Ghosts of Scrabble Tournaments Past

In the middle of my fourth day of competing in the North American Scrabble Championship in Reno, I found myself with both blank tiles on my rack at the same time.  Now, everyone loves to draw a blank, because it can stand in for any letter of the alphabet of one’s choosing and vastly increases the likelihood of coming up with a “bingo” (playing all seven tiles on your rack in one go) and scoring an extra 50 points.  In fact, I like to say that those of us who share my predicament of having turned around one day and discovered that we are now “seniors” would never again have to worry about forgetting what we were about to say if we would all just play Scrabble.  It’s the one place in this world where drawing a blank is a good thing.

Drawing both blanks at one time, however, is another story entirely.  Sure, having two wild cards makes it even more likely that you’ll be able to play a bingo.  However, there are only two blanks in the entire game, two wonderful opportunities for an easy bingo that suddenly get cut down to just one opportunity when you have both blanks together.  Not only that, but trying to find a high-scoring word in your rack when you have to mentally fill in two tiles is a lot more difficult than it is with just one blank.  If you’ve never experienced this, you’ll just have to trust me.  You desperately try to think and you shuffle, shuffle, shuffle your tiles around on your rack while your clock ticks down second by second, running out your game time.  Sometimes you just have to give up and play a couple of normal tiles, holding onto the blanks in the hope of drawing better letters to go with them.  Of course, this means that on the next turn, you get to blow your mind all over again.  At least, you think, your opponent has been deprived of the blanks and their high-scoring opportunities.

On this particular occasion, I realized that, thanks to the blanks, I could play the word aubades.  As my heart leapt for joy, I suddenly remembered how I came to know such an unusual word.  It wasn’t from studying word lists, unfortunately.  This is a word that fellow word freak Bob Smith taught me one afternoon about seven or eight years ago at a Scrabble tournament just down the road in Sparks, Nevada.  As was his wont, Bob became fixated on a subject and would go on and on about it, reciting a miniature dissertation.  On that particular day, I just nodded and smiled as he regaled me about this four-vowel word that referred to a song of praise sung to one’s lover at dawn.  (Actually, I believe he said “sung to your lover’s elbow” or some such nonsense.)  It seemed so preposterous at the time that, of course, the word has stuck in my mind ever since.

Alas, Bob has since passed on to that big Scrabble board in the sky, but on that Tuesday in Reno, I silently said “here’s to you, Bob” as I prepared to plunk down my tiles and collect my extra 50 points.  However, I stopped myself just in time to realize that I could score more points if I instead played the far more plebeian word buddies, with the B placed on the triple letter score.  Thanks just the same, Bob.

My fellow Scrabbleheads who schlep around the country to tournaments several times each year are something of a big, extended, dysfunctional family.  Most of us have no contact whatever with each other at any other time — not by email, not by text message, nothing.  Yet when we see each other at the next tournament, it’s always “Boooobbbb!  Good to see ya!”  And we pick up right where we left off, filling each other in on the latest with our jobs, families and health.  It’s just so weird.  And I love it.

It’s not as if we don’t try.  It’s just that, like some kind of online RPG, we just don’t translate to the real world.  I’m talking about you, Ron from Idaho.  I’m still waiting for you to start that Words With Friends game with me.  I’m talking about you, Jennifer from Texas.  I’m still waiting to hear about whether you’re going to send me that Julia Glass novel.  I’m talking about you, Keith from San Diego.  We’re supposed to catch a game online, remember?

Like any family, we celebrate our joys and mourn our sorrows.  There are those who finally retire and can devote more time to Scrabble study and tournament travel.  There are those whose kids follow in their footsteps, like Stefan and his young daughter.  But there are also those who suddenly disappear from among our ranks.  My buddy, Lewis, for instance, with whom I’ve travelled to tournaments in Portland and Phoenix and Reno and San Jose, studying words handwritten on homemade flash cards all the way.  After his divorce, he decided he’d had enough of Scrabble and took up running marathons instead.  Then there’s Paul, who I’m happy to say is still playing after all these years, but whose son and daughter have disappeared from the Scrabble scene.  His daughter, he told me, got married and moved on to other priorities in life.  His son, who was one of the top players in the nation, somehow became disenchanted with the game and simply quit, much to Paul’s dismay.  Perhaps some of these will rejoin us a few years down the road.

