From the archives: August 2004

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Kill the spare

Saturday, 7 August 2004 — 3:14pm | Scrabble

This is what happens when you spend an entire week doing nothing but playing Scrabble, writing about Scrabble, and walking the streets of New Orleans thinking about Scrabble – say, looking at a packet of oyster crackers in a seafood restaurant whilst recalling the six anagrams of SALTINE (ELASTIN, ENTAILS, NAILSET, SALIENT, SLAINTE and TENAILS): you overlook major announcements back in the real world from whence you came. What’s the anagram of “Tom Marvolo Riddle”? Ralph Fiennes, it seems. One thing you cannot fault the Harry Potter films for is how it manages to attract the closest thing to a dream cast for each successive instalment, and seeing how Fiennes already played what I consider to be one of the great screen villains as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, it will be interesting to see what he brings to the role. The more films he does that erase the memory of 1998’s unforgivable butchery of The Avengers, wherein he played a far-too-young John Steed, the better.

I will be gone for another week – consider it a holiday from my holiday – but upon my return, expect some follow-ups to things I mentioned briefly in my Scrabble coverage this week. I hope to do a more comprehensive review of Word Wars, as well as talk a bit about the new prototype tournament boards that were distributed on the last day. Of course, one can’t forget about LEZgate, a story that has spread across the Internet thanks to appearing in an Associated Press story that made the front page of Yahoo! News yesterday. In the meantime, Bob Lipton is one of the few experts with much to say off the private tournament players’ mailing list. Those of you who enjoyed the coverage of my spectacular sinking into the bowels of Division 3 earlier this week should read the very best material there is on the tournament, the official tournament website’s own round-by-round commentary, which is an excellent account of some tournament highlights even I didn’t know about.

Remarkably, it’s a few days after the tournament, and stragglers touring the city for a few extra days can still be seen playing a few rounds at night in the hotel lobby downstairs.

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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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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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Yet another spectacular nosedive

Tuesday, 3 August 2004 — 10:41pm | Scrabble, Tournament logs

So much for getting back on track. The third day of the tournament, Rounds 16 to 23, constituted a disaster on the scale of the first eight rounds, and dismantled any hopes of finishing even in the top half of the division for good. With the last seven rounds to go tomorrow, all I can hope to do is pull off another winning streak to save some face – and for that matter, my rating.

First came Round 16 with Judith Ford:

I get away with a phony on the opening play, NUNU* (as opposed to allowable U-dumps like JUJU, LULU, MUMU and TUTU), but Judith takes an early lead with EXTERNES for 68, which I unsuccessfully challenge. She later told me it was a guess extrapolated from the fact that INTERNES is acceptable. It takes me several turns before I get back on pace with fATIGUE for 67, and I trail her within a recoverable 40 points throughout the midgame. What really kills me in this game is her ENSiGNS through a very difficult position in the N column between ELL and the unchallenged IRIDIA*, subsequently followed by my taking the bottom-right triple word score with HOSE and leaving the one in the A column open for a big insurance play of hers, VATIC for 42. It felt very much like a Requisite Unlucky Game, as I drew only the blank in fATIGUE and an S I blew early with WOOFS to turn over a bad rack, and she made use of the eight power tiles she had. If only I knew. Regardless, this was my biggest loss of the day, 313-403.

Round 17 vs. Robin Torrance:

This one was truly a fight to the finish, possibly lost in a miscalculation but perhaps unwinnable, given the state of things in the endgame. Most of it the round was spent playing catchup to Robin’s 82-point GRADErS, but I pulled in close again with RINGLET for 66 followed by JET on the opened triple for 34. Both of us are close to a game-winning bingo near the end with the S-hook on TOYON, but Robin plays it safe and closes it by dumping TINES. GREEDIER is no bingo, but a play I successively made through TINES to try and draw some high-point tiles now that bingos were out of the picture. XU for 38 was a shocker, but it was really a race to draw the X and play it on the volatile double word score above the U.

