Simmons is no hobbyist. He’s a professional Scrabble player. The 60-year-old Scotsman has built a reputation as one of the game’s most trusted minds. He co-wrote every edition of “Official Scrabble Words” and recently wrote “Scrabble Trainer,” published by HarperCollins. He earned work as a word expert on the British game show “Countdown” and wrote a Scrabble column and daily puzzle for the Times of London. He even left his job as an IT project manager to become a full-time Scrabble consultant.
The Association of British Scrabble Players — which he co-founded and led as president for 11 years — instituted the ban after finding him guilty of “actions that led to a suspicion of cheating.”
The Times of London then dropped him as a columnist.
He was first reported this summer by Lewis Mackay, 32, who said in a statement on Facebook that he witnessed Simmons cheat repeatedly. The Scrabble world is a small one, with players often attending the same competitions each year.
While waiting for his own match, Mackay idly watched Simmons play a game during a tournament in September 2016. He noticed Simmons draw a tile, look at it and replace it — a clear violation of the rules. So he decided to keep a close eye on the veteran if they ever faced off.
His chance came during June’s British Masters in Yarnfield, England.
The two were playing a timed match, which comes with specific rules. The letter tiles are kept in a bag so players pull new ones blindly. To ensure this, players must raise the bag to shoulder length while pulling new tiles, and they also must splay open their hands to show they aren’t swapping out a common tile for a more enticing one, according to the Times of London.
“While I was scoring his moves, I had my eyes fixed on the tiles on the table as he drew them,” Mackay said in a statement. “He would draw tiles one at a time and lift each tile slightly to look at it once it was on the table. On three separate occasions, I saw him lift the tile out of my vision, having looked at it.”
Mackay was troubled. He wanted to report it but worried he wouldn’t be taken seriously. Compared to Simmons, a giant in the world of Scrabble, Mackay was basically a beginner. He spent the entire next day agonizing “over what I should say.”
“I was greatly distressed by what I had seen,” he added.
He finally reported it to the Association of British Scrabble Players, which investigated Simmons. It found that at least two other players witnessed Simmons draw a tile then, with the tile still in hand, reach back into the bag to grab a few more.
“The natural conclusion had been that he had been cheating,” Elie Dangoor, a committee member of the Association of British Scrabble Players, told the Associated Press.
The committee then launched an independent probe into the cheating allegations, finding at least four instances of cheating that dated back to 2016 — which Simmons denied. But he admitted he may have accidentally held the bag lower than he should have, and he may have forgotten to open his hand with each draw.
“While I believe I always showed an open hand before drawing fresh letters, if drawing one or two at a time I may not have always had an open hand for each dip in the bag,” Simmons told the Times of London.
“Likewise, holding the bag may not have always been strictly at shoulder height. You have to remember that at the top level, games can be quite intense and there’s a lot going through one’s mind let alone remembering to religiously ensure tile drawing rules are followed meticulously.”
Mackay doesn’t seem to buy it.
“I have been completely disgusted by this whole affair,” Mackay said in a statement. “Scrabble is a game that I have enjoyed greatly over the past two decades and more, pitting my wits against the best in the world and meeting fascinating new people. It sours the whole experience entirely when I discover that someone I had a great deal of respect for was not playing in the same manner as the rest of the community.”
“There’s no one person bigger than the game,” Dangoor told the Guardian.
Simmons, who could not be reached for comment, told the Times he “had actually been winding down the number of tournaments” he played in, because keeping up with the game had grown tiring and stressful.
“I will rise above this issue and get on with more important things in life than playing Scrabble,” he told the Times of London.