From the archives: August 2006

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That’s no planet… it’s a space station

Thursday, 24 August 2006 — 1:46pm | Science

The big news at this hour, in the unlikely event you haven’t heard, is Pluto’s demotion to “dwarf planet” status, in a stunning (but appreciated) reversal from the twelve-planet proposal that raised such a brouhaha in the mainstream press.

It’s about bloody time.

Let me begin by saying that I have no sympathies for Pluto as a planet. I haven’t thought of it as one since the day I discovered it was even up for debate. I don’t think I’m wholly uninformed: I’ve had an amateur interest in astronomy since the age of six months. My first book was about space, and appropriately entitled My First Book About Space. I noticed early on that something was off, and that Pluto’s behaviour was markedly different from the rest of the objects that were considered planets: its sheer puniness, its erratic orbit, its mass relative to Charon’s, the mere realization that we haven’t observed it long enough to validate the orbital path that was extrapolated in all of those pretty picture books – the list goes on and on.

It is interesting and aggravating to me that a lot of the coverage about the planetary redefinition cites, as a major source of resistance to change, the inertia of public opinion and the tendency of the ignorant masses to stick to obsolete schoolbooks as eternal, axiomatic truths.

Public opinion is bollocks. The public is inadequately educated on the basic tenets of scientific method and still thinks in terms of epistemological facts and non-facts. Don’t believe me? Take a good look at one of those science textbooks in the States with the utterly idiotic disclaimer that “Evolution is a theory, not a fact,” which is true of everything that we consider science (excluding mathematics, which is founded on abstract definitions and axioms and does not by itself adhere to real-world empirical observations).

Scientists aren’t out of touch with the public consensus. The public consensus is out of touch with science.

As for the scientific opposition to Pluto’s demotion – which is at least based on argumentation and not dogma, but is objectionable for linguistic reasons – I get the sense that what the IAU aimed to do was retain some kind of observable distinction between the eight planets and trans-Neptunian objects (plus the usual oddballs like Ceres), other than some arbitrary statement about where they lie. And let’s face it: Pluto’s planetary status was a legacy concession, and the nine-planet definition was pretty arbitrary to begin with.

On principle, drawing a line around the eight classical planets is no different from how we currently distinguish between the inner planets and the four gas giants. The new “dwarf planet” category (not subcategory) is sufficiently accommodating in spite of some outstanding quirks (Charon, anyone?), as it correctly classifies Pluto as “not quite as much of a planetary object as the other ones” and even provides a useful distinction that separates Ceres from the rest of the asteroid belt.

Given what we know about our solar system and its outskirts today, there’s hardly a Pluto-inclusive definition that wouldn’t be a slippery slope. You might even say that the rejected twelve-planet proposal was jury-rigged to include Pluto for sentimental reasons, and one of the concerns about it was that it would open the door to at least ten other candidate planets, and almost certainly more in the future. The dilution would eventually necessitate a special term for the eight planets up to Neptune anyway, since those objects fall into two very distinguishable taxonomic classes. I like the term “classical planet”, which was bandied about at one point, but “planet” alone is more in keeping with the intuitive connotations of the term.

In the article I linked to above, Alan Stern from NASA’s New Horizons mission complains that a vote of 424 astronomers out of over 10,000 professionals worldwide is insufficiently representative. This is tantamount to saying that international relations are invalid unless you sit all the governing politicians of one country down with all the governing politicians of another. Furthermore, I’m not sure a direct democracy would have made any difference with respect to the outcome. Science is not a democracy, and I do not think there is any indication that the IAU voters – all professional astronomers – were grossly unrepresentative of the astronomical community at large.

Last week, maverick descriptivist Geoff Pullum of Language Log fame made an entertaining comparison between planetary status and the rules of grammar. I think he illustrates my point pretty well.

Now I’m going to listen to Gustav Holst. He got it right the first time.

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The tiles, they are a-changin’

Saturday, 12 August 2006 — 10:41pm | Scrabble

This might be a surprising thing for me to say, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t think I take this game seriously enough.

