Game 1, Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tourney, Jan. 17, 2015

January 21, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Jan. 21, 2015

The main portion of the charity Scrabble tournament began at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 17, at the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center, an outpost of Duke University Health System located on a parcel of land between the main hospital campus and the Durham Freeway, a local highway more formally known as N.C. 147. The tournament, a benefit for Duke’s Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program, is now five years old; this was the third year in a row that I’d participated in one of its events.

When I arrived in the tournament space, which is normally the cancer center’s seminar room, most of the tables were full, and people were listening to a couple of speeches. I plunked my coat and bag down on one of the chairs that were stacked alongside the room’s walls. I tried to extract one of my blank score sheets with a minimum of fuss.

As a representative of the transplantation program spoke, I oriented myself. My first game would be at table 12 against a boy I’ll call C., who is roughly 12 years old. My rating from the North American Scrabble Players Association, or NASPA, was 510 going into the tournament; C. was a higher-rated player at 660.

When the game got under way, I drew a promising collection of tiles: AEELRSV. Except for the V, which is worth four points, these were all one-point letters. One-pointers are the most common letters in the English language, and all else being equal, they’re typical the easiest to play on a Scrabble board. The suffix -ERS is one of the most common word endings, so I placed that on the right side of my rack and arranged the other tiles. I came up with LEAVERS, which I thought might be valid, but I wasn’t sure. (It is, as are SEVERAL, LAVEERS, VEALERS.)

As I was about to place the word, I realized that I could spell REVEALS. Not only was I sure that this was a valid word, I could place the V on a double-letter square. I did so, and scored a tidy 78 points — {[(4 x 2) + 6] x 2} + 50 = (14 x 2) + 50 = 78 — on my opening play. (Every bingo, which utilizes all seven letters on a player’s rack, automatically garners a 50-point bonus.) It was a great start.

C. played ADZ for 33 points, placing the Z on a triple-word square, and the game was afoot. As we traded plays (me: VARIED for 20; he: FEY for 26; me: ABLY/ZA for 24; he: WARM for 29), C. cut into my lead.

Then he traded in five of his seven letters, which meant that he passed up the opportunity to score points in hopes of gaining a better rack. My next play was JOE/EWE for 32 points. That gave me a 169-88 lead, for a margin of 81 points, halfway through turn 5.

I scored 20 points apiece in turns 6 and 7, and C. had just 34 over those plays. But then my momentum petered out: In turns 8 through 11, I never scored more than 15 points, while C. never scored fewer than 18. By the end of turn 11, my lead had shrunk to 244-243.

I had one thing — well, two of the same thing — going for me: Blanks. I’d picked up my first blank after playing VARIED, and the second one came the next turn. Blanks are, bar none, the most versatile (not to mention valuable) tiles in the game of Scrabble. Upon being played, a blank can be designated as any letter. Blanks don’t score any points in and of themselves, but they enable bingos and other big plays — hence their value.

Unfortunately, the rest of my draws weren’t as helpful. From turn 11 through turn 14, my starting racks were EEIIO??, EEIIU??, EIILN?? and EIIIL??. (Each question mark represents a single blank, of course; when a blank is played, it’s usually represented as a lower-case letter.) It turns out that the EIILN?? can form one word, INvIrILE, but my chances of figuring this out were pretty close to nil. And so I scored eight, nine and 10 points over the course of three of those turns. I had a 20-pointer by hooking an L onto the front of UTE, making LINE/LUTE.

Meanwhile, C. was getting good draws and making a series of solid plays. While I scored a paltry 47 points in turns 11 through 14, C. scored 78, racing to a 301-281 lead.

We were getting to the end game here. Fortunately, the tide of vowels was running dry. I started turn 15 with a rack of BEIIX?? and played BI/BIN for 21 points, which gave me a 302-301 lead. C. responded, however, with QAT for 22 by placing the Q on a double-letter square.

Down by 21, I searched for an out play for my remaining tiles, EIX??. (Because the bag was empty, I had fewer than seven tiles on my rack.) X has a standard value of eight points, and it was importantly to get rid of it before C. used all of his tiles. When one player “goes out,” she or he gets double the value of the tiles remaining on the other player’s rack.

I was about to make a modest play when I spotted an empty triple-letter score where I could play my X. oX/oP/XU was worth a cool 52 points, and I sprang ahead to a 354-323 lead.

That was basically the game. C. played FER/ER for 19 points, closing to within 12 of me. But then I made an out play of lEI/QI for 17, which gave me 371 + 6 (from C.’s unused rack, EET) = 377 points. After jumping out to a big lead, I’d escaped with a 377-342 victory — a modest margin of just 35 points.

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