We should for­give Scrab­ble cheats. Board games bring out the worst in us

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Daisy Buchanan

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

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