Wednesday, August 6, 2008

My National Scrabble Championship Diary

Introduction - The 1500+ rating I built through modest success in Scrabble tourneys in Louisiana and Texas put me squarely in Division 2 of the National Scrabble Championship in Orlando. After Day One I wished they could demote me to Division 3 or lower.
Registration on Friday preceded the tournaments start on Saturday. The walk through the giant hotel and conference center took at least 10 minutes. I was very happy to see another apparent Scrabble player heading toward me as I followed the hotel desk clerk's directions to the Scrabble venue. When I found it I offered to hug the registrar, but settled for a handshake. Registration involved filling out a W-9 form, authorizing the IRS to withhold income tax from my winnings ("ha!"). I also got a cap, T-shirt, and a new Trivial Pursuit game (Hasbro's contribution) in a canvas Scrabble bag. On the way out we found a drop-off point just feet rather than seeming miles from the playing room.

Day One - Descent to the Back Row - I showed up on Saturday full of enthusiasm, if not new words or recent practice in live games against top competition. My last tournament was the NAST event in Baton Rouge in February. My Game One opponent was Jack from New York. I played him at the New York City Scrabble Club on Christmas night several years ago. He wiped me out then; I did a little better on Saturday. He exchanged seven on the game's first play. The tiles he drew made AVOIDErS on his second play. I came back with TARRIERS and then PAINTeD to take a 22-point lead. Later Jack played the little word UN to create a new opening. I considered blocking, but went with ZA for 33 and a 55-point lead. Bad choice. Jack bingoed with LICENSE and SUN. I still held a 15-point lead with myn response of REVS for 30. My next play cost me the game. Jack put PRE in front of the Z to make PREZ. I considered covering the new opening, but went for ROM at the bottom of the board for 22. Down came QUA for 46 and my goose was cooked, even though LUV left me only 9 back. I had tracked the tiles and should have recognized the danger of QUA being played. Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. Final score Jack 459; Dave 430. 0-1, -29.

My Game Two opponent was soft-spoken, gracious Wendell from Florida. I played this game entirely from behind after he found ROlAMITE on his third play. RINgERS pulled me to within 7, but my last hope died with he played VANITY on his next-to-last play. Final score - 392-406; overall 0-2, -43.

In Game Three played Elspeth (a Scottish variant of Elizabeth), also from Florida. Playing first (though I'm not sure if I was supposed to - the NSA changed to rules for this), I played the easy-to-find RELINED. Elspeth came back a few turns later with MEDIAtE. From there the game stayed with 10 points until I pulled the tiles for QUANTS for 45 and the win - 394-389, a big five points. Overall 1-2, -38.

Game Four with Judy from Massachusetts got off to a similarly auspicious start. After opening with JAMBE for 48 and following with AEDILES for 77, my lead was 151-37. Judy roared back with EROTICAL, PESTERED and WInELIKE* to retake the lead, the latter of which is phony. Having seen so many -LIKE words, I never questioned whether WINELIKE* was good. It turns out that WIrELIKE, playable from the same rack, is good. The game ended soon after my desperation play of EROTICANA, which drew a laugh from Judy as she challenged it off. I told her that it another 20 or 30 years it might make the dictionary - an eroticana being a gun-and-knife-show-like for adult sex toys. In fact, I'm going to Google that "word" and see what happens. Though I didn't get a lot of hits, the word seems to already exist to describe pornography collections. Final score - 378-431; overall 1-3, -91.

My Game Five opponent was Glenda from Oklahoma. I've played her several times in Texas tournaments and usually won the game. In the first half of the game, she got two bingos (ANTENNAS and HASTIER) to my one (OPERATiC). Later she made a beautiful play, front-extending ZED to LIONIZED for 36. I drew the second blank, but couldn't cash it for a game-winning bingo. In fact, the search put me 9 seconds into overtime and cost me another 10 points. Final score 365-441; overall 1-4; -167.

