How to lose at Scrabble, by example

Sunday, 1 August 2004 — 8:35pm | Scrabble, Tournament logs

Okay, this is ridiculous.

Today was the first game day of the 2004 National Scrabble Championship held this year in New Orleans, the city that not only gave us the legendary Louis Armstrong, but named their international airport after him. (Now that’s class.) Originally my plan was to document the thirty rounds I am playing over the course of this week to give the regular readers back home a sense of what an intermediate-level game on the competitive circuit looks like, but given where I am in the standings after the first eight matches, this may no longer be exposé of fancy plays and astronomical scores as much as it is fodder for thorough personal humiliation.

Alas, the sheer embarrassment of what is perhaps my worst performance in any sanctioned tournament to date is hardly grounds to break promises to oneself and to one’s readership. In fact, it could serve as an inspiration, a public self-inflicted flogging of sorts to quite literally whip me back into shape. So below, for your amusement, is a demonstration of what happens when I play like an idiot.

But first, a quick primer of some of the terminology I use, for the benefit of the laypeople in the audience. Words played are indicated in all caps, except for blanks, which are described in lowercase when used, as question marks when unused. An asterisk next to a word indicates a phony, or a word not in the tournament dictionary. A bingo is a play using all seven letters on the rack, which awards the player a 50-point bonus. Power tiles refer to the four S’s, two blanks, J, Q, X and Z due to their scoring potential. Occasionally I will use grid notation: columns are alphabetized from A to O, and rows are numbered from 1 to 15. A horizontal play is indicated by the row number before the column letter; a vertical play, vice versa. For example, if I played a word that started on the centre square and worked its way to the right, it would be at 8H. If it worked its way down, it would be at H8. Got it? Great. Without further ado, here we go.

Round 1 vs. Gene Rawlins:

This is an example of how to secure a victory with a well-planned endgame. It was a tight match from beginning to end; the power tile draws were equitable, and even when I pulled off a 100-point lead by playing tROTTING on a triple for 77, Gene responded two moves later with GERMaNIC. Completely forgetting that GERMANIC is allowed (in reference to germanium, and not the barbarians on the outskirts of Rome) I make an unsuccessful challenge. At the time I held RESIDUE, which could have been hooked under the R in ROUGE, but Gene’s bingo blocked the spot and I never played it off.

The score was 372-333 when my opponent emptied the bag with JEEP for 42, and here it gets interesting. My rack is EIKRSSU, and I contemplate playing LIKERS at 15C to hit the triple for 33, but thinking that he held BOLW (it was actually a C, not an O) I retracted, as he could score a big counterplay with WO on 14F for 28, securing a victory. I almost play RISK at 5B, hooking the S on JEEP, but recall that he has a B and can play out by extending it to BRISK – which in reality he couldn’t, as he has no vowels. So I settle for KISS at the same spot for 30, seeing that I had a big out-play in the making. Gene plays WaB for 16; I dispense of my remaining tiles with RUNE, turning QUIT into QUITE, for 22 – then get an 8-point bonus for his remaining tiles, C and L. Final score: 392-389 in my favour.

Inexplicably, this is the best I do all day.

With a 1-0 (+3) record on my belt, I head into Round 2 against Joe McCollum:

Every now and then, the tiles swing in your favour. Round 2 was my Requisite Lucky Game – I held all the power tiles except for a blank and an S, though the Q doesn’t really count for reasons I will soon reveal. I played SILLIEr for 68 and HEARTHS for 83 in opportune spots, and by the time there were four tiles in the bag, I held CEEMOOY and a somewhat commanding lead of 337-263. The unseen tiles were AEEINNGOQRT, and there were two open bingo lanes: through TURDS, and over the E in CURVE. The obvious move is MOC at 14E, closing the lane but leaving a tile in the bag as insurance. However, being greedy for spread, I play COME for 26 to block the U and hopefully stick my opponent with the Q – whereupon he plays RENTING for 64 and gets a bonus of 38 for sticking me with AEEOOQY, emptying his rack with no tiles in the bag. I lose, 363-365.

Even if I had played MOC, he could have played RETUNING on a double down the open U, but he would have had to pick up a tile, and while the Q-stick would still decide the game, I could have had a fighting chance to hold what was otherwise a sure win. As it turns out, violating every endgame principle in the book was not the end of the stupidity that went on today, though it was certainly the most egregious move on my part.

Round 3 vs. Jerri Bergeron:

In this game I held about three different bingo racks in succession, only I had no place to play the words in question, as they all ended in S. A few turns later, my bingo-prone tiles had largely disappeared. Then Jerri plays AROINTS for 81, extending HOOKS to SHOOKS. I challenge SHOOKS, which, had I known it, would have provided me with an easy bingo several turns earlier. It’s acceptable, and I lose a turn with an 86-point deficit. I manage to squeak out rEFINES for 83 a little later, but she plays ZETA on a triple with the Z on the double for 69 points, sealing the deal. With a 354-434 loss, my record stands at 1-2 (-79).