Then there are those who are lost to us forever, although fond memories of words played and conversations shared across the board go on and on.  At the North American Scrabble Championship, one of the projection loop screens in the lobby featured the names and photos of fellow Scrabble players whom we have lost in the past year.  Although I did not know any of them personally, there are others who helped to shape my Scrabble playing style and now are no longer with us.

Bob, who taught me aubade, was quite a character, much to the frustration of many of his fellow players.  Obese like myself, he ran headlong into a slew of health problems in his later years.  But I won’t soon forget how, at one tournament in the middle of the summer, he brought a ginormous jar of stuffed olives with him into the playing room.  He must have bought the thing in Costco or some such place.  He had the top off the jar, which only was about a quarter full at that point, and the many flies who managed to get into the room were having a field day.  Bob liked to talk, and the fact that fifty or so other games were going on in the room at the time didn’t seem to deter him one bit.  People were hunched over their boards, trying to concentrate, and ol’ Bob’s voice carried a long way.  Finally, I’d hear someone yell “Bob!!  Be quiet!!”  How embarrassing.  Then there was the time at a January tournament in Reno (still talked about due to the snowstorm that kicked up during the next to last game of the tournament — we barely made it down the mountain on Interstate 80), when I returned from our lunch break to find that Bob would be my next opponent.  Just one problem:  Bob was fast asleep on the floor of the playing room.  Amazingly, the returning competitors simply stepped over him like this was the most normal thing in the world!  Uh, director?  Director!!  Should I start this guy’s clock or maybe, uh, call an ambulance or something?

Good old Bob.

The last time I saw the man, he was in a wheelchair, and I was more than a little shocked when he suddenly discovered he had to use the rest room right now, leapt up and literally ran out of the playing room.

Then there’s Gigi, who was such a wonderful Scrabble player, much higher rated than myself.  One year, we hosted a little Scrabble tournament in Fresno when I lived there (thank you, Lewis) and Gigi drove all the way down from Reno with two friends to play.  After the tournament, many of us hung around for additional games, but Gigi was tired and my wife drove her downtown to her hotel.  The next time I saw her was at the big Labor Day tournament in Portland, Oregon, where she summarily wiped the floor with me.  Again I had both blanks at the same time — I played ptomaine and she still beat me by, oh, a hundred points or so.

We lost poor Gigi the year before last when she traveled to Mexico to play in a tournament hosted by John, another of our Scrabble pals (he now lives year-round in Cabo, lucky duck!).  It was her birthday, and some of her friends had flown down to celebrate with her.  As she was crossing a busy street on foot to join her friends, a speeding car came along.

We will never forget you, Gigi.

Then there’s Al, another character whom many of us referred to as “Doc.”  Of French-Canadian origin (I would try not to laugh when he referred to the Z as the “zed”), he spent part of the year in Reno and part in southern California.  He was a retired ophthalmologist and had an opinion on just about everything.  At one tournament, I became quite peeved with the guy when he came right out and said that my obesity is clearly a sign of mental problems (and then went on and on about it).  Another time, he got my goat by challenging my belief in God and insisting that only a ninny would truck in such claptrap.  On both occasions, I kept quiet even though I so much wanted to say “mind your own business, you old fart!”  Then he beat me to pieces over the board.  The guy was good, what can I say?

Doc and his wife met their demise while driving near their home in Orange County about five or six years ago.  I don’t know the details, but I hear a drunk driver T-boned them.

Scrabble tournaments are happy occasions, reunions even, but we always take time to remember the ghosts of tournaments past who will remain in our memories for as long as we are able to shake the tile bag, hit the clock and mark our score sheets.

Starstruck at the Nationals

At the end of the fourth day of the North American Scrabble Championship (which most of us Scrabbleheads still refer to by its former name, “the Nationals”) in Reno, after I had packed up all of my equipment and was about to leave the playing venue to walk back to the hotel, I noticed a few people gathered around near the door to the lobby.  As I approached, I saw that fellow competitor Stefan Fatsis (famous on the Scrabble scene as the author of the wonderful book Word Freak) and his tween-aged daughter were holding court for a small crowd of admirers and assorted hangers-on.