Jim Kramer, a longtime Scrabble vet who proofreads textbooks, claimed the North American title Wednesday in a three-game sweep of Geoff Thevenot, a relative upstart (but a meteoric one) who, as it happens, also proofreads textbooks. The individual games were incredibly exciting to watch: the first two were settled with scores of 388-374 and 402-391, and the score of the third (433-326) conceals how hard Geoff fought the whole way in the face of some truly discouraging tiles. I recommend you follow the play-by-play logs, but what they do not capture is the passage of time – the tension, the anticipation, that built up to each and every turn. For a sense of the atmosphere in the closed-circuit observation room, you’d have to read the commentary written on the spot – Round 1, Round 2 and Round 3.

When you watch experts play, half the drama originates from the knowledge of optimal (or at least excellent) plays suggested by the observers, who are under no pressure at all and may have the aid of computers on their side. The thing about the top players is that they can find those optimal moves by themselves, which gets everybody excited, but every now and then they defy expectations and throw everybody for a loop.

In the Kramer-Thevenot final, they outright made mistakes and succumbed to uncertainties, but played their hearts out all the same. If you observe Round 1, you’ll see that Jim plays a phony – ZOOEA#, only acceptable in the World Championship (SOWPODS) dictionary – and Geoff lets it go. In a tight endgame, Geoff hooks it to make ZOOEAL#, also British-only (but analogous to the ZOEA/ZOEAL pair accepted in the North American book), and Jim holds, deciding whether or not to challenge. He could have taken it off, but realized – correctly – that the only way he could lose the game at that point would be to lose a turn, and he could not take that risk. A lesson, perhaps, on phony-psychology in the endgame, especially when point spread doesn’t matter.

The beginning of Round 3 was really a sight to see, and a parable of perseverance (not to mention a large vocabulary). Jim plays AGO for 8 points. Geoff’s opening rack: GIIIMRS. He exchanges, of course, keeping RS. Then Jim plays CASTRATO, hitting a triple for 80 points. In the meantime, Geoff picked up no less than three Is to replace the three he threw away, for a rack of AIIIPRS. He throws them away again, only to draw to another rack with tripled vowels – AAAIRRS. By his next turn, Geoff isn’t even on the board yet, and Jim has a 103-point lead. A hush fell over the audience with every rack he drew, because quite frankly, nobody would have wished any of those on themselves.

Then came the biggest cheers of the morning, as soon as Geoff found SACRARIA through the C in CASTRATO. He soon took the lead and held it for most of the game, and then the tile gods zapped him again – and he had to make his second pair of back-to-back exchanges. He never regained the lead, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. As expert and perennial commentator Chris Cree explained to the crowd, consecutive exchanges are sometimes a necessary move.

I don’t feel qualified to examine the games themselves in any greater depth.

One thing I found to be pretty telling is that Geoff Thevenot only started playing tournaments in 2003, and made the U.S. Open final with a sub-1800 rating, a record low for a player in contention for the top prize, which arguably translates to a record high for performing above expectations. He was brought into the game via the definitive book on competitive Scrabble, Stefan Fatsis’ Word Freak.

I’m pre-Word Freak. I purchased it in hardcover after already having played for over a year. It amazes me how much the game has changed around me since then – and not just with the new dictionary, which affected everybody. I’m gradually coming to the realization that I haven’t substantially improved in four years: it just took some time for my rating to settle in the mid-1200s, where it already belonged way before it got there.

In the intervening time, everybody picked up a PDA and armed it with LAMPWords, Maven gave way to Quackle after decades of dominance as the premier simulator and Scrabble AI, the Internet exploded with resources such as and Verbalobe, a host of other Scrabble players discovered LiveJournal, and a new generation of young up-and-comers catapulted into the upper echelons so quickly I didn’t even get a chance to play them on their way up.

What have I been doing all this time?

Not studying words, for one thing. But enough of that. This will change, and this is already changing. It’s time to get back to drilling anagrams for an hour or two every day, coupled with the occasional game or study of a tricky board position.

It’s actually a big problem for me that there simply isn’t that much competition around here, and playing online isn’t the same thing. Edmonton is curiously devoid of competitive Scrabble culture, and given that I will likely be out of here in two years, I’m not liable to shoulder the responsibility of starting one and stabilizing it.

