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Bluffing in Scrabble

Everybody accepts that bluffing in poker is an accepted part of the game; without it it would be the intellectual equivalent of tic-tac-toe.  With it, poker rivals chess for complexity.

Scrabble has rules for challenges; you put down a sequence of letters, and if the next person thinks it's not a word, they challenge.  You look it up, and if it's a word, the challenger loses the points for that word; if it isn't a word, you lose your points and something else bad happens (you lose double?  whatever.)

Anyway, on Wednesday someone put down a word in Quiddler (which uses, effectively, Scrabble rules for challenges) that I thought might or might not be a word, but it was suspect.  This person was making a big deal out of it, basically goading me into challenging; it would be a joy for him to see a challenge.  And I thought, well, he's too eager, he's playing it up for the reverse psychology.  Well, it was (kinda) a word; there was another annoying thing about this that I won't go into, but I was convinced that he was not bluffing, and I took the point hit.

But my question is this: is bluffing a part of the game of Scrabble?  Or is the intent of the rule only to deal with unintentional misspelling?  If Bart Simpson plays "kwyjibo" and convinces his family not to challenge, by his demeanor or by some other means, has he cheated at Scrabble, or has he played the rules to the fullest?

Poll #431011 Bluffing in Scrabble

Is bluffing in Scrabble cheating?



( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 4th, 2005 03:08 pm (UTC)
there are lots of "quasi-words" that folks use in scrabble all the time. I've been playing online at games.com for about 2 years now, and every now and again I get away with some bluffs for words, or I've faked folks out with the chat portion saying "Well, at least I think that's a word" knowing full well it is, then they challenge, and I get another turn! It's evil, I know!
Feb. 4th, 2005 03:11 pm (UTC)
Playing by official rules, say in a tournament or the like, bluffing is definitely not cheating. And what about when you're not sure if something is a word? Is using it bluffing? Well, maybe. And sometimes you really think something is in the OWL but it's not. The OWL isn't some canonical list of real words, after all, it's merely the list of words for American Scrabble.

Now, playing casual games at home is another matter. Most people (myself included) do not play with official challenge rules in casual games.

Bluffing certainly isn't *nice*, since it's basically a matter of someone who knows more words (or is more familiar with the OWL) taking advantage. The most evil incidence of this that I know was referenced in Word Freak -- when an experienced player plays a word they know is not official because their opponent is a relative newbie and either won't realize, or will just assume that the experienced player knows what thy are doing, so they don't challenge. Then when the newbie does something like play another word by attaching an S onto the fake word, the experienced player challenges successfully. Mean mean.
Feb. 4th, 2005 03:12 pm (UTC)
Complete off topic as I do not play Scrabble, too many fights break out in my house over it, but I LOVE the icon!

Oh I can feel it.
Feb. 4th, 2005 03:22 pm (UTC)
Fran would be referring to me and Tony.

See, it's not *cheating* per se, as it's not against the rules. It's not against the rules to play an invalid word. Once I played "spiney" and we didn't realize until a few turns out that the word is actually "spiny".

I get frustrated because Tony will often put down 2 letter words because he thinks they're words. We don't do the "lose a turn" thing when challenging, btw. This encourages him (and lately me, though I'm loath to do it) to just put down a word and hope.

I haven't found the right word for what it is. It's something like "immoral" or "unethical", and it's the same term I use for people who memorize the 2 letter word lists and then play "xu" and have no idea what it means. Or people who know that "qi" is the newly accepted way to spell "chi" but since it's not in the Scrabble dictionary, they challenge and I lost.

Bluffing is indeed good strategy, so I'd say it's encouraged. Using words that you memorized simply to improve your strategy? Having a 50-50 chance of being right (or maybe more than 50-50) and getting lots of points? Good strategy.