Mike from Florida got the first bingo, ENGORGE, on his second play of Game Six. I spent the rest of the game trying to keep the board open for my own answering play. When I finally played SpOONER* (which is phony; SNOOzER and SNOOpER from the same tiles are good), it was too late. Mike let the play go because he could still win. My tracking was poor and I even let him get TZAR for 23 to go out and catch me with seven points on my rack. Final score 314-373; overall 1-5; -226.

Game Seven against the lovely Joan from New York looked like it would be my salvation for the day. This may have been the game where I landed in the back row ("death row" to some) -- the last line of tables in each division where those at the bottom of the standings battle it out with one another. Although I decided not to play GHIBLIS on the first play (was afraid of misspelling it), everything went beautifully (CURSERS for 83 being the prettiest play) as I built a 290-189 lead. Then I blocked the wrong spot and watched Joan play mANQUE for 72 and AZO for 48, the latter of which I should have seen coming, much like QUA in Game One. Joan converted the second blank into HaD for a modest 22, but enough to win the game. Score 379-392; overall 1-6, -239.

Exhaustion didn't help me much at the end of Game Seven. Almost every game was close and required a lot of thinking. With an ugly 1-6 record, I couldn't get out quickly enough for a post-game beer. Looming on the first game of Day Two would be Connie from Philadelphia, an on-line nemesis from a few years back.

Day Two - Famine or Feast - I mixed up my GLB racks. It turns out that my opening rack in this game was the one that spelled GHIBLIS. I played GLIB. My Game Eight opponent, Cynthia from California (I had my days mixed up too - Connie from Philadelphia starts Day Three), bingoed with ARrOWING. I came right back with HALIDES. CHAFE for 48 put her back in the lead while I exchanged seven. A few turns later I played SOONERS, a word I knew was good because of the discussion that surrounded my play of SpOONER the day before). Cynthia challenged and lost her turn. I next played the appropriate REJOICE to open a 59-point lead. The lead shrunk to six by the end, partly because I allowed LEON*, knowing I could win even though I was about 99% sure it was phony. Final score, 402-396. Overall, 2-6, -233.

In Game Nine I played Luise from Nevada. She whipped me in New Orleans at the 2004 NSC. The outcome this time was much the same. I tried SEMIOTE* to open. (SEMIOTIC is good.) She challenged it off, but still I led 87-38 after she exchanged five. On her next play, an 80-point bingo of LIBRATeS gave her a 118-87 lead and she never looked back. She followed with VARIANCE and OsTEOID to build her lead to 326-179. I played enough U's and E's to get 300, but lost 309-473. Overall record, 2-7, -407.

The lopsided final score of Game Ten against Adrian from Illinois belied it being another potential giveaway on my part. The first nine turns were a defensive struggle. I got by far the best play with ADOZE for 77 and held an 18 point lead when Adrian played SHAD after a long spell of thinking. While Adrian had been thinking I decided "no matter what" that I would play QAT to block the top row. SHAD set up EDDY for 30, and I foolishly abadoned my strategy to take the points. Of course, Adrian bingoed across the top with AIRLINEr for 74. To amplify my pain, he then bingoed out with LODeSTAR and a 428-272 final score. Overall, 2-8, -563.

After the first ten games I was in no mood to apologize for my good fortune in Game 11 vs. Joe from Pennsylvania. After Joe bingoed with PINTOES, I came back with the double-double (a word covering two double word score squares) bingo MISBRAND for 102 points. My draw was terrible. I threw it all back and two turns later made SERENELY for 86. Joe fired back with WeTLANDS for 86 of his own. The next post-bingo draw was much better. I found HOsIERY and hooked it to MISBRANDS for another 95. Joe's cylinder was empty; I still had FYCE (48), RAW (31), another bingo RAGOUTS (63) on my next three plays and closed with TOPH for 48, which Joe inadvertently left open while trying to minimize my score. Final score, 565-412, my highest score ever in an NSA-sanctioned tournament game (or club game for that matter - I've made 597 on line). Overall, 3-8, -406.

