Make LEZ, not war

Thursday, 5 August 2004 — 10:55pm | Scrabble

Trey Wright is my hero for a number of reasons. Not only is he a phenomenal Scrabble player of a calibre that far exceeds my own, he also holds a profession that is, if not my dream job, at least in the top three (that is to say, pianist). His story over the course of this tournament caught the attention and admiration of players in every division. By the end of the second day, he had only lost one round out of fifteen, two games ahead of the closest competition. He ends up pulling off a sixteen-game winning streak; remember that this is in the same division as a gaggle of former National and World Champions. By that point in time, people could already be seen griping about the newly-introduced format of having the top two finishers in Division 1 play a best-of-five final, and how first place should work the same way as in all the other divisions: awarded to the player with the best record in the main event, which was looking more and more like a runaway clinch.

He slows down a bit in the last few rounds, however, and finishes second with a 23-7 record behind All-Stars champion David Gibson. The two of them played the best-of-five final today, with $10,000 going to the defeated, and $25,000 to the victor. The match was conducted in a private room, displayed on closed-circuit television for a live audience of Scrabble players, and taped for an ESPN special scheduled to debut Sunday, 3 October. A panel of experts (Joel Sherman, Marlon Hill, Robin Pollock Daniel, Chris Cree and André Ornish) provided running commentary as the audience kibitzed the games, cheered, booed, and called out their plays of choice.

Gibson goes down in the first two games. If you want to look at how they turned out in detail, the competition website has a detailed breakdown that you can flip through move by move. Suffice to say, Game 1 is conceded when a tight board prevents a bingo, and never really opens up. Gibson: 328, Wright: 365. Game 2 is a much closer one, with Gibson taking the lead at one point with a beautiful comeback bingo, PERIODiD for 82. The critical turning point is when he then exposes an A while holding the other ones left, with all the U’s already played – a Q-stick situation, only the open A allows Trey to play it off. This already close game really comes down to the wire, and Trey’s control of the last S in the endgame pushes him over with a hook to make URDS and ATOMICS. Gibson: 344, Wright: 355.

Game 3 is where it gets interesting.

Trey takes an early lead with two back-to-back bingos, LAKIEST and cALUTRON. cALUTRON through the L is considered by many to be an inferior play to ARgONAUT or AeRONAUT through the A, which hit two double word scores and do not open the O column for a potential triple-triple, but it pays off in the long run. Gibson captures the triple on the top-right with BOING, and Trey’s definition of the blank as a C (which makes no two-letter words, and thus takes no parallel hooks) defends the entire top left of the board until very late in the game, when Gibson plays TORc.

Despite the thunderous start, though, Gibson works his way up with a few big plays until the game can once again be considered close (he trails 287-304), at which point all hell breaks loose.

A bit of background: as per a controversial settlement that the National Scrabble Association made with ESPN, one of the stipulations agreed upon by participants in the tournament was that should they make the final, certain words they can normally play cannot be shown on television due to broadcast regulations, and thus would become unplayable. (Jen Bond and Ethan Hoddes should remember this well from Round 4 of Waterloo DDT.) Now, ESPN never actually defines what constitutes ‘offensive’, and it is up to the NSA to provide the participants with a more specific guideline as to what cannot be played.

Before I proceed, I should back up even further and gloss over an important historical note. You may have seen a green book entitled The Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary, Third Edition in your local bookstore. That book, casually referred to as the OSPD3, is actually not the word source that governs the game at the tournament level. The reason is that when the OSPD3 was published back in 1994, 167 words present in prior editions were expurgated on the grounds of being offensive due to a whole chain anti-defamation lobbying in the public and executive decisions over at Hasbro. These were not just your standard four-letter expletives and their various inflections, but also racial slurs like WOP, SPIC and DARKIE. Tournament players were furious, arguing that the contexts and definitions of words have no relevant value to the game, when their use is intrinsically nothing but a mathematical matter of combinatorics. The result was a production of an Official Word List, or OWL, in 1998 – just a list of words without definitions, but including the omissions, and only distributed within the competitive circuit for tournament use.

