Late-bird event, games 1–3, Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament, Jan. 15, 2018

February 3, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 3, 2018

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 C—, a young man whom I’d defeated in both of our previous meetings. Entering turn 3, I held AEEIISU and trailed, 46-24; I traded out everything but the S, but instead of getting a balanced rack, I wound up with one that contained no vowels: DFNSTTV.

I was able to begin creeping back into contention with my sixth move, BEAST/FINDS 35, which left me trailing, 93-83. But I fell even further behind when C— responded to my ONO 9 with EX/NE/OX 38. The score was 150-92 at that point.

From turns 8 through 16, C— reeled off eight plays of 20 to 36 points; the sole exception came when he traded four tiles. Meanwhile, I only found two plays worth more than 18 points, and I forfeit turn 14 when I challenged MAES/ROCS, which is valid.

My two big plays were CLoTTED, a 79-point bingo in turn 11 that temporarily cut my deficit to 9 points (220-211), and QUaILS/AGS 54, which reduced the difference to 15 points midway through turn 15 (302-287). Unfortunately, C— played through my blank to create BaRKERS, a 32-point word that basically sealed the deal. Final result: A 365-321 victory for C—.

My second opponent was J—, whom I’d defeated in the final round of the main event the previous afternoon. He took a 52-33 lead midway through turn 3 when I challenged his unfamiliar word, INRO/XI. Since it was valid, I forfeit my third move.

J— made BOOZED 36 in turn 6, putting him on top, 98-51. But I had a good comeback in the chamber: SEQUiNS/XIS, a 90-point bingo that gave me a 141-98 lead.

There were only two big plays over the next seven turns. The first, in turn 8, was my VIEW/BI/OE/OW 36. Two turns later, J— built on that to form OFT/OBI/FOE/TOW 34.

I held a respectable 244-185 lead entering turn 14. But things were about to get dramatic.

J— formed INSURED/FRAYS, a 76-point bingo that put him in the lead, 261-244. Thankfully, I was able to come back with a very nice double-letter-score/triple-word-score combination using the first tile in that bingo; my JAIL scored 57 points and leapfrogged me ahead, 301-261.

My 15th move was FRAYS, which hooked on to the S in INSURED; a double-word-score bonus gave me 22 points. But I then drew the last four letters in the bag, DKLP, which gave me the challenging rack of DIKLPR?.

Midway through turn 16, I had a 323-286 advantage. But J— held only three tiles, while my rack was full, and I was concerned about being caught with some high-value tiles when the game ended. I played off my biggest tiles in turn 16 with KIP/PE 12, leaving me ahead, 335-286.

Luckily for me, J— couldn’t devise a high-scoring out play; I went on to a 341-310 victory, evening my record in the late-bird event at 1-1. It was my third straight win against him — a decent if incomplete response to J—’s seven-game winning streak over me, especially since J— still holds a 10-7 edge in official tournament encounters.

Game 3 saw me face K—, a local medical professional with a rating more than 200 points higher than my own; she was the top seed in the lower division of the late-bird tournament. I’d beaten her a year ago in the same event, but I knew it would be a tall order to claim another victory.

She held a narrow 88-82 lead midway through turn 5 when things started to go sideways for me. My rack was AAEOUUW; I swapped out all of my tiles. K— didn’t go easy on me, however, putting down ARtISAN/NO. The 64-point bingo gave my foe a 70-point lead.

I mustered just 29 points with my sixth, seventh and eighth moves, thanks in part to having BCDMUVY at one point during that stretch. (I traded them all away, my second time doing so in three turns.) Meanwhile, K— found something of a groove: From turn 8 through turn 13, she had two scores of 30 (VID/QI/AID and FA/OF/PA) and one of 32 (REZ); she also struck once for 26 points (WRIT/TA) and another time for 21 (ANEW, exploiting a triple-word-score bonus exposed by WRIT). Her only dud during this sequence was — ah, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

K— was ahead, 235-111, halfway through turn 9. I pulled another DWS/TWS combo with EXIST/GUISES, which generated a bingo-like 67 points. And yet I was still trying to climb out of a fairly deep hole…

In turn 10, my rack was a seemingly unpromising ACDLNS?. With the score 256-178 in K—’s favor, I was feeling desperate to score points. But how?

