June 3, 2017, mall Scrabble recap, part 3

June 9, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
June 9, 2017

The seventh round of Saturday’s Scrabble tournament was a repeat match between me and O—. It turned out to be incredibly dramatic.

O—, playing first, had a bingo with her second move, MUTATING 65, which put her up, 89-11. I had a sound answer, however, in KEX/EM/XU, a 66-point play utilizing the top row–center column triple-word-score bonus that the bingo had exposed.

Two turns later, I had a bingo of my own: rEFINERY, also a 65-point play, which leapfrogged me ahead, 143-118.

Then my lead started to grow. After she and I exchanged 20-point plays, O— had a power outage, making seven straight words that scored as little as 4 points (on two occasions) but no more than 12 points.

I also had a lull, but it was shorter than O—’s and less pronounced. I formed four straight 20-pointers before losing steam; my low point in the dry spell was 5 points (once), with a high of 14.

One reason why scoring dried up was that the board was fairly closed in, and neither of us were willing to open it up. Another was that I — and presumably she as well — had some dubious racks. For instance, I had EHIIOTU (leading to HONE/Or/EF 21); CIIORTU (TRICK 12); IJORSTU (TI 8, a one-tile move that saw me replace the I I’d just used with another I); IJORSTU (TIC 5); JNORSTU (JO 14); and DNRSTUZ (RAIN 7).

Before I get to the riveting end game, I want to explore one of O—’s power-outage moves. Her biggest play, as noted above, was a 12-pointer: STRICK, in which she simply stuck an S to the front of the TRICK that I myself had just formed.

When she made that play, I was struck by two thoughts. When as experienced a player as O— is willing to let an S go so cheaply in the beginning or middle of a game, it’s usually a sign that she has two or three Ses on her rack. I filed that datum away for reference as I pondered my future moves.

The other thought I had was that STRICK did not, in my opinion, seem to be a real word. I opted against challenging — it was only a 12-point play, after all — but for days afterward, I wondered whether doing so might have stuck O— with three Ses on her rack. This is not the case, however, because strick is a real word. (It takes an -S, by the way.)

So midway through turn 14, I led, 280-235, with EDRSTUZ on my rack. I then inflicted what I thought would be a deadly blow, playing ZEDS/TICS for 60 points thanks to a double-letter-score/double-word-score combo.

However, O— held a bunch of vowels, and she knew what to do with them. She put down ZOEAE (the plural of zoea, or the free-swimming larva of crabs and other crustaceans), which scored 42 points thanks to her use of the triple-word-score bonus at center row–far-left column.

That left me with a 350-277 lead halfway through turn 15. Holding AAENRTU, I put down TA/ET/AA for 10 points. O— built on that by playing a single letter, an L, to make AAL for 4 points.

I was ahead, 355-281, and there was but a single tile left in the bag. I held AEEINRU.

If that U seems familiar, it should: I’d drawn it after turn 7 and had held it ever since. I wasn’t hoarding it for a special reason, or not at first. But two Us had gone out early, with O—’s MUTATING and my LUV, and in turn 12, O— played the third U with PUT 5. There are only four Us in a regulation Scrabble set, so that play meant I had the final U.

Q, as school children are taught, is usually followed by U. But the Q had yet to emerge in this game, meaning it was either on O—’s rack or still in the bag. O— had drawn a single tile after AAL, leaving, as I said, one tile outstanding in the bag. I pondered my next move carefully.

The unaccounted-for letters — that is, ones neither on the board nor in my rack — were ADIQSSV?. I was determined not to open up any spot that would allow O— to play the Q for big points.

Since I figured she had the Q as well as a blank, that meant I had to be careful. I thought about playing LINEAR using the L from AAL. I decided not to, since that would allow O— to play through my new word and make QuAIS for 26 points. Instead, I thought that LINE was a safer play. I put down the I, the N and the E, announced my five-point score, and hit the clock so O— could start her turn.

Looking back on things, my play was erroneous: LINE would have enabled to O— to form, for instance, QAdIS for the same 26 points. But things were actually worse than that — much, much worse.

