In Scrabble, North America uses a rule called double: if player 1 plays a word, and player 2 challenges the validity of the word, then if the word is invalid, player 1 removes their word and loses their turn. However, if the word IS valid, then player 2 forfeits their turn.
Internationally, the rule is much for lenient for player 2: instead of forfeiting their turn, they forfeit 5 points but get to make a play next turn. (This is known as 5-point challenge.) This penalty is a complete slap on the wrist: it does enough to prevent fortuitous challenges, but that’s basically it. There’s also single challenge (no penalty whatsoever) although this is now played less frequently than 5-point challenge.
Many people have suggested that North America change its rules to fit the international standard, arguing that the penalty is draconian. I do sympathize with this issue somewhat, and if it takes changing the challenge rule to accommodate new players and that’s what it takes to grow the game, I understand. I do hope we stick with double, but if we must switch, I’d just rather play void (my preferred alternative, neither player is penalized for an invalid word) or even free challenge (player 2 is never penalized for an incorrect challenge).
That being said, my overall preference, especially as a competitor, is to play double, and I think this is the best challenge rule available. Lately, double has taken a bit of a PR hit, with many players pressuring us to get rid of this rule. Therefore, I decided to write this article to share five reasons why I believe that double is a better challenge rule than 5 point challenge:
1. The 5 point penalty still feels draconian.
The best argument against double is that it’s draconian, and that weaker players will feel like they’re being taken advantage of. This remains true for 5 point challenge. The resent of weaker players stems from the existencerather than the extentof such a penalty. And it’s that feelingwhich drives players away from the game, even if the penalty itself is less severe and doesn’t affect game play. Those who feel gypped from the double challenge rule will likely still feel gypped playing 5-point challenge.
2. You’re dissuading people from experimenting, and sometimes even from making cool plays they’re unsure of.
Let’s say it’s turn 2, and your opponent opens with DID, and you have DEIJRRU. You have JURIED at 7c or 9c for 30 points, but then you spot the possibility of DIDJERIDU for 60. Now, you’re not sure this is how the word is spelled. After all, this word doesn’t come up in print much, and you haven’t studied all the 9s. In addition, you’re not even sure that this word exists at all. Maybe this is just a made up word and doesn’t exist in the dictionary.
Taking the chance on a word like this is much more viable in double challenge for two reasons: if it’s valid and your opponent challenges you get a significant reward, and your opponent might not challenge even if it is invalid. These factors make this sort of risk-taking far more valid in double than in 5 point challenge on behalf of player 1.
3. You’re increasing the skill level of the game by giving player 2 a genuine decision.
At 5 point challenge, there really is no decision for player 2: whenever he’s not sure, he challenges. Heck, even if he thinks it’s good, he’ll challenge, and certainly in the DIDJERIDU example I’d expect a challenge. When challenging you’re usually laid approximately 8-1 odds on your challenge, meaning if you’re right one out of 9 times, the challenge will be correct, meaning that there’s less strategy involved in your decision.
Meanwhile, in double you have a much harder decision. Your odds aren’t nearly as good: you need to be correct about your challenge almost half of the time to make your challenge worthwhile, and the consequences for losing the challenge is much more severe. This makes player 2 have to think and makes the game more complex, and thereby increases the skill involved in being a winning player.
4. It makes comebacks more likely, especially for better players.
Double challenge is an excellent way to create an artificial comeback mechanic. This is because as player 1 falls behind, he should be playing more phoneys (and words that might draw challenges) while player 2 should be challenging less often (as it risks his lead). For this reason, it’s much easier to stage a comeback in double challenge as opposed to 5 point challenge.
This is significant, especially in the current metagame where winning that extra percentage against the weaker players is so important. Because of the way tournaments work, beating a weaker player 80% (as opposed to 75%) means just as much as beating an elite player 53% (as opposed to 48%). Double gives stronger players a significant edge needed to deal with variance, which is one of the reasons why the same players consistently perform well in major tournaments.
5. It encourages phoneys.
One of the most appealing parts of games is the ability to deceive or outmaneuver your opponents. In fact, these gambits are commonplace in lots of games. While poker is the most obvious example, deceit is an important part of many games, including most sports (What is the next pitch?) and e-sports (games like Magic the Gathering for example). Games allow this type of mischief. Phoneys require a whole new skill set and allow more variation in what is possible, resulting in a game that is a lot more fun, and expands the scope beyond just words.