Games 13 through 16, Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament, Jan. 15, 2017

February 16, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 16, 2017

When Sunday’s late session got under way, with game 13, I faced EM for the third time in the tournament and the second time in three games. I took an early lead in turn 2 with SHITTY/WAIFS 46 but fell behind two turns later when I failed to challenge my opponent’s phony 26-point play, FARGO*.

EM also had a nice fifth move, JOY/OAT/YA 37. But I reclaimed the lead that turn, 123-114, with ZIGS, exploiting a double-letter-score/double-word-score combo to generate 48 points.

Then we went into a mutual power outage. From turns 6 through 11, neither of us had a play worth more than 29 points. (That was my HUED/HE.) The score was 229-206 in my favor at that moment.

The action picked back up in turn 12 when EM, going first, played LIVEN/MODEL for 30 points. I answered with SUQ/ES/NU, which used the bottom-right-corner triple-word-score bonus for 40 points.

EM next played BRO/GO for 9 points, making the score 273-258 midway through turn 14. The tile bag at that point was empty, meaning the game was in its final phases. But here I made a crucial error.

I track tiles in tournament games, so I knew that I held the last S and that the only vowel in EM’s possession was E. (He had three of them, in fact.) I ended up putting down LOB for 6 points, having convinced myself that EM’s tiles would render him unable to utilize the triple-word-score bonus one row up and one column over from the L in my play.

Unfortunately, I’d made a crucial mistake: Overlooking the fact that EM held not one but two blanks. He exploited my awful blunder by playing siLEX/sLOB on the top row for 35 points, which vaulted him ahead, 293-279.

I closed out turn 15 and the game by using my last five letters and an available vowel on the board to make LISTED. This eight-point word also garnered me four points from the two Es that EM was stuck with on his rack.

That made the score 291-293 in EM’s favor. But I ended up winning the game, no thanks to my own incompetence, because EM had gone over his 25-minute allotment, thereby incurring a 10-point penalty. (A player loses 10 points for each minute or fraction thereof she or he uses beyond the standard allotment of 25.)

The final result was a 291-283 victory for me. The outcome left me with a 9-4 record and put me back in first place, which I’d occupied for much of the tournament. But I’d need to keep winning to stay on top.

That was easier said than done given that my 14th game once again pitted me against J—. In fact, getting a win turned out to be next to impossible, since J— opened the contest on an incredible tear.

Here’s what happened. Playing first, I drew BFPTTT? and opted — quite reasonably, I would maintain — to swap out everything but the blank. The exchange, of course, left me with a zero for my opening move.

J— turned his rack of AACDELR into a 76-point bingo, CALDERA, which is a volcanic crater.

I then made an extremely unorthodox decision in turn 2: I passed. My rack was ADHMOU?, which I noticed had seven of the eight letters I’d need to play HUMANOID. Since the board held only one word at this junction, I figured the odds of J— putting out the I or N that I’d need to make this bingo were very high.

Well, you know what they say: Be careful what you wish for. This gamble arguably both did and did not work out. In turn 2, J— put down his second bingo, EXTERNAL, an 83-point play that gave him an astonishing 159-0 lead.

The bad news, of course, was that I trailed by 159 points. The good news, of course, was that J— had provided the open N I’d hoped to get. Not feeling entirely pleased by the way in which J— had granted me this favor, I played HUMANOiD for 71 points.

J—’s third move, thankfully, garnered only 10 points for him: He played AUDIT using the T from EXTERNAL. Feigning surprise, I cracked a joke — something along the lines of, What, you don’t feel like putting down a bingo this turn?

One of the reasons I was feeling frisky enough to joke about that 10-point play was that I had a solid move to make in turn 4. My LIVENED, which incorporated the first letter of EXTERNAL, used the triple-word-score bonus at middle row/far-left column to generate 36 points. That made the score 169-107 in J—’s favor. This 62-point deficit was not ideal, obviously, but neither was it insurmountable.

My spirits soon sagged as I watched J— make his fourth move. He once more used all seven tiles from his rack, plus the R from CALDERA, to form RESTORES, a 60-point bingo. Now I was on the wrong end of a 122-point deficit.