When I got the last tile from the bag, I found, much to my consternation, that it was the Q. Meaning that O—’s rack contained…

An overjoyed O— instantly played ADVISeS/LINED for an astonishing 76-point bingo. That vaulted her into a 357-355 lead.

Because the bingo emptied her rack when there were no more tiles left to draw, O— also got 28 points from my unused letters — QUARE. The result, rather shockingly from my point of view, was a 385-355 defeat seemingly snatched from the jaws of victory.

This dropped my record to 4-3 and reduced my spread to an even less impressive minus-36. However, I could still salvage matters by winning the final game.

There was another reason why I wanted a victory in the eighth round. My opponent was my old local nemesis, J—, who had defeated me in three straight tournament games as well as five of the last six we played. Naturally, I was hungry for some revenge.

I took an early lead on the strength of QI 34. But J— climbed back into the game two turns later with RAJ/TAJ, which placed the valuable J on a double-letter-bonus to generate 36 points. That left me with a very modest 91-84 lead through five moves.

J—’s next play was VANE/RAJA for 32 points, which gave him a 116-101 advantage. I retook the lead in turn 7 with ZIPS/BENTOS for 38 points, but that wouldn’t last…

(Incidentally, bento or obento is a Japanese word for a meal served in a sectioned box; both of those words are valid in Scrabble, and both take an -S.)

J— had a bingo ready to roll on his rack: He converted ABDENR? into BRANDEd/BE, a 72-point word that vaulted him ahead, 188-139.

I fought my way back by using the triple-word-score J— had made available to form TODdY for 36 points. But J— repaired his margin with FEY/RE/AY, a 32-point response.

Things would only devolve from there. In turns 9 and 10, I scored a total of 38 points before being forced in turn 11 to swap six letters. (Keeping one R, I traded EGGORRU for FIMORUX.) Meanwhile, J— scored 92 points in that stretch with VOLE/FE 30, INSET/QIS 24 and DUSK/EARNS 38. That left him with a healthy 312-213 lead with the board becoming increasingly clogged and my opportunities dwindling rapidly.

Reader, I fought back. I was able to place the X on a double-letter-score bonus to make XU/PIX for 37 points in turn 12, and I followed that with FOCI 18 and AG/AH/GIF 31. J— swapped out six letters in turn 12, but his subsequent moves were strong: HIM/IF/MO 30 and LEG/RE/ZAG 23. That put him ahead, 365-299, entering turn 15.

The bag was down to one last tile, and I knew I’d need a bingo to catch J—. Unfortunately, my rack of EELMPR? contained no bingo that I could spot, and even if it held one, the board seemed inhospitable.

I’d have to attempt to make my own fortune. I took a calculated risk, playing off a consonant to make EL for 2 points. My reasons were twofold: I hoped to draw something that would enable me to bingo, and I hoped that J— wouldn’t block the bingo alley opened up by my newly placed L.

J— spent a long time contemplating his next move. He started to play HOE/LO/REE before reconsidering; instead, he settled on HOG/LO/REG, a 20-point play that left him ahead, 385-369, entering turn 16.

The game was almost over. I’d drawn an S, and I was about to play aMPERES/aL when I realized that EMPiRES/EL would give me slightly more points. The 68-point bingo combined with eight points from J—’s leftover tiles, resulting in — sadly — a 385-377 loss.

I would have won if J— had formed HOE. Had he done that, I could have played aMPERES/SHOE or EMPiRES/SHOE on the triple-word-score bonus at top row–center column for 98 points, plus the eight points from the leftovers. J— changed his move, of course, because he realized that I had an S and that HOE has a front hook with that letter while HOG does not.

My final record was 4-4 with a pathetic spread of minus-61. O—, who’d beaten me twice, won the division with a 6-2 record. N.C., who’d slaughtered me in game 3, finished in second place with a 5-3 record. J— and C— also had 5-3 records, but N.C.’s spread was a very healthy plus-651 and J—’s was plus-70, while C—’s was in negative territory.

It was a fun tournament, but ultimately I was disappointed by the results. If only I’d been able to prevent O—’s ADVISeS…

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