By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 24, 2016
Despite a 4-0 start, my hopes of winning the lower division of the Nov. 12 Scrabble tournament took a major hit when I lost games five and six of the eight-game, 10-player competition. I had an outside chance of winning, but to do it, I’d need to get back in the win column with my seventh game.
Unfortunately for me, my opponent was to be MS, who had handed me my first loss on the day. The good news was after trailing by more than 100 points late in that game, a bingo had closed the gap on what was ultimately just a 31-point loss. Also, I knew that MS had played a phony early in the game; his OVAS had been worth 24 points, which represented more than two-thirds of his margin of victory. With some smart play and some luck, I knew that I could take MS down.
MS, playing second, had a 50-29 lead after two turns, but I jumped ahead with my third move, SOFTY 51. (I wasn’t sure if this is a valid word; turns out that it is.) He and I went back and forth for the next several moves.
The seventh turn would prove to be critical. I played a 70-point bingo, RETILES, descending from the 1G, a spot in top row and seventh (or G) column. MS had a high-scoring response, EX/RE/EX, which used the triple-word score located at 1H, but even with the 42 points that play generated, I had a 172-163 lead.
The eighth turn also featured big-point moves from both of us. Mine was KA/KEX/AT, which scored 32 thanks to the K going both ways on a triple-letter-score spot. (K is worth five points; six times five is 30, plus nine for EX, etc. etc.) MS’s answer was RITZ 38, leaving the score 214-201 in my favor.
A pivotal sequence began when MS played NAOI/NU/OD 15 in the 10th turn. I contemplated what to do before pulling the trigger on JOES/NAOIS*, a 42-point play.
Now, I figured that NAOI did not take an S — but MS might not know that. (Remember OVAS* from game 5?) The play had the virtue of occupying the triple-word-score space midway down the left-most column at A8; my using meant that MS couldn’t, of course. And even if MS challenged NAOIS off the board, I’d probably find another spot to use the J and the S that would give me a decent score.
As it happened, MS did not challenge, instead playing RAM/ANU/MOD for 19 points. This was not a big gainer, brining the score to 288-251 in my favor, but I was immediately suspicious of ANU. I decided to challenge, and to my gratification, the word came off the board, leaving me with a 288-232 advantage.
This would not last. In turn 13, MS sprang RAIsERS, a 64-point bingo that put him ahead, 316-312. Fortunately, I was able to respond with FLIP 39, which put me back on top.
MS’s last two plays were modest — VICE 12 and BAT 16 — so my 15th move, HEY 26, gave me enough of a cushion to win, even though my remaining tiles gave MS 10 points. The final score was 377-354 in my favor.
Record: 5-2. Loss: Avenged.
Going into the eighth and final game, I wasn’t sure if I still had a shot at the division title. I checked with the tournament director; he told me that if MS won his rematch with J— by a small margin and I won my rematch with F— by a huge margin, I could wind up as the champion. In fact, all of these players had a chance to finish in first: J— could win outright with a 7-1 record if he beat MS; MS would be the champ if he won and preserved his spread; or F— would be champ if he beat me by a lot and MS beat J— by a little.
(The margin of victory matters, of course, because when win-loss records are even, the tie-breaker is the spread.)
At any rate, I needed a win to be a winner. Playing first, I opened with YENTA 24, while F— responded with QANAT 36.
In the fourth turn, I made a move that set both F— and I up for nice scores. The word was HOLO 25 with the H in the left-most column and second row from the top. (I didn’t have much choice but to use two Os: My rack was DGHLOO?.)
F— jumped on this word with CHUG 36 with the typically excellent combination of having the C on the triple-word-score spot in the top-left corner and the G on a double-letter-space. F— led, 115-92, after four turns.
My draw was ACNR, changing my rack to ACDGNR? — not terrific. I played ARC 12 and drew ABO.
F— must have had a lousy rack too, because he settled for VAT, a six-point play. He led at that point, 121-104.
My rack entering turn 7 was ABDGNO?. I was frankly not sure what to do with it. I stared and fiddled with my tiles. The second O in HOLO was open, making it possible for me to use a double-letter-score spot on the top row in combination with the triple-word-score spot that’s also on that row. But was BONDs 37 really worth using a blank?
Unfortunately, I couldn’t come up with anything better — until, in an inspired moment, I realized that I could make a bingo.
“Oh,” I said excitedly, and began putting down BONDAGe. This 101-point play, by far my best of the entire tournament, vaulted me to a 205-121 lead.
F— was not happy, and he (still) must have had a poor rack. He traded in three tiles.
I settled for VET 6 and watched with some dismay as F— played sLENDER/ARCs for 63 points. I was still ahead, but 211-184 was hardly an overwhelming lead.
In turn 9, F— played FLEX 30, drawing even closer to me at 235-226. Fortunately, I found another nice word with KNIT, a 39-pointer. But F— countered with FUTZ for 32 points, so my lead was only 274-256 after 10 turns.
Each of us scored 26 points in the 11th turn: ZERO for me, SOD for F—. Fortunately, I had a nice little run in turns 12 and 13 with ODA 21 and JOTA 26, while F— only managed RUG 13 and RARER 13.
With his 15th play, F— put down FIN 25, which should have made the score 371-353 in my favor. However, due to an apparently inadvertent mutual math error, the score at this point was recorded as being 371-363.
My 16th play was the final one of the game: WISE 31, which netted me six points from F—’s unplayed tiles. The result was a 408-363 victory for me, leaving my final record at 6-2.
MS beat J— in their rematch, leaving them and me with matching 6-2 records. The tie-breaker, as mentioned above, was the point differential: MS won the division with a cumulative point spread of plus-480, J— finished second with plus-358 and I wound up in third place with plus-279. And as it happened, my fifth-round 390-359 loss to MS was the “high loss” of the division.