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Cheating incident casts shadow over Scrabble tournament

By T. Keung Hui and Thomas Goldsmith, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) –

RALEIGH, N.C. — An Apex, N.C., teenager’s ejection for cheating from the National Scrabble Championship has sparked international media coverage and buzz throughout the Internet.

Tournament officials said the 13-year-old forfeited his all-ages matches last week after being caught taking a pair of blank tiles before a game.

John D. Williams Jr, executive director of the National Scrabble Association, declined to name the player because of his age, but tournament records for the Apex player and other contestants confirmed his identity.

A family friend speaking for the 13-year-old’s family said Monday they would have no comment. The News & Observer has chosen not to name the player because of his age.

News that youthful cheating had hit the family board game turned into obsessive sport created a stream of reports on Twitter and multiple websites, as well as newspaper and television pieces. They included an article in Thursday’s New York Times sports section and mentions on ABC’s “Good Afternoon America,” CBS News, the Associated Press’ the Wire roundup, the online news magazine Slate, and MSNBC’s “Rock Center.”

“It’s unfortunate,” Williams said. “It overshadowed an amazing tournament.”

The Wake County teen was a rising young player in the world of competitive Scrabble, beating far older opponents. In a prior national championship, he won his all-ages division.

But his strong previous performance raised suspicions.

The phenom found himself under greater scrutiny from some of the 350 players at last week’s national championship tournament in Orlando, Fla. He was competing in division three, the third-highest of the tournament’s four divisions.

It’s a marathon tournament consisting of 31 matches over five days. After each match, the 100 Scrabble pieces are placed in the tile bag.

Before the start of the 24th match last Tuesday, the teen’s adult opponent called over the tournament director, who discovered that the two blank tiles were not in the bag. Tournament officials say the 13-year-old was questioned and admitted to taking the tiles.

The blank tiles are valuable because players can use them as wild card letters to help form words.

Williams said this was the first time a player has been caught cheating at a national championship. There can be an incentive to cheat with $10,000 going to the winner of the top division. If the Apex teen had won again, he would have received a $2,000 prize.

In addition to ejecting the teen from the tournament, Williams said the association will take further sanctions against him.

“It was embarrassing to me that someone from North Carolina Scrabble has dishonored us,” said Bruce Shuman, 71, of Wilmington, N.C., who participated in the national tournament. “But I’m prepared to cut him some slack. He’s 13.”

Shuman described the teen as a “nice kid” who should have relied on his already high natural intelligence.

At last week’s award ceremony, Arthur Moore, the Florida player who caught the teenager, received a standing ovation.

“He’s a complete hero,” Shuman said of Moore. “Someone had to expose the child before he did it again.”

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