With the game sitting at 277-315, the bag empty and holding CEIIKS?, I consider my options. My tracking sheet tells me that Robin holds BEHILSV, I think of ICKIEr down B10, leaving me with an S but opening the triple for a potential parallel counterplay with the H I knew he still had. So instead I go for the higher-scoring ShIRK (36 points), knowing that he would likely play VIE, but calculating that it would not provide him with enough. What I did not consider – in the first of many such endgame oversights today – was that he would also play off the S to make VIES for 30. Because there were plenty of spots left where he could score very well with the H, I had to play off all my tiles; the best play I found was FICE for a measly 12. With a bonus of 16 for BHL on his rack, I lose by a hair, 341-345.

Round 18 is a rematch with Susan Rhea, who ended my winning streak in Round 15 yesterday:

This game is the very definition of what it means to get off to a rough start. My opening draw is the discouraging AEEEIU?. I keep the blank and an E and pass my first turn to toss AEEIO in the bag – only to get EEIIO in return. I toss five again, picking up all consonants. As I was already down by 92 points, I decided to get on the scoreboard with WE, unwisely leaving myself with no vowels but gambling on their abundance given that I just returned so many to the pool. I fight my way through a few vowel-free racks before a lucky draw gives me SURfING for 75, which still left me behind, but put me back in contention. But three turns later, Susan finishes me off with ZINNIA hooked onto AX to make ZAX, a play that lands on a triple for 64 points.

I stare at ETHOSES for a bit, a potential comeback bingo sitting on my rack, but shy away from playing it off because I reason that ETHOS should pluralize to ETHOI* (it doesn’t); checking afterwards, ETHOSES turns out to be good. But she holds the J and the Q in her last rack, and I have a very slim chance of pulling ahead if I can stick her with both – but with two T’s open, I can’t stop her from playing off the Q in QAT. In spite of drawing all four S’s, the only one that sees good use is the one in the bingo I played, and I lose the third straight game of the morning, 318-391.

Round 19 vs. Karen Fishman:

Now, the first three losses I can blame on luck all I want, but there’s no excuse for the blunder I made at the end of this one. I trail for most of the game – she gets off NASTIEST for 60 and AZO for 42; late in the game, I play AIM to take a triple word score before she does, but it’s an incorrect guess, as she slaps an X on a nearby triple-letter for a 50-point XU. But I recuperate right away with TIeRING for 62 with nine tiles in the bag, knowing that while there was a chance I could end up with the Q, I was also as likely to draw a blank. I get the blank, and the bag empties with the Q in her hands, and every A and U on the board. Planning to stick her with the Q and eke out a victory, I play CaN for 28 on the triple up top – but I inexplicably miss the one obvious spot where the Q is playable. She wraps the S and the Q around the U in XU to make SUQ and FATES, and without the Q-stick bonus on my side, I have to concede yet another match. This one is a close shave, 354-371, lost on account of being completely blind.

Round 20 vs. Raymond Slaughter:

The one bingo on the board, REPORtED, falls on my side for 62. Raymond runs dry in the midgame, allowing me to pull ahead to a sizable lead. The endgame is a coffin waiting to be nailed, AANOSU? on my rack and EEIMNSX on his. There is exactly one improbable move I can make, just one, that would give him a shot at rebounding to a win. See it? I sure didn’t. Sure enough, I somehow reason my way to a ridiculous play – NAOs at 4B, hoping to play out with EAU at D6, thinking that the best he would manage is NIX with the X on a triple-letter – not enough. He thinks for a few minutes; my eyes suddenly widen as I realize my mistake – I created the one spot where he could play out with EXAMINES through the A. A second later, he does just that for 88 points, which was soon followed by exclamation marks and silent cries of “Stupid!” and “Pay attention!” scribbled in angry capital letters on the scoresheet with arrows pointing every which way. For the second game in the row I give away an assured victory, 336-354.

