By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 6, 2016
My opponent in game 5 of the sixth annual Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament was J—, a local player whom I had faced, and lost to, in a June 2015 tournament. He opened turn 5 with NUrTUrE/TOr/FINE 66, which put him up, 137-99.
I was behind, 221-172, in the eighth turn when I was able to play a bingo of my own: RECALLS/ROM 68. That put me ahead, 240-221.
I nurtured (get it? Get it?!) a slender lead for the next few moves. In turn 12, I found myself with a lousy rack: DIIORRS, which meshed poorly with the words that had already been put down on the board. I decided to swap everything except for the S. My draw wasn’t great — AAABDG — but it worked with the closed-in board much better than the letters I’d had. I held a 308-298 edge after the swap.
“You dirty dog,” J— muttered archly when he realized why I’d traded in tiles.
Over the game’s final four turns, I outscored J—, 84-39. Adding in the two points I was awarded for using my last tile while my foe still had one on his rack, I won, 394-337.
I played my sixth game against P—, a young woman whom I did not know, but whom I vaguely recognized from an earlier tournament. The contest got off to a slow start: Playing first, P— traded in six of her tiles, while I drew EEEHNU? and played HEN 12.
I played HO for 26 points in the fourth turn and drew a blank and a T. Facing a rack of ITVWY??, I played TIVY 24 and drew LRTZ. (TIVY, an adverb, means with great speed.)
I was ahead at that point, 92-87, but P— played AJEE 27 to go back on top, 114-92.
My rack was not the greatest: LRTWZ?? But after staring for a while, I came up with a play: WaLTZErS 86. (I believe I used one of the Es from AJEE to make the word.) I followed up with FLAsK 30 in the next turn, which left me with a 208-132 lead after seven moves.
P— cut into that with her eighth play, DEX 41. But my advantage grew after I played through another E on the board for my second bingo of the game, REMOTEST 61, in the 10th turn.
Immediately afterward, P— jumped back on top with a 90-point bingo, ANESTRI (a period of sexual dormancy).
Trailing by five points, I had a distinctly unpromising rack: AEIRUUU. Since P— had played the Q on her second turn, and since this was a poorly balanced collection, I tossed in IUUU. The bag yielded GNRT, leaving me with a so-so rack: AEGNRRT. I turned that into my third bingo, GRANTER 63, in turn 12, which vaulted me to yet another lead, 358-321.
I finished with a 403-354 win, my fourth consecutive victory. My record to that point was 4-2 with a spread of plus-332.
My opponent in the seventh round was D—, a local player whom I often face on Sunday afternoons.
Midway through the ninth turn, I trailed, 206-198. My rack was unfortunate — DIIJSV? — so I traded in everything but S?. I drew a vowel-heavy group instead: EEFIO.
D— traded in three tiles in both the 10th and 12th rounds. By then, I had a decent rack, DEEILS?, which I converted into a 61-point phony, ELIDErS. That provided me with a 280-220 advantage.
Unfortunately, D— bingoed with SNEeRING 66 in the 13th turn, and she scored 36 on JUGS in the 14th turn. Desperate for points, and facing an unpromising situation in terms of open spots on the board and available tiles, I made consecutive bad plays, ACE/CHEAVE* 57 and CAM/AHEAVE* 57, both of which D— successfully challenged. I lost, 388-290, after 20 points were deducted because I exceeded my 25-minute allotment by nearly two minutes.
My opponent in the day’s eighth and final game was C—, a youngster whom I’d beaten once in three tries. (In the opening round of the 2015 Duke PBMT tournament, I won by 30 points, but I lost our rematch the following day by a single point because I made errors in tracking the remaining available tiles.)
I found C— to be an extremely formidable foe. That was partly because he had a 2-1 lifetime advantage over me in tournament play and partly because he was at most a sophomore in high school. (Losing to a significantly younger player is psychically daunting.) What I found most intimidating, however, was the fact that C— was leading the division with a perfect 7-0 record.
To start the game’s third move, C— played VEGOS 18, a word that I later learned is phony. I responded with AVO 14, which left me trailing, 72-63.
The fourth turn featured eye-opening plays by both of us. C— put down RESHINE on the right-most column, using the triple-word-score spot in the upper-right-hand corner to gain a cool 89 points.
My rack was ACINOZ?. That wasn’t great, but it would do. I put down ZINs/RESHINEs. The Z was on a double-letter spot and the blank occupied one of the triple-word spaces, making the play worth 96 points. That left C— ahead by just two points, 161-159.
I fell behind in turn 6 when C— put down QAT 35and I could only respond with WEE 22. Matters got worse in turn 8 when he played DOPE 32 and I was forced to exchange my entire rack (CFIIRRU). C—’s advantage was 264-215 at that moment.
I had one more big play left in me. With my 12th move, I played COX for 60 points, drawing within 328-293.
A few turns later, I had a terrific rack — ENORSS?. Alas, there was no place on the board to play SENiORS or any other potential bingo, and I went down to a 412-386 defeat.
My cumulative record to that point, at the end of day 1 of the main event, was 4-4. My overall spread was plus-208.