Game 11, Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament, 1/18/2015

January 25, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 25, 2015

My record was all even at 5-5 when I played my third game of day two in the Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament. My opponent for this contest was C., the same sharp young whippersnapper whom I’d bested, 377-342, in my very first game on Saturday.

My opening draw was CHHITT? — the fourth time in the tournament that I’d drawn a blank to start the game. I opened play with HITCH for a cool 32 points. That gave me an early lead that I would hold until the fifth turn, when C.’s VOID/VOX/OW/IN 36 gave him a 99-90 advantage.

I bounced back into the lead with my next move, ROASTEr, a 69-point bingo.

A few minutes later, C. put out VID/VIN/ID. Although I haven’t studied my Scrabble words in a while, a few years ago, I’d learned all the valid three-letter words that begin with the letter V. (The old dictionary, which will be expanded in early 2015, only had 23 such words.) I could not for the life of me remember VIN being on that list.

Not without some trepidation, I challenged the play. The computer rejected the move by flashing a red-trimmed screen, so C. picked up his letters. At the end of eight moves, I held a 195-126 lead.

My rack held FIIILNU. I decided to trade in all seven of my letters.

C.’s next move was a blockbuster: AVoIDED/AEON, an 87-point bingo. He rebounded to a 213-195 lead.

Fortunately, I was able to respond with ZINE 46. That temporarily put me ahead, 241-213, midway through turn 10.

C. answered with another big play, SQUAB 32, which left him up narrowly, 245-241, going into the 11th move of the game.

I thought for a while about challenging this move. Squib, I knew, is a real word. (It has three definitions: a short and witty or sarcastic writing or expression; a short news story; a small firecracker.) But squab?

Sometimes, a possible phony just isn’t worth challenging. That’s usually the case when you’re up by a large margin; it’s also true when you have an opportunity to score a lot of points with your next move and when the questionable play was not worth many points. In all of these situations, if one is uncertain about whether a word is valid, the gain to be had in reversing the opponent’s play isn’t worth the risk of losing one’s own turn — the penalty for someone who challenges a valid move.

In this case, I happened to notice that I could make a high-scoring play if I allowed SQUAB to stand. Ultimately, that’s what I decided to do, using the blank from my bingo in turn 6 to play rOSIER/SQUABS. The 39-point move put me back ahead, 280-245.

But after I made this play, I realized that I’d made myself vulnerable. My comments to C. had indicated some skepticism about the validity of SQUAB.

If my move hadn’t involved the suspect word, the issue would have been moot. However, my play hooked onto C.’s word. And if his SQUAB had been phony, then surely my SQUABS was also invalid!

I only realized this after my turn ended. As C. pondered whether or not to challenge my move, I fretted.

A challenge can’t be retroactive, so once I’d made put down rOSIER, SQUAB was going to stay on the board no matter what, and C. would get to keep his 32 points. But if SQUABS was bad, my 39 points would be invalidated, and C. would have the lead.

Ultimately, C. decided to challenge rOSIER/SQUABS. I held my breath as we went to the computer, which flashed green — both of the words were good! (Squab has multiple definitions; it can be a baby pigeon, dove or crow, or a thick cushion.) This all worked out in my favor, but I’d be lying if I claimed that I had planned things this way. In truth, I’d acted stupidly by muttering more than once that I thought SQUAB might be fake.

Anyway, at this point, my rack was an unpleasant EIIIPTU. I played off TRIPE 7. C.’s response, BY/YID 25, narrowed his deficit to 287-270 after 12 turns. I would retain that advantage until the very last turn.

What changed the game was a miscalculation on my part. Normally, competitive Scrabble players do what’s called “tracking tiles.” All that is is marking down tiles as they’re used. I discussed scoring and Scrabble equipment in my account of my sixth game, focusing on how every board is the same.

I also mentioned in that post that regulation letter pieces are flat, which thwarts people from cheating by feeling out tiles as they draw from the bag. What I didn’t mention is that every Scrabble set is supposed to come with a uniform complement of tiles. Each set should have:

• One each of the high-value tiles — J, K, Q, X and Z, which are worth anywhere from five points (K) to 10 points (Q and Z);

• Four Ds (value: two points);

• Three Gs (value: two points);

• Two blanks, which, as previously mentioned, have no explicit value but are the most versatile and helpful tiles nonetheless;

• Two each of the mid-value tiles, B, C, F, H, M, P, V, W and Y (some of these are worth three points, some four);

• As few as four and as many as 12 of the low-value tiles, A, E, I, L, N, O, R, S, T and U, all of which are worth one point apiece.

That adds up to 100 tiles.

Again, players who are or who want to be competitive try to keep track of which tiles have been played and which remain either in the bag or (potentially) on an opponent’s rack. The point of this is to avoid making plays that one’s opponent will be able to exploit for major points.

For a good example of the value of tile tracking, see my account of my fifth game in the Duke tournament, where knowing that no X or blank remained available worked out to my advantage. For a good example of how lack of awareness of remaining tiles can hurt a player, refer to my post on my ninth game in the tournament, where I inadvertently gave my foe the perfect place to slot a Z for major points.

But tile tracking is difficult to do properly; it’s a challenge even for some experienced players. For relative newbies such as myself, tracking can fall by the wayside from time to time, especially against fast-playing young competitors such as C. and L.

I started the 14th turn of this game with AEIILLN. I played NAIL/EN/NA 12 and drew AAJY, leaving me with AAEIJLY. That was my last draw — after C. played KEN 17, which made the score 315-299, no more tiles were available.

There was an L in the bottom right-hand corner that I had my eye on. I could potentially play JAIL there, with the J on a triple-letter-score square. That play would be worth 27 points — a solid score in a relatively close game.

The problem was that I mistakenly thought that C. held ER. If I played JAIL, C. could just add ER to the end of the word. That would utilize a double-word-score space and give him 26 points.

That was too big a risk to take, I thought. Instead, I used the J in a different spot, playing JAR for 12 points. That left me with a perilous nine-point lead, 343-334, midway through the 17th turn. Two one-point tiles, an I and an L, remained on my rack.

But my tracking had been erroneous. All the Rs were in use, as were all of the Ds, all of the Ses and all of the blanks. In other words, there was no way C. could have collected significant (or, it would appear, any) points by extending JAIL.

So because of my tile-tracking error, I passed up a relatively high-scoring play in a tight game in favor of a low-scoring one.

And I paid the price for my mistake. C. depleted his rack with an out play of TOT/GO, a six-point move. He got four points from my rack’s leftovers. (Remember, when one player uses all of her tiles at the game’s end, twice the value of the opponent’s remaining letters are added to her final score. I and L are worth one point each, and as we all know, 2 x 2 = 4.)

So C. and I did the math, which left him with…a one-point victory. He won, 344-343. I felt crushed, deflated.

My record for the tournament: 5-6, with a cumulative scoring differential of minus-177.


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