I know there’s interest. This website still receives occasional searches for an Edmonton Scrabble Club, which, as it stands, does not really exist. The closest that anywhere in Alberta north of Calgary gets to organized Scrabble is the sanctioned club that meets Monday nights in Sherwood Park, and a non-sanctioned, casual club combined with a bridge group that meets on Thursdays at Queen Mary Park just north of downtown Edmonton – and neither of them offer the simultaneous challenge and mentorship that I received whilst living in Calgary year-round.

The biggest problem may be a lack of a constant, weekly incentive to study and improve my game. It’s easy to put it aside in the off-season, and I’ve had a very long off-season.

The next big tournament for me is the Western Canadian Scrabble Championship in Calgary. It’s two months away. That’s two months for a grand experiment in keeping up a daily study regimen, rather than cramming on the way down to the event the day it begins.

We’ll see.

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Tuesday, 8 August 2006 — 7:15pm | Scrabble, Tournament logs

Scrabble is a metaphor for life. With the right (read: wrong) conjunction of bad luck and poor judgment, what you get is an inverse relationship between the passage of time and your degree of ambition. Take, for example, the progressive modesty of my objectives. Day One: Win the division. Day Two: Place in the top ten. Day Three: Break even in wins and losses.

Today – Day Four – the primary objective was to keep my rating above the 1200 mark, something that I didn’t consider a risk before the tile-tossing travails of the weekend. Whether or not I achieved this is still in doubt. As far as I’m aware, what happens is that for the purposes of rating calculations, the first two days of the tournament are considered separately from the last two, so the estimated rating changes (which appear to take all the rounds lumped together, without adjustment at the halfway point) may be a little off. It has me listed as landing at a regrettable 1216, but for a number of mathematical reasons that I won’t go into, the actual rating change will probably be even lower. I’m not in the clear yet.

But enough of the number-crunching. If you’ve unscrambled the title of this post, you already know how I did today. (For those just joining us, board photos are here.)

Round 22: I opened with ALEURoN, but lost my lead as soon as my opponent played ZESTErS. I lost a turn challenging it, and had to play catchup the whole time and struggle with the tiles. I came close, but she managed to collect the I, N and G required to stretch BOARD down to the nearest triple, making BOARDING, and then there was just no catching her. The lost tempo from the bad challenge was almost certainly a critical factor. A bad start, 359-410.

Round 23: I made some huge plays in the early turns – EAUX for 36, YELP for 48, OKE for 44, RAJEE for 36, one after another – but hit a major snag that resulted in my scoring only 17 points over four turns (two of them spent exchanging tiles). In the interim, my opponent caught up to me with SUNTANS. I rebounded with RAVINEs, but couldn’t shut the board down in time for her to play BUSTLING. I might have caught her were it not for our final racks. Mine was the ugly DIIGRUZ; hers, EEGIQ?. That meant there was no way I could stop her from doubling the Q somewhere, so it was already a lost cause, and just a matter of narrowing the spread. Another loss, 355-393.

Round 24: This was a rematch against my opponent from Round 4. She had an early bingo, INTENSE, to which I responded with a phony double-double, RECTILE*. She let it slide and hooked an E on top to make the valid ERECTILE, but no matter – I was keeping up in spite of having to dump some consonants twice in three turns. Despite her second bingo, STRANDeD, I made big plays every turn and stayed ahead right up to the final rack, where I held EFILUU? to her ADEOORR. It was basically unwinnable at this point, though I will probably simulate the position in Quackle later to find out for sure. I didn’t have any bingos handy, that’s for sure – the paired Us got in the way. So she surged ahead to a big finish, assisted by my challenging OREAD (because if it was unacceptable, challenging was my only shot at still winning), and I post my fifth consecutive loss, 338-381.

Round 25: I find the only possible bingo with the typically unfortunate AAEISST on my second turn – ATRESIAS through the R in CLERK – and I kept a lead until the bad draws started piling up in the midgame. At one point my opponent, whom I defeated earlier in Round 3, took a 7-point lead – but I quickly recovered, and drew both blanks near the end. With no bingo lanes available, and no desire on my part to open any, I burned both blanks on relatively small plays: VAs for 32, JOTs for 19. Luckily for me, the last S was still in the bag, so she couldn’t hook anything onto the available lane (tacking an S onto FANO and hitting the bottom-centre triple). The result was a low-scoring win, 327-291.