What about British words/spellings? Would you accept "bobby" as a word? how about "grey"?
Feb. 4th, 2005 03:26 pm (UTC)
I'd accept "grey," certainly. "bobby" is tougher.
Feb. 4th, 2005 03:30 pm (UTC)
I think you and I grew up learning that Scrabble is a word game in which you use words you know, and therefore learn new words. Yes, I subscribe to dictionary lists and I know that "ukase" is a great scrabble word meaning "edict". I also read National Geographic's article and know that "qat" is an addictive substance taken orally, mild stimulant, kind of like chewing tobacco, only it doesn't require spitting, and they chew it all the time in Arabic countries (the article was on Libya).

But Scrabble is not about your word prowess, just as poker is not about your ability to find full houses and pairs. Poker is about *strategy*, as is scrabble. It's hard to win in scrabble making wonderful 5 and 6 letter words with 1 point letters. they may be great words (consider ukase, for example, only the k has any points), but they don't get points.

so yeah, bluffing is *part* of the game. It's not encouraged, and it's not in the "strategy" section of the rules, but it's there.
Feb. 4th, 2005 04:56 pm (UTC)
i'm not so sure i agree with you; there are a number of aspects of Scrabble in which strategy comes into play that have nothing to do with psychology or "faking out" the opponent, e.g. making words that are suboptimal choices in an effort to open up the vast expanses of the upper-left corner of the board, or refraining from making a high-scoring word because it would position your opponent to hit a triple-word square.

but then again, i have a significant bias here - i don't find poker to be entertaining at all (though i've been enjoying reading about my friend herooftheage's online Texas Hold'Em exploits), because the actual mechanics of the game are too simplistic and adversarial. my two favorite card games are bridge and euchre. in bridge, bluffing or any other quasi-cheating is frowned upon; the bidding in bridge is a conversation that takes place in a nuanced, abstract language in which statements have multiple meanings based on context and are constrained by a strict grammar, and the partnership that will succeed is the partnership that can communicate more effectively than their opponents. as my bridge mentor explained to me, ideally bridge players would state their bids with identical timing and intonation, as it is possible to convey all the information necessary simply by choosing the appropriate bid, and resorting to facial expressions or other nonverbal cues is a sign of lack of skill. of course, the more casual the game, the less stringent this rule becomes.

euchre, on the other hand, is bridge for slackers. the general mindset of the people i've played euchre with is that it is acceptable and indeed appropriate to cheat as much as one can get away with in terms of surreptitious communication with one's partner disguised as table-talk, and that a reasonably competent partner will subtly be keeping his ears open, but this is more because euchre lacks a mechanism comparable to bridge's bidding system for communication between partners.

perhaps i just haven't been playing scrabble with the right people, but i think i'd get pretty angry if i discovered that one of my scrabble opponents had knowingly played non-words in an attempt to bluff me or, worse yet, if he consistently puts forth bogus challenges.
Feb. 4th, 2005 06:40 pm (UTC)
I have played a lot of Euchre and have never heard such a thing -- to the contrary, I've never played with anyone who didn't feel explicitly otherwise, frowning on people even hemmin and hawing before bidding/passing. I don't know who YOUR friends are... :)
Feb. 4th, 2005 07:45 pm (UTC)
I've played euchre with people who think that anything you get away with is acceptable, right down to futzing with the scorecards.

My family usually restrains itself to things like having terrible difficulty deciding and such.
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 4th, 2005 05:24 pm (UTC)
It's open to interpretation. Personally I prefer to play cooperative scrabble, in which case intentionally bluffing would be cheating. (For that matter we don't use the official challenge rules when we play Scrabble.)

In a tournament setting it's not cheating -- I remember some good anecdotes -- but I think it really pisses people off when they find out.

I have the most fun playing Scrabble when we all refer to the list of 2 letter words. Personally we usually limit ourselves to superset of the Scrabble dictionary and the words that the overwhelming number of players consider to be words.
Feb. 6th, 2005 10:13 pm (UTC)
if you don't lose a turn for a bogus word, then the correct strategy is to do exactly what Tony does. It does ruin the game, in my opinion--which is why I would suggest using following the official rules on this point.
Feb. 4th, 2005 04:56 pm (UTC)
My one regret from Wednesday was that I didn't say "Ok, but I want a definition; I'm paying my 22 points for a definition of 'qre'."