My opponent in Round 21 is Jamila Atcha:

This game starts slowly, with tile exchanges on both sides at various points and only one bingo, Jamila’s LEADING for 71. When I start catching up, she pulls ahead again with RANDIES for 69, but I bingo right back with a double-blank rack, SHEarED for 79, taking a 280-262 lead. Then comes something that damn near gives me a heart attack or two: holding ACEHIMR, she lays down CREAMISH* through the S in SHeaRED for a triple-triple and announces the score for that one turn – 221 points. Most living room players don’t score much more than that in an entire game. But I challenge it off, and breathe a huge sigh of relief. I see from her tiles that she could play CASH for a lot of points, so I block with KIST for 39. Neither of us saw the legitimate bingo she had going through a triple word score, CHIMERAS, which would have sealed a three-bingo win for her as well, though not by so incredible a difference. She never fully recovers from the turn she lost on the CREAMISH* gamble, and four consecutive plays each over 30 points put me way ahead. I end my six-game losing streak with my first win of the day, 435-360.

Round 22 vs. Jeff Myers:

An early blank bingo apiece (my INSTANTs on a double-double for 78, his TEXtILE for 70) leave the game almost even. I fall behind when I try a phony, PICTS*, on the triple in the bottom right – Jeff took it instead with HIRED after he challenged it off. He pulls further ahead with GEEZ and DEAFER back-to-back, both for 42, and not even sticking him with the Q can save the game for me. No winning streak for me this time, as I lose 351-387.

The last game of the day was Round 23 with Betty Cornelison:

This is the tightest board I have played in the tournament, with no bingos on either side. As the stepladder formation from the centre to the bottom left demonstrates, it was an extremely closed board with the occasional weak single-digit play on the part of either player. Without any bingo lanes, the S’s and blanks are not a factor in this game. Unfortunately, Betty draws the Z, X, J and Q, all of which she uses to make strong plays, such as ZINC for 47 and SOX for 40. The other six power tiles fall on my side, but four of them only come at the end; my final rack is RSSOE??, which makes no less than 164 different bingos. But with no place to play – DUO, RUT and QAT sealed off the board – I had to dump ROSE for 36 and SuQ for 11, which left me with my lowest score after 23 rounds: as 293-330 defeat.

After three days of play, I now sit at a devastating 8-15 (+56) record, ranked 158th in the 169-strong Division 3. The top players in the division are already well over 15 wins, so I have no hope of catching them at this point. Bad luck can only be blamed for so much; it was endgame stupidity that pulled me back down today, and there are many hard lessons to be learned here. Next: the exciting conclusion as I play Rounds 24-30 to wrap up my participation in the 2004 Nationals.

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Revenge of the Archaic Conjugation of ‘Since’

Monday, 2 August 2004 — 8:07pm | Scrabble, Tournament logs

The way the pairings work at the NSC this year divide the thirty games of the tournament into sessions of three or four games apiece. After the first day of a straight round-robin evenly distributed by rating, each successive session is a round-robin within a group of four in their given win-loss bracket. Because of my abysmal 1-7 record on Sunday, I began Day Two with other players who had endured a similar experience.

Those of you who have participated in or observed a debate tournament, particularly in the points-based Worlds style, are familiar with the notion of riding the lower bracket; a decent team that drops to an unlucky draw in the round-robin can feed off the bottom and bounce back into contention. Doing the same thing at a Scrabble tournament is a little trickier for a number of reasons. Because the tournament is divisionally segregated, the opponents at the bottom of the pile are often either players of equal skill who have just had a horrific run of luck, or overrated due to a stellar performance at a prior event. The first category confers limited raw advantage in terms of providing a rebound, and one has to rely on two other things: defiant concentration in the face of demoralizing circumstances, and blind superstitious belief in the law of averages.

The case study for a miraculous recovery is my performance in Rounds 9 to 15. Was it luck or a relative superiority of skill? You decide.

