By Matthew E. Milliken
April 15, 2016
Because I’d gotten less than three hours of sleep the night before, I was nervous. The circumstances gave me a built-in excuse for performing poorly in the Scrabble tournament I was participating in on Saturday, April 2.
It didn’t help that the competition was taking place in a fairly unusual venue: The middle of Durham’s Northgate Mall, at a broad junction of corridors. People were walking past and gawking. There was no barrier between us and the rest of the mall, so nothing shielded us from the surrounding conversations or noises, including those of blenders at the concession stands and what sounded like occasional construction sounds.
I had every reason to perform poorly. But I didn’t want to have to fall back on excuses, so I resolved to do my best.
My first game was against L—, a new player and apparent middle-school student. (I later checked and found that this was only his second tournament.) I quickly fell into a hole when L— played EX/EX, placing the high-value consonant on a triple-letter-score space going both ways. That gave him 52 points for the turn and a 57-24 lead after just two moves.
I played from behind until turn 7, when FUNDS 36 put me up, 126-110. I extended my advantage over my next two moves with JAYS 50 and EVIL 31. L— was only able to score 16 total points over those three plays, so the sequence left me with a 207-126 lead.
I was beginning to feel confident in turn 13 when I played QATS 34. However, L— responded with the game’s sole bingo, INerTIA 70, which cut his deficit substantially. The score was 286-263 going into the 14th turn.
That 23-point margin turned out to be just enough. L— outscored me, 54-39, over the final four plays, and he emptied his rack while I had three one-point tiles left to play. Because the value of remaining tiles is doubled and added to the score of the first person to empty her or his rack, I was left with a two-point win, 325-323. I felt fortunate to escape with a victory.
My opponent for game 2 was F—, a chatty Virginia resident whom I had lost to in our only prior meeting in June 2015. We each scored 22 in our first move. I then played BEEP 24 before F—, going second, put down OUTRISE/GRAFTS 70. I contemplated this word before deciding to challenge — successfully so. My foe pulled his tiles off the board and returned them to his rack.
I maintained a modest lead until turn 7, when I played ZA going both ways on a bonus spot for 44 points and a 151-106 lead. F—’s response, however, was XI on a bonus square, which gave him 36 points and reduced my advantage to just nine points.
Entering turn 11, I led by just 11 points when I was able to spring a 71-point bingo, TeNAILS. F— was clearly unfamiliar with the word, so I slowed down as I picked replacement tiles out of the bag, hoping that he would challenge. He opted against doing so, much to my disappointment — an unsuccessful challenge would have wiped out his next move.
The next turn, I played QAT for 38 points, leaving me with a 331-236 lead. But I knew F— had an S, so I had to plot my moves carefully lest he make a big comeback.
In the 14th turn, I put out AWK* 34 and went up, 375-284. F— answered with MEWLS/AWKS*, which utilized the triple-word-score spot in the lower-left corner and therefore generated 41 points.
Fortunately, he had only two letters left, so his point-making opportunities were limited. Faced with a rack of DIIIOU, I played UDO 23 in move 15. F— concluded the game with It 13; taking six points from my leftover Is, he finished the game with a 398-343 defeat. Again, I felt fortunate to get the win — especially since I later checked and found that AWK is a phony. (So is AWKS.)
For the third game, I faced C.C., a Georgia-based pinball aficionado in his late 40s or early 50s who was playing in only his second tournament. As in my second game, we each began by scoring identical points in our first play (in this case, 14) before a controversial bingo was put down in turn 2.
This time, the bingo was my UPRISEs for 72 points. (I hooked either the R or one of the Ses onto the end of DOPE — I think the R, but my records are incomplete.) C.C. challenged, but both words were valid, and he therefore forfeit his second turn.
I then went a long stretch with only middling pays. KATE 26 and COAT 27 were my highest scores over turns 3 through 15. Meanwhile, C.C. was mounting a dogged comeback. His biggest play was relatively modest — ESSAY 34 — but over those dozen turns, he had seven plays that scored 18 or more points. By contrast, I had only three such plays in that span.
A big part of the reason for this scoring disparity was my rack. In turns 6 through 9, my letters were, respectively: CEGIORT, EGILRR?, ELNRRT? and EELORT?. None of these were conducive to playing a bingo.
In the ninth turn, I played ROLE for 12 points, while C.C.’s DJINN picked up 15 for him. That left the score 190-165 — closer than I would have wished.
However, I picked up ELN on my draw, giving me a rack of EELNRT? as I entered the 10th turn. That translated into a bingo, RELENTs, but I was hesitant to play it. If memory serves, the board was relatively closed at that point, and I didn’t want to help C.C. by opening up a bingo alley. Better to nurse my lead, I thought.
So I limped onward until the 14th turn, which I entered trailing for the first time in the game, 244-241.
I’d been eyeing a spot near the center of the board, where (I think) my fifth play, GAIT vertically for 10 points, had left a horizontal GO. That was a prime spot for a bingo, because an A or (more likely) an E at the end of a seven-letter word could be hooked to the front of that GO.
Fortunately, I had a terrific rack, AEINRW?. If the blank is used as a T, that translates to RETINA+W. Happily for me, in this case, RETINA is the bingo stem that a produces the third-largest number of words, after TISANE and SATIRE, in descending order. Specifically, RETINA+W makes TAWNIER and TINWARE.
However, I opted against bingoing with TINWARE/EGO. Instead, I played the W on a double-word-score space going two ways for (I think) WREN/WAG, a 22-point play that helped keep the board closed.
That proved to be a fateful decision, because C.C.’s 14th move was TABLE/EGO. This 18-point play brought the score to 263-262, favoring me by the narrowest of margins. More importantly, the move closed off the only bingo alley I could spot.
WREN/WAG had required the use of only two letters from my rack, W and N. My draw was CU, leaving me with ACEIRU? going into the 15th turn. I scanned the board and realized that I could play a bingo horizontally using one of C.C.’s letters.
I proudly put down CURIATEs*, a 74-point bingo that put my up by a substantial margin, 337-262. (I learned to my chagrin after the game that CURIATE does not take an S, because CURIATE and CURIATES are both invalid words.)
C.C. contemplated what to do for a while and then came up with an outstanding response: BOXCARS, a vertical word that utilized the first letter of my bingo and touched upon a triple-word-score space on the board’s left-most column. The play went for 54 points, cutting my lead back down to 21 points.
I started to sweat again, especially because my rack was unpromising — AIOY. Fortunately, I was able to play OY going two ways on a double-word-score space. The resulting 24 points made me feel a little safer.
C.C. went out on that turn with BI, a four-point play that also garnered him four points for my leftover letters, A and I. Final score: 361-324. I was 3-0, and while my margins of victory had been modest, I felt good about my record.