By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 17, 2017
After finishing third in the two-day main event, I played in the five-game “late bird” event that closed out the Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament.
My first opponent was very familiar: J—, whom I’d played three times on Sunday, losing twice, including a remarkable game that he’d opened with four bingos in his first five turns.
Playing second, I took a 100-50 lead after three turns thanks to an 89-point bingo, PATTIES/NUT, which touched on two double-word-score bonuses at once. J— soon got the lead back by playing TWEEN 36 and WARN/WO/AG 31 in turns 4 and 5. Then he claimed a 201-146 lead midway through turn 7 by playing FOILERS*/SEATING, a phony 70-point bingo.
(That rack, EFILORS, doesn’t make any seven-letter bingos, but it can be combined with a blank to make six valid eight-letter ones: FLOSSIER, FOLKSIER, FORESAIL, FRIJOLES, PROFILES and TREFOILS.)
J— added to his lead in turns 8 and 9 with DIED/EF/DO 34 and MIR/UM/XI 32.
Meanwhile, I was struggling to find worthwhile plays. I used a blank to make VeIN/MIRe 35 in turn 9 and followed up with HADJ 30 and SHORN/BAGS 43 going back-to-back in turns 11 and 12. Even so, I trailed 343-323 at that point.
SHORN proved to be critical because of what I drew after putting down that word: CEFQR, which left me holding CEFOQRS. There were no open Is for me to dump off the Q by playing QI; no Us remained; no As remained, meaning I couldn’t play QAT; and J— had the last blank.
In other words, I was screwed.
J— played TAJ for 30 points in turn 13; my response, GOFERS 33, left me in a 373-356 hole. The tile bag was empty at that point, so now I was well and truly screwed.
The end game was dreadful. J— put down OmEN/Om/FE/EN for 15 points in turn 14. Holding CQ and having nowhere to play it, I passed. J—, then left with three vowels, played them off over the last two turns. I was able to dump the C after he made ONE, but there was nothing more I could do.
When J— used his last letter, an E, he got 20 points from my leftover Q. Result: A 417-362 defeat, leaving my record 0-1 in the young event.
In game 2, I squared off against K—, a local medical professional with an excellent rating. She’d handed me a 68-point loss in our first official meeting back 2015; in the 2016 Duke PBMT late bird, she’d beaten me by only 14 points. Since her rating was 1235, nearly 300 points higher than mine, I knew I’d need to be at least a little lucky to beat her.
The game got interesting in turn 3, which K— started off with WAB/ARE/BOXY; thanks to getting its first and last letters on double-letter-score spots, this was worth 37 points. My reply was even better, however: JAWED/JO/AE, which got the J going two ways on a triple-letter-score space for 69 points overall. That put me ahead, 111-85.
K— tied the game at 137-137 midway through turn 5 with ZA/AW 36. But I got some separation the following turn by playing DETOURS/YIELDS, a 74-point bingo that put me on top, 226-157. (Fun fact: That rack, DEORSTU, makes three other words: DOUREST, ROUSTED and REDOUTS, which is when blood is driven to the head.)
I padded my lead the next turn with LIMN/EL/TI/OM/UN, a parallel play to DETOURS that got the N going both ways on a triple-word-score bonus for 32 points in all.
Then K— did what good Scrabble players do. She went on a run, scoring 132 points over the course of four consecutive plays: KA/KAE/AW 31, VEG/VAW 32 (the V occupied a double-word-score bonus), COPE/ORE/PIT 29 (the P hit a DWS bonus) and SHINE/KAES 44 (that put an H on a DLS and the E on a TWS bonus).
As this was going on, I was struggling to find good plays. My biggest play in this sequence came in turn 11, when LAD/AHI/DIN netted me a rather modest 19 points. The score at that juncture: 311-303 in my favor, a far cry from the 69-point advantage I’d held after my bingo.
Still, I had something going for me at this point. I’d drawn a blank immediately after playing my bingo, so I knew the chances of me getting another big play were good. But as the game progressed, and as K— chipped away at my lead, there were fewer and fewer open spots that could accommodate a seven-letter word. In other words, my opportunities were dwindling.
K— opened turn 12 with NEAT/ET/AE, a 22-point play that gave her the lead for the first time since turn 2. The pressure was really on.
My rack was not super-friendly given the board: AIRSST?. That can be played as ARTIStS, RAcISTS, SATIReS, STRAItS and 15 other words, many of them unfamiliar to me. (Every heard of AORISTS, ARISTAS, RISTRAS or SANTIRS? Neither had I.)
But I didn’t know where any of those words would have gone on the board. And I didn’t know what valid play I could make.
Fortunately, I had a brain stroke. K—’s COPE had opened up the triple-word-score bonus on the far-left column, and it occurred to me to wonder, What if I made a word that ended in -IC or -SIC or… or… -SSIC?
And then I saw my play: TRiASSIC, an 88-point bingo, gave me a 399-325 lead. Moreover, K— challenged the word, which (to my relief!) turned out to be valid, meaning she forfeit her 13th move.
My draw after the bingo was CEFOPQ, remarkably similar to the rack of CEFOQRS I’d had late in the previous game. (There were just six letters left in the bag when I played TRiASSIC.) I played COPE/LEAP to add 22 points to my score and dumped the F for 10 points on my last play.
K— went out with TAUs/EFs for 11 points and added 20 to her tally from my leftover Q. Result: A 431-375 victory, evening my record at 1-1.
Game 3 saw me play LH, a sharp college student whom I’d played twice in the 2013 Duke PBMT tournament, my first official event; I’d narrowly beaten LH in round 3 before losing by nearly 100 points in round 14. Back then, his rating was 878; now, he was at 1097.
LH took an 83-70 lead in turn 3 with SPORK*/SOFT/PYA, a 40-point play that I would only learn much later contained a phony. (I considered challenging but opted against it.) I had no response at the ready, being forced to swap out my rack of EFIIIOU for the more promising AAIJOW?.
LH had another nice score in turn 5, LAHS/LAR/AWE/HA 39, which put him on top, 141-89.
In turn 7, LH played QUOTES/WEBS for 46 points. That gave my foe a 195-110 edge, but more importantly, it blocked the bingo I’d intended to play — JAILORs/WEBs, which would have scored 74 points and essentially tied the game.
Just a handful of interesting words remained to be played. I abandoned my fantasies of finding a bingo settled for what I could get in turn 8 by playing JuROR 36. The following turn, I had a 40-point score, AXLE/ED. But LH played DOZER, which generated 35 by getting the Z on a triple-letter-score bonus, and I never caught up.
Result: A 317-271 defeat, leaving me at 1-2.