So let us begin with a look at Round 9 against Ossie Mair:

The game began modestly enough. I permitted a low-scoring phony (TREW*) on account of not knowing for certain whether or not it was allowed, and trailed by a slim margin for the first couple of turns. Then I played the one bingo on the board, TASTING for 78, and never looked back. Ossie made it halfway back across the divide between our scores when I left a triple-letter open beside the O in AZO, where he played JEU for 51 points. As the game wound down, it looked very much like he was shooting for a comeback bingo, so I made a succession of small plays to close up the board. I kept a blank in reserve as the Q was still unseen, but he picked it up and managed to squeeze it out in his last move. In my previous draw I had picked up a second blank, so I played out with ROsiN for 24. On paper it looks like I outdrew Ossie significantly – he only had the J, Q and one S – but it was actually quite even, given how the blanks were not a factor. My seven-game losing streak comes to an abrupt end with a modest but triumphal victory, 399-335.

Round 10 vs. George Rogers:

In spite of how I controlled the board the entire game and cruised to a win by a sizable margin, I am actually disappointed with this one. A lot of the credit goes to my being fortunate enough to have an opponent complacent enough to not challenge a silly and unnecessary phony. I refer, of course, to OUTRoAD*. Yes, that blank is an O, and although George considered challenging, he mistakenly did not. For some reason I did not play any of the eight legal words in that rack, the silliest of which is OUTReAD – the same play, but defining the blank differently. Against someone with a solid knowledge of the words that take an OUT- prefix, that wouldn’t have lasted a second. This time, I was forgiven for a critical mistake without penalty.

I started closing the bingo lanes early on to maintain the lead, hence the stepladders slithering their way to the top and bottom right corners, though George managed a big counterplay with ZEKS for 54. However, a second bingo, BANTIeS for 69, followed by PAX for 53 with a tripled X in two directions sealed the round. Final score: 412-292.

Then came Round 11 with Bruce Cramer:

Bruce, who now lives in Buffalo, tells me he was actually a cellist in the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra back in the 1970s. So it’s only appropriate that four turns in, holding ACENILT, I see my own instrument for 72 points across the R in REJOIN. As soon as I established a 103-point lead with my second bingo, GUPpIES for 80, I start closing it down like I did with the first two games, only with a lot more urgency, as it becomes increasingly obvious with the plays my opponent makes that he is on the verge of squeezing one out. The riskiest one was FIRS down the M column, which took care of a dangerous hanging I and made a vertical bingo unlikely due to the adjacent consonants R and S, but left a T hook open to make FIRST. In fact, I was the one who subsequently drew to a bingo rack with a T in the fifth position – NEGATES – but Bruce blocked it as he played ADD to open up for the S he was holding. KNEE was the nail in the coffin, forcing him to play off his power tiles and draw the one remaining tile in the bag. I took this one by a slightly higher margin than the last, 393-268.

Round 12 vs. Herb Lewis:

I made a bad mistake in this game. Immediately after I play DaMNING at I8 for 70, leaving a volatile triple nearby, Herb plays SLATTER* at 15I, hooking it to make DaMNINGS*. I challenge the entire play, and it gets taken off – but when you challenge, you are not told which word in the play is the phony. So I notice that in his rack he also holds RATTLES and STARTLE, both playable in the same position, which he somehow missed – under the presumption that DaMNING might indeed take an S, which I did not know for sure either way. So in order to block the triple lane and either of the bingos I saw, I play OW for 12. But Herb sees the one I didn’t: STARLET for 68. Ow. I recover, and it really does come down to the endgame – his 40-point SuQ puts him within 5 points of me. He held DDLRUY, I held GLORSUU – neither of them impressive racks, but GURUS for 16 and LOG for 10 did the trick. Score: 351-309.

Armed with a 5-7 (+57) record, the adventure continued in the afternoon in a new round-robin group. First came Round 13 against Carol Spencer Yamashita:

I get off to an incredible start, drawing two blanks and an S in my first rack and immediately seeing HALidES for 74. Then I draw the Q and a U at the same time, play AQUA at E5 – only to notice that I had the tiles to extend it to AQUARIA for a double-double (not the kind you order at Tim Horton’s, but hitting two double word scores at once) – 64 points. Unfortunately I get overly enthusiastic and lose a turn for mistakenly playing WO at 6J under the E and D in PAGED, which was challenged off. It’s not that I forgot EW* was not a word – I didn’t even see it until Carol stopped the clock for its removal. I now have an arrow pointing to that turn’s respective cell on my scoresheet with the words “pay attention” beside it.