A Californian, Mary Aline, was my opponent in Game 12, but my hot "streak" ended at one game. She made two easy bingos, ATTIRED and RENTING. I fought back with words like QUEUED and JOIS(t), but fell 19 points short, 376-395. Overall, 3-9, -425.

I still bear the healing bruises of Game Thirteen vs. Stan ("The Man") from New Mexico. The game resulted in the extreme longshot sight of two non-Philly-area-based players wearing Philadelphia sports gear (my Phillies cap; his Eagles jersey) at a Scrabble board in Orlando. Stan said he just liked the Philly teams. He didn't even know where the Delaware Valley was. He knew how to play Scrabble, bingoing on three straight early turns with PIASTER, WIsEMEN*, and RAVENiNG. I tried ROOTINGS*, but Stan challenged it off. After the run of bingos, Stan continued a barrage of 30-plus point plays. I held on, june bug versus hurricane, to quote Lucinda Williams. Final score, 270-512. Overall, 3-10, -659--possibly my low point of the tournament. I stopped checking the standings well before this game.

Game Fourteen, the last game of Day Two, was with Larry from Florida. I had my big game in New Orleans vs. him, so I felt pretty confident, despite the recent thrashing from Stan. Things went my way early as Larry challenged PRETOLD, which is good. Later I played CLAImING. Larry found URANOSE, but I carried the game to win 417-334. Overall record after two days of play, 4-10, -576. Three wins on the day offset by three trouncings wasn't great, but it was a far sight better than my Day One record. On to Connie and Day Three.

INTERMISSION - The NSA and Hasbro hosted a player's reception after Day Two. Presciently, they moved the event indoors (by the 7:30 p.m. start time a cloudburst had rolled into the resort area). The Kona Islander Lager was outstanding. Hors douevres quality was mixed. The company, at least the folks I sought out, was great. I found three women from New Orleans, Rhonda, Maneck and Lila, against whom I've played in many tourneys over the years. I also found Vivienne, a wonderful 83-year-old woman from Toronto, who taught me many on-line Scrabble lessons when I first got started. We chatted about her life in Toronto--she organizes charity Scrabble tournaments--recruiting celebrities from the worlds of literature, entertainment and sports to raise money for senior citizen needs. I'd met her in San Diego in 2002. Seeing her again was one of the highlights of the event.

Day Three - Good Afternoon from the NSC - Game 15 was with Connie from Philadelphia, a nemesis of mine from early days of online play in 2000 and 2001. I'm not sure she recognized me with the beard, or remembered me from meeting at the New Orleans NSC in 2004. After nine tuns of this one I had the grand total of 138 points, having exchanged seven tiles on my last two turns (all vowels followed by all consonants or vice versa). When I finally got a playable rack I made DEW for 30 points. She used the new hook to bingo with ETOILES. I exchanged again--this time only five. She played AURAI* as a vowel dump--I looked hard at it, but let it go--only 18 points and it made a home for my MARKER. On the next play she faced the "block or score" challenge. She scored 22 with ENS. I was happy with her decision as I fit OUTGAIN under QUIT for 77 points. Still I was down more than 70 after she responded with VEEP for 43. ZARF for 40 was fun, but the final margin stayed at 70, 339-409. Overall record 4-11. I'll catch up with the overall spread later.

Poor Ann, a 1600+ player from Texas with just two wins in 15 games was next in Game Sixteen. Our game almost sent her over the edge. She opened with TORSADE. I responded with SOLANGE*. She let it go--I'm not sure what I was thinking of. I should have played TANGELOS using the T in TORSADE. A few plays later I made the beautiful find of POTPIES, which I played with some concern whether this was one or two words. She came right back with tWINIER. PIQUE for 32 helped me get the lead temporarily, but she got both PIQUET for 46 and PIQUETS for 53. I thought I was doomed. I had a blank, but no opening for a bingo. To her own despair, Ann provided an opening with VINIER. The V stuck out into open territory perfectly for me to play GOVErNED and go out. Final score, 472-427. Overall record, 5-11, -603. Ann didn't get much sympathy from her husband, who thought her call was the hotel wakeup call. He hung up three times before answering--probably the saddest story of the tournament.