The NSA’s decision regarding the ESPN agreement was that the disallowed words in the final would be the ones removed from the standard OSPD. That is to say, it doesn’t matter if NIGGERS is the best strategic move – you have to play SERGING, GINGERS or SNIGGER, or the play will be removed from the board as if it were a challenged phony. (This leads to some interesting prohibitions – REDSKINS, for instance, which ESPN certainly has no problem with come every football season.) As an added measure to prevent this from causing too much trouble, players are given the option of consulting a director about whether or not a proposed move is offensive prior to making it, with no penalty.

So there we are back in the audience watching Game 3 on a large projection screen, and Trey is in trouble. His lead is thinning, and he holds BIFLUVZ. So he does what almost any stategically-conscious player in the thirty rounds of the main event would have done in that position: pay LEZ through the trailing E in EERIE, landing the Z on a triple letter score for a quick 32 points, crippling the potential of the right side of the board as a bingo zone and playing off two out of five consonants while keeping his vowels. This is the best play.

The crowd is in an uproar of jeers and boos as they see LEZ, better known as a slang term for ‘lesbian’, removed from the board. Play stops, and an official shows up on screen to explain the ruling to the players. There’s no sound, so all the information the audience has to rely on is what is passed on to the commentators – and it’s not pretty. As it turns out, ESPN decided that they didn’t have a problem with LEZ after all, as they probably interpreted the agreement as referring to the more common four-letter expletives and inflections I mentioned earlier. For a moment, it seemed like the ruling would be reversed.

At this point, everybody in the viewing room is standing and arguing or figuring out what just happened, and then comes the first announcement convening an emergency five-minute meeting of the NSA’s Advisory Board. Moments later, they call in the Rules Committee. Play has been interrupted for a full ten minutes by the time the final decision is handed down: LEZ comes off the board and the players have their clocks turned back, but unlike a regular challenge, Trey does not lose his turn and gets a chance to make another play. He makes GUV for 7 instead, and it leaves the triple word score volatile for the rest of the game.

As if that were not enough excitement for one game, this one is a thrill that remains uncertain and undecided all the way to the last move. With AIO in the bag, Trey holds AENOPST; Gibson, whose turn it is, holds EEERRT? – which could have made several different bingos into TORc had Trey not made an unbelievably effective blocking play with FILO the previous move.

What Gibson does next will undoubtedly be debated for weeks to come by those far more qualified to discuss it than I am, but the consensus is that the best move was RE at 3A, placing the E over the F. This creates a lane for a bingo down the B column beginning with A, E, I or O – while leaving a second lane open on the right side of the board, tacking an S to the end of GUV. Even if Trey plays a bingo himself, he would have to draw the remaining tile out of the bag, and Gibson would have a chance to bingo back and catch up.

But holding three E’s, and with the other E unseen (though the audience knows Trey has it), Gibson plays off two of them with REE at 2A instead. It is just his luck that this hands Trey a bingo lane on a silver platter: TEOPANS at B1 for 76 points, and it’s over. In spite of holding bingo-prone tiles himself, the bag is empty, Trey’s rack is empty, and Gibson cannot make a counterplay. The score is 328-429, and in a thrilling 3-0 series sweep, Trey Wright is crowned the National Scrabble Champion.

Now, don’t get me wrong – David Gibson is one of the best players in the world, and he has the record to show for it – but his experiencing the same problems that slapped me around the whole tournament in the series that counted the most was heartbreaking to watch, and certainly instills a sense of perspective. Closing the board instead of opening for a comeback bingo, letting the opponent play off a stranded Q, emptying the bag and setting up the opponent for a bingo on the out-play – all these things should sound familiar to anyone who has been following the previous posts on my own collapse in Division 3.

The acceptance speeches by the two contestants were tearful, passionate and representative of the love of a game and its players beyond what most people would understand of what is one of the greatest and certainly most overlooked competitive subcultures I’ve seen. I’m proud to belong to this community – now, could I please draw some decent tiles?

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