Games 13 through 16, Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament, Jan. 17, 2016

February 9, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 9, 2016

My 13th-round game in the 2016 Duke PBMT tournament was against C—, who had beaten me by 26 points en route to a perfect 8-0 showing on Saturday. He still led our division, but he had just sustained his first defeat in the 12th round, a 48-point loss.

C—’s 11-1 record was still impressive, but I tried to take inspiration from that blemish on his record. And I was able to take a solid lead midway through the game by putting out TINNERS/HES, a 65-point bingo. C— challenged the play, but both words were valid. That left me with a 170-132 lead through seven turns.

My opponent was able to cut into my margin significantly with his eighth move, BASED 33. He trailed, 188-165, after that.

A few plays later, I boosted my advantage with QUAG 39. After C— played OI 14, I went into the 11th turn with a 249-202 lead.

Unfortunately, I was about to make a crucial mistake. My rack was ELLOVZ?. That wasn’t great, but there were two spots in the left-most column where I could play ZEk using a triple-word-score space.

One of those was in the bottom-left-hand-corner, where the blank K would hook on to the end of TIC, making TICk. Another was the middle triple-word-score-space, where my blank K would hook onto the front of OI, making kOI.

Both plays were worth the same amount of points, 35, so I didn’t need to consider the scoring implications. Instead, I had to consider which spot would offer me the greatest strategic advantage.

There was a clear case to be made for playing ZEk/TICk. The board was becoming difficult to work with, and putting down letters in the already crowded bottom-left corner would keep things relatively closed down. Since I was leading, that would be a good thing.

But there was also a clear case to be made for the other spot, too. OI takes only three front hooks: K, M (which is a relatively recent addition) and P. The lone (actual) K had already been used, but one of the two Ms were still available, as was one of the two Ps. I was afraid that C—’s relatively modest 14-point play was an attempt to set up a big play combining the triple-word-score and double-letter-score spaces. TYPE or WIMP or COPE or COMP would have generated beaucoup points for C—. Playing ZEk/kOI would ruin C—’s setup — a big benefit for me.

On the other hand, ZEk/kOI would potentially open up the board. Because the upper-left-hand quadrant was relatively uncluttered, if C— had an S, he could play a bingo ending in S, with the S hooking onto the end of ZEk to make ZEkS.

In the end, the prospect of wiping out a big play that C— had been trying to set up seemed more important than the risk of him hooking a bingo onto the end of ZEk. So I went ahead and played ZEk/KOI and added another 35 points to my score.

As it turned out, C— had essentially the best of all possible racks: AEINSR?. If you make the blank into a T, you get AEINSRT, or TISANE+R, which can make nine different words: ANESTRI, ANTSIER, NASTIER, RATINES, RETAINS, RETINAS, RETSINA, STAINER and STEARIN.

I’d hardly finished putting out ZEk and doing the follow-up — recording the score, drawing new tiles and so forth — when C— pulled the trigger on RETINAS/ZEkS. The 79-point play reduced what had been a respectable lead to the narrowest of margins: 282-281.

I responded with DOME for 28 points, but C—’s follow-up was even better: He played XED for 33 points, giving him the lead for the first time since my bingo in turn seven.

Poor me — not only was I trailing, not only was the board uncooperative, but I had a lousy rack: ACILLVY. I played IVY for 18 points, but C— went back on top with FORE 26. I entered the 15th turn facing a 340-328 deficit and having an unfortunate collection of tiles: ACILLOU.

Readers, I nearly pulled it out. My last play was COIL 39, but one of the crosswords (I’m not sure which, and I haven’t been able to reconstruct it) was phony. C— finished the game with a 376-332 win. My four-game win streak had come to an end.

Game 14 was against S—, a man in his late middle age who was a brand-new tournament player. We played a fairly close game.

My only play for more than 28 points was the game’s sole bingo, DIVERTS/UNS, a 77-pointer in the fourth turn that put me ahead, 113-76.

S— had just two plays that scored more than 28 points: He put down JOE and ZONES back to back on the eighth and ninth turns, getting 30 points both times. ZONES pushed S— back into the lead, 209-200, although I immediately retook the lead with a 16-point play.

Three factors put me over the top — barely. One was my final play, in turn 15, when I used a rack of HIRUY?? to play HaRdLY for 28 points, which put me up, 311-289.

The other two factors, which were related, were S—’s inability to come up with any high-scoring plays and his hesitation. His final play, ROUE 8, cut the score to 311-297 in my favor, and gave him four points from my leftover tiles. But because S— had mulled his moves for so long, he had exceeded his 25-minute allotment of play time by nearly two minutes, incurring a 20-point penalty. I won by a final score of 311-291.

That left me with a 9-5 record with just two games remaining in the tournament. I had a solid chance to finish in third place and an outside chance to be tournament runner-up. In fact, because of the strange way that this king-of-the-hill tournament format works, I think two wins in a row might have made me the Division C champion.

Also, ’twas not to be.

My 15th game was another rematch, my third of the day, this time against T—, the player whom I’d shellacked by a 538-279 score that morning.

He got off to a strong start, taking a 77-14 advantage in the opening turn by playing a bingo, CHAIRED. T— traded four tiles with his second move, but his third one was another bingo — RESPLINT 64, which I later learned was a phony. T— led, 141-70, after three turns.

I narrowed my deficit to 154-131 by playing XU with the high-value X on a triple-letter square that counted for both vertical and horizontal words, giving me 54 points. But T—’s 18-point play, BOG, put him back up by a respectable margin, 172-131.

That lead got bigger in turn seven when T— put down his third bingo: uNTASTED 59. Now my opponent led, 257-171.

The board and tiles did not cooperate, and I was never able to get closer than 40 or so points. Final score: T— 405, me 352 — a deficit of 53 points.

T— and I were paired up again in the 16th and final round. Our high-end plays were relatively comparable: He bingoed for 80 points with REPTiLE, while I had an identical-scoring play with IsSUERS.

T—’s four lowest-scoring plays went for zero (swap four tiles), 11 (PEN) six (OVA) and five (NIL) points, the last of which emptied his rack, giving him 16 points due to my leftover tiles. Otherwise, all of his plays went for 15 or more points.

By comparison, my four lowest-scoring plays garnered seven (NOVA), 10 (AI), seven (AI) and six (TEE) points. My next-best plays scored 12 or more points.

In the end, T—’s modest-scoring plays accumulated more points than mine. I went down to a 413-361 defeat, a deficit of…52 points.

I finished the tournament with a 9-7 record and a spread of plus-729 points. (That was the highest spread in Division C.) This was my second-best finish ever, trailing a runner-up performance on the strength of a 6-2 record in a June 2013 Durham tournament.

My player rating rose from 567 to 621 thanks to my winning record. My old rating had been the third-lowest of everyone in the field. (One player entered without a rating because this was her first tournament.) My new rating was the lowest of everyone who finished in the top 10, which indicated that my performance in the January event was significantly stronger than my history would have suggested.

I felt pretty good about that.

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