By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 24, 2015
By losing my opening game on day two of the Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament, I fell back into negative territory with a 4-5 record. That left me feeling some pressure to get a win in my next game, the 10th of the two-day main event.
My opponent was J., a novice tournament competitor who (if memory serves) was winless to that point in the conclave. Even so, he jumped out to a 62-23 lead after two turns thanks to a pair of strong plays, ZOO 32 and XIS/ZAS 30.
I had one thing working in my favor early on, however: I had yet again obtained a blank tile on my opening draw. After some low-scoring balancing moves, I was able to put out ESTEEMs/HUTS, a 75-point bingo, on the fifth turn. J. answered with MOW, a 24-pointer, but he trailed, 138-120, going into the sixth turn.
We treaded water for the next few turns. Then, for his ninth move, J. opted to trade in three tiles.
At that point, I had a 189-168 advantage, my largest of the game, and a horrendous rack: AEEETUU. I responded to J.’s trade with an exchange of my own, switching out five tiles. (I think I kept an E and a T.)
Alas, J. was about to bingo on me. He played WATERING, an 89-point bingo, retaking the lead, 257-189, with 10 turns in the books.
Let’s pick up the action in the 19th turn. With a not-so-promising rack of ADHILNN, I noticed an open triple-letter-score square on our crowded board. To this spot’s left was a G; to its right, an I; one row beneath it, another I. I put down my H for GHI/HI, a nifty 28-point play.
The move got even sweeter because J., a smart and earnest 20-something guy whose word knowledge is a bit raw, challenged GHI. It was valid (definition: semifluid clarified butter, a popular cooking oil in India), so J. forfeit his opportunity to make a play in the 19th turn. Even better, my draw was the second blank, which might prove to be useful in the end game.
But J. still led, 359-305, and the game was rapidly approaching the end. I stared unhappily at the board, which didn’t have a lot of bingo alleys. I stared unhappily at my rack, which was ADILNN?. That could make…what?
I searched for a bingo. I searched and searched some more. It seemed hopeless.
I was about to give up when inspiration struck. Elated, I put down inlands, hooking my blank (the s) onto the front of pa. Result: INLANDs/sPA 76. I rocketed out to a 381-359 lead.
Frankly, I wasn’t sure if inlands was a valid word or not. Somewhat to my surprise, J. opted not to challenge, instead making JIG 33, a terrific play that used a triple-word-score space. That put J. back on top — by a single point, 382-381! — at the completion of the 20th turn.
But two factors were working in my favor. One was that the bag was virtually empty when I put out INLANDs, meaning that I could go out with my 21st move. I put down ED 3, emptying my rack and collecting 16 points from J.’s leftover tiles.
My other advantage was J.’s slow pace of play — a typical problem for novice players. (I suffered from it when I first tried my brain at competitive Scrabble.) Not only did he use up his entire 25-minute allotment, he also used more than one minute of extra time. Consequently, J. was penalized 20 points.
Like I said, both of those factors worked in my favor. My final score was 381 + 3 + 16 = 400; J.’s final score, 382 – 20 = 362.
The 38-point victory evened my record again at 5-5. My cumulative scoring differential remained negative, however, at minus-176.