Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament: Session 2, Jan. 13, 2018

January 20, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 20, 2018

I ran a bunch of errands over the lunch break before returning for the second session of the annual Duke PBMT benefit Scrabble tournament.

I felt like I’d had a respectable morning overall. Yes, my two losses had been annoying, but to be fair to myself, I’d drawn badly at times: namely, OOQ in my opening contest against J— and OOQX in the second game against TS. (It wouldn’t be until the following week that I’d realize my ZOEAE/ZOEAS miscue in the latter encounter.)

At any rate, the fifth game saw me playing B—, a sharp elementary school student. I felt some pressure to beat B—, and moreover to beat him by a sound margin. That was because I knew B— had lost his first-round game to the top seed in the division by 300 points, and a player who kicks off a competition with such a big spread has a huge advantage over the rest of the field.

My game with the youngster started slowly. Not until turn 5 did we have a play larger than 26 points. Unfortunately for me, the play was SOIlINg/PATS, a 65-point bingo that gave my opponent a 130-89 surplus. B— followed up with TREY/BY for 30 points, putting me in a 178-115 hole midway through turn 6.

But B— had trouble finding good plays after that, while I mounted a string of 20-pointers that started in turn 4 (PORE 26) and stretched all the way through turn 9 (TOE/IT/lO/HIE 20). In turn 10, I played HEX/EH for 36 points, pushing me ahead, 218-197.

In game 4 against D—, I’d made a play to block my opponent from playing QI/QI with the Q on a triple-letter-score bonus. This time, I set up such a play with a four-pointer, NIL. That paid off in turn 12 with QI/QI 62, giving me a 284-246 lead.

I padded my lead with three solid plays in turns 14 through 16: CAF/AMU 22, JAB/AT/BRAKING 29 and VUMS*/SPATS 24. I went on to win, 389-320.

My sixth game pitted me against C—, a North Carolina native who’s a regular in Durham Scrabble tournaments. He and I had played only twice before, in the opening and final rounds of my last event back in August. I’d beaten my higher-ranked rival by 51 points in the initial game; that afternoon, however, I made a grievous strategic error in a hotly contested end game and lost by 44 points. He was the top seed in this event, and I was very eager to give him some payback for our last meeting.

I opened with KNIT 16 and then watched C— zip past me with his first two plays, ZEK 36 and JOW/WE 31. Long story short, by the end of turn 6, I trailed, 119-54.

Fortunately, something was about to go my way. Holding AEGIIS? in turn 6, I played off AI/AT for 6 points. My draw was TU, giving me GEISTU?. I converted that to GUSTIEr/FARERS, a 75-point bingo, in turn 7, giving me a 129-119 lead.

Unfortunately, C— had a very snappy comeback: fAILURE/fE/Ar, a 67-point bingo of his own. Just like that, I was at the wrong end of a 186-129 score.

The roller coaster ride continued in turn 8, which I opened with AXED/AL/XU/ER/DE. I got the X on a double-word-score bonus, so the play went for 49 points, closing my deficit to 186-178. But C— answered with VEGGIE, using one of my Gs and swinging a DLS/DWS combo with the V on a choice bonus square to give him 38.

I faced an uphill battle, but at least I had some momentum. I built on VEGGIE with OY/OI/YE; the Y hit the triple-word-score bonus to give me 32 points.

C—’s follow-up proved pivotal. He played MArIA for 18 points. I put a red question mark next to the word, because I thought it was good but I wasn’t sure.

My rack at the time was an unpromising CGHINRS. However, I realized as I pondered whether or not to challenge that I could use the last letter in MArIA to make a bingo. I put down CRASHING for 65 points, which gave me a 275-242 advantage.

(Incidentally, MARIA is good: It’s a plural for mare, a mostly flat dark area on the moon.)

C—’s rack was bad, so he traded four tiles to finish the 10th turn. My lead, at least for the moment, seemed secure.

So often, however, in Scrabble as in life, security can be fleeting. In turn 12, C— laid down ARMLETS/AT, a 73-point bingo that put him up, 346-303. I challenged and lost my turn. (An armlet is a metal or cloth band worn around the upper arm or a small branch, as of a body of water.)

This helped set up a fantastic finish. The 15th turn opened with me holding an unappetizing rack, ELNSTUY. And yet, this motley crew contained a seed of hope. I hooked -LY onto the end of CRASHING and extended the word to the triple-word-score bonus in the bottom-right corner. That gave me 57 points and momentarily put me ahead of C—, 384-371.

He retook the lead, 392-384, with VAW/VAN 21. My riposte was EH/BE/OH, which exploited a triple-letter-score bonus for a total of 30 points.

I drew the final letter from the bag, an L, and watched in dismay as C— played PEON/BEE/OHO on a TWS bonus spot for 29 points. He was back on top, 421-414.

He had the lead, but I had an advantage. My rack was LNOSTU — not terrific, but I could work with it. C—, on the other hand, was stuck with IEU. If I could find one more strong play, I could eke out a W.

