By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 19, 2016
The Nov. 12 Scrabble tournament in Durham was once again staged at the Northgate Mall. Fortunately, I got a decent’s night sleep this time around; unfortunately, I didn’t get an early enough start to be able to walk over to the venue.
My first game was against N—, who started the event with a rating of 911, substantially higher than my 730. I went first and opened with WAB 16 after drawing AABESW?. (An unplayed blank is listed as a question mark; when played, it appears as a lowercase letter.) N— took a small lead with her first play, EDIT/AD/BI 21.
I had a nice word in the third turn: JEAnS 45, which put me up, 76-52. (As it happens, this would be the highest-scoring word of the game.) But N— went ahead again after five turns following two strong moves in a row: GROW 29 and EYE 30.
I realized that I needed to ugly up the board — make words that would limit bingos and force lots of low-scoring plays. (Scrabble players often call this closing the board.) I started implementing this strategy in turn 6 with FEY 28. FEY does not take an -S, so it’s hard to extend.
The strategy paid off: From that point on, N— made only one move that scored more than 18 points (FER 28, her final play). Meanwhile, in turns 7 through 10, I was able to build a lead with a bunch of modest scores: TAV 16, KEG 22, AIR 16 and VIS 29.
N— got saddled with the Q, which she played vertically in turn 3 as QIS 12. In turn 10, evidently lacking options, she made QIS going horizontally, also for 12 points. This left an S in the right-most column.
N—’s 11th play was SEV 18, a word that I did not know. (I really need to study the three-letter words.) After some hesitation, I ultimately challenged; SEV was valid, so I lost my turn. N— swapped all seven of her letters in that turn, leaving the score 215-187.
In the 17th turn, I was able to exploit the S that N— had left dangling in the far-right column. I played SMUGs* with the M on a double-letter-score space and the blank on the triple-word-score spot in the bottom-right corner of the board. That added up 38 points, which would have given me a formidable 293-217 lead midway through turn 17. However, N— challenged this play, as well she should have, and my phony came off the board.
N—, who had traded in two tiles in the 16th turn, actually passed her 17th turn, which let me get a second bite of the apple. In turn 18 I played SMUTs 35, which put me on top, 290-217.
Looking back on things, I’m convinced that N— had traded in the Z, because I picked it up after my 18th move and had no obvious place to put it. Ultimately, our game petered out with both of us still having tiles on our rack; I subtracted 15 and she subtracted 2. N— also subtracted 10 points for going over her 25-minute allotment by a few seconds.
Final score: 305-252 in my favor.
My next game was against O—, an even stronger player, who began the event with a rating of 1049.
This time, I played second. Oddly, my first move was the same as N—’s had been in the previous game: I followed O—’s opening of RAX 20 with EDIT/RE/AD/XI 23.
O— put down MIC/CHEM 25 on her third move. Mistakenly thinking CHEM was phony, I challenged and lost my turn, leaving the score 58-44 in my opponent’s favor. (Both CHEM and CHEMO are good; what’s more, both of those take an -S.)
O— added to her lead over the next two turns with a pair of terrific plays: GRIEF 35 and a 70-point bingo, SEITAINS. (That’s one of six words that can be formed from the bingo stem TISANE + S, by the way.) I had to settle for QUAG 28 and HANK 17, leaving me facing a 163-88 deficit after five turns.
Things started to turn around for me in the ninth turn, when I put out COpIERs 65, closing the gap to 223-217. Two turns later, I played ZIP 50, which put me in the lead — for good, it would turn out — by a score of 283-256. And two turns after that, I put down FED 33, leaving me with a 332-304 advantage.
This was another challenging board, and O— evidently had some unfortunate letters, because she passed her 15th, 16th and 17th moves. Meanwhile, I was able to work off all my tiles. My out play was GOS 17. That netted me six additional points because O— had had three single-point letters lingering on her rack, the value of which was doubled and added to my score.
Result: A 386-327 victory, moving my record to 2-0 with six games left to play.