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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

From Our Roving Reporter in the Field: Scrabble Cheating for 826NYC (Or How to Beat John Hodgman and John Oliver in an Unfair Fight)

For once I didn’t have to do the work on this one.  Successful people designate, right?  Well a little while ago I encouraged you sweet readers to contribute money to the remarkable group 826NYC which allows kids in Brooklyn the chance to get free tutoring.  The method of donation was by sponsoring my friend Davin Coburn, reporter for Popular Mechanics and all around nice guy, and his Scrabble partner.  The more you contributed, the more chances that particular team has to cheat.  Money = the chance to cheat in this game.  And who did Davin and his partner face on the first round?  None other than that dynamic and famous duo of John Hodgman and John Oliver.  How did our heroes fare?  Well, let’s just say that Mr. Hodgman has yet to discuss the moment on his blog.  Davin, on the other hand, has this to report:

First and foremost, through your generous support, our team raised $1,900 for 826NYC. Event organizers initially hoped to raise a couple hundred bucks, from about a dozen teams. They got 40 teams. As for exceeding expectations, this ranked somewhere between the ’69 Mets and sacred oil burning for eight days. And Elaine and I put every dollar to good use.

As you know, we drew the team of well-funded Daily Show correspondents, John Hodgman and John Oliver, in the first round. Along with four players, each table had a dedicated judge for scoring and collecting “cheat” cards; ours was author and NPR contributor Sarah Vowell, a friend of our opponents. (Those familiar with their work will not be surprised to learn that as we sat down, Mr. Hodgman launched into a discussion with her about Ulysses S. Grant, and the history of presidential vetoes and budget appropriations. I was glad we could cheat.)

Mr. Oliver opened with BURP, and then tiles flew everywhere. Elaine immediately went to the bank, adding 10 points to a D on a triple-letter score and hauling in 41 points with BEDS. Mr. Hodgman cheated to dump all seven tiles on WAGONEER, for 83. After my lame 12-point opener (RIPS), your $500 helped me bingo in turn No. 2 with ROTKHRI across the top, over multiple bonus squares. Is ROTKHRI a word? Of course not. But after deciding that it sounded like a 21st-century species of horror movie monster, I created it. For 119 points.

Back came Hodgmoliver, with GENUINEQ, then EASTERLY and QSNOT. (That went for 68 points — and I encourage everyone to join me in yelling “Q-SNOT!” whenever a Mac vs. PC ad comes on TV.) Elaine slammed down JAILX for 57 points as both Merriam and Webster rolled in their graves. And I learned something about myself: For goofy games, I can turn my “competitive” dial way down. But there is no “off” switch there — and in the same vein, I don’t think Mr. Hodgman anticipated anyone fighting back in the first round.

And then, with four full racks and no tiles left in the bag, we got lucky: We trailed by 100, but still had one last create-a-word cheat. If I could empty my tiles, the game would end. We’d deduct Elaine’s letters from our final score — but Hodgmoliver would count off two racks. “Assured mutual destruction,” Mr. Hodgman said of the concept, as we openly discussed it across the table. The question was how monstrous a word I could create.

So I spied the free X and bonus squares along the right side, then unloaded XONCYIII — “um, it’s an ancient Eastern European musical instrument related to the xylophone,” I said — for 122 points. When the dust settled, we finished with 380 points; Hodgmoliver, 342. Had we not played it, Mr. Oliver would have won with CHEATER on the next turn.

To be fair, perhaps two things should be said: First, my final move was discussed as a table. I was likely to do it anyway, but it wasn’t until Mr. Hodgman pointed out that it would end the game that it became really intriguing. He certainly didn’t have to say anything.

Also, Elaine and I combined to average 48 points per play, but our scores were only impressive because of the cheats. As standard Scrabblers, we have work to do — which we proved in the second round. Out of big-money chicanery and facing mercurial opponents who compacted the board to tinker with overlapping words, our Cinderella run ended with the pumpkin coach in a fiery wreck down in a gully. It wasn’t close.

Still, there are few times I’ve been happier to have my butt kicked. It was a great day, for the kids and the competitors. Thank you all again.


About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. That’s fantastic. It reads like one of the conversations my pals and I have in a bar with drinks instead of letter tiles and some of my favorite celebs…