Today marks the 30 year anniversary of the most controversial Scrabble match in the history of… well, word games. The year was 1993. The location? A musty ballroom in a Baltimore Holiday Inn and Suites. At stake? $3500. What, you expected something more dramatic? It’s not like the U.S. Scrabble Tour has a lucrative multi-media deal, especially when people were still watching tv with bunny ear antennas.
Defending champion Morton Grumby was set to face off with Cindy Li, a relative unknown in Scrabble cirlces, but who had decimated all six of her opponents on the road to the final, while Grumby had uncharacteristially struggled. He would later blame his underwhelming play on mistakenly taking night time cold medicine rather than the daytime version, which most medical experts would confirm is the better option at 10 am.
Grumby and Li would engage in a best of five for the cash prize, but also, the winner would get their entry and travel to the World Championship in Helsinki, Finland subsidized.
The first two games were uneventful, each player winning one of them, playing a very conservative style – wary of opening up any avenues at all for a big scoring word for their opponent.
That’s when it got weird. Grumby got off to a big start in game 3 and had a 37 point lead on Li. Time and tiles were running out on Li so she decided to take a chance, playing OVA with A landing on top of the previously played CORN to make ACORN. It wasn’t a massive score, but it got her back in the hunt, presuming of course that Grumby didn’t have the tiles to capitalize on the opportunity. For several tense minutes, it appeared he didn’t.
These days, you can get the entire compendium of allowable Scrabble words in a matter of seconds from the Internet. In 1993, you didn’t necessarily have that luxury. If someone played a word their opponent didn’t think was legal, they could challenge it, risking a loss of turn and likely the game as a result. The match officials, yes there are referees, would consult with a manual list of accepted words and any addenda recently published to either allow or deny the word.
Turn times are loosely governed at about five minutes in tournament Scrabble play, but are rarely strictly enforced. Grumby, a sportsman if there ever was one, and well liked by his fellow competitors, tried hard to observe the rule on his end. As the seconds ticked down, he elected to play MIXT, with the X landing on top of OVA to spell XOVA – a devastating score that all but lucked up game 3 for him. The dozens in attendance looked at each other nervously. XOVA? Was that a word?
Li was taken aback as well. What she lacked in reputation prior to this event, she made up with astute play and obscure words that were nonetheless found in all of the reference materials’ accepted plays. But she didn’t recall XOVA in any of them. After taking a moment to wrack her brain, and with nothing to lose, she challenged the play.
Ashgar Patel, the head referee for the event, and a former World Runner Up in Scrabble himself, strode to the table and signaled for a challenge time out, similar to the way an NBA referee would call a technical foul – probably on Dillon Brooks because that guy is a dick, even though he hadn’t been born yet.
Most challenges are quickly resolved as the questioned word is either on the list of allowed plays, or it isn’t. But as Patel reviewed the compendium, not finding it, he was nudged by assistant referee Carlos Bergman. Bergman was a medical researcher by trade, and was fairly certain he’d seen XOVA used in some clinical trial documentation he’d worked with.
It wasn’t unusual for Scrabble’s allowable plays to be updated, even frequently. So the compendium Patel was referencing wasn’t necessarily the gospel single source of truth.
“Are you sure?” Patel asked Bergman. As long as XOVA wasn’t a brand name, or otherwise a proper noun, it could potentially be allowed.
“Fairly,” Bergman replied. “I can’t say for 100% sure, but gun to my head, I’d say I saw it.”
Phone calls happened. Hushed conferences happened. An errand boy was even sent out to find copies of the scientific resource Bergman thought he’d seen the word used in – North American Medical Journal. Ultimately, Bergman was able to reach one of his researcher colleagues who confirmed for him that XOVA was indeed a word. Copies of a study containing it would be faxed to the hotel, but in the meantime, Bergman wanted to rush the verdict back to Patel.
The explanation sufficed for Patel and in a hurry to get the festivities going again. He strode to the table and with great pomp and self-importance, loudly stated, “word,” as he pointed to the board, much like a soccer referee would indicate a penalty kick was awarded.
Grumby was visibly delighted with the ruling, while Li remained stoic. There were still two games she could win, and she was tough.
Shortly after, roughly a third of the way into game 4 of a possible 5, is when the problems started. The fax with XOVA used in context had arrived via a lobby machine, and been brought to the judges. Patel immediately glared at Bergman. XOVA was short for XOVALEFRIN POLYFLUOXIDE, an arthritis drug that had shown ineffective results in trials, but was now being investigated for potential therapeutic benefits with other maladies. XOVA was simply the abbreviation for it, making it ineligible for Scrabble play, even if it hadn’t been a proper noun, also making it ineligible. Bergman hadn’t shared the context of his question with his researcher pal, and in his haste to deliver the news, hadn’t waited for an explanation from him.
Patel consulted the official rules for the Scrabble championship and found on page 18 that all officiating decisions are final, even if made in error. There would be no way to go back and undo this call. Patel decided he would wait until after the match was concluded to share the mistake with Li and apologize. And the way it was looking, she had a shot. She had pulled ahead in game 4, and looked certain to force a deciding game 5.
Bergman was embarrassed and angry, and threw the faxed copy of the study in the trash bin.
Bad became worse. One of Grumby’s friends in attendance, Abdelkader Baan, himself a strong Scrabble player who had been eliminated in the quarterfinals, had noticed the somewhat heated exchanges between Patel and Bergman, and was curious what two game officials could be arguing about. He inauspiciously made his way to the trash bin and snuck a peek at the sheaf of papers on the top of it. He smiled to himself. “Wait until Morty finds out about this,” he thought to himself.
Meanwhile, Li had locked up game 4, and the two competitors agreed on a quick restroom break before resuming. As Li headed off for the ladies room, Baan followed his buddy Grumby into the mens room. “You got away with one!” he laughed. Grumby then told him something wildly unexpected. “I grabbed the wrong tile. By the time I realized it, it was too late.”
He had meant to play MINT, and make NOVA, but grabbed the X instead of the N by mistake – a shocking error for a player of Grumby’s quality, but he’d considered playing a different word using the X and had what he would later characterize as a brain fart. By rule, once a player releases his hand from the final tile he or she plays, it’s final. Had he only not released his finger from the T, he could have unplayed the X and avoided the controversy.
When Grumby returned to the table, Li was waiting for him, none the wiser. He felt bad, and wanted to apologize to her, but them’s the breaks. He would figure out a proper apology after.
Game 5 was a tight one. Grumby was saddled with a bunch of vowels with his tiles while Li was sitting on the always tough Z, X and J tiles. After several more turns back and forth of conservative plays, Grumby had acquired a better tile situation and was able to play EMBARGO, a full 7 tile, 50 point bonus on top of the word score. Li had edged to a narrow lead but was now seemingly hopelessly behind. She smiled at Grumby and said, “Nice one.” If there was a silver lining to Grumby’s huge play, it was that it opened up opportunities for Li. She was able to play HAZE on a double word score, ridding herself of the troublesome Z and climbing back to within striking distance.
Grumby had gotten unlucky with his new 7 tiles and didn’t have any great options. Sometimes when a player is in this situation, they’ll try to gum up the open tiles by playing a series of two letter words along it, but Grumby chose to open up a different avenue by playing OVA using the O from EMBARGO.
This is when it all went to hell. Li, who had remained mostly stoic throughout the match, laughed to herself. She looked up at Grumby and said, “You’re gonna either hate me or laugh.” She played XI, making XOVA with the X as well. Grumby smiled, and shook his head. “That’s insane,” he said.
Inside his head, an internal debate raged. He now knew that XOVA wasn’t a word, but he had been credited for it in game 3. Was it fair to challenge? By rule, the officials can’t intervene unless a player challenges a word. Patel’s eyes betrayed nothing behind his professorial glasses.
“Hell with it,” Grumby mumbled to himself. “Challenge,” he called loudly.
Wasting no time, Patel strode to the table and made a dramatic signal like an NFL referee would indicate an incomplete pass, and in an even voice said, “No word.”
Li was incredulous, more than upset. “How is that possible?”
Patel’s face turned red from embarrassment and he explained the error to Li. She said nothing, nodded grimly and stood. “I concede,” she said.
“The game isn’t over yet! Anything can happen!” Grumby tried in vain to convince her to finish the match, but her decision was made.
Prize money was given and the most controversial finish in organized Scrabble history was recorded in the annals. What’s done is done.
So, if you’ll now check your calendar, you’ll see it’s April Fools, and none of this actually ever happened. But what IS happening, is that The Stain is back. And along with our usual stylistic content, rife with nincompoopery and absurdity, we’ll be featuring a monthly segment called, “Did it Happen?” We’ll tell you a crazy story about a sporting event, and it will be up to you to determine whether it happened or not. No Googling allowed!
Thanks for reading.