Doing it on the tiles

Friday, 23 July 2004 — 12:54pm | Scrabble

Last night I was at the receiving end of a loophole in the Scrabble Tournament Rules, one that I had known about for a long time but had never personally observed. It comes from a unique situation where you can exploit the overtime penalty of ten points deducted for every minute over, rounded up, and the stalemate rule that six consecutive turns with a score of zero result in a draw.

So there I am with an unplayable Q on my rack and “00:00:00” on my clock. If my opponent plays his remaining tiles, the game ends, the clock is neutralized and he gets a twenty-point bonus off my Q. But alas, my opponent is Jason Krueger (who, it was observed, may be the bastard child of two classic movie monsters) – and what he does is not only crafty, but perfectly legal.

“I just wanted to warn you,” he says, “that I’m going to be a jerk.” As his clock keeps ticking – he has about three minutes left – he explains his diabolical plan in true James Bond tradition: because regardless of whether or not any legal moves remain, it takes three consecutive passes by both players to end the game, he was going to pass two of those three turns – pushing me a second into overtime, and knocking me down by ten points. Only then would he play off his tiles and bring the match to its conclusion. It was quite courteous of him to notify me beforehand, really – pull that off without warning in front of a stressed and antsy player who hasn’t read the fine print, and you can bet on some rising tension in the room.

Combined with the Q, that boosts his point spread by thirty. He already had the game in the bag, so in the context of a single game, the move was inconsequential; but in a tournament setting where win-loss ties are broken by cumulative spread, it could make all the difference.

Roger Ebert, whether you agree with him or not, is always an entertaining read. In his three-star review of the Scrabble documentary Word Wars, he says of the rack-and-tile subculture:

Scrabble is one way to kill time. I can think of better ways to pass obsessive, lonely, anti-social lives; a documentary named Cinemania is about people who literally attempt to spend every waking hour watching movies, seven days a week. At least they get to see the movies. After a Scrabble player has triumphantly played a word that contains Q without U, where does he go from there? How long can you treasure that memory?

Actually, QAT is the most-played word in the game at the tournament level, and the list of words containing Q but not U (which, incidentally, is sold as a T-shirt) is one of the first thing a player learns. The first ‘bingo’, a play using all seven tiles – now that’s a milestone. Then you have the first game over 500, or in very rare cases, 600; I have yet to surmount the latter myself.

Then you have the guys who memorize the entire dictionary. They are in a class of their own.

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