By Matthew E. Milliken
April 6, 2017
It’s mall Scrabble recap time again!
The March 25 tournament in Durham was the smallest Scrabble event in which I’ve ever participated; the event had one division of 12 players, whose starting ratings ranged from as high as 1622 to as low as 460. My opening rating was 918, which snagged me a ninth seed.
I began play against B.T., the fifth seed (rating 1120). Going second, I took an early lead with my first play, XI/XU/IT 36, but I lost my third turn for unwisely challenging HOO 22, which is valid (it’s an obsolete variant of the interjection ho). Later, I jumped back ahead, 128-98, after using an S and the triple-word-score space in the lower-left corner to make ZEST/AIDES 53. Later still, after B.T. had narrowed my lead to 154-151, I gave myself some padding with a 46-point play, QuIRT, which spotted the Q on a double-letter score space and the T on a double-word score space.
Unfortunately, B.T.’s 10th move, MANGOEs 85, gave him a 265-226 lead. The board was fairly closed off at that point, and I was never able to catch up. My biggest score the rest of the way was EDITS 24, while B.T. had three plays worth more than that: AJAR 42, ARE 26 and SPLIT 29. The final score was 398-330 in my opponent’s favor.
This was an inauspicious start, especially because game 2 pitted me against A.H., a college student who was the event’s top seed.
In this contest’s second turn, I took a big chance by playing KEEN/KI/ED 19. My gamble here was that A.H. did not have an S or a blank. If he had had one, he could have played a word incorporating an S and KEENS, which would score a triple-word-score going both ways. It later emerged that I needn’t have worried about this, but I certainly held my breath at the time.
A.H.’s second move left open this possibility. In fact, staring at a rack of BELORSZ, I realized that I had not just a good but an excellent opportunity. I played ZEROS/KEENS for 99 points, thanks to the Z’s placement on a double-word-score spot. A.H. challenged, as I had sort of hoped he would — but again, not in the way I expected.
When I challenge, I make a point of entering all of the words formed on the play. There are two reasons for this. One is that I may be confused about which word or words are valid and which are not. The other is that my opponent might be confused about which word might be invalid. Ideally, my opponent will make another play involving the word that I know to be phony, which gives me a chance to invalidate two of her or his plays through challenges.
To my surprise, A.H. typed a single word into the challenge computer. That word wasn’t ZEROS, which is good spelled that way as well as when it’s spelled ZEROES; instead, my foe challenged KEENS. Keen is perhaps most familiar as an adjective that means sharp, but it can also be a noun (meaning a wailing lament for the dead) or a verb (to wail in lamentation).
Bottom line: The challenge computer validated my play, A.H. lost his third move as a result, and I held a 146-36 lead after three turns.
Alas, this significant lead would soon be in jeopardy. While I strung together a series of modest plays (e.g., LOGIC 10, BOT 13), A.H. had an excellent six-move sequence in which he scored no fewer than 19 points and as many as 46 (QI going both ways on a double-word score).
I was feeling some pressure in turn 10, which I began with a 235-199 lead. I thought my play, AFT 34, put me in good stead, but A.H. answered with an outstanding bingo, REgNANT/RAFT. That scored 78 points and vaulted my foe into a 277-269 lead.
However, I wasn’t yet finished. One reason I’d had so many small plays following ZEROS was that I held two Ses, which is pretty advantageous, and I was trying to balance my rack. That strategy came to fruition in turn 12, which I converted EEISST? into rESITES 73. That put me back on top, 350-311, midway through the turn.
A.H. had a decent response, HI 27, which cut my advantage to 350-338. He and I then played a tense end game.
I entered turn 13 with CDIMPSW; not great on any board, let alone one in an advanced stage of the game. I determined through tile tracking that A.H. had AEIIRUV — also not great. He had multiple vowels, and he only had one high-value tile (V, worth four points), while I had but one vowel and five high-value tiles, including C, which can be a very difficult letter to dump off late in the proceedings.
I had a good play lined up — CWM is a word (essentially, it’s Welsh for a type of valley), and it takes an S. But I couldn’t play it right away, because it would have enabled A.H. to play CURVE on the triple-word-score spot in the lower left corner. A.H. seemed to sense what I was up to and blocked the only opening I had to place either CWM or CWMS.
Even so, I was able to play off everything but SW. A.H. went out with UP 8 and got 10 points from my leftovers, but I held on for a 409-384 victory, my biggest Scrabble upset ever.
Game 3 was against D.G., the event’s bottom seed, who had lost to A.H. by more than 300 points. Since my record was only 1-1, I needed a big win to give me a respectable spread. D.G. got superior letters early on, however so he led 173-122 midway through turn 7 when I bingoed with ABUTTINg 60.
That turned the tide. D.G., who had had three plays of 30 or more points, swapped out all of his tiles in turn 8 and scored 19 points in turn 9. His highest word the rest of the way would be AN 13.
Meanwhile, I had a few nice plays, notably the phony COXAS* 28 (coxa, which is pluralized as coxae, is part of an insect limb), WRIT 35, QIS 42 and FELTS 24. The end result was a 363-236 victory, moving my record to 2-1 with a spread of plus-84
plus-127 going into the lunch break.