Round 26: Yep – it seems like I couldn’t get through an entire day without having a sure win handed to me on a platter, only to implode on my final rack thanks to a horribly miscalculated endgame. I fell behind with a series of weak plays in the first half of the game, but quickly recovered with two blank bingos, ANtHERS and INrOADS. The game was basically sewn up, but the final draws would tell a different story. I held BDEIPRS, with AEIOORTX unseen. (It turned out that the last tile in the bag was the O.) I suspected my opponent (another rematch, this time from Round 21) had the X, but she had two available spots: the open double in the bottom left to make XU and XU, and another one under the F in GOLFER. The XU play would have given her 36 points, and for some reason, I instinctively identified that as the bigger threat and blocked it by playing my P to make UP. So she goes ahead and plays EX under GOLFER for 37. Huge mistake on my part: I should have taken advantage of the double under the F, let her play off the X on XU, and still come out ahead. But I was very tight on time, and I couldn’t relax and do a thorough analysis of the position. Another move later, I can’t find a play with my remaining tiles (B, I, and S) worth over 14 points, so I stick the B and S on WE to make WEBS and GOLFERS for 20. She plays off her last tile, an I, for 8 points – and wins 367-372. Another one bites the dust.

Round 27: Finally, a game that was, in fact, not a possible indirect cause of hair loss and a diminished lifespan. I made big plays the whole game and already led by 84 points before my first bingo, PEOnIES for 74. Then I drew CDEINR? and saw INDICtER across two double word scores for 90 points, but wasn’t completely sure it was good, since the -ER suffixes tend to be rather inconsistent and tricky. And damnit, I wanted that second bingo. So I played DECRyING for 74, which was positionally safer anyway, though either play left some lanes open. I got stuck with bad one-pointers for the rest of the game, but all I needed to do was shut down the board and not worry too much about scoring, so I wasn’t too crippled. My opponent did not have a good time. But I sure did, 406-261.

Round 28: God, what a wonderful way to finish – for me, anyway. Now, it would have been nice if some of this luck had been sprinkled over my earlier games instead of being bunched up all at the end, but I’m not going to complain about no less than three consecutive bingos (DENtURES for 68, IMPACTER for 95, COnFESS for 78) followed by another bingo-sized play (QUOTE with the Q on a TLS and the word on a DWS for 68 points). No complaints whatsoever: I drew beautifully, my unfortunate opponent only got a bit of mileage off the Z, and I coasted to my highest score of the tournament – a triumphal victory, 512-312.

My final record: 12-16 (+78), ranked 84th of 116 players in my division. I am thoroughly displeased, but considering how many games that should have been sure wins given optimal play in the endgame, but fell short of that due to silly mistakes and a rusty vocabulary, this tournament was a telling and necessary kick in the rear.

Time management is a huge issue. I didn’t go overtime in any of my games, but I played almost every game with less than a minute or two left on the clock. On the upside, it looks like I’m using all my time, but the real story here is that I’m taking far too long in the early turns – tracking tiles on my own time, double-checking my scores, having trouble choosing between different potential bingos – and most of the endgames end up rushed, especially the ones where care and attention are absolutely necessary. This will probably just require me to play more often, as far as remedies go. In New Orleans, my problem was that I played much too impatiently. I’ve since swung a bit far in the other direction, though curiously, I’m missing too many bingos because I’m not looking hard enough.

Tomorrow is the best-of-five final between Jim Kramer and Geoff Thevenot, which will be taped for a future broadcast on ESPN. As in New Orleans, I will be watching it on closed-circuit television in a room surrounded by other Scrabble players calling out the plays they see, but I won’t have the opportunity to post about it until after I return to drab, Scrabble-challenged Edmonton.

Two other notes about the tournament results: Albert Hahn, who has ruled the roost at the Calgary club for as long as I’ve been playing the game, finished seventh in the top division. If you were at all familiar with the superstars whose names embroider the divisional roster, you would understand the scale of this feat. Looks like Alberta’s getting a boost in the state/province rankings.

