Like endless rain into a paper cup

Monday, 16 August 2004 — 2:03pm | Scrabble

It just so happens that I leave for a week and come back to discover that my coverage of the LEZ fiasco landed me a link at Crescat Sententia and a resulting surge of hits – which promptly dissipated in short order, presumably because I wasn’t updating, or maybe because the place looked very much like a blog dedicated exclusively to Scrabble. Will Baude writes:

So, the “purity” of the game was being violated a little by the rule, yes, but it is already necessarily violated all the time in semi-friendly play. Just try explaining to your less-Scrabble-savvy friends that, “well, I know it’s not in the “Official” dictionary, but it’s one of a group of semi-secret special words, that…”

Anyway, the list of Scrabble-banned words is here, and it includes such nasty, unspeakable stuff as “POPISH,” “REDNECKS,” “JEW,” “COMSYMP,” “FATSO,” “FART,” and “FRIG” (“FRIG” was presumably banned under some anti-circumvention rationale that will eventually be used to ban “screw”, “F***”, “SH**”, and “$%#!” from broadcast television). If I recall correctly, “frotteur” remains Scrabble-legal, athough the distinction bears out a logic I cannot fathom.

But the very crux of the debate is that for all competitive intents and purposes, the OSPD isn’t the “Official” dictionary. It’s still a misnomer for a book that is specifically labeled in small print as being for “recreational” use, a volume drafted for the sole purpose of not offending the kiddies. Ironic, considering that the prodigies who actually play the game seriously will and do use the expurgated words on a regular basis where they are strategically appropriate. The lexicon for tournament play is, no ifs and no buts, the amalgamation of the OWL (Official Word List) and LWL (Long Word List). This has also been adopted outside of tournament circles where people play the game seriously – the Internet Scrabble Club, for instance, uses the OWL and not the OSPD when you select the North American lexicon.

Now, ordinarily the situation wouldn’t have been as much of a calamity had it worked the same way as a simple challenge. By the telecast rules by which all participants agreed to abide, LEZ would have been treated as a typical nonword. In a tournament match, the window of opportunity to challenge a word off the board follows a specific procedure. Let’s say I play the phoney word FHQWHGADS*. I announce the score, hit the clock to mark the end of my turn, and then my opponent has the opportunity to call “Hold”. This is to signal that he is considering a challenge, and until he has made his decision, I may not draw replacement tiles from the bag. If he challenges, I take my letters back and lose my turn. If he doesn’t, I draw my replacement tiles as soon as he indicates I am no longer on hold, and the word stays on the board in spite of the fact that it is disallowed.

The scenario in Game 3 of the final was somewhat different. Gibson did not call a hold on Wright, who proceeded to draw two tiles in place of his L and Z. Here we diverge from normal challenge rules, because according to the television agreement, an expurgated word such as LEZ could not stay on the board even if no challenge was attempted. Things were further complicated because ESPN’s director on set, under deadline pressure and not involved in the ESPN-NSA negotiations, said he had no problem with LEZ and wanted things to continue running on schedule.

This was no time to debate the merits of the censorship agreement, to which the players had already consigned, and as per regulations, the word was removed. In spite of my misgivings about the principles behind and implementation of the telecast rules, if you set out some rules for yourself you have to follow through, and I believe this was the correct decision. My understanding is that things took as long as they did because there was no procedure to deal with the fact that Trey had already drawn his tiles, and the entire fiasco did not follow challenge procedures. The question at this point was no longer whether or not to remove the word, but whether he should lose his turn or have the opportunity to make another play. The other thing to consider was that by drawing two tiles prior to the ruling, he ascertained knowledge of the unseen tile pool that his opponent did not possess – yet another stumbling block that challenge procedures were designed to overcome.

Some have mentioned a compromise solution for future tournaments, and one that I think is sound: if ESPN’s adherence to FCC broadcast regulations is the real issue, they should be the ones to draft a list of words they consider unacceptable. This is because the list of what is or is not omitted in the OSPD is, in a word, silly. To answer Mr. Baude’s question about the guidelines that scratch out FATSO and inexplicably leave FROTTEUR intact: as far as I am aware, the omissions were determined on the basis of whether or not the words in question had an alternative context or definition not considered vulgar. A famous example mentioned in several books and documentaries on the subject is that TUP (v. to copulate with an ewe) was on the verge of being removed until it was pointed out, as Joe Edley said, that “it refers to the ewe, not a couple of farm boys.”

On another note, check out some of champion Trey Wright’s piano recordings.

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