We should forgive Scrabble cheats. Board games bring out the worst in us
As a child whose parents came of age in the 1970s, I was brought up listening to a lot of Abba. Even though I was wildly out of step with my peers, I became an obsessive Abba fangirl, and spent the time that I should have invested on pursuits like “making friends” and “being outdoors” on studying their lyrics with a forensic keenness.
I knew the band was comprised of two couples who had split, and I had a spooky feeling that the split had been foretold by the single The Name of the Game, which had surely been inspired by countless group Ludo tournaments. I had five little sisters, and I knew that family board game sessions were a bad business, ending in tears, recriminations and someone trying to remember how to do the Heimlich manoeuvre because someone else had tried to eat seven plastic hotels and a small metal scotty dog.
It has always astonished me that there are people in the world who are prepared to professionally devote themselves to board games, because, after growing up in a household in which every child had, at times, behaved like Steven Seagal in a pool hall, but with Scrabble tiles, I cannot comprehend the focus and calm that must be required to succeed in that world.
So in some ways, I’m not surprised to learn that the Association of British Scrabble Players has banned one of its leading players following allegations of a serious misdemeanour. Allan Simmons, the author of several Scrabble books, and the Times’ Scrabble correspondent, was accused of cheating after three independent witnesses said they saw Simmons returning freshly drawn tiles to the bag, and replacing them with new ones.
Simmons has denied cheating. The Times quotes him as saying: “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.” I would say, “Yeah, Allan, but as a Scrabble dilettante and regular single-word-score loser, even I know that you’re not supposed to take a secret squint at your handful, decide that you’re all vowelled out and go back for a double dip.” However, I suspect that when the stakes are high and the pressure is mounting, even a professional might go to extremes simply to get out of the game and go home.
When I’ve cheated – and I have cheated – it’s because I’ve been so bored by the board game that I’ve longed to bring things to a conclusion. I’ve taken advantage of distracted Monopoly players by taking my turn and not saying, “Oooh, who owns Park Lane?” I may not have secretly refreshed my unused Scrabble tiles, but I have sworn that Qxatt is a word. “Honestly, it’s a South American hallucinogenic tea used in a special dream ceremony. It was just on a BBC Two documentary. Look it up if you don’t believe me!” I’ve even broken wind loudly and unapologetically in order to mask the noise of the telltale buzz in Operation.
I admit that I’m unscrupulous, but this is born out of a healthy disrespect for the rules. Even though those rules are enforced by my family members in a painful, punishing way.
Once, when I was flagging after three hours of Monopoly during the summer holidays, and trying to make my escape, one of my sisters solemnly informed me that when you start the game, you enter into a contract that can be enforced by law. “In Victorian times, a man went to prison for abandoning a game,” she said, in a tone that implied that, if I were to leave, she would call 999.
My parents are usually kind, calm people who love each other’s company, and as a child I usually only ever saw them argue in two places. In the car, and on either side of the Scrabble board. My husband is a man who rarely raises his voice, yet occasionally I’ll hear him yelling something blunt and Anglo Saxon from the other end of the sofa. Has something terrible happened? Sort of. One of his Words with Friends buddies has managed to make a seven-letter word, inspiring a fourletter response.
Our friends and family are never stranger to us than when we play board games, and as Christmas is coming, I’d hope that Simmons’ story inspires some caution among us all. Board games can produce the strangest, least reasonable behaviour from the most unlikely people. If tensions are already running high and everyone has had some Baileys, Scrabble should come with a trigger warning.
‘When I’ve cheated – and I have cheated – it’s because I’ve been so bored by the board game that I’ve longed to bring things to a conclusion.’ Photograph: Richard Lewis/Mattel/PA