2019 Robb Griffith Memorial Tournament, part 2

October 16, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 16, 2019

As is customary when we hold Scrabble tournaments at the local mall, I took advantage of the midday break to walk home. After grabbing some lunch, I hopped in my car. I parked in a shady spot — I think the temperature got up to the mid-80s that day — in a very particular part of the mall lot that I picked out because it would facilitate my access to the highway I planned to use after the Scrabbling was done.

Upon returning to the tournament play area, which was roughly in the center of the mall, I saw that standings had been posted. Somewhat surprisingly, my 3-0 record with a plus-379 spread hadn’t been enough to put me in first place. That honor actually belonged to N—, whom I hadn’t competed against since June 2018. Like me, she was 3-0, but her spread was even better than mine: plus-435. I knew that I’d have to play well to stay in contention.

My adversary in round four was C—, whom I’d last played in April 2018. Playing first, I drew CJLSVXY and threw back everything but SX. C— put down WHALE 30, which benefitted from the double-letter-score bonus that amplified the W as well as the double-word-score bonus that automatically applies to the first word played in every Scrabble game.

I then made a mistake that, weirdly, neither of us noticed until near the end of the game. Instead of playing HEXES 30, as I recorded on my score sheet, I used the first letter in C—’s word to form the nonsensical WEXES* 30.

C— made two big moves in the sixth and seventh turns. First, he took a 153-104 lead with a 62-point bingo, ATTIrED/DIT. I held EINRSUU at the time, a collection of seven letters which make no words on their own and which only contribute to a single eight-letter word, UNBURIES. So I played RUIN 15 and hoped for a good draw.

C—’s next play was terrific: FERRY/FE/EDIT, which generated 56 points by placing the F on a triple-letter-score bonus and the Y on a double-word-score bonus. That left me facing a very unpleasant 209-119 deficit.

My foe made a bad play in turn eight, EH/EY* 20, which I challenged off the board. Then, with a rack of ELNOSUW — which makes nothing on its own or with any eighth letter — I hazarded UNSLOWER, an 86-point bingo that C— challenged off the board.

I finally got back in the game in turn 12 when I converted a premium rack, ACEINST (or TISANE+S), into ACETINS/NAVE. This 79-point bingo cut C—’s lead to 272-224.

Incidentally, I had been all set to play SCANTIER for 83 until C— blocked this move with BAR 5, using the R on the top row that I’d needed. The point difference wasn’t as important as the fact that this move might have opened up the board a bit more.

It might not have mattered, because C— buried me with his response: DIRTyING, a 74-pointer. That put me on the wrong end of a 346-224 score.

I managed to close the gap, partly because I played FEAR 33 on a DLS/TWS combo, but mostly because C— only scored a total of 29 over his last three moves.

There was one interesting incident during the end game. In turn 14, in response to FEAR, C— announced that he was going to exchange five tiles and hit the clock button to start my turn. I knew that there were fewer than seven tiles remaining in the bag, which made his swap an illegal move; I said something like “You’d better count the tiles” and hit my timer button. Then, when C— realized that the bag didn’t have enough tiles, I reconsidered and summoned D—, the tournament director, to sort things out.

I explained what had happened, including the fact that I’d hit my clock button after C—’s improper move, which probably should have constituted a pass on my part. However, D— focused on the attempted illegal exchange. This is apparently an unusual event, because he spent around five minutes checking the rules. Ultimately, C—’s attempted exchange was ruled a pass and we moved on. (My rival apparently would have faced some kind of penalty if he’d actually drawn a tile.)

The ultimate result: My first loss, 398-340, dropping me to 3-1 with a plus-321 spread.

N— had won her fourth game, but only by eight points. As it happened, she was my fifth opponent, which meant that the result of this contest would either put me right back in the hunt for the championship or leave N— with an unobstructed shot at the crown.

We started off with a back-and-forth struggle; neither of us had a lead of more than 10 points at the end of turns three through eight. But things changed with my fourth move, TIX/IF/XU, which placed the X on a DLS bonus for a total of 43 points.

