Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 30, 2016
On Monday, Dec. 26, 2016, I did something that I’d never done before in my life: Played in a Scrabble tournament outside of the state of North Carolina.
My pal D— and I had decided to attend the last three days in a five-day holiday Scrabble event at a Delaware hotel located on an isolated piece of high ground amid the swamp that surrounds the New Castle airport and Interstate 95. Each day featured a single one-day tournament, split into two to four divisions of eight players apiece. On our first day, there were four divisions; D— played in Division C, while I was in Division D, featuring the lowest-ranked octet of players.
My opening game was against EM, a wiry older fellow and former New Yorker, like myself and a lot of other participants in the event. EM, going second, took a 111-78 lead in turn 3 when he played SEEDiNG/PLAINS 76, which included the 50-point “bingo bonus” a Scrabble player receives when she or he empties her or his rack.
But EM’s next two plays were negligible: TI 7 and an exchange of five tiles. (Trades don’t net a player any points.) Meanwhile, I had YA 21 and JAM 34 in turns 4 and 5, which actually put me ahead, 133-118. My sixth play, FEZ 41, gave me a 174-118 lead.
But in turn 7, after I made a 22-point play with TICK, EM responded with another blank-assisted bingo: BINdERS/TICKS 71. That put him on top by a 202-196 margin.
Here again, EM had a bit of a power outage while I strung together a few nice plays. My HOOTED 24 and OF 30 moved me ahead by a 250-226 score by the conclusion of turn 9.
I scored big in turn 11 with QUANT, which had a double-double combination: The 10-point Q occupied a double-letter-point square while the T took up a double-word-point square, netting me 48 points. EM’s answer, HI 28, left him trailing, 312-281.
The next turn proved pivotal. Faced with a lousy rack — CGLOOSU, I played IGLOO for 7 points in turn 12. As I was all too aware, that opened up the bottom row and its very lucrative triple-word score spots, but I felt I had no choice.
Even so, I was chagrined when EM put down DUNTERS/IGLOOS, an 84-point bingo that would leapfrog him into a 365-319 lead. I announced a hold while I contemplated a challenge.
I knew that DUNT (noun a hard blow or hit; a thump | verb to strike, especially with a dull sound) was a valid Scrabble word. But I’d never seen DUNTERS. I was faced with a classic tournament Scrabble dilemma: Let the play stand and attempt to make up a big deficit late in the game or challenge and, if the word was valid, lose my turn and likely find myself in an even bigger hole.
Ultimately, I went with the challenge — and found, to my relief, that DUNTERS was phony. EM returned the tiles to his rack.
I set about closing off the board; my 13th move was PI/OP, a modest 14-pointer that made it virtually impossible for EM to get big points by hooking his S onto the end of my IGLOO. The biggest play the rest of the way was mine, DAMS 26; the only notable move was EM’s rack-emptying play, LES 6, which I challenged but which turned out to be good. I had a single tile left on my rack; its value was doubled and added to EM’s score, which left me with a 388-347 victory.
This was a nice start to my first out-of-state Scrabble venture! Two things made me feel especially good about winning. One, I’d triumphed even though I hadn’t had any bingos and my opponent had had two. And two, I’d been victorious even though EM had gotten three of the four Ses and both blanks. Not bad, not bad…
In my second game, I faced JL, a player who had started the day with a 900 rating as compared to my 810. After she opened with TUTU 8, I dumped my entire rack, an extremely unpromising ABCDTVY.
Midway through turn 3, JL led 53-27, and I faced an interesting choice. My rack was an unappetizing NRSTUVW, and I was tempted to swap out everything but the S. However, JL had just played PEG 22, which opened up the triple-word score spot in the board’s bottom-left-hand corner.
After some debate, I played PUNTS. I hated to use an S for only 24 points, but the play did two things for me: It brought me within two points of JL’s score and it blocked her from using that bonus spot. JL remarked that she had had a big play lined up for that space, so I was glad I made the choice I did.
In turn 4, I still had a bad rack: INRVWW?. (The question mark represents an unused blank, which is shown as a lowercase letter once it has been used.) This time, I pulled the trigger on an exchange, putting everything but the blank back into the bag.
I pulled GILSUY, which wasn’t great. However, I made an effort to balance my rack by playing GUY/GO/UN. The 14-pointer was disappointing on two counts: It left me on the wrong end of an 86-63 deficit and I pulled IOT.
When JL put down QUA 12 to open the sixth turn, I felt a lot of pressure to climb back out of my hole. But how?
As I rearranged my tiles, I had a stroke of inspiration. I laid out vIOLIST/QI/TUTUS/AT, a 77-point bingo that vaulted me to a 140-98 lead — my first of the game!
I added to it the very next turn by converting my rack of ADDEGR? into DERANGeD, a 70-point bingo that utilized an N from JL’s seventh move (ALONE 20). Suddenly I was ahead, 210-118.
“Your trades paid off,” JL observed genially.
“Sure — eventually!” I replied.
Two turns later, I had another big score: MAZEL*/eM/DA, a double-double that generated 51 points. (Mazel, incidentally, is a Yiddish word meaning luck or good fortune.) That gave me a fairly comfortable 289-166 advantage.
My pace slowed down here, and JL had a miniature rally, stringing together ATE 27 and FIN 35 with her 14th and 15th moves. However, I had put the game out of reach for her in turn 14 with SIX/MAZELS*, a 37-pointer that used the eight-point X and a double-word score.