Game 17 matched me with Dan from California. I'd seen him lingering in the back row and figured it was just a matter of time before we met. I could have waited as he opened with RELEAsE and followed two turns later with PROVIDER to take a 66-point lead. His next bingo was STRAITED*, a phony that I didn't challenge (STRIATED from the same tiles is good--and the word set up a 50-point QUIDS for me). I never really got a toehold in this game and lost 333-401. My overall record dropped to 5-12, -671.

I've played David J many times in my life, but not the David J from Illinois who was my Game 18 opponent. My DJ, an 1800+ player, moved from Louisiana to Oregon a couple years ago. He missed the 2008 NSC because of an interfering yacht race in the Pacific Northwest. In this one I made the first bingo, NEATENs to take a small lead, but David got the last one, an unblockable SiLVERS to post a narrow win, 331-349. My overall record reached its NADIR at 5-13, -689.

After a morning of three losses and a gift win, I was ready for lunch, although I knew it wouldn't be very exciting. Rather than go out (no transportation as my mother dropped me off each morning) or walk to the hotel and spend $20 on the buffet (too lazy and too cheap), I ate a half-sandwich, bag of chips and a Coke each day from the canteen set up near the playing room. I also used the time to take advantage of the hotel's outstanding free wireless network, primarily to work with my vacation pictures. Back at my mom and dad's I've been struggling with a connection made through my daughter's cell phone--sort of a dial-up, wireless hybrid. On Saturday and Monday I bought a big cookie to use for an energy boost in that last game before lunch, generally one of my weaker efforts.

Lunch brought the metaphorical afternoon sun out for me. In Game 19 I faced Francis from North Carolina, a civil engineering student from NC State. I wished him good luck with his (and our) bridges. This was a close, high-scoring and fun game throughout. We matched bingos with SATIETY and RAREFIES (I almost played ZINCY before I saw the bingo). He got the next bingo with RUTTIEST and followed with DHOW for 43. Another loss loomed until I drew the Q and played QAT and QI for 45 to retake the lead. The Scrabble gods allowed me to pull both blanks, denying him a chance for a late comeback. My game, 453-413. Overall 6-13, -649.

I played another backrow denizen, Erica from Pennsylvania, in Game 20. I learned that she was rooming with Vivienne. We talked about what a wonderful person she was and about the joys of the Delaware Valley. I got a bingo, PETTERS, on turn two. She made LOrDLIER a couple of turns later, but still trailed by 54. GUANO for 8 seemed to sum up the rest of her game, though she did make XENIA for 51. A second bingo of cLEARING sealed the win for me, 447-338, one of my smoothest games of the tournament. Two wins in a row! I didn't know quite how to act. Overall I improved to 7-13, -540.

Game 21, the last of Day Three, was with Shah from Virginia. I drew well and played SATINET on the opening play. A couple of turns later he tried VARANDAS*, which I recognized as a misspelling and challenged off. Later I foolishly opened the board with NARK. He pounced with MINERALS to pull within 20 and then PIX to get within 7. At that point he was overwhelmed with consonants and I pulled away to a 375-316 win. Three in a row! A winning day (4-3)! Improvement day-by-day (one, then three, then four wins)! A "decent" overall record possible with a big Day Four. The serotonin was really flowing. Overal, still a dismal 8-13, -481 but it could have been (and would become) a lot worse. But I didn't know that when I fairly skipped (oops, I forgot, I don't skip anymore) out of the Royal Pacific Ballroom.