The second note, which I just have to share, is about this remarkable oddity in Division 6: identical twins finished fourth and fifth with identical win/loss records. You couldn’t plan this sort of thing if you tried.

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Botched endgames, ahoy!

Monday, 7 August 2006 — 5:51pm | Scrabble, Tournament logs

Holy zyzzyva, this was a bad day.

Here are the pics, and here’s the scoop.

Round 15: I kept up for most of the game, and then I created an ill-advised opening without realizing it, playing HOG instead of HAG to prevent an S-hook. I’d forgotten that SHOG was good, and my opponent immediately took advantage of it to play ATTAINs. The next turn, he exchanged, and then – with the other blank – played SUNnING. With the board shutting down, and my tiles nowhere close to a bingo, it was over in a jiffy. 341-424.

Round 16: My opponent drew GIILS?? to start, and played SmILInG for 66. Now, an opening bingo is no big deal, but I was stuck with one-point dreck (and repeated vowels) galore, and I had to contend with a hundred-point deficit for pretty much the entire game. He shut the board down, and without any bingo-prone tiles to speak of, I posted my lowest score of the tournament and lost, 274-361.

Round 17: Finally, some proof that I can play this game when the draws are balanced and it all comes down to skill. With two bingos (nITERIE and URANIDE) and good use of the X and Z on my side, and playing off my opponent’s Q and J to nullify any advantage they conferred on her, it was smooth sailing to a 445-357 victory. It helped that I knew URANIDE and she didn’t.

Round 18: This was simultaneously the most stressful and exciting game I’ve played so far in this tournament, against a very evenly-matched opponent who has improved at the same snail’s pace as me since our last tournament meeting. She played a three-bingo game (GETTERS, OVERpAID and ELOINES*, which I didn’t even think to challenge because I confused it with ELOIGNS and expected her to know better), but I kept up the whole time with the help of the J, Z and Q, and even took the lead with BRANDING for 82. Coming off it, I drew AAEINT?, which is just about a sure thing as far as bingo racks go. But I didn’t know pALATINE through the L in ELOINES* and, for whatever reason, didn’t see AErATING hitting the G in the bottom right. I knew ENTAsIA, of course, but wasn’t sure BRANDING took an S (it does). So I fished away the A, and she blocked the triple-triple lane up top with CHEAT. Now I found myself staring at AEINTU? – still unaware that BRANDING took an S, which permitted AUNTIEs, and failing to see the three bingos through the G. So I played off CUE to finish with a final rack of AINRTU?. This permitted four bingos through the G, not to mention NUTRIAs with the S-hook. Somehow, I missed all of those, even though three of them were common words with -ING endings, and tried a phony: AURATING*. My opponent thought it was good, but expecting to lose anyway, challenged it off (after about five minutes of meticulous calculations). She blocked the lane with VINTAGE, and it was over. I lose 420-447. Poor word knowledge rears its ugly head, and eats it too. What a heartbreaker.

Round 19: This was another wild ride. Like the last game, I made great use of the tiles that I had to make big plays almost every turn, and even survived a few turns of trouble with low-point tiles. The lead kept changing hands: he surged ahead with BESpOKE, I later replied with DIARIST (after missing RESILED the turn before, since I didn’t know it), and he bounced back with FIRInGS. Then it boiled down to a prudent endgame. He held X and Q on his last rack, but only managed to get rid of the X, and I managed to go out with BRAVOS and feed off the rest of his tiles (INNQV) for a 34-point bonus. A close shave of a hard-earned win, 406-402.

Round 20: No chance. I played the best I could with what I had, squeezing every last drop out of the four-pointers (FLEAS for 39, BLEW for 47, ETHERS for 44), and I was still in it even after her second bingo (SEqUOIA on a triple). Now, it just so happened that the bag still contained the X, J, Q and one of the blanks. And it just so happened that after her bingo, she drew the encouraging DEOPRT? while I got stuck with the J, X and Q and almost no vowels to speak of. So she played her third bingo right on the heels of her second one (PRONaTED). I challenge it because the game is a lost cause anyway, and lose a turn. I played off the J and X, but not the Q, and the result was my biggest loss of the day, 348-457.