That’s just what happened. I put down MOUNTS 16 to take a 430-421 lead. C— went out with ETUI 5 and took two points from my leftover L. The result was 430-428 in my favor.

C— asked for a recount, understandably, but we ended it after discovering that the score had actually been inflated in his favor by two points. In the end, I came away with a 430-328 victory that moved my record to 4-2 and my spread to plus-171.

Round 7 matched me with EM, a gentlemen whom I’d met at a Scrabble tournament in Delaware in late 2016, when I’d beaten him twice. We also played four times in the January 2017 PBMT event at Duke, alternating wins and losses.

I opened this meeting with a rack of EEHIIOU. I swapped five tiles, keeping HO and drawing, alas, HNOUV to yield HHNOOUV. EM opened with VIRL 14, while I responded with LUV 14. (Virl is a Scottish word for ferrule, the ring or cap put at the end of a post, cane or other cylinder.)

The game proceeded with a series of modest plays. The biggest of these was EM’s XI/OX/BI 35. The most notable of these, also EM’s, was DYE/LUVY* 24, which I declined to challenge. He scored an additional 26 with ZOEA.

My biggest play through the first 11 turns was LITHER/LA 23. So by the time we got to turn 12, my opponent was ahead, 198-128.

Unfortunately, at this point, I was holding GGGIQS?. I swapped out the vowel and the Gs and drew one great tile, one good tile and two unhelpful ones: EOO?. I played off an O over each of the next two turns (OR 2, ORE/NO 7) but found myself with AAEQS??. I threw back the three vowels; EM responded by exchanged five.

My draw had been fantastic: ESU, giving me EQSSU??. Sensing an opportunity, I put down SUQS/OXOS* for 54 points, which would have narrowed my deficit to 198-182. EM, however, challenged the play off the board. He then laid out REZ/EH 17 to go up, 215-128.

I felt as though the game was slipping out of grasp, so I took an urgent measure: I used my two Ses and both blanks on a single bingo, SQUiReS/VIRLS 86. That put me at the narrowest of disadvantages, 215-214.

That play flipped the script, giving me momentum. After EM traded three tiles in turn 16, I took a 17-point lead on the strength of CAW/WOP 24.

Still, EM wasn’t about to give up the ghost. He played MISTIES*/ESQUiReS on the top row for 95 points, springing back ahead by a 346-268 margin. My skepticism of this formation led me to challenge, and indeed he was forced to withdraw the word. That left me on top, 268-251.

It was a lead that I would not relinquish, although EM continued battling. I blocked him from playing another top-line bingo by putting down GATED/ESQUiReS 42 to go ahead by 59 points.

Even so, EM nearly came back on me. His 19th play was SICE/QIS/UNI, a brilliant 39-pointer that cut my lead to 316-310. (Sice is an archaic noun meaning the number six.)

At this point, I held a difficult collection: IFMOTUY. The score was tight, the letter bag was empty and the board was clogged. Worst of all, time was running out. I played FOY/EF with the F on a triple-letter-score, giving me 30 points. I hit the clock with one second remaining. If I’d used virtually any greater amount of time, I would have plunged into overtime, penalizing me 10 points for each minute or fraction thereof by which I’d exceeded the 25-minute allotment.

EM went out with LIS/FOBS 14 and got 12 points from my leftover tiles, IMTU. Since he’d gone over by 49 seconds, I wound up with a hard-fought 346-326 victory. That game, my seventh, left me with a 5-2 record and spread of plus-191. I was in second place behind C—, who had an identical record but a plus-491 spread.

Since the division had eight players, we were ready to begin the second round-robin. For the eighth game, I sat down to face J— once more.

We opened with our usual sparring. My first two moves were BIZ 28 and JAW/HA/OW 36; his were HONEY/BIZE 28 and FUNNY/BY 30. (Bize, also spelled bice, is an obsolete word referring to either a medium blue color or a yellowish-green one.) After five turns, I had a modest 148-125 advantage, mainly on the strength of my FAME, a 39-pointer that used a DLS/TWS bonus.

That’s when the game got exciting. J— formed SOMEONES for 90 points by playing through FUNNY and putting his first and last tiles on double-word-score bonuses. (That meant that instead of doubling the main word’s value, he quadrupled it: 40 points rather than 20.) The bingo gave J— a 215-169 lead.

It wouldn’t hold for long. I immediately replied with sHOUTER/YAKs 85, vaulting me ahead, 254-215. J— had to swap out three tiles, so I was able to extend my lead in turn 8 with VIRAL 27.

With one exception, that would be the biggest score garnered by either of us for the rest of the game. J—, in fact, never had a play worth more than 15 points after his sole bingo.

The big play that remained came after J— used the last S (he drew all four of those valuable tiles in this game) to play ERAS/NUMBS 14. I capitalized with TAXED/EX/RE/AD, utilizing a triple-word-score bonus in the far-left column to generate 57 points. I went on to a 396-326 victory, leaving me with a 6-2 record, a plus-261 spread and a one-game lead on TS midway through the event.

To be continued

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