Gustavson Column: Protecting the Scrabble-cheating kid

Back in June, I wrote a column about local businesses, such as North Fork Potato Chips, that have established a national reach. Among the businesses I neglected to mention (Preston’s, Widows Hole Oyster Co., etc.) is one that even has the word “national” in its title: the National Scrabble Association, which, like Preston’s and the oyster company, is based in Greenport, right there in a quaint white building at the southwest corner of Front and Fourth streets.

And if you were paying attention you may already know that the National Scrabble Association and the popular board game it oversees were in the national (and international!) news last week, in a very large way. And that means the executive director of the association, Greenport’s own John D. Williams Jr., was very much in the news, too.

If you missed it in The New York Times, NBC-TV’s “Rock Center,” ABC-TV’s “Good Afternoon America” or one of the hundreds of media outlets that covered the story, it originated out of the National Scrabble Championship in Orlando, Fla., where 342 top players gathered to flex their X’s and O’s. The $10,000 top prize was won, by a scant 13 points, by four-time national champion Nigel Richards of New Zealand, but that news was greatly overshadowed by a cheating incident involving an unidentified — and more on that below — youth who was caught red-handed “palming” both of the blank tiles that can be the difference between winning and losing in tournament-level Scrabble.

By all accounts, the incident was handled properly. The boy was observed cheating by more than one player, questioned by a tournament official, admitted to cheating and was promptly banned from the competition. And the Scrabble judicial process is just beginning. Based on past incidents, the youthful offender is looking at suspension from tournament play for three to five years and probation after that.

In the past, before the Worldwide Web and social media, the Orlando Cheating Incident might have ended there. But that’s not how it went down.

While tournament officials still were discussing the incident moments after it happened, John Williams took a break to check his laptop. And he found that three tournament players — two of whom were not even there in the hotel — had already posted something on the Internet! “We’re talking within 10 minutes,” John recounted in an email message this week.

“I knew then that this thing was probably going to go viral,” John continued. “I had to act fast to both control the story/information and to try to protect the boy’s identity. The Scrabble tournament world was frenzied. Most were demanding blood, a quick and severe punishment. Unfortunately, they knew the kid’s name and were using it.”

What John did then was call a friend who works for the Associated Press, who referred him to an AP reporter in Florida. “He did a great, quick piece based on our conversation,” John wrote — even mentioning John’s own Scrabble book in the process — “and the story was picked up worldwide immediately.”

Within 15 minutes “it was as if the boy had been vaporized, had never been there,” John wrote. “His record was erased, his name and photo removed from all online event materials. His parents were called and they immediately left the hotel, left Orlando.”

It was then that John’s phone began ringing off the hook — CNN, ABC, NBC, New York Times, CBS, Atlantic Monthly, BBC, London Times and a dozen more. And despite the mounting pressure, John refused to reveal the name, age or state of the cheating player because he was a minor.

A network talk show even called to ask what the chances were of getting the boy on the show the next day. “Less than zero,” John told them. “Go back to Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.”

To date, the incident has spawned over 500 news stories worldwide.

The great irony, of course, is that the most exciting National Scrabble Championship in the 30-year history of the event was eclipsed by the story of the boy and his palmed blank tiles. John Williams and his Greenport-based staff — most notably his wife and business partner, Jane Williams — get paid in large part to keep the name Scrabble in the news, but they’d just as soon not do it like this.

“Believe me, I know the kid did wrong and so did he,” John wrote in his email. “And he needs to be punished. Hey, I take Scrabble fairly seriously. And, arguably, there are thousands of people who by conventional behavioral standards take it too seriously. But I do not want to be a part of knowingly screwing up a kid’s life.”

[email protected]

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