We ended up looking up an existence proof without definition, since the unabridged m-w dictionary is only available for a fee.
Feb. 4th, 2005 05:47 pm (UTC)
As I agree with the general consensus that bluffing isn't cheating, but is not necessarily the way to play in a friendly game, I assert that this sort of thing is an error many people make in long-term versus short-term strategy.

Short-term strategy: Bluffing and playing hardball against people who prefer a more friendly game will let me win this Scrabble game.

Long-term strategy: Playing a more friendly game against people who prefer a friendly game will let me have a group of people who will keep playing friendly Scrabble with me.

(This diverts quickly into the Asssassin philosophy flame about whether it's acceptable to metagame about how people will behave based on how they behaved in previous games... :) )
Feb. 4th, 2005 09:05 pm (UTC)
There are two competition rules for Scrabble. In both cases a successful challenge removes the incorrect word and the player who played it loses his turn.

The American rule is that a challenger loses his turn if he's wrong. The rule more prevalent in the rest of the world is that there's no penalty for a failed challenge.

So bluffing is clearly pointless in the international game. But it's a valid part of the American rule game.

At high level of competition this is entirely reasonable. Both players have studied the same wordlists and have a good chance of being able to detect a bogus word.

In friendly play I think it detracts from the game. Neither player is likely to have studied a relevant wordlist and neither player has any real basis to know whether AA is a word or not. (it is).

So allowing bluffing just turns into a big game of chicken where half the words on the board end up being bogus. That's not a good way to learn how to play well since none of those words will ever get past a stronger player.

The next time I play I intend to propose that we play by the international rule.
Feb. 5th, 2005 01:51 am (UTC)
We (my extended family and I, basically) usually play a gentler version of scrabble where it's acceptable to discuss whether things are words, check things in the dictionary, etc. Obviously in that version bluffing is out, or would at least be very rude. However, in competition scrabble with the challenge rules as written, I think bluffing is totally acceptable.
Feb. 6th, 2005 10:19 pm (UTC)
See, why rude? See my comment to rjpb below. I find it extremely frustrating to play games with people who deliberately shun an official rule is to penalize and disfavor strategy X, and then turn around and say that using strategy X is rude or out or otherwise socially punished.
Feb. 5th, 2005 08:55 am (UTC)
Regardless of whether it is cheating, bluffing is just dumb. I have never played a game where the challenger loses anything by making the challenge, nor do I believe any penalty is justified. Part of the point of a word game like Scrabble is to expand one's vocabulary, and a challenger who does not know a word is being given an opportunity to learn one.

Mainly, however, I think bluffing is dumb because I have such a large vocabulary, larger perhaps than anyone else I know. This sometimes causes problems because people cannot bluff me and because many words I know are not in most dictionaries (not even the OED, which is certainly incomplete in various ways). So I almost never play Scrabble anymore, because having such a large vocabulary bothers people.
Feb. 6th, 2005 10:17 pm (UTC)
If you don't have a penalty for a failed word, then the correct strategy is deliberately push the envelope on words, putting arbitrarily dubious words down.

Now you might say, "but that's bad!" And I ask, "why is it bad?" I much prefer tinkering with the rules to prohibit or discourage bad play than to say "we're playing a game, these are the rules, and oh, there are extra rules, not written, which you also have to follow and it's bad to break them; we'll get upset and refuse to play with you any more if you break them."

So if you want to play scrabble with me, you get two choices: play with the official challenge rules, and lose a turn for bad words, or I get to put down arbitrarily bogus crap and page through the dictionary. You can't complain about the latter if you are unwilling to actually use the rules that discourage them.
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )