From the archives: Scrabble

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Suggested reading, abcdelmrs deiinot

Monday, 12 April 2010 — 11:12pm | Assorted links, Classical, Computing, Debate, Journalism, Literature, Music, Scrabble

Until last week I had been out of touch with tournament Scrabble for well over a year and a half, having taken a hiatus from playing at any events. In the meantime the organizational politics in North America have drastically transformed: Hasbro decided to redirect the National Scrabble Association toward developing the game in schools and ceased to support the tournament scene, which spun off into a non-profit licensed to use the Scrabble name and a rebel organization that isn’t. The best thing to have come out of competitive Scrabble going unofficial, though, is The Last Word, a model community newsletter that improves on the NSA’s old snail-mail Scrabble News in most respects (although it noticeably lacks annotations of high-level games). If you are inclined to read about Scrabble squabbles, Ted Gest has written in the latest issue about the NASPA/WGPO split.

And now for something completely different:

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First one to play MATTEL is a gullible ouroboros

Tuesday, 6 April 2010 — 6:53pm | Journalism, Scrabble

In a stunning reminder of why news media should refrain from acting as aggregators for corporate press releases, Mattel scored a marketing coup today when it announced that an upcoming edition of Scrabble will permit the use of proper nouns. You would think this presents itself as yet another opportunity for me to be indignant about dictionary politics, but I honestly don’t care—not about the Scrabble, anyway. This is only confirmation of what we already knew: that Mattel is every bit as capable of executive insanity as its sworn enemy Hasbro, Scrabble’s corporate steward in North America.

[Edit: While I was composing this post, Stefan Fatsis wrote a piece for Slate explaining what's going on, and CNET had the sense to talk to John D. Williams. Mattel is promoting a spinoff product called Scrabble Trickster, with cards that allow players to bend the traditional rules—kind of like the "Cheat" card in Munchkin, but less funny and presumably without cartoons. I'll leave my original post up anyhow.]

Continued »

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A habit of last-minute implosion

Monday, 24 November 2008 — 12:36am | Scrabble, Tournament logs

I competed in another Edmonton local tournament this weekend. My 5-1 (+381) record in the top division is much too flattering; more than one victory capitalized on my advantage over my opponents in both word knowledge and the ability to see bingos. For all the challenges I won, I allowed more phonies than I am willing to admit, and there is no question that my defensive play wouldn’t have held up very long against the level of competition I usually face.

Nevertheless, I was relieved, if not entirely satisfied, to be undefeated after the first five games. I might even have begun to believe, much to my own detriment, that neither studying nor practicing since the Calgary tournament in mid-October wasn’t such a boneheaded idea after all. Sitting in first place with 5-0 (+479) ahead of the nearest challenger’s 4-1 (+293), I had first place in the bag as long as I didn’t lose by over 93 points.

Naturally, I made just about every possible mistake—the usual culprits, too: mixing up my 3-to-4 hooks (which I should know cold by now), not giving myself enough time to work out the endgame math, trying to play my way out of hopeless racks instead of exchanging—and lost by 98.

I wonder, sometimes, if I have the mental fortitude to play this bloody game. It’s been one long and steady decline since New Orleans in 2004. (2004!)

Not much happening on the bingo front, either: SATIRES, HERNIAE, TESSERa, ERASUrE, OVERlAIN, SARSNET, FACADES, VERiTAS, STRiATe.

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The xkcd opening: CILORST

Wednesday, 22 October 2008 — 3:04am | Scrabble

I beg to differ from the caption: I don’t think a veteran player would consider OSTRICH down to the H (leaving an L) an option. Playing off the S for 13 points? No way. The available bingos, apart from the suggested CLITORIS, are COISTRIL, LICTORS, and TROCHILS. The highest-scoring play is LICTORS for 71 with the C hooking onto HI to make HIC, but don’t forget that placement matters, and that the greedy strategy may not get you very far.

CLITORIS (in either position) is not only one of the lower-scoring plays, but puts the O right next to a TLS—leaving ample room for OX for 52 points, or a less devastating but still competitive response using the F, H, M, or P. It’s probably the easiest of the bingos to spot, but the least strategically sound.

Naturally, I thought it would be fun to simulate the position. After 1000 iterations, Quackle equally favours LICTORS with the T hooking onto HI for HIT (69 points): LICTORS/HIC has a win percentage of 67.00%, and LICTORS/HIT is at 66.92%. (Compare CLITOR(I)S at 62.77% and CL(I)TORIS at 61.59%.) LICTORS/HIT has the advantage of opening two double-double lanes instead of one: if your opponent takes one, you can capitalize on the other. But that kind of wisdom—and most competitive wisdom, for that matter—only applies to two-player situations. In a four-player game, wherein one’s control of the board position goes out the window, I’d go for LICTORS/HIC and take the 71 points. It’s a safe play, and neither double will be open by the next turn anyhow. Besides, HIC is not as vulnerable as HIT to a certain family-unfriendly front hook.

Also worth noting: CLITORIS is not one of the offensive words expurgated from the home/school/ESPN-friendly Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. In the ever-squeamish OSPD, it is defined somewhat ambiguously as “a sex organ”.

What I’d really like to see is Scrabble on a roller coaster.

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Purloined letter scores

Monday, 20 October 2008 — 11:22pm | Scrabble, Tournament logs

9-12 (-289), 19th place out of 26. The main event of the Western Canadian Scrabble Championship expanded to 21 rounds this year, up from the heretofore typical 17. I still only won nine games. I have now finished with nine victories in Division 2 for four straight years. That, my friends, is consistency.

