By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 23, 2015
My sixth contest in the Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament brought me my second taste of heartbreak.
My opponent was L., a smart middle schooler from the local area whom I’ve played (and, I believe, mostly lost to) a few times. I took an early lead, mainly thanks to my second play WEAL 23. L. passed me on turn 4 with FAZe 38, which gave him an 80-60 edge.
A few plays later, I hooked an A on the front of VID, making CRABS/AVID 38. L. finished turn 6 with VAIN 25, leaving me up, 130-119.
I started turn 9 with an unpleasant rack: DDEEGIY. I played off DYED for 16 points, which gave me a 160-140 lead with L. yet to make his ninth move.
That move turned out to be a big one: SETLERS*/INS 77. I was pretty positive that the bingo was a phony, so I challenged — successfully.
I have a bit of trouble explaining the next play because of how I keep score, or perhaps more to the point, how I keep score on boards that aren’t marked with coordinates. To explain this, I first need to describe a bit about how tournaments are run.
In every Scrabble tournament I’ve ever participated, equipment — boards, tile bags, tile racks, tiles and timers — is supplied by the players. One doesn’t necessarily use one’s own equipment; each “table” or playing station is provided with a complete set, and players move from table to table as assigned by the tournament director.
(The word table is often figurative — frequently, two or more playing stations are set up upon a single table. Anyway…)
All the tiles at these events are typically tournament-legal — that is, they’re flat. By contrast, the wooden tiles in many commercially sold Scrabble sets are engraved. These aren’t legal because sly, sensitive players can feel the shapes of the engraved letters when they’re drawing from the bag, which gives them an unfair advantage.
When it comes to Scrabble boards, color schemes and patterns may differ, but the field of play is always the same. Each board has 15 columns and 15 rows, with a uniform complement of bonus spaces occupying standard locations. For example, the spots in the board’s four corners are always triple-word-score spaces; the spots in the middle column of the top and bottom rows and in the middle row of the outermost columns are also always triple-word-score spaces. Other bonuses — double- and triple-letter scores and double-word scores — are invariably in the same places, no matter which Scrabble board one uses.
For purposes of score-keeping, the columns are labeled A through O, moving from left to right; the rows are numbered 1 through 15, top to bottom. And here we come to the relevant issue: Many of the boards I played upon in the Duke tournament lacked these coordinate labels.
I mention this because when the set I’m using lacks the coordinates, I don’t write them down; instead, my score sheet tracks the evolving state of the board by noting hooks and parallel plays. For example, in game 5, my opponent, B., started the game with MOP 14. My first play, WICK/OW/PI 24, was parallel to the first word, with my W being placed in the row beneath the O and my I beneath the P.
Using coordinates, it’s very easy to reconstruct a game as it evolves. Without them, the task can get pretty difficult. When the speed of play is quick — and L., like many younger players, can be pretty fast — I don’t always write down the crosses and parallels, which makes recreating a game close to impossible.
All this is my roundabout way of explaining that I know where and what the opening L. used was, but for the life of me, I have no idea just how that opening was created. That’s because of my incomplete score-keeping, not because anything improper happened.
The bottom line involves the board’s bottom row. After my 10th play, GIE 8, the board had a spot for L. to exploit. A play — some mysterious play — had used the triple-word-score square in the board’s bottom-left corner. The tile placed in that spot was an N. And there were no tiles in the 14th row that blocked (or even complicated) use of the N.
So midway through turn 10, with my having a 168-140 lead, immediately after L. had had his 72-point SETLERS*/INS bumped from the board because of my challenge, he made an even better play: NESTLERS. This eight-letter bingo started at A15 (occupied by the previously placed N), crossed the double-letter-score space at D15 and ended at H15, which is the location of another triple-word-score space.
L.’s haul on the play was (9 x 3) + 50 = 27 + 50 = 77. That gave him a 217-168 lead. I challenged NESTLERS, but it was valid, so I was unable to make a move in the 11th turn.
L.’s very next move was to put down GEL for 13 points. But the G was hooked onto the front of RIMS, which I thought made a phony. I challenged GRIMS, not without some anxiety, and was proven right, so L.’s play was bumped.
I’d love to tell you that this marked the start of a great comeback by me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the big play that I needed. In fact, I could hardly find any good plays — my biggest by far after L.’s bingo was my last move, the (unintentional) phony EXUDER* 31.
One more note about this game. As discussed oh so extensively above, I can’t ascertain just why there was an open N on the bottom row that allowed L. to play his decisive 77-point bingo. What I do know is that instead of trying to balance my rack (AEEGIIX) in the 10th turn by playing GIE, I should have prevented NESTLERS by playing NEG in the spot that he was about to use. It wouldn’t have scored many points (of course, neither did GIE) — but strategically, it could have made a huge difference.
Final score in the contest: 321-261, a 60-point loss.
Tournament record: 3-3. Cumulative margin: minus-32.