That’s the way the daiquiri crumbles

Wednesday, 4 August 2004 — 10:04pm | Scrabble, Tournament logs

You know that part in Spider-Man 2 when Peter Parker loses his super spider-powers? And you know how in a later segment, he soars off a rooftop with unfettered elation that they seem to have returned, only to take a plunge into the parking lot below? That pretty much describes my tournament.

Below are the last six games I played at this year’s Nationals, but they come with the disclaimer that precisely none of them demonstrate how to play the game properly.

Round 24 is with Rose Noel, who points out her name’s unfortunate anagram, “one loser”. Sadly for me, that is not the case:

An early bingo, DeLATED for 71, puts her well in the lead. The lead grows as I squander a few turns struggling to balance my rack by dumping the less desirable tiles, and I still trail by a significant margin even when I come across an opportunity to bingo with INVOICES for 78. I play TIC at M2 to open a bingo lane in an effort to catch up. Here, my opponent makes a mistake: holding AEHRSS? (which makes 30 bingos), she plays HASSlER* down M9 between MIX and PAIN, but I challenge it off. Instead of blocking that lane, however, I give up on trying to find a bingo in DDEIORR (there are none) and block the E-hook over TIC, a far more probable bingo lane. She returns to the position where she tried HASSlER* and as she fails to locate the other bingos that fit (such as bASHERS), she plays off the blank in HAtER. That scores 47 points, and is a game-winning move itself; my remaining plays are fairly weak, and the score is hardly respectable: 297-393.

Round 25 vs. Muriel Sparrow-Reedy:

This is not unlike what happened in Round 23 yesterday. While I spent my time making mediocre balancing plays and exchanging my way out of racks that refused to cooperate (GLNOQRS, for one), Muriel leapt ahead with two big plays: DENTURE for 77, and the bingo-sized SQUaT for 73. She uses the Q, Z, J and X in big plays, and despite ending up with an S and a blank near the end, I am well out of range, and she blocks all the openings she can. Holding AEOSTU? in my last rack, I stare at the row above FLING for a few minutes trying to visualize a bingo that hooks an O over GIVE; there are none. The weak plays near the end of the game leave me in the dust as I go down 281-396.

A three-game slump with scores under 300, at this level of competition, is a catastrophe. Bad luck and bad plays both shoulder the responsibility.

I miss Round 26 due to a bye in my odd-numbered division; in the record, it counts as a 50-point win, though ratings do not take this into account. It is by this happenstance alone that it looks like I score another victory, as my record goes up to a poor 9-17 (-105).

Round 27 is a rematch with Jamila Atcha, against whom I had my sole win on Tuesday:

My opponent plays two common stem bingos (URANiTE and AIGrETS) to my one (SENARII), but at the end of the game, it starts boiling down to the Q again. Unbeknownst to me, she dumps it in the bag in a late exchange; I play it safe, reducing the high-scoring spots for Q plays without making one completely impossible. Sure enough, I pick up the Q, and fail to recover my deficit in the last few plays. It’s an average game but the continuation of a far-less-than-average losing streak, 338-391.

Falling even further down into the bottom tables for the final session, the afternoon begins with Round 28 against Nick Fall:

My first mistake is accepting my opponent’s one bingo, aUREATES* for 66; I knew AUREATE was good, but it does not take an S. I catch up with a phony of my own, AVIDEST* (it should have been DATIVES, or better yet, VISTAED on a double-double) for 82 points. Despite staying close for most of the game, I fall behind when I waste a few turns on low-scoring dumps, like getting rid of my G’s in EGG for 9 points. Meanwhile, he pulls ahead with big plays like rIOJA on a triple for 42, and soars to a much larger margin than could have been envisioned just a few turns earlier. The one saving grace of this matchup was that I did indeed get to play the word NICK. Final score: 304-403.

Round 29 vs. Carla Chase:

I draw power tiles in this game, but at all the wrong times, and hold on to them at the expense of the rest of my rack. Carla pulls ahead with two big consecutive plays, WUTHER on a triple for 54, extended to WUTHERING for another 48. From there, she starts blocking like crazy – wise, as I have a number of stem bingos on my rack, and I eventually end up accumulating both blanks and an S. Somehow, even with a rack that normally guarantees a bingo, she blocks in all the right places, even with very low-scoring moves. We both know that the fate of the game rests on whether or not I can play all seven of my tiles at once, and with two blanks and five one-point tiles on my racks near the end, I could not take advantage of her low-scoring turns to catch up with big plays. The endgame is weak, consisting of many single-digit moves, and I post my lowest score of my appearance at this tournament as I go down yet again, 280-356.

The last match I play is Round 30 with Devonna Gee:

This is the one where things finally come together. I pull ahead with SEEDIeR for 67, and follow it up with VOX for 44 and MAZE for 51, leaving her in the dust. It’s a clearly imbalanced game, but this time, my opponent is the one in the unlucky position, hands tied in every which way with every kind of knot. It’s my one decent game of the day, but with only one bingo on the board, the score remains modest: 363-260. Winning a game, at this point, is a relief.

It shouldn’t have to be. With all the analysis I have afforded the games I’ve played in the past four days, the one conclusion that can be drawn is this: I could be a lot better. Normally, I am – but even then, I can be better still. Sure, a lot of problems can be blamed on the tiles – bad draws for one player, a chain of opportune moments for another; but what makes someone truly an expert is when he is dealt all the wrong letters, and does fancy tricks with them anyway. Aside from the endgame giveaways in three or four of my rounds, most of the twenty games I lost were due to lousy midgame plays and unsuccessful attempts to restore a proper consonant-vowel balance within the seven tiles I hold, sometimes neglecting that balance far more than I can safely do.

Winning the last game, however, did entitle me to pick up and beta-test a new design of a tournament Scrabble board that will likely become the new tournament standard for the next National Championship. But that’s another story for another day.

The big show is tomorrow, when top two Division 1 finishers David Gibson and Trey Wright square off in a best-of-five for the title and a $25,000 paycheque.

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