Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament: Session 1, Jan. 13, 2018

January 19, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 17, 2018

I arranged the evening of Friday, Jan. 12, so as to get home and go to bed at a decent hour — and the plan worked out. Unfortunately, my brain and body didn’t cooperate, and it wasn’t until sometime around 5 a.m. that I finally fell asleep. This, alas, was prior to an event for which I needed to get out of bed around 8 a.m.

Despite this, I felt surprisingly normal as I showered, dressed and prepared to head out to the Duke medical facility that serves as the venue for the annual Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament.

I was playing in the lower of two divisions. Our group featured eight players, each of whom would play eight games on Saturday and eight more games on Sunday. Because of the size of the field, we were scheduled to play all seven of our opponents twice — a double round robin format — before games 15 and 16 determined the final standings — a king-of-the-hill format.

The opening contest of the tournament matched me with a very familiar foe: J—, a local resident whom I encounter several times a year in Sunday-afternoon club play. Over the course of 14 official meetings between us, he had an outstanding record of nine victories against five losses, including a six-game winning streak. His rating at the start of the weekend was 1051, markedly higher than my 932.

We started off briskly. J—’s second play was WAG/MEW/OPA 33, which I responded to with JIVES/MOLTS 37 in the board’s lower-left quadrant. We then built on each other’s plays — first J— with BOD/JO/ID 33, then me with NAW/BA/JOW 33. That made the score 86-83 in my favor.

Unfortunately, J— then sprang AAS/NA/BAA/JOWS for 34 points, taking advantage of the triple-word-score bonus spot in the bottom-left corner to leap ahead of me, 117-86.

My sorrow was compounded by my abysmal rack, DLTTTUU; I traded them all in, hoping for a better draw. J— swapped out five letters to begin turn 5, leaving the score 117-86.

But my rack was still abysmal: AOOORRX. I kept the A and X and exchanged five letters with my sixth move.

J— built his lead with a series of modest plays, the biggest of which was GAINS/SCANT 25. Meanwhile, I was stuck maneuvering for a good way to generate points with my X. Midway through turn 8, J— was up, 173-105.

This was when I started to rally. EXIT/WAGE gave me 30 thanks to a double-word-score bonus. In turn 9, I put down FRAY/DA/GOY for another 30 to cut my deficit to 196-165. At the end of turn 13, I’d actually played myself into a modest 226-222 lead. That was when J— lowered the hammer with FEEDERs/MEWs, a 78-point bingo that put him up by 74 points.

In turn 16, as the game was winding down, J— made a clutch play on the top-right-corner’s triple-word-score bonus spot with MIRS/MI/IT/RE. It was worth 38 points, and it gave my foe a commanding 353-269 advantage with the conclusion approaching rapidly.

This posed me with a conundrum. MIR (an agricultural commune in czarist Russia) was a valid word, I knew, but I wasn’t sure if it took an S. If I challenged and won, I might be able to play the Q on the same spot as the M, thereby generating a boatload of points thanks to the same double-letter-score/triple-word-score combination that MIRS was exploiting. On the other hand, if the word was valid, I’d lose a turn, and I’d risk getting stuck with my Q when J— used his last tile, thereby handing J— an extra 20 points.

After much contemplation, I decided that I had to play it safe and not challenge. The downside of being wrong was greater than the chance of being right, especially since I had a sneaking suspicion that MIR does take an S. (MIRS is in fact valid, I later learned.)

Instead, I opted to play off the Q and attempt to cut into J—’s lead. The reason for this, as tournament players know, is that if two or more individuals have the same win-loss record, the overall difference between the points a player has scored in all of a given tournament’s games vs. the points the player’s opponents have scored — known as spread, for short — is used to break the tie.

Ultimately, I played QuELL with the Q on a DLS and the second L on a DWS. That gave me 46 points and cut the score to 353-315 in J—’s favor. He went on to claim a 368-326 win.

In game 2, I faced a smart young local player whom I refer to as TS. I’d beaten him in our first two meetings in the 2016 PBMT tournament and a subsequent local event, but he’d bested me in a tense match in the 2017 PBMT “late bird” tourney.

I got off to a strong start with ZOEAS 48, doubling the value of the Z and doubling the word because I utilized the board’s center square. (The first word played in a Scrabble game must contain at least two letters and must use the center square; its point value is automatically doubled.)

Incidentally, zoea is a larval form of many crustaceans and crabs; it can be pluralized as either ZOEAE or ZOEAS. Not so incidentally, my opening rack in this game was AEEOSUZ, and I literally have no idea why I didn’t play ZOEAE, which would have been the same number of points.

TS, playing second, took an 82-73 lead in turn 3 after putting down KAT 32. My rack at this point was CHISTU?, which I puzzled over. Eventually I decided that I had a bingo and played CHUtIST/SKI/TAT, using the triple-word-score bonus on the top row for 93 points. Much to my delight, TS challenged my play and lost his turn because it was valid, leaving me with a 166-82 lead following four moves.

