Finding Bingo

Sunday, 9 December 2007 — 2:00am | Scrabble, Tournament logs

Every year, the Calgary Scrabble Group conducts a grand social experiment: a 12-round marathon tournament played end to end in the span of a day. (For comparison, the standard limitation for the number of games you can stuff in a day is 8, a ceiling that the most arduous of competitions dare not breach.) You need to be slightly crazy about the game to even consider playing in such a monstrosity—so naturally, I attended.

And it was fortunate that I did, as it turned out to be my most successful tournament in recent memory: I finished first in my division with a record of 8-4 (+377), worth a $200 cash prize; I posted the division’s highest winning score (492, $10), highest losing score (427, $10), greatest deficit overcome en route to a win (I was down by 99 points and two bingos in one game before I conducted a fortuitous rollback; $10) and highest total bingo count after 12 rounds (20 bingos, $10).

My bingo list (as always, lowercase denotes blanks and * denotes phonies): ObEYING, SeETHING, BITTIES*, ELATIONS, FAINTING, REMEDIED, sEDATED, TOADIES, OWNABLe, SKATERS, FIXAtES, CLOSURE, CHAMBERS, WEARIES, RELaTIoN, IMPENDS, CABiNETS, CARRIES, DUCTILE, LAtTICED. Nothing really strange—just the usual smattering of common prefixes and suffixes.

As it happens, I forgot to pack my camera, so there’s no photographic evidence. Ergo, here’s to a holistic postmortem.

I am not a morning person. I do not bear a passing resemblance to anyone who might conceivably be mistaken for a morning person. I did not have a very good morning session, losing my first three games and effectively tying the fourth. (I only won Round 4 because my opponent had a handful of seconds left on his clock when he rushed to make his final play, which would have ended the game in a tie had he not misplaced his tiles in his haste.) That only made the 7-1 comeback in Rounds 5 through 12 all the more euphoric.

One could argue that my record in this tournament benefited from a lower level of competition than what I usually face. But there wasn’t much of a correlation when it came to the games themselves: while most of my opponents were lower-rated—I was seeded second in the division—three of my four losses were to substantially lower-rated players, and the other one was the 427-430 photo finish in Round 3, which earned me the High Loss.

My High Win wasn’t a blowout either, much to the credit of my opponent: the score was 492-409, a combined total of 901. In my experience, your typical game of competitive Scrabble winds up with a combined score in the 700-800 range. A combined score north of 900 isn’t at all unheard of—it’s just uncommon, especially in the intermediate divisions.

More significant, to me, is that I posted scores exceeding 400 in seven games. My average score over the whole tournament was 393.5. (My lowest score was 290—actually a 310, but with a 20-point penalty for going two minutes overtime.) This isn’t a big deal at the expert level, where a winning score typically breaks 400 unless it was a very defensive game, but it tells me I’m looking for decent plays.

In the absence of a considerable disparity in skill level, you need luck on your side to put up a good run at a tournament. I didn’t have any games where my opponent drew absolutely everything of worth and blew me out of the water. What surprised me, though, was that luck didn’t correspond to the scores (or the wins and losses) to the extent it often does. There were games I won decisively even though my opponents drew equally well or better. I can keep up with them without an unhealthy dependency on the blanks. It was often a matter of timing: they didn’t necessarily pick up blanks, S’s or JQXZ at opportune moments, whereas I often drew tiles that weren’t great in and of themselves, but happened to fit the board position. And that’s still dumb luck with the usual dose of patience and vision.

Psychologically, I’m not getting demoralized when my opponents pull ahead with a bingo or two, and I’m working to fight back. In the game where I posted my 99-point comeback and eventually won 414-346, my opponent surged ahead with ANGRILY and ALTOIST before I got a chance to return fire with FIXAtES and CLOSURE. As with my last tournament, my shutdown game is steadily improving, so it’s encouraging that I’m managing to pull ahead of opponents who trounce me in the first half of the game, then close up the board and finish them off.

Time management is still a serious problem for me, and I still have a tendency to fish around with low-point plays when I’m holding nothing but low-point tiles that are too close to a bingo to give up but too individually feeble to be useful, but I think I addressed both of them as the competition went on. (What I didn’t fix, the tile gods did.) That’s the great thing about a one-day marathon tournament: you can adjust to bad strategic habits on the fly while they’re still fresh in your memory, assuming you’re awake enough to access said memory.

Word knowledge remains the biggest hump ahead of me, as I lost a fair number of turns to bad challenges, and they are costing me games.

8 of my 20 bingos were eight-letter words, which means I’m actually looking for bingos in the context of the board instead of juggling my rack in isolation. I used to depend too much on sevens. There is some measurable improvement here.

I am often intrigued by the tendency for measurable statistical patterns to emerge as a metric of skill in a game dominated by chance. Let’s hope that it was skill at work this time, and not merely the fatigue of my opponents as the day wore on, or the tile gods deciding to pardon me because I’m going to receive my due punishment when I write the examinations for which I was supposed to study all weekend.

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