(Later, I would learn that both MAZEL* and MAZELS* are invalid. Oddly, MAZELTOV, which I’m used to thinking of as two words and which is the Yiddish equivalent of congratulations, best wishes or good fortune, is accepted in Scrabble.)
The game’s final play was my ICKS/RIVES, a 21-pointer that JL unsuccessfully challenged.
Result: A 393-315 victory that bumped my record to 2-0.
My third game was against CM, a teenager who was participating in only his third tournament.
Playing first, I made an unorthodox decision that did not work out in my favor. My starting rack was CEIKLSU, and instead of putting out a word or trading in some letters, I passed.
I later learned that my tiles could have produced SLICK or SCULK (a variant of skulk). Each of these could have generated 32 points for me: The first play by rule must occupy the center tile, which functions as a de facto double-word-score spot, and I could have placed the K on a double-letter-score tile. Also, the rack contains a bingo: LUCKIES (the plural of luckie, which means an old woman).
However, I didn’t see SLICK, and I didn’t know either SCULK or LUCKIES. What I did know is that LUCKIES + T = luckiest, an eight-letter bingo. So when I passed, I did so with the hope that CM would play a T.
He failed to do so, putting out XI 18. I responded with CEL/EX/LI 21 but drew terribly, winding up with a rack of EEIKSUU.
CM answered with CRABS/CELS 21. For some reason, I thought that CEL did not take an -S, so I challenged. But the word was valid, leaving CM with a 39-21 lead. As penalty for the bad challenge, I forfeit my move, and CM put down BAIT, a 12-pointer that gave him a 51-21 lead.
Feeling desperate to balance my rack — remember, the forfeit had left me stuck with EEIKSUU — I played CUKE and felt happy to get 20 points from it.
CM’s answer in turn 4 was indicative of his newness to tournament Scrabble. He used a blank to play MAIDeN, a 19-point move that gave me multiple ways of utilizing the triple-word-score located at center column–bottom row. The only way this might have made sense was if he had a second blank, and I suspected that he did not.
After CUKE, I’d drawn FNT, yielding EFINSTU. On its own, this can’t be made into a bingo — but unlike my opening rack of CEIKLSU, these tiles weren’t alone. I used the N from MAIDeN to make FUNNIEST, a 76-point bingo that jumped me ahead, 117-70.
CM’s riposte was NEAT/EN/AS/TA. This had the virtue of using the triple-word-score spot in the bottom-right-corner of the board but only scored 23 points. This later proved to be his biggest-scoring move of the game.
I padded my score in turn 6 with YEP/FE/UP, a 41-pointer that utilized the triple-word-score bonus that CM had exposed two turns previously with the ill-advised MAIDeN. CM’s answer was, DOME, a 14-pointer that left me with a 158-107 lead.
I had a few more good moves up my sleeve. One of them was the classic ZA, which brought in 36 points.
Two turns later, I balanced an unpromising rack of EEIIRU? by playing IRE on a double-word spot for 22 points. My draw was pretty good — GRS, which gave me a rack of EGIRSU?. I converted this into fIGURES/GLAND, a 75-point bingo. In the subsequent turn, I played VINY 31. It all added up to a 422-234 victory, leaving me with a 3-0 record and a spread of plus-307.
That set up a meeting with HC, the division’s top player with a 944 rating. Like me, he was 3-0, but he had a much better spread of plus-487. In other words, I had my work cut out for me.
I opened play with a rack of AAKLLO?. I felt fortunate to balance it with KOALA 28, but HC jumped into the lead with QUIRK, a 36-pointer that made use of my K.
By turn 6, after HC put down MY/QUIRKY 32, I was facing a 144-94 deficit. This was not good.
However, I had a decent rack: AFHIRS?. More importantly, I had a good idea about how to use it. RAtFISH/JOt/EF, a 90-point bingo, made the score 184-144, which was my first lead since I’d opened the contest with a KOALA.
My post-bingo draw was EENRSUV, which can’t be made into a bingo on its own. However, I noticed that it can make VENUES, which would leave behind a lonesome R in my rack…
I searched the board for an open E. Fortunately for me, there was one: The end of NEE, which I’d played in turn 4 in order to balance a rack of AEEERS?. And thus I had my second bingo in a row, REVENUES 72, springing me out to a 256-165 lead midway through turn 8.
This lead would shrink dramatically on HC’s very next play, OuTSIDE/ER. His 73-point bingo left me with a not-so-comfortabe 256-238 advantage.
I forged ahead, playing PRISM/SH/MU in turn 9. The 38-point word put me up, 294-238, with HC yet to take his ninth turn.
For the second turn in a row, my foe played a bingo that put him in the lead: GROANIER*, a 63-point play in column B that incorporated the first letter from REVENUES.
I thought long and hard about challenging this; I didn’t think GROANIER was valid, but I wasn’t sure. What made up my mind was the fact that I could play DEX/DO/EN/XI over a triple-word score spot in column A. The 53 points put me up, 347-301. But would the lead last?
(After the game, we checked GROANIER and found that it’s invalid, although ORANGIER would have worked.)
HC’s 10th move was HOPE/PE, which was worth 31 points thanks to the triple-word-score spot at center column–bottom row. That left me with a 347-332 advantage after 11 turns.
The lead stood up — barely. In turn 13, I played down BIZ for 28 points. HC went out with TUTOR, a 10-point play that also netted 12 points from my leftover letters, ABLT.
Result: A 406-391 victory for me, leaving me with a 4-0 mark after the morning session. I went off to lunch with a gladdened heart.