After some pondering, and a lot of shuffling tiles, inspiration struck: I formed CANDLeS/AVID, a 76-point bingo that cut K—’s lead to just two points. (Later, I realized that this rack can make SCANDaL, and a check of an online anagrammer showed me that it also forms CALeNDS, or the first day of the Roman month.)

In only two moves, I’d mounted a terrific rally, but the outcome was still in doubt. As K— planned her response, I surveyed my rack (six consonants, one vowel, no S, no blank) and held my breath.

Before I go on, I’d like to offer a short treatise on the Scrabble arena.

As experienced players know, the Scrabble board is a 15 by 15 grid that has bonus spots distributed symmetrically. If you could fold a Scrabble playing field exactly in half, each of the triple-letter-score spaces on one side would match up with its counterpart from the other half. The same would be true of the DLS, DWS and TWS bonuses. Each quadrant of the board is a mirror image of the other quadrants on the board. (The Wikipedia page on Scrabble has a helpful diagram of the board.)

There are eight triple-word-score bonuses, all found on the board’s perimeter. Each corner has a TWS. One is located in the middle (or H) column in the top (or No. 1) row; another is in the middle column in the bottom (or No. 15) row; one is in the middle (or No. 8) row of the far-left (or A) column; and another is in the middle row of the far-right (or O) column.

Every TWS bonus is located near multiple DWL bonuses. The mid-row and mid-column spots are near three such bonuses: One is four spots away as you move toward the board’s center, one is four spots away as you move toward the board’s top (or towards one of its sides if the TWS bonus is in row 1 or 15) and the third is four spots away as you move toward the board’s bottom (or towards the other side).

There are two DWL bonuses near each corner TWS space. Naturally, using a DWL/TWS combo can generate a lot of points, especially if (as I did with JAIL and EXISTS/GUISES, described previously in this post) you can position a power tile like J or X (each worth 8 points) or Q or Z (each worth 10) on the DWL spot.

Now, returning to my game against K—…

Although my CANDLeS/AVID bingo had brought me right back into contention, it also set up an opportunity for my foe. My play was in column E and ran from the ninth row (the C was in that spot) down to the 15th and bottom row (S).

The play opened up an entirely new quadrant of the board — the bottom-left, to be exact. More to the point, it gave K— a chance to combine the bottom-left TWS with a nearby DWL bonus on the bottom row.

(It’s worth noting that this the bottom-left TWS was the only one available on row 15 — I’d played the modest GROT/GO/UT 20 in turn 6 to keep K— from using the valuable bonus in the bottom row–center column position, and the EXIST/GUISES play that I’ve already mentioned more than once used the bottom-right corner TWS.)

At this point, neither the J nor the Z had been used. A play like ZEINS, ZONES or ZITIS would have scored 42 points. Something like JOEYS, placing the four-point Y on the DLS bonus, would have been worth 57 points. JUNKS, with the five-point K on the DLS, would have generated 63 points. Any of those moves would have left me facing another significant deficit.

As luck would have it, however, K— was unable to make any such move. In the end, she settled for dumping off multiple Us — which generally lose their allure once the Q has been played, as was the case in this contest — by making ULU 3. (A ulu is a type of Eskimo knife.) Score: K— 259, me 254.

Her inability to capitalize on the TWS/DLS combo left me with a superb chance to go ahead. And even though my rack (JKLMURY) wasn’t so hot, it was good enough. I formed MURKS with the K on the DLS, giving me 48 points. My three-move, 191-point blitz had turned the game around: Instead of trailing by more than 100 points, I now held a 302-259 lead.

K— outscored me the rest of the way, 96-76. But I went out with LEE/EGO while she was stuck with BDT (face value: 6 points; value to me at the end of the game: 12 points), so my mid-game rally provided me with enough of a lead to prevail, 390-355. That left me with a 2-1 record heading into the last two games of the tournament.

To be continued…

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