By Matthew E. Milliken
April 16, 2016
My opponent for game 4 of the tournament was a very familiar one: J—, a local fellow against whom I officially had a 1-1 record after tournament encounters in June 2015 and January of this year. I approached this game with some trepidation because J— is an excellent player.
There was also a lot at stake. J— and I were tied atop the standings with identical 3-0 records. However, because J— had won his games by a larger cumulative margin than I had, he was ranked first, while I was ranked second. (My spread, as it’s called, was plus-94; J—’s was plus-253.) But since spread is a tie-breaker, if I beat J— in this contest, I would take sole possession of first place halfway through the eight-game tournament.
For the first time in the tournament, I was playing second. I took a 69-46 lead in the third turn after playing CURED for 36 points. The lead lasted three turns, until J—’s TARRIEd gave him a 62-point bingo and a 130-98 lead.
He extended his advantage over the next three turns with EYEN 35, TOW 31 and OHO 21.
I was able to mount a comeback starting in turn 9 with QIS 41. The game’s momentum shifted: My next four plays were quite good — LOX 31, GONG 34, FAKIRS 49 and PREZ 40. During this stretch, J— scored no more than 25 points in any single play. LOX tied the game at 217 all, while GONG put me back ahead, 251-242.
It was a lead that I would not relinquish. The game ended in turn 15 as J— played GARS 10 and collected 12 points from my leftover letters, NPSU. Final score: 361-327.
The win left me 4-0 on the day, much to my delight. And I was alone atop the Division C standings, a game ahead of both F— and J—. (F—’s spread was plus-414, significantly higher than J—’s plus-219.)
I dashed to the food court to get some pizza and raced back to the tournament. My rival in game 5 was an older local gentleman, R—, whom I’d seen at but not faced in January’s charity Scrabble tournament. R— is related to H—, another local player, who has coached him quite ably.
I struggled through a very frustrating set of racks. My tiles in the first seven turns were ADIINPV, DDIIOOV, ADINRST (which would have made STRAINED if only the board had featured an open E — however, it had no such thing), INPRSTV, EPRRRST and IPRRSTY. In summary: Yucko!
In turn 6, I played PITY for 25 points, leaving me with a 111-103 deficit. My draw was AEIL, yielding a fine rack: AEILRRS. I played RAILERS, a 77-point bingo, which spring-boarded me to a 180-127 lead.
It was not to last. R—’s very next play was BOOmErS, a 68-point bingo that gave him a 15-point lead.
We traded blows, with the highlights being my JETE 36 in turn 9 immediately followed by R—’s OXO 41. I answered with MONK 24, which knotted the score at 264 apiece after 10 turns.
The next three moves sealed my fate. R—’s ZIT 32, HAIL 22 and DISH 24 overpowered me, as I had only one play larger than 20 points in that span. I trailed, 342-327, going into the final two turns.
The problem, of course, was that my racks had returned to Bummertown. Following my bingo, my tiles were CEEEGTU, EEGKLNT, GKLMNOR, GGLMNOR, AGGLNRU, ANNRTTU and AINRWW. (I think I got the last tile in the bag, so I didn’t have seven letters at the end.) R— went on to win, 365-348, handing me my first loss over the opening five games in the tournament.
The result dropped me to second place. While J— and I had identical 4-1 records, his spread of plus-256 far exceeded mine, which stood at plus-97. And if I lost another game, I could potentially fall much further down the table, because both of the two players who held 3-2 records had spreads that exceeded plus-200.
Thanks to all this, I was definitely somewhat nervous going into the sixth game. It certainly didn’t help that my foe, T.S., is a smart young local player whom I had had to work to beat in our only other official encounter back in the January late-bird tournament.
T.S. led, 106-94, midway through turn 8 when I was able to take my first substantial lead of the game with JEE 54. The following turn, I played the game’s only bingo, SaPIENT 78, which put me up, 226-111.
The tide started to turn in T.S.’s favor in turn 12, which he opened with ZIT 37. I had a nice response, CLUED 30, but that was the last time I would score more than 16 points in a single turn in that game.
On the 15th turn, immediately after I’d traded five tiles from a lousy rack (ABIOOSV — I kept IS) — T.S. made a play that involved several crosswords, among them SEX. It was a 42-point play thanks to a bonus spot, and it kind of caught me napping.
What I didn’t realize until after T.S. had finished drawing replacement tiles — at which point it is too late to challenge — was that one of his crosswords was SAN, which I thought to be phony. However, my hands were tied, because I hadn’t put a hold on T.S.
I still had a lead, 312-267, but things were starting to get tight. And matters only deteriorated as T.S. outscored me, 62-33, in turns 16 through 18.
But my early bingo had given me a scoring advantage that was ultimately too much for T.S. to overcome. I survived with a 377-361 lead, putting my record at 5-1 on the day.
Oh, and by the way: When I checked later, it turned out that SAN is a valid three-letter word. (It joined the official Scrabble lexicon in the 2014 update.) So it turned out to be a stroke of luck for me that I hadn’t noticed it when T.S. made that play.
All in all, things were going pretty well for me — at least to that point in the day.