By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 21, 2016
My fifth-round opponent in the Nov. 12 Scrabble tournament was MS, a smart young local player whom I’d never before faced in official competition. I knew from personal experience that he would be a tough out. His player rating — 1098, the highest in our division — only confirmed that.
Going second, I led early, responding to MS’s opening of HEP 16 with FUD/UH/DE 18. My opponent traded four tiles in turn 2, enabling me to pad my lead with WIN 19.
MS narrowed the gap in turn 3 with DEX 35, but my RIB 21 kept me ahead with a very small 58-51 lead.
The fourth turn proved to be important. MS played OVAS 24, instantly raising my suspicion: OVUM is the singular form of a word meaning egg; OVA is its plural. I was fairly certain that OVA did not take an -S.
I mulled over whether or not to challenge. On the one hand, I was confident that MS’s word was phony. On the other, I had a nagging feeling that he had at least one other S on his rack and that a 24-point play, all in all, was not a very big one.
In the end, I let the word go without challenging. My play was HOUND 26, which gave me a not-so-comfortable 84-75 lead.
This was where things began to get away from me. In turn 5, MS played VUG 25 to go ahead again, 100-84. My rack, CILRRSU, was lousy, but I thought I had a decent response: CURL 20, which would have given me a four-point lead. However, I hadn’t thought things through; one of the crosswords was OU, which is phony. MS challenged this off the board.
In turn 6, MS played QIS 32 while I exchanged six of my tiles, keeping only the S. MS then played DELT 21 to go ahead, 153-84.
My draw on the exchange, EEIIJS, had not been a very good one. I played QI to eliminate one of the duplicate vowels and drew an O as a replacement.
MS kept his strong run going with MY 22, extending his lead to 175-95. My JOY 26 narrowed the deficit to 54 points.
I was starting to pick up the scoring pace here, but MS wasn’t done. His ninth move was FOE 32; I responded with ET 31 on a triple-word-score spot. But then MS had a 69-point bingo, ARIsTAE. All of a sudden I was trailing by more than a hundred points and beginning to suspect that I would lose, and perhaps lose badly…
MS had only one more big play, in turn 11: ZEE 32, which left him with a 308-164 lead. My answer, OPERA, was also worth 32 points; still, I was facing a big deficit.
MS’s last play was AIR 14, putting him up 390-275 midway through turn 18.
I finally had a bingo, however: I converted ABELSS? into StABLES/SCUP, a 74-pointer. As an out play, this gave me 10 points from MS’s leftovers. The result was a loss, my first on the day, but by a relatively narrow margin: 390-359.
I started second-guessing myself, because when I checked, I found that OVAS indeed was phony. That represented 24 points in a 31-point loss. True, I might still have gone down to defeat if I’d challenged — but perhaps I would have been able to win. I guess I’ll never know.
I was disappointed by the loss, but I still a great opportunity to win the division. MS and I had identical 4-1 records, but he was in first place because he had a bigger spread. However, his sixth match was scheduled to be against O—, a strong player whom I’d gotten past earlier. If O— beat MS and I won my sixth game, I would retake the division lead.
Unfortunately, neither outcome was guaranteed: MS obviously was a good player, and so was my sixth-round opponent, another local, J—. I owned a 3-1 record against J—, who had beaten me in our first official game but whom I’d swept in three tournament encounters in 2016.
I took my first lead against J— in this game in the fifth turn, when J—, going first, traded in four tiles and I played MINT 16 to go up, 89-76. J— soon re-took the lead. But two turns later, I had a nice score with UPS 39, which gave me a 138-132 lead.
Things continued to be close until the 10th turn, when J— sprang SESsION. This 80-point bingo made the score 248-184 in his favor. In the 13th turn, J—’s RAJA 39 gave him a 99-point advantage.
I fought back in the 13th and 14th turns with OY 33 and HAZE 39, but they only moved the score to 338-297.
J—’s 15th move was LaRVE 46. I announced a hold and ultimately decided to challenge — rightly so. (LARVA and LARVAE are valid, but not LARVE.)
In the end, however, I took my second loss against four wins, as J— claimed a 390-326 victory. This significantly dimmed my chances of winning the division…