Because J—’s third bingo ended on the far-right column, I had a respectable response. I played FAZES for 51 points thanks to the middle row/far-left column triple-word-score bonus. Even so, I was still in a 229-161 hole.

And matters would only get worse. J—’s fifth move was PARTING/Pi/AD, a 76-point bingo that put him ahead, 305-161. Astonishingly, J— had played four bingos over the first five moves of the game, all without getting a blank, and while drawing just one S. It was the most impressive game opening I have ever seen.

I’m proud to say that I fought right until the very end. In turns 6 through 11, each of my plays generated no fewer than 32 points (VINE/AI/UN/DE) and as many as 46 points (QI/QI/IN with the Q going both ways on a double-word-score bonus). In turn 11, I hooked EN- to the front of LIVENED to make ENLIVENED, which was worth 39 points thanks to the triple-word-score bonus in the top-left-corner.

Meanwhile, J—’s play devolved from spectacular to merely competent, as he had no play worth more than 29 points in this span (THO/TWIN/HA). In the final analysis, J— was the victor, but by a relatively modest 460-427 margin.

At the end of round 14, three players had identical 9-5 records: me, EM and CC. EM took over first place because he had the largest spread, plus-539; I was in second because my plus-506 was ahead of CC’s plus-197.

The 15th game pitted me against X—, one of the young locals. He had a narrow lead over me until the sixth turn, when I played LEERING/AXEL, an 81-point bingo that gave me a 168-114 advantage.

X— cut into my lead with his very next play, TRAINS/AXELS, which used a triple-word-score bonus going two ways to collect 57 points. But my seventh move was a double-letter/triple-word combo, FAIL/IF/NA/GI, which was worth 47 points.

In turns 8 through 12, I added to my lead. X— had one play worth more than 22 points during this period (ZA 31), while my scores ranged from a low of 20 (MAID/ME/AR) to a high of 43 (HEAP/MEH/ARE).

But X— wasn’t about to go out quietly. His 13th play was SCaNNErS, a 66-point bingo, and his 14th move was QI 31. I found one strong late play — JAILS 39, which banked points from the top-left-corner triple-word-score bonus — and took down a 401-372 victory. The margin was disappointingly small given that I’d held a 348-261 lead after 12 turns.

Still, a win was a win, and EM and I were once again tied with 10-5 records. Unfortunately for me, he’d crushed CC 385-262 in their 15th-round game, which left him in first place thanks to his better spread (plus-662 as compared to my plus-530).

This meant that EM and I would play each other in the 16th and final game, the winner of which would claim the division championship. It was our fourth meeting of the event, and naturally, I was hoping to come out on top.

Things got off to a rocky start for me; over the first nine turns, I swapped out all my tiles once (AIIOORU for AGIIRTW) and scored more than 20 points on only three occasions (the “highlight” was BRAINY/KA 25). Meanwhile, EM strung together several solid plays, notably REMOVE 30, DAZE 34 and YAM/ZA/EM 41 in turns 2 through 4. Going into turn 10, EM had a 235-127 lead.

I rallied a bit at that point by playing PET/PE/EX/TE 29 and QUID/IN/DOPE 37. But EM’s 12th move essentially sealed the outcome: He put down FOlDeRS/DAZES, an 83-point bingo that gave him a 149-point lead.

I had two strong words after that, JEE/JO/El/ED 42 in turn 13 and SOARING/JOBS 75 in turn 15. But it was too little, too late: EM claimed the division title with a 423-336 victory.

When the final scores from round 16 came in, I faced even more disappointment. I’d lost to EM by 87 points, while J— had won his contest over CC by 28 points. In the end, J— and I tied with 10-6 records, but his spread of plus-443 exceeded mine by 10 points, dropping me into third place. EM and J— had both played very well, against me and against their other opponents, but I was still sad to see myself finish third when I’d held first or second place throughout most of the event.

Still, what can you do? The prize package included some nice swag; two of the highlights were a gift card to Zinburger and four vouchers to a 2017 Durham Bulls baseball game.

Moreover, there was a little bit more Scrabble to be played. A five-game “late bird” tournament was scheduled for the following day, which means that this sequence of blog posts is…

To be continued…


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