The evening got even better as I enjoyed a delicious seafood dinner compliments of Merry from California, an online opponent and friend of mine of many years. We ate at Salt Island Grill, a tourist trap of sorts on heavily travelled International Drive in Orlando. Merry and her mother went on Saturday night to check it out and to use some of the many certificates Merry had bought on line, thinking she could host a big dinner for all her online pals. Turns out that the restaurant would only honor $100 worth of certificates per meal. Their preliminary trip helped our meal, as they scoped out the menu and knew which of the restaurant's marketing stunts to refuse even before they began (in particular their display of raw meat and seafood, and the post-meal dessert tray). Despite the lukewarm to scathing reviews I saw on the Internet, I'd recommend the restaurant based on our experience. The mixed seafood grill was outstanding.

And what do Scrabble players do after a long day of Scrabble--play more Scrabble of course. We considered stopping at IHOP or the like and setting up our board (Merry and her mom did this on Saturday night), but we ended up on the dining room table at my mom's house, playing a couple more games. Day Three was definitely the best day of the tournament for me.

Day Four - When Will This End? After finishing Day Three with three straight wins, I started Day Four with renewed enthusiasm, but soon found myself thinking (like you as you read this, I suspect), "when will this end?"

Game 22 was with Lila from New Orleans, one of the women I saw at the reception. I've played Lila several times at tourneys in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Houston. I don't have the stats at hand, but I think we're about even during those games. I know I won our last game--one that I should have lost. This game began in hideous fashion--I exchanged seven twice; there was no score above 22 until Lila made JAYS for 36. Even so, I was only down 144-122 when she played PASsION. My next two turns included another exchange, this time only three tiles. By the time I finally played my bingo, KNItTERS, she was up 291-146. My bingo scored a juicy 86, but only reduced the margin to 59. She smartly blocked my outbingo, STROBILE. I settled for the non-bingo BROTHEL for 15 and lost by a 285-381 score. Overall record, 8-14, -577. The NSC scorekeepers found 20 points for me between Day Three and Day Four, kind of like finding an open deck chair on the Titanic. I forgot to mention that Game 22 found me on Table 58, out of the back row. I figured that more play like this would take me back home.

Leprechaunlike Dan from Virginia was my next tormenter in Game 23. I had to exchange six from my first rack, but recovered with MAIZE for 37. Dan responded with TALKIEr. Later his lead ballooned to more than 200 points when he played ADVISER. Desperate for a bingo, I tried ANNULERS*, which is no good with either one or two Ls. Final damage report - 237-448, a difference of 211 points, my second worst game of the tournament. Overall, well let's skip that.

Game 24 matched me with Tim from Massachusetts. He answered my opening bingo of ANNOyER with ABATING. We played along with his lead seemingly expanding with every turn. It mushroomed to 105 points after he played SPLICES. Unexpectedly for both me and him, he set me up for FLOATERS while thinking he was blocking my bingo. No matter, his remaining tiles made UnTIMED for a bingo to go out. Final score, 375-478. Overall, 8-16, -891. My three wins in a row had been negated by three losses.

Back to the back row, Judy from Houston and I matched our sad records in Game 25. Judy is one of my favorite people in Scrabble. She directs the Houston club which hosts a wonderful tournament, the Bayou Bash, every Labor Day weekend. I even played there in 2005, just a week after Hurricane Katrina, and 10 weeks after major surgery. I was "lucky" enough to draw both blanks early and found ToRNaDIC. After I played ICKY for 42 to open a 37-point lead, she answered with OUTAGES. I got RELENTED to eke out a 1-point lead, but RUSTING put her back in front. I despaired. Her last five tiles were OHIAA. There was no way I could stop her from putting the H on top of OMBRE to get enough points to win. I decided to make my best play otherwise, VEENA for 28 and see what happened. Not seeing HOMBRE, she tried the H in front of ICKY to make HICKY*. My only hope was to challenge. To my delight and her dismay, the play was UNACCEPTABLE - X. Off it came. I played AS to go out and win by 30, 396-366. I was too excited to get the score right, though I knew I had won. Judy had to remind me that the 23 points she got for HICKY didn't count. Overall, 9-16, -861. Another afternoon like Monday would leave me with some sense of respectability and a better record than the 12-19 I managed in New Orleans.

