By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 23, 2015
After going a somewhat painful 2-2 in the morning session of the Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament, it was time to get lunch. I had about one free hour before game 5 began at 2:30 p.m. I decided to tackle a rather ambitious project.
I drove home from the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center and gathered a dead laptop computer and its bulging, useless battery along with a bin full of paper bearing sensitive information, which was awaiting shredding.
I inadvertently wasted a few minutes looking for this to-do, which in the past had set up on the south or visitors side of the stadium. However, on this day, it was taking place on the north or home side of the facility. Once I figured this out, I turned right out of Stadium Drive onto North Duke Street.
There, I found myself waiting in a line of cars in the right lane. Turns out that a whole lot of other people wanted to take old gadgets and sensitive paperwork for disposal. I must have waited 10 or 15 minutes, first on North Duke Street, then on Wisteria Lane and finally in twin lines of automobiles in the stadium parking area, before I could hand my laptop and its depleted battery to a worker.
In the past, after dropping off my electronics, I’d been able to hand off my paper to a worker who promised to shred them. (There was also the option of waiting to see the paper be shredded, which I skipped.) At this event, however, I was directed to park my car and carry my paper by hand for disposal.
I looked over to where the worker pointed me. There were perhaps two dozen vehicles waiting. People were standing around. I just didn’t have time for this. I decided to leave the event with my paper still in my car.
Then I hastily drove over to a pizza joint near my house, where I ordered my usual — a two-slice combination with a fountain drink. Contra my usual, I asked for it to go.
As soon as it was ready, I hurried back to my car and dashed back to the Duke cancer center. I arrived at the Scrabble tournament a few minutes before game 5 began. I set down my stuff, opened my pizza box and began to gobble my meal. My nerves were a bit more jangled than I’d have preferred.
My opponent this time was B., a woman in her 30s from Virginia (I think) whom I’d played at the previous year’s Duke benefit tournament. I knew her to be a solid player.
But as it turned out, B. mainly drew consonants in the early going, which worked out to my benefit. She started the game with MOP 14, which allowed me to a make a parallel play of WICK/OW/PI. That gave me a 24-14 lead after the first turn.
B. played off one letter, V, with VOW 9 on her second turn. I was able to play KEX for 28. I was off to a solid start.
B.’s third play was also a modest one, PINT 6. Facing a rack of BBGNORS, I used my third turn to trade in five letters (I kept the S and, I believe, the R). My draw had one great tile, a blank, and four so-so ones: EEEU.
On turn 4, B., who as I would later learn still lacked vowels at that point, used a blank to play iFF 24 — a fairly paltry return for a blank. (My understanding is that, other things being equal, a blank shouldn’t be used on a play worth fewer than 40 points.) I was only able to answer with FE 5 using one of B.’s Fs and one of my excess Es. The score was now 62-53 — I led, but it was anybody’s ballgame.
That remained the case after the fifth turn. B. started it by playing JET/FEE 26; I finished it by playing REE/JETE 17. That left the score 79-up.
On her next play, B. traded five letters. I laid down YAW/AVOW 19 to take a 98-79 lead.
B. then jumped ahead of me with HANG/YAWN 22.
But I had a big play in store. I laid out REsUMES/WICKS, an 82-point bingo, which gave me a 180-101 lead. Now I was cooking with gas!
Over the next six turns, B.’s best score was TAV 16, while I had a nice string with PEG/POI/EEL 21, AIT/AR/HIE/ITS 18 and ED/ARE/HIED 20. That left me with a healthy 272-158 advantage after 13 turns.
In the 14th turn, B. started to rally. After her ZA/ZED 35, I traded six tiles, keeping only my S. Next, B. dropped GIRD 22. I basically kept pace with my next play, HID 21.
In turn 16, B. put out SCAR/EAUS* 22.
This in effect sprung a trap that I’d baited in turn 8, when I’d laid down EAU, the French word for water. The play was worth only 9 points, but it was a safe way to get rid of three vowels from a very vowel-heavy rack (AEEOOPU).
It was safe because the only back hook for EAU is X, a letter which was no longer available: I’d played the game’s lone X tile in the second turn, and B. and I had used the blanks by the fifth turn. I was effectively blocking off the board. If B. tried to hook an S onto EAU, I knew that I could challenge successfully.
That’s what happened. After she removed her tiles, I played BRIO for 20 points. I was up by 98, 313-215. (B. thought about challenging this perfectly valid word but decided against it.)
I spent a lot of time pondering my final moves in the game, so much so that I came within seconds of using up my allotted 25 minutes. For each minute or part of a minute that a player uses beyond that allotment, she or he is penalized 10 points. Fortunately, I was able to finish the contest without incurring a penalty.
Unfortunately, because of the time pressure, I got sloppy in my score-keeping. In the 21st turn, according to my score sheet, B. played VIG 7. For some reason, I recorded her score as moving from 273 points after 20 turns to 288 points after the 21st play — an apparent error of 8 points in B.’s favor. This had no effect on the outcome, but it did cut slightly into my overall scoring margin.
Another interesting aspect of the game involved the Q. B. drew it, apparently late in the game — again, after both of the blanks had been played. Meanwhile, I had the last of the four Us. I held onto it, not wanting to give B. an easy opportunity to dump off her 10-point Q.
B. didn’t wind up stuck with it — she played QIS/STARE 19, a play that started on the top row. My rack included both the S and the U — I’d pulled BHINSU out of the bag in my six-letter trade after B.’s ZA 35. I realized that B. had left me with a prime opportunity: I laid down SUQ on the top row, utilizing an open triple-word score space to score an easy 36 points.
The final score (as recorded — remember, I think there was an eight-point addition error) was 376-299, a 77-point win.
Incidentally, B. played one valid word (ILLER 10) and one phony (THANG*/TARE 13) that I thought about but decided against challenging.
After the game, we talked about whether B. was smart to play iFF given that she had no vowels at the time. I said that I understood why she had done it, but I probably would have made a trade rather than use a blank on a 24-point turn. (Remember, B. ended up having to make a trade in turn 6 anyway.)
By the by, IFF is like EAU in that each of those words has but one back hook, and in neither case is it S: You can make EAUX and IFFY.
Tournament record: 3-2. Cumulative margin: plus-28.