I maintained an advantage of at least 15 points for the next few turns. Then, in turn 13, I played QIS/IDS for 36, thanks to a TLS bonus.

On the next turn, holding the ugly rack of BLORSV?, I swapped out everything but RS?. I received BESU, which made BERSSU?, which I used to play ReBUSES/ME/ETAS 74 in turn 15. That put me on top, 315-202.

(By the by, that rack makes 12 bingos. The others are aBUSERS, BoURSES, BRUiSES, BRUShES, BURgESS, BUShERS, BUSkERS, BUStERS, RUBaSSE, SUBSERe and SURBaSE.)

My seemingly comfortable lead didn’t last. N— closed out the 15th turn with WORSeNEd, a 78-point bingo that played through the first vowel of ReBUSES. That left me holding a 315-280 advantage — not bad, but hardly a guarantee of victory.

But N— drew CHNOOTV after her bingo. With the board crowded and just one tile left in the bag, she had virtually no path for a comeback.

In the end, she got stuck with an unplayable V as I claimed a 379-313 win. The result pushed me into the top spot in the division standings — while N— and I had identical 4-1 records, I edged her out on spread, plus-387 to plus-377.

That didn’t exactly give me a chance to relax. N— was the division’s fourth seed, having entered with a rating of 887. (I’d started the day at 994.) We were playing an eight-game event with an eight-person field. That meant we had a seven-game round robin followed by a king-of-the-hill round at day’s end.

As the No. 1 seed, I was facing opponents in order of lowest rated to highest rated. That meant, at least in theory, that the quality of my opponents was getting better as the hours wore on.

My challenger in round six was S—, an older North Carolinian who, I learned in writing this, had beaten me four times running since June 2018. But as it happened, I would get off to a fast start in this contest.

Playing first, S— opened with EXAM 26. My starting rack was AGHINSW, which I turned into WASHING/EXAMS, an 88-point bingo.

S— answered with FLAKE/WE 29, cutting the deficit to 88-55. But I held HNORRT? and was able to play THORNiER through the I in WASHING. My second bingo scored 68 points.

Things calmed down from there. I was up 249-141 after six turns.

Then S— struck back with a terrific 81-point bingo: OESTROnE/WASHINGS. (Oestrone, which may or may not be the same as estrone, is a hormone produced by ovaries; both words take an -S.) The move reduced my lead to 249-222 midway through turn seven.

The final board of game 6 at the Oct. 12, 2019, Robb Griffith Memorial Tournament.
The final board of game 6 at the Griffith Memorial Tournament.

I got some of those points back by using a DLS/TWS combo made available by the last letter of S—’s bingo. VEST garnered me 33 points.

But things gradually tightened up from there. S— recorded three plays worth at least 22 and at most 29 points in turns 11 through 14; meanwhile, I scored a total of 33 points over that span.

S— would have closed to within 22 points of me with his 13th play, but I challenged REEXAMS*/LIE 20 off the board.

That wasn’t even the worst of it for me. In turn 15, S— put down RINGY, exploiting a TWS/DLS combo in the top-left corner to score 39 points. I had led 370-351 entering the turn, and I held IOQSU. Because S—’s play used the last of his tiles and the bag was empty, he stood to have 24 points from my leftover letters added to his score as an end-of-game bonus.


A standard rule of competitive Scrabble is to challenge any out play. There’s literally no downside to this: If you lose the challenge, the game is over, but if you win the challenge your opponent loses points.

Grousing aloud about how I’d gone from holding a huge early lead to being at risk of losing on the game’s last move, I announced a challenge.

As it turns out, S— was dubious of RINGY. (We both knew that YER was valid.) So was I, but, well, I wasn’t all that confident.

I paused the clock. I wrote down the words being challenged. S— and I went to the computer. I put the words into the computer.


The play was invalid!

My successful challenge reset the score to 370-351. I played SUQ/ADOS 37, the final big blow in what would be a 426-364 win for me. That bumped my record to 5-1 with a plus-449 spread. My title hunt was still alive!

To be concluded

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