Round 21: I got off to a slow start, caught up with ARANEID on a double-double for 90 points, and took control of things. I didn’t close the board down, though, because I had a late blank, suspected my opponent held the other, and my lead was hardly a thunderous one. I spotted bUTTALS with the S hooked onto DOC, but I rejected it outright and crossed it out as a possibility, not knowing that it was quite valid. The situation, at the end of the game, was a tricky one: I led 322-278, I held EIIRTU?, my opponent held EGIRSS?, and the bag was empty. There were only two possible lanes – through the S in NULLS, or the T in TAJ. For some reason, I spotted sUITSIER* through the S in the bottom and played it right away. There really had to be no room for doubt, since it was the last play and she was certain to challenge. It wasn’t until afterwards that I realized that it was my own neologism for DRESSIER, and clearly not a real word at all. (The one valid bingo was UTILISER, which I didn’t even consider.) Naturally, she challenged it off. Now, with a rack like EGIRSS?, you can’t really miss. But it turns out there was only one possible bingo in this position. She found it (RESIGhTS through the T) and tried it as a guess. It was a good guess. The right move, in retrospect, was to block the T with a tiny play like TI. I misjudged the bottom lane as the bigger threat, and with two lanes open, thought I had to try a bingo to win. Terrible endgame judgment costs me again, and I lose, 322-360.

So I’m now in 83rd place with a record of 9-12, -166 – squarely in the bottom half and fully out of contention to place. What have we learned?

First of all, intermediary plays with the four-point tiles improved significantly today, and I’m able to keep apace without relying too heavily on bingos, even winning Round 19 in the face of drawing no blanks. I’m escaping deluges of one-point tiles by not giving up on searching for bingos just because my rack is replete with duplicate vowels, playing high-probability, non-stem words like NITERIE, ARANEID and DIARIST.

It would be easy for me to blame the tiles – I only drew three blanks in seven games – but the fact is that if you play off one blank in a bingo, you’re drawing seven new tiles and the chance of picking up the next blank is that much better. Turnover matters.

Word knowledge has proved to be a serious problem, and if I don’t fix it soon, I’m going to be stuck in sub-1300 purgatory for some time to come. I’m passing over too many bingos and lucrative hooks because I’m not sure about them, when prevailing board conditions deter me from taking too many risks. Unfortunately, this isn’t going to fix itself overnight. And something needs fixing overnight, pronto, or I’ll find myself condemned to sub-1200 hell for the first time in three years and be forced to drop down a division at the Calgary tournament in October. Not acceptable.

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Alphabet soup for the soul

Sunday, 6 August 2006 — 7:47pm | Scrabble, Tournament logs

Look, I moderated myself at the players’ reception, even though the wine was free. There’s no reason I should have been this addled.

Let’s review what happened today. As before, there are photographs of every game to accompany the commentary.

Round 8: It was an uphill battle as soon as my opponent opened with DESTINy for 68 and SHUTTING for 64. I replied with SHELTERs, but that meant he still held a one-bingo lead for the whole game. I fished off a few tiles in order to keep some openings available, but didn’t know the word that would have done the trick – INCREATE through the N in DESTINy. I exchanged a few nasty vowels, snuck away with a phony (ERMITE* for 35) and tried to stay in the game, but he just sat there calmly and took it, since he drew and controlled all four Ss and knew I wouldn’t have an opening. I only drew ?JZ among the power tiles this game, but it’s hard to blame the loss (and I did lose, 364-412) on bad luck. If you make big plays, you turn over more tiles, and you’re more liable to draw the juicy ones.

Round 9: Easily my worst game of the tournament so far. I opened with LEGAToS for 70, but I might as well have sat out the rest. Here’s how you can tell if you’re asleep at the wheel. In a fit of insanity, you play WOR* instead of the higher-scoring ROW on a triple only to have it challenged off (this being a division where everybody is expected to have known their threes perfectly for years). Then you let your opponent take your spot with DAMN for 36, and run away with AVIUM* for 44, which for some reason you choose not to challenge. You exchange racks like GLTTRUW while she plays REPLIED and AWAITERS, the latter of which you mistakenly challenge because at that point, the game is over anyway. You lose, 282-523. Yeah, she drew everything, but there’s no telling how else it could have gone had I actually been reasonably attentive while I held my early lead.

