By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 5, 2016
Recently, I played in the sixth annual Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament; it’s held in January on the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. That went pretty well, and I meant to put up several posts about those games. In fact, I still mean to — I just haven’t gotten around to it because I fell ill and was feeling awfully low-energy for a few days after my recovery. (I think I’m back to 100 percent now, thankfully!)
At any rate, I still want to write about the Duke PBMT tournament, but before I do that, I wanted to do a quick recap of a Scrabble encounter that I had last weekend. It involved three games against someone whom I’d expected to, but did not, see at the PBMT tourney.
G— is an extremely intelligent woman; I think she works as a biological researcher of some sort. Her Scrabble tournament rating is well north of 1,000 and has been for several years. (By comparison, my rating is currently at a lifetime peak of 644.) She also lives locally, so when I didn’t spot her at the January event, I wondered if she had fallen ill or possibly moved somewhere else.
That wasn’t the case; actually, she’d just had other plans for that weekend.
Anyway, G— showed up at the Sunday-afternoon Scrabble get-together that I do in Durham most weeks. I was the fifth person to show up, and she was the sixth; since we’d both been tardy arrivals, we played each other. The other duos began their next round of games before we completed our first game, so we played each other a second time for lack of any other option. When we completed that contest, everyone else had left or was about to, and I had a little bit of time to kill before my next engagement, so we played a third game.
I lost all three by at least 98 points. Since G— is such an excellent player, I was not at all surprised by these outcomes.
G— jumped out to a quick lead in the first game by putting out an 82-point bingo, HIRABLE, on the opening play. It took her just two turns to get her second bingo: She played cRINGERS through the I in my AMINO for 68 points, bringing the score to 176-48 through two and a half turns. (A lowercase letter indicates the use of a blank.)
Due to a vowel-heavy rack, I played AHA 6 and was rewarded by…drawing an A and an O. That left me with AAIOORS on my rack. Yuck!
On my fifth turn, I traded in everything except the S. If my score sheet is correct — I may have missed something — I drew AJOSVV on that play, which did not thrill me. On my sixth turn, I threw back both Vs and (I think) the J, getting ACE in return.
G— traded in some tiles on her seventh turn. I played PEACE 27, which left me trailing by a cool 234-120.
That deficit soon ballooned: On turn 8, G— played her third bingo of the contest, BISECTED 75, to go up, 309-120. Hoo boy!
I was able to respond with my one and only remarkable play of the game. My rack was EIJORS?, and I initially considered playing JOInERS or REJOInS vertically. Neither of these would have brought many points, however, so I searched for a better-scoring alternative.
And I found it. I realized that I could use the E in G—’s latest to make REJOIcES, which would touch not one but two double-word spaces. The base word was worth 14 points; multiplied by four, because of the two double-word spots, that grew to 56 points; and with the 50-point bonus bestowed upon anyone who uses all of the letters on her or his rack, that amounted to a cool 106-point play. I now led by a score of —
Well, scratch that: I was still behind, but now it was by a score of 309-226, significantly closer than the tally had been just moments ago.
G—’s next three plays were:
• UNWET 24, which I considered challenging but did not.
• ZONULA 16.
• VIGIA 26.
G— was up, 375-275, going into the 12th turn. Then she played CREOLISE for 74 points.
I weighed whether or not to challenge this. G— generally does not use phonies, which is why I hadn’t challenged UNWET. But if this play stood— G—’s fourth bingo of the contest! — then I had no shot at winning. Therefore, I decided it was worth forfeiting my turn if my challenge failed.
I walked over to the other players and picked up a volume that serves as the official Scrabble tournament word list. I flipped to the Cs and found that CREOLISE is in fact a verb. (It can be spelled with a Z in place of the S and means “to cause a language to become a creole,” or a mixture.)
Womp womp womp.
Final score: G— 491, me 338.
Our second game was more of the same. I drew EELNTUW to start and put down WELT 14. G— used my E to play MIMICkER 66. By the fourth turn, after she’d put down JAW 47, G— held a 150-82 advantage.
She padded that in the eighth turn with EDITING 74. I was able to respond with a bingo of my own, TENTING, but it was worth only 69 points; even after that play, I trailed by 48 points.
G— wasn’t done with the bingos. With her 10th turn, she put out REBRANDS 76 to go up, 366-244. The final score was 460-325.
This actually represented a slight improvement: Instead of being out-bingoed, four to one, and losing by 153 points, this time I’d been out-bingoed, three to one, and lost by 135 points!
G— opened our third game with JIAO 22. (JIAO, which can also be spelled CHIAO, is a Chinese unit of currency.)
My starting rack was ECLNSTU. I decided to use G—’s A to play UNCASTLE 68. Maybe, I thought, that was a valid chess term or something.
G— considered for a minute or two before deciding to challenge. And a worthwhile challenge it was: UNCASTLE was invalid, so I pulled my letters off of the board.
I briefly took a lead in this game — miracle of miracles! — when I was able to put down BASINET 82 with my fourth move, gaining a 124-72 advantage. Alas, G— played FORERUn 84 in turn 7. I opted not to challenge, which was wise: Although G— herself was not sure if the word was acceptable, we checked after the game, and it turned out to be good. (To the best of my knowledge, every word G— played against me that day was valid.)
I almost took another lead with my 11th move. The operative word in that sentence, unfortunately, is almost.
After playing PE 9 on turn 10, I drew LT, which gave me one of the best possible racks: AEILNST, sometimes referred to as TISANE+L. (TISANE is something that Scrabble players know as a common bingo stem.)
This left me with a lot of excellent options, because the board was still relatively open. But I made a mistake.
On turn 9, G— had played HEX. A few -EX words take T as a back hook: SEX can become SEXT, for instance, and VEX can become VEXT. I thought that HEX also took a T, so I put down SLAINTE/HEXT for 82 points.
But I was mistaken; in fact, HEX does not take any front or back hooks. G— challenged, and I was forced to retract my play. In the 12th turn, she put down UREIDES, a 71-point bingo that put her up, 384-244.
Fortunately, the board was still relatively open, so I rearranged my rack and played ELASTIN 74. (I think I hooked the S on to the front of KI to make SKI.) That cut the margin to 384-318.
In turn 13, G— played CRUStY 32. I responded with QAID 38.
G— finished the game on the next turn with BUD 12, which used up the final letters on her rack. She got six points from my three remainders, ALO, to make a final score of 434-346.
Margins in the three games: Minus-153, minus-135, minus-98.
Bingo tallies in the three games: 4-1, 3-1 and 2-2.
Well, that’s progress of a sort, I suppose.