My second mistake: at one point I need to dump some consonants, and I wrap a C and a D around OWED to make COWED. At that point I had an S (which I played off in STORY for a few measly points and to take out the lane under dEW) – not even noticing the huge opening I left until she played ZEST, hooking to make SCOWED, for 51 points. It puts a dent in my lead, but I still manage to work my way to a 402-310 victory.

The funny thing is, I’d managed five consecutive wins by this point and had yet to hit one that I would consider the Requisite Lucky Game of the day. Then comes Round 14 against Lynda Cleary:

Right off the bat I held the J, playing JUG for 41 with the J doubled two ways. Lynda tried CANKORS* at L1; I challenged it off. Another two turns and I have ADEINZ? on my rack. I see ANoDIZE, but there’s nowhere for it to go, never mind the others – AGNIZED, DIAZINE and ZENAIDA, only two of which I knew, none of which I saw. The last three letters in CRANK were the most open and volatile spots at the time, but I didn’t know ZENAIDAs, rENDZINA or KyANIZED, so I played ZIN for 32. Then I held QUAIlED, but again, there was nary a place for it – I didn’t see ANtIQUED through the N over IKON, which Lynda had just played – so I played QUAI for 33. The bingo came out with EVIDENt for 74, which I followed with IXIA for 33. FATALITY was not a bingo – I played FATAL for 42 first, and extended it for another 42 four turns later. Drawing only an S and a blank on a board that I was quick to tighten, she never managed a play over 35 points.

I scored my way up to 453 points, but Lynda held an unplayable G at the end, and kept passing her turn as I played off my last rack (BDERRYS) piece by piece, not realizing how long I was taking to do it until I had about twenty seconds remaining. I went overtime by ten seconds, rounded up to a minute for a 10-point deduction. It’s my sixth straight win nonetheless, 443-262; I’ve recuperated from the disaster on Monday for a 7-7 record.

Then I finish the day with Round 15 against Susan Rhea:

Well, I was overdue for a Requisite Unlucky Game, but despite drawing only the J and a blank, I kept pace for most of the game. I got a natural bingo out early, MARRIED for 109, and played JIVE for 48 to take what seemed like a thundering lead. But against my better judgment, I neglected the open X next to a double word score, thinking that it would amount to an average dump of two or three tiles – then Susan played QuASI for 67. With four A’s on my rack, I had to blow a turn on an exchange, and she came out in front. Even after she plays TWEEZES for 40, I keep within 30 points of her for the rest of the game until the last few moves, when I held some bingo racks that had no place to go, and was trying to block at the same time. I burn a blank by playing DIs, a block that is successful, but renders me unable to catch up with her remaining plays. I lose, 343-397, but at least I kept it from being the blowout it could have been.

After two days and fifteen rounds, my record is 7-8, +256 – 90th place with the second-highest spread in my win-loss bracket. Although I am still a long ways away from the money zone – the top players in my division are sitting pretty at 12-3 – it is a remarkable recovery given the unprecedented slump on the first day.

Later in the evening I attended the National Scrabble Association town meeting, a Q&A forum that exhibited the hack side of Scrabble – questions about the progress on the next revision of the dictionary (ZA* and QI* are in, EMF is rightly out), the ESPN deal (the crews arrive tomorrow), factoring scores and spreads into the rating system (not until there’s a better way for tournament directors to submit them), that sort of thing. The most interesting question was one about why, if Canada falls under the NSA and thus the North American lexicon, no Canadian dictionary is among the many sources used in said lexicon’s compilation. It was assured, though, that LOONIE* and TOONIE* are indeed in the next revision.

There was another interesting legal issue brought up concerning the rights to Scrabble software, particularly online play, but it relates to the state of the electronic games industry on a much broader scale, so let us leave that for another post someday. Fifteen rounds down, fifteen to go.

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