The National Scrabble Cataclysm, Day 3

Monday, 28 July 2008 — 10:13pm | Adventures, Scrabble, Tournament logs

“How does that saying go?” one of my opponents asked me today, after another heated battle at the bottom of the barrel. “The road to hell is paved with…?”

“Good intentions,” I said, “and bad tiles.”

I am now at 6-15 (-528), and sincerely having the time of my life. I may be losing, but at least I’m playing real Scrabble. In my 133-player division, I’ve gone from 133rd on Day 1 to 132nd on Day 2, and now I’m 131st. At this rate, I should finish the tournament in fourth-last place, a smidgen worse than New Orleans (where I finished 165th of 169).

So why am I having so much fun? Round 19, that’s why. Oh, golly. Let me tell you about Round 19—instantly one of the most memorable games I’ve ever played, and enough to make me stop worrying and love the bomb (aka the SCRABBLE® Brand Crossword Game). It was like falling all over again for a lost and unrequited love that had already jilted you a dozen times. Like making beautiful baroque music with her after months of distant longing and minimal conversation. No, not whoopee, you unchivalrous pervert. Just music.

I lost Round 19, you know. It was euphoric anyway. Sometimes a loss is a loss, and all you can do is make the best of it. Is there a word for the opposite of a Pyrrhic victory?

(Before I proceed—Day 3 bingos: ESTUARY, WOrRIeS, WEARYINg, VISITOr, NOTaRIZE, ELECTOR, RADIANT, OPERATED, SANdBILL*, UNAIrEd, ANTSIER, FLATIROn, COILIEST*. More blanks, more phonies, and more laughs.)

So, Round 19 versus Jeanne Freebody. I fell behind early in the game, thanks to Jeanne’s 90-point JOIsTED. Not to worry, though: I suddenly had an outstanding run of luck, and played three consecutive bingos—RADIANT (71), OPERATED (80) and SANdBILL* (76), vaulting me ahead to a tremendous lead, 335-234. They didn’t take much searching, either. They just fell right into place, and I found myself with over twelve minutes left on the clock at the end of the game.

I was especially proud of SANdBILL*, which, alongside my tricky placement of ESTUARY in Round 15, was one of the few plays of the tournament that made me feel like a real Scrabble player for a change. Jeanne and I were absolutely certain it was an acceptable word, too, as did some of the players seated at adjacent tables who peeked at our board afterwards. We didn’t have a shred of doubt. And we all had the same definition in mind: isn’t a sandbill a kind of bird? Like a sandbill crane?

So it was quite a surprise when I tried to look it up in the dictionary, and didn’t find it listed. “I think it’s a sand-hill crane,” suggested one of our neighbours. As it turns out, SANDHILL* isn’t good either, but that’s because it’s a proper noun—the Sandhill Crane, capital S, capital C. Grus canadensis. So what does that make a sandbill? My theory: a cross between a Sandhill Crane and a HANDBILL (or, the product of rival campaigns for political office flipping each other the bird).

As an aside, there are a number of sevens in my rack, ABILNS? (BASINaL, LeSBIAN, ABLINgS, AIBLiNS, ALBINoS), but no valid bingos that would have fit the board position. I got away with that one, and I got away clean.

But that’s not all! As if three consecutive bingos weren’t exciting enough—I mean, it was the first time I’d laid down three bingos, consecutive or otherwise, in any game at this forsaken tournament—Jeanne immediately fired back with an outstanding play: HEISTER (99) parallel to the last six letters of OPERATED, making six auxiliary words: EH, RE, AI, RADIANTS, ET, and DE. The score: 335-333.

By the time the dust settled, she had sealed up the game with a third bingo, EVERSION (71). Final score: 403-474.

And this is how it looked:

If there was a specific blemish on the game that kept it from being an expert board, it was the trouble with word knowledge on both sides. I lost two turns to unsuccessful challenges: the HEISTER/RADIANTS play was the first. RADIANTS is an odd duck, but the one I was mostly unsure about was HEISTER. I suspected EVERSION was good, but challenged it anyway because I had the slightest doubt about it, and letting it go would guarantee my defeat.

I must emphasize that the unrelenting joy of Round 19 wasn’t just about the pendular drama of great comeback plays. It was the camaraderie, the sportsmanship, the mutual respect. There was never any bitterness about seeing the other person do well. Quite the opposite, in fact: we were literally high-fiving each other for great plays.

Not that we intentionally left openings for each other, of course. The game was still adversarial, not collusive; but most of all, it was friendly. After the last round of the day, Jeanne and I sat down together to fill out a board diagram in order to submit her HEISTER play for the tournament’s Flashiest Bingo award. I’m not sure how it will stack up against the kind of bingos that come out of Division 1—the top experts have a way of weaving 11-letter words through disconnected tiles—but we thought we’d give it a shot.

After Round 19, this Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Tournament didn’t bother me anymore. I’m love with Scrabble again, and I don’t care if it won’t love me back.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to let my other losses off easy, though. There’s a lot I have to work on going into Day 4.

Now that my luck is a little more balanced—I’m drawing blanks for a change—it’s my vocabulary deficiencies that are beginning to collect their toll. Round 17 was, in a word, horrendous: I posted my lowest score of the tournament and lost by the largest spread thus far, 290-497. My opponent admitted that he was drawing perfectly balanced racks (in terms of consonant/vowel ratio) every turn, while I was coming off bingos with draws like ORTTTTU, but that doesn’t mean I did the best I could. I was unsure about UPSOARS, so I didn’t play it. Then I tried IVOrIST* for 90 points, missing VIOlIST in the same position, and it was challenged off; my opponent used his extra turn to block the lane, and I had to settle for VISITOr (64). Drawing both blanks and using them aren’t enough to stay competitive, that’s for sure.

The most stressful game by far was Round 21, which I lost 383-393 after a heart-stopping endgame in which I saw the clinching play, miscalculated it as a guaranteed loss, and attempted a phony instead (BANDIER*—no, not a bingo). Still, it was an exciting fight to the finish, and my opponent and I were visibly on the verge of cracking. It was also a reminder of why I’m still a sub-1400 player: if I knew the word ZONULE, things would have been different.

It’s all part of a grand learning experience, I suppose. The tiles fall where they may, but good players rise and bad players fall. There’s no escaping the bottom half of the division now—I haven’t even been out of the bottom tables all tournament—but I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings. More bingos, I should hope.

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