tournament play, the tiles are supposed to be perfectly smooth, so that when you stick your hand in the bag and your head is turned the other way, you can’t feel what letter you’re touching.  Attempting to discern your letters in this manner is known as “brailling.”  Most modern sets of tiles are smooth enough to be “unbrailleable,” but I have witnessed at least one heated argument over the matter.

I’m telling you, the little things get tournament players riled up beyond all reason.

After a game is over, if the scores were really close (within ten points of each other), either player has the right to request a “recount.”  This involves going back to the beginning of the game, recounting the value of each play, comparing it to what was written on the score sheets and making adjustments as necessary.  Your opponent is likely to be seriously pissed off if you ask to do this.  However, at one tournament, I gained several points in correction by doing this, with the end result being that the score had been a tie.  My opponent, who believed he had won, was steaming mad.

Then there are rules about “designating blanks” (when you play a blank tile, you must immediately declare what letter it is supposed to represent and write it on the score slip that gets turned into the director) and about the precise ritual that must be followed in case of a challenge.  And there are rules about what happens when a player makes a mistake by drawing too many tiles out of the bag.  And there are rules about dozens of other things, some of which I don’t even know and would have to look up.

So, in the morning, I will do my best not to break any rules and not to be trounced too badly by my eager and esteemed opponents.

Wish me luck.  (I am going to need it.)

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