To my surprise, I was matched with Matt from Texas in Game 26. He must have been in a slump because he usually plays a division above me. We played another tight defensive game until I found myself with both blanks, two Us, two Ns and a very tight board. I couldn't find a bingo, so I played off TUG to create another opening for my bingo. He covered the T with ZITIS for 68, taking a 111-point lead and making my position almost desperate. I replaced the U and T with I and Y. I couldn't find a bingo there either. After Matt played BRAVE to cut off two bingo lanes. I played another frustrating non-bingo of MEN with a two-blank rack (my bingo had to start with O), Matt surprised me by passing his turn. I played off a P in PAX and drew the last tile. My rack was OUTRI?? Matt blocked the O line as best he could, sticking the S in PEDS in the middle of it. To bingo out (and still not win) I had to make an 8-letter word starting with O and with the S in the sixth position or find an 8-letter word with S in the fifth position. There are none of the former, though I tried OUTRISes*, and only one of the latter, RUgOSITy, which I didn't find - I tried TROUSIng. I finally bailed out to TOURiST elsewhere on the board for 10 point, burning 50 overtime penalty points in the process. Final score, 224-386. I was wiped out, both mentally and scorewise. Overall, 9-17, -1023.

In hindsight, and at the time, Game 26 didn't upset me nearly as much as Game 27 against Roger from Ontario. Roger got ready for the game by getting a big hug from his girlfriend and installing his earplugs. I tried to shake off the horror that was Game 26. I got off to a terrible start by allowing ANALISE*, going back to my old habit of giving Division 2 opponents too much credit. I got away with PRIAM* (which is an old brand of modem, not a word) and later played FILCH for 47 to get back in the game. But things looked better toward the end as I drew the second blank (Roger played the first in QiS). Roger blocked my bingo or ORATIoN. There was an opening for RATIONeR, but I knew the word was no good, and that Roger would challenge it, given that the game was on the line. Rather than using my seven remaining minutes to keep looking for ANTeRIOR, which did play, I played off and hoped for better the next turn. Running low on time, Roger managed to go out while losing only 10 points of overtime penalty to claim the win, 369-383. When he pointed out ANTERIOR and I looked up ANALISE, I was sick. I didn't know how I'd get through the last game. Overall, 9-18, -1037.

Playing my friend Judy again (my first repeat opponent of the tourney) in Game 28 sure helped, as did drawing an early blank to play AILErON. Judy answered with FELSITe to take a 34-point lead. I played from slightly behind, catching up slowly until Judy's last rack full of consonants sunk her. I played WINTER for 30 to take a 31-point lead. She answered with PINS for 27, but when I went out with AWEE for 13 the game was mine and the tournament was over. I hope Judy didn't mind my play-by-play commentary, "And the crowd goes wild!" Final game score, 385-368. Overall record, 10-18, -1020. Fortunately, the players using my equipment back on Table 58 had finished their game, so I was able to pack up right away and leave perhaps my last ever NSC in Division Two (at least for awhile, as I lost almost 100 rating points), unless I make some kind of effort to improve my game. As they almost say on Bravo Network, we'll see what happens.

Here's a picture of NSC 2008 champion, Nigel Richards of Malaysia. Nigel now holds the singular distinction of holding both the world and US titles at the same time, even though the two tourneys are played with different dictionaries.

Thanks very much for reading to here. You are a true friend and fan of the game.


Larry said...

Jesuits, you guys take your scrabble seriously don't you?
I would have thought it was a texas hold'em if for a minute if you didn't have all the pictures of scrabble boards!
Gl and all the best to you man!

dadlak said...

Thanks for the comment, Larry. Amazingly, I'm not nearly as serious about the game as the top players--probably keeps me from becoming a top player.

Sam said...

Well for sure, these guys are some scrabble gods, they must pratice like hell...

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's crazy man. They should really try to do something to fix that.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's crazy man. They should really try to do something to fix that.

Anonymous said...

Do you even speak English? Seriously, wall of text crits me for 99999k.