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 cross-tables.com 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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