Round 10: My turn to draw everything. I still played suboptimally, no thanks to incomplete word knowledge, and broke DEIRTU? (which could have gone down with the D in any of the last three positions) because I didn’t know FRUITED, and I wasn’t looking nearly hard enough to see some of the obvious ones that I did know (OUTRIDE, QUIRTED, and so on). Thankfully, I managed to play fOUNDER the next turn. Another bingo (InFARES), and the rest of the game was just a matter of keeping my lead, challenging desperate plays on my opponent’s part (SORRIES*, which I knew wasn’t good, and an attempt to hook an S to make PONYS*), and shutting down the remaining lanes. In spite of some serious consonant trouble for both players by the game’s end, I think this one went well – with a little help from my blanks. 458-278.

Round 11: Ouch. Round 9 may have been a blowout loss sparked by an inexcusable mistake, but I think this one was the more frustrating one to sit through. A slow start, coupled with big plays on my opponent’s part (AIRHOlES for 61, and a few 30-point fillers), and it was a fight to catch up… only to end up stuck with low-point dreck. Get a rack like that and you can’t score, you can’t bingo, you can’t quite fish, and you can’t do anything. You can’t even exchange too often, lest your opponent shut down all the lanes before you can build up to a bingo. I managed to play AcETOSE near the end, but by then that was just saving face and keeping the difference under a hundred points. A nervewracking loss, 283-382.

Round 12: And the punishment continues. This time, it really wasn’t my fault for the most part, except for my losing two challenges. I tried UNLANED*, thinking that it might have something to do with inner-city roads, but even LANED* isn’t any good. And then I lost another turn challenging CAPTuRER, my rationale being that someone who captures is a captor. That one was tricky. Between CAPTuRER and AENeOUS, my opponent more than doubled her score in the last five turns, while I couldn’t do anything, having drawn nothing but JX to my opponent’s SSSSQZ??. 283-494.

Round 13: This game was liberating. It’s always nice to dump some crap (FLMUV) and draw to a bingo (DONAtES for 71), only to draw to another bingo (AILERONS for 68) as opposed to, say, a bunch of duplicate vowels. Timely exchanges, decent rack management, and only two significant blemishes: losing a turn trying to play DEFS* when I’d looked at the hooks on the new three-letter words just two nights ago, and not challenging a phony bingo (REAIRING* on a triple for 80) that put my opponent dangerously close. I didn’t even consider REAIRING* might be a phony until I was uploading the game photos, and at the time, it was too dangerous to challenge it when I wasn’t sure. It put him only 24 points behind, and losing a turn might have meant losing the game, so I took my chances with the slimmer margin and still wound up on top, 421-369.

Round 14: I can’t believe it took two full days for me to finally have a round that was genuinely interesting and hotly contested from start to finish. I missed the possible bingos in DEEIOS? early on when the board was wide open, and I was far enough behind that my first bingo (SQuINTED for 70) only put me ahead by 8 points. The lovelier find was JINGOIST for 84 two turns later. But I didn’t stay ahead for long, since my opponent found TENNeRS before I got a chance to shut down every lane, and from there to the end it all depended on careful mathematics and prudent endgame strategy. I locked it up as a sure win, which forced my opponent to try hooking CEES onto REFT to make REFTS* and tie up the game, which I challenged. Were it an acceptable word, I would have lost. But it’s not, so there. 388-349.

So I’m now at 58th place with a 7-7, +80 record, smack in the middle of the pack and four wins behind the leader. If there was a big lesson to be learned from today’s misadventures, it was that my vocabulary sucks, and I need to study. There’s no excuse for messing up on three-letter words and their hooks; I thought I was past that three or four years ago. Moreover, I need to search harder for bingos, because I prematurely gave up on bingo racks on several occasions. It’s also high time to study more heavily by probability, since most of my bingos are either based on six-letter stems or common prefixes and suffixes, and that simply won’t do.

Now it’s a test of endurance. I was sitting at a very similar 7-8, +256 record after Day Two of the 2004 NSC, albeit by way of a more erratic pathway, and the real nosedive came in the second half of the tournament. Let’s see if history can, uh, unrepeat itself this year.

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