Midway through turn 6, I was ahead, 207-110. That’s when TS put down REAROSE*/KATE*, a 72-point bingo. I was immediately suspicious, and with good reason: Both words, it turns out, are phonies. However, I chose not to challenge, in part because the board was relatively open at this stage and TS’s rack, AEEORRS, would probably yield an easy bingo with a little work.

Midway through turn 8, with my lead reduced to 255-205, TS leapt ahead of me with a second bingo, DARLING/DES*, which also scored 72 points. Again, I was skeptical of DES, and again, it’s not a valid word. However, once more, I chose not to challenge, in part because that board was still relatively open and I figured TS would get his bingo one way or another. (LARDING, incidentally, is an anagram of DARLING, although LES* is also phony.)

TS led, 277-255. Feeling some urgency, I played SPUR/DARLINGS. The precious S helped score only 22 points, but I figured it was worth it because the play tied up the contest. Unfortunately, I drew terribly, OOQX, leaving me with FNOOPQX. (And yes: At this point, it have been quite nice not to have squandered the S I’d wasted in my opening-play ZOEAS/ZOEAE fiasco.)

TS and I retook the lead with each of our new words. That included his third bingo, NAILERs/SPURs 77, which vaulted him to a 360-298 advantage.

I challenged, knowing that if the formation stood I was likely finished. But this time, TS’s play was completely valid, and I lost my turn.

I had a little bit of life left in me. In turn 12, I played GOX/OP/XU with the X on a double-word-score spot to score 39 points. The next turn, I formed QAT/OFT for 30 points. But there was no coming back, and the game ended with TS claiming a 427-396 victory, leaving my record 0-2.

My pal D—, the tournament organizer, faced me in the third game. We both started off with lousy racks; I traded five tiles from AAAEEJO and wound up with AJKOOPS, while D— traded four tiles.

I put down JEAN/JO 36 in turn 3. But D— played through my N to make REDLINES, a 70-point bingo, which gave him a 104-54 lead. We wouldn’t have another big score until turn 8, when D—, playing second, put down FETED/GIBED 33. I came back with VIBE/IF/BE/ET, which also scored 33 points. That cut D—’s lead to 199-162.

The score remained the same as he swapped out four tiles. I came back with LOX/XI for 51 points, thanks to placing the X on a triple-letter-score bonus spot. This put me ahead narrowly, 213-199. D— answered with UNAI 8. (Unai or unau are names for the two-toed sloth.)

I retained the lead, 213-207, but now I had a dilemma. The Q had not yet been used, and we were now in turn 11 — close to the end of the contest. As he told me later, D— had drawn poorly, but I didn’t know that at the time. Instead, I feared that D— was setting up a play where he could score 60 points by placing the Q on the TLS bonus just above the last letter in UNAI.

My rack was a promising EORSST?, so I pondered my next move carefully. I ultimately put down fORESTS/UNAIS, a 76-point bingo that blocked the potential QI/QI play I’d suspected D— of setting up. My rival didn’t challenge, perhaps because he knew that UNAI does in fact take an -S.

I now led, 289-207, but D— had plenty of fight in him yet. In turn 12, he used the first letter from REDLINES to play OUtRIDER 64, cutting my lead to 310-291. QAT in turn 13 scored 32 for D— thanks to its placement of the Q on a TLS bonus, leaving him at a modest 337-323 disadvantage.

There were still some big plays ahead. My CRAWS/SO, which put a front hook the first letter of D—’s turn 12 bingo, harnessed a TWS/DLS combo to give me 44 points. D— answered with WHY/SOY 30, but I then was able to go out with NAN 5. D— was stuck with FHNT as I used my last letters, handing me an extra 20 points. The final score was 406-353 in my favor, bringing my record to 1-2.

I finished the opening session with a contest against AZ, a Canadian who’d begun playing competitive Scrabble in late 2016. She started game 4 by playing CHEAT for a respectable 26 points, although she could have scored two more points by putting down TEACH with the H on a DLS.

I took a 66-34 lead at the end of turn 2 with ZA/ZA/AT, a 44-point play thanks to my two-way usage of a DLS bonus. Four turns later, I converted AEEIRS? into rERAISE/VUMS*, a 71-point bonus. That put me on top, 181-90. (It appears, however, that vum is an interjection and does not take an -S.)

I followed up in turn 7 with WOK/OWE/KOR 33. (Kor is an ancient measuring unit, although I’m not sure whether it quantifies dimension, weight, volume or some other factor.)

In turn 12, AZ played rUMED* 21. I was very skeptical of this word, but I decided not to challenge. I held AGINNT?, which I combined with the last tile in AZ’s play to make DAuNTING. This 80-point bingo put me ahead, 354-240.

I made JEEPS/EFS 38 in turn 14 and went on to defeat AZ, 410-294, evening my record at 2-2 going into lunchtime.

To be continued

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