Round 4 vs. Daniel Casey:

This round starts fairly well, despite being a low-scoring game on both sides. At one point he starts fishing for a bingo rack, and perceiving that, I start blocking to maintain the lead I earned early on when I played LIVENEd for 79. When I play TAP to block the lane in the top two rows, he finally strikes gold with ORDINALS for 76, which I could have foiled had I played PAT; I should have seen that O is far more likely the beginning of a word than its end. Things are still in order; within two turns I play CREATInE for 61, which would have been far safer had I made the blank a V instead of an N – only I didn’t even see CREATIvE, which is telling as to my state of mind.

What really loses the game for me, though, is when I fall behind by playing ENROOF* to the triple in the bottom right, which Dan challenges right off. He plays off both the Z and the J before I dump the rest of my tiles, and my score declines again as I head to a third straight loss, 339-355.

Round 5 vs. R. Jason Sommer:

Two serious blunders cost me this one. I challenge COLONUS, which my opponent plays for 75 points to the left of EsTRONE, which I played earlier for 77; it turns out to be good. I trail him for the rest of the game by a small margin; my final rack was EEFISTY, and I knew his was EGILSS?. I play REIFY for 22 to block a potential bingo, missing a huge play – FEY at J12 to hook onto PREXY for 42 points, still blocking the same lane but pulling within striking distance. As such, I concede another amateurishly low-scoring game, 321-352.

With 1-4 (-126) record, things are looking pretty dire. Then comes Round 6 against Teresa Sanders:

So far, all my games had been fairly balanced in terms of luck; the four losses could largely be attributed to bad gamesmanship under relatively even circumstances. In Round 6 I get hit with the Requisite Unlucky Game, and it is horrifying. Teresa gets the run of the board with two early bingos, HARDENS for 67 and CREATIoN for 68. I am still within range to retake the lead with a bingo of my own as the game nears its conclusion. Finding no place to play ApOGEES, I play off the E and O in DOE to open a second lane for myself. Joke’s on Nick, as she just happens to hold the tiles to play ESQUIRES for 104.

Thankfully, this time around I had learned my lesson from Round 2, and left a tile in the bag – picking up R and Y, leaving a U. I played out with my only bingo of the game, GYRAtES for 86, but ESQUIRES had already decided the game. It’s a fifth straight drubbing, 340-411 – well into the zone of personal record lows.

Round 7 with Helen B. Douglas continues punishing me for squandering the games where I actually had good draws:

Now it’s my turn to draw only an S and a blank while my opponent makes big plays with all the other power tiles, like QATS for 35, OX for 36, extended to SILEX for 36, and MAZE for 38. Despite two bingos on my part – tAURINE for 69 and ISOLATED for 70 – the lack of strong plays in between and the good fortune of my adversary resulted in the biggest loss of the day, 325-438 – a spread of 113 points in the red.

Round 8 vs. Kit Morehead finished off the catastrophic first day of play:

Again, a low-scoring game on a tight board, and my first with no bingos. When the bag was emptied, Kit had a marginal lead of 303-283 and held the rack ADEINOL, while I had EFGITU?, which makes FaTIGUE, only that had no place to go. So I meticulously calculated an optimal endgame strategy, first considering FITtER down to the R in QUIRES and then playing off the G and the U elsewhere (say, BUG at 6M), then realizing GUTtER for 12 would work better despite scoring less, as I could play out with FIR or IFS for another 12. Kit plays DIRL for 12, blocking FIR, so I go with IFS. With 8 points for her leftover tiles, AENO, I tie the game at 315 apiece.

That is, until we conduct a Florida-style recount, and discover that she scored 30 for DINGED, not 27, and 75 for BATTErS, not 74. Final score: 315-319.

So there you have it, folks: a public, game-by-game (if not blow-by-blow, which would have been much too painful to recount) recollection of the very worst single day I have had playing Scrabble. A seven-game losing streak places me at 1-7, -314 – 165th in a division of 169 players; not quite rock-bottom, but negligibly indistinguishable from it.

At the other end of the spectrum, fellow Calgarian Albert Hahn – who beat me by over 200 points on Thursday in my last game before leaving town – is currently in third place in Division 1 with a 7-1 (+589) record, even defeating Scrabble legend and defending champion Joel Sherman – who, incidentally, is the spitting image of a balding, forty-two-year-old Kyle Kawanami.

Those of you who know our favourite Virgil-quoting UADS President would have no idea just how uncanny the resemblance is from pictures alone (far left); it becomes evident when you see ‘G.I. Joel’ in person – the sinus problems, the walk and everything. Alternatively, you could see him – among other Scrabble legends, some of whom I met at the opening banquet last night – in the documentary Word Wars, whenever it happens to come by Alberta, which is not anytime soon.

I did get to catch the film tonight at a special screening by director and top-division expert Eric Chaikin, which was followed by a short Q&A session. I would write a review, but it will have to wait as I need some rest, lest the seven-loss calamity be extended to eight.


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