Day 1 (Rounds 1-8) was a right drubbing. I lost three rounds by margins of over 150 points, one of them because I went four minutes overtime. In those three games, I played no bingos while my opponents notched 11. Sure, there were the usual issues with time management, and a few crippling decisions with respect to rack management and defensive positional play; but as reluctant as I am to blame the tiles, a lot of it was dumb luck. What’s the use of a good, balanced leave if the bag is going to spit out EEE or UUU?

Apart from that, I let my opponents get away with too many yucky phonies, some of which sealed the fates of their respective games. Some, like PANTLESS*, I didn’t consider challenging at all. If someone without a shirt is SHIRTLESS, what do you call someone with no pants?

I only finished with a reasonable spread because Day 3 (Rounds 17-21) came along and finally gave me a shot at clobbering my opponents when I was already well out of contention for any prize money. And I did find my share of nice plays, my favourite being WHISKED with the K on a DLS, the S hooking onto BOO to make BOOS, and the E turning ZIN into ZINE, for a whopping 115 points—easily my highest-scoring single turn of the tournament. I also fulfilled one of my longtime Scrabble ambitions: to draw a challenge with CALENDER, which looks like a misspelling of CALENDAR but is actually something to do with papermaking. I also made some good decisions to play words I was uncertain about, like DIGITALS, instead of shying away from the risk. (What kind of watch do you have? Mine’s a digital. I really should have known the noun form of the word, though: the Scrabble dictionary’s abbreviated definition tells me that a digital is a piano key.)

In other adventures: on the Friday and Saturday, the Scrabble tournament shared the host hotel with an Alberta Teachers’ Association professional development event, a jolly sort of pow-wow for the public stewards of your children replete with sessions about adolescent culture and information-age learning strategies in addition to a well-stocked flea market of picture books. One of the delegates, a young gentleman who has a posting as a band teacher in Airdrie, thought it would be fun to commandeer the hotel piano for some good old-fashioned ragtime over lunch. I joined him for an improvised duet.

I played better after that.

My measly 23 bingos: ENErGIEs, ADORERS, cLOSERS, READIER, ATOnIES, SiNUATE, CALENDER, LINTERs, ENHAnCE, GOAlIES, ATONIES, LANDINGS, ReCLINE, JELLIES, DIGITAlS, TELERANS, GOLfERS, WHISKED, DELIvER, AEROBIc, INVADES, SCoLDING, SCORNeD. After the anemic Day 1 (only four bingos—four!), I finally remembered how to score, and the bag remembered how to let me.

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Hobbling against the clock

Sunday, 7 September 2008 — 4:52am | Scrabble, Tournament logs

4-2 (+475), second place; time management denied me a finish in first. I did this at the first Edmonton local tournament I’ve attended since the establishment of the Edmonton Scrabble Club. Outside our game room, there was a convention of 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Edmonton, you silly place.

The tournament scene here is fairly new, so the competition was light, and as the top seed I needed to win all six rounds to keep my rating. 4-2 is disappointing, but not catastrophic; I needed to stay above 1200 to play in Division 2 at the Western Canadian Scrabble Championship as I’ve been doing for the past few years, and I think I’ll be okay.

I lost my last game because my opponent drew tiles like a magician pulls rabbits from transdimensional hats. That happens, and I can live with it. I can’t live with Round 2, where I lost to the same opponent by 6 points with one second left on the clock, a defeat that epitomized everything that went wrong in Orlando.

The scenario: I’m holding CO with 0:03 on the clock. As far as I can see, I have a sure win as long as I play my tiles and announce my score before the clock runneth over. My opponent surprises me and plays YEG*—a word I instantly know to be a phony—but without thinking, or really looking at it, I dump my play on the board and finish with the clock reading 0:01. I lose by 6 points.

As it turns out, even if I’d taken the 10-point penalty for going overtime, and took the time to look at his play and challenge it off the board, I still would have won the game. This made all the difference between first and second place.

It’s time to admit it (and to be frank, I already have): there is something systematically rotten about my time management, and it’s killing my endgame. This has deteriorated from embarrassment to utter lunacy.

On the upside, my resumption of serious word study over the past few weeks is beginning to pay off. A month ago, I would never have seen HETAErAS. You would think that somebody as interested in ancient Greece as I am would know what the Greeks called their courtesans. Well, I do now, and I’m all the richer for it.


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New York Minutes

Tuesday, 5 August 2008 — 10:55pm | Adventures, Jazz, Music, Pianism, Scrabble

I visited Manhattan for the first time before and after the Orlando NSC, and one doesn’t visit Manhattan for the first time without coming back with a swarm of impressions that cling to the memory like barnacles.

Not content with restricting myself to the usual landmark-hopping tourist experience of scheduling ill-lit drive-by shootings (now in digital), I thought it would be rewarding to amble around the City That Sleeps As Much As I Do with little planning and forethought, and let adventure ambush me as it will. At times, the excursion assumed the manner of a pilgrimage. Mecca, with less ululation. This isn’t to say that I didn’t tick my way down the usual checklist—the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the more navigable corners of Central Park, a Broadway production or two—but stopping there wouldn’t have made it my New York, and like any good tourist, I populated my list of things to see with a few sentimental items, guided as always by the invisible hand of personal entitlement.

So when I wasn’t busy getting lost in more of Central Park than most New Yorkers will ever see, I went looking for Scrabble and jazz.

Continued »

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