I had no idea that Fatsis’ daughter was playing in this tournament (in a division higher than my own, I might add).  Sure, I saw the name Chloe Fatsis on the roster.  I stupidly assumed that she was his wife.  Oh, how darling, husband and wife traveling together from the east coast to share the experience of playing in the Nationals.

Um, no.

Actually, Fatsis is married to Melissa Block.  Chloe, no shrinking violet by any means, proudly informed those gathered around that she competed in her first Scrabble tournament at the age of ten and that, at the time, she was still a bit too young for the experience.  That was, what, three years ago?  Should I also mention that she made the playoffs (a feat that neither her dad nor I managed) and that she won $300 in prize money?

As I explained in my last post, we oldsters haven’t the slightest chance against these bright youngsters.

A bit starstruck, I confessed to Fatsis the elder that I had read his book cover to cover three times and that it had a major influence on my decision to join the traveling tournament show that is known as the national Scrabble circus, er, circuit.  I then further embarrassed myself by admitting that my favorite part of Word Freak was Fatsis’ description of finding himself able to make the eight-letter play FEELINGS and then being unable to get the Morris Albert song of that title out of his head.

I’m glad I wasn’t the only gawker awed to be in Fatsis’ presence for a few minutes.  Marvin, a college economics professor who ended up one place ahead of me in the standings, was right there next to me.  He admitted to having 19 wins so far in the tournament and I blurted out that I had the same.  Fatsis very graciously told us that he had never had that many wins at any tournament.

“But you don’t play down in Division 4 like we do,” I added.

“I once played in Division 4 and I never had 19 wins,” he responded.

The man is both humble and kind.  Case closed (if for no other reason than that Chloe announced that she was ready to go for dinner).

I’m just glad that none of those assembled asked for Fatsis’ autograph.  Now that would have been embarrassing.

Of course, if my copy of Word Freak hadn’t been back home in Sacramento sitting on my book shelf, well, you never know.

Oldies But Goodies

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RENO, NEVADA

I haven’t played against Margaret yet, and I want to.

Not Maggie, not Margie, not Peggy.  Margaret.

Goodness, Margaret is such an old lady name.  It reminds me of the secretary in the main office of the high school where my father taught driver education for 30 years, or Dennis the Menace’s girlfriend.  Or Horowitz-Margareten, the brand name on the bright blue label of the huge boxes of matzos that my parents and grandparents purchased at Passover time in the days of my childhood in New York City.

She instantly recognized me and came over to say hi while she was looking for her assigned table on the first day of the North American Scrabble Championship here in Reno.

“We’ve played together before,” she announced.  “I don’t remember where, but it was a long time ago.”

We stared at each other for about three seconds.

“Phoenix!” we shouted at approximately the same time.  When my sisters and I were kids, such an occasion would have called for both of us to yell “Jinx!”

I would hazard a guess that Margaret is in her early eighties.  She lives in Los Angeles and travels the west coast Scrabble tournament circuit, just as I attempt to do whenever finances allow.  Las Vegas, Reno, Silicon Valley, Portland.

Phoenix.

I have competed in the big February tournament in Arizona on two occasions.  The first time, I drove down from Fresno with a friend (my wife had to work) and was sick with bronchitis the whole time I was there.  A couple of years later, we found ourselves living in the desert just a couple of hours away from Phoenix and I was able to go with my wife.  It’s always an excellent tournament, heavily attended by snowbirds from Canada and the northern states, seeking an excuse to escape the winter weather and enjoy a week or so in the sun.

So it must have been about seven years ago when last I played across the board from Margaret.  I’m amazed that she remembers me, but then again, we Scrabble nerds need to have skills in that area in order to memorize all those lists of words.

I ran into Margaret again this morning as I was lugging my rolling Scrabble bag through the casino, my lunch bag attached by a strap.  I’m just glad that thing has a solid handle by which I can pull it behind me, because it weighs more than 20 pounds, thanks to my heavy wooden Scrabble board.

I was headed across the street to the playing venue and I had nearly made it out the doors of the casino when she greeted me.  At least 20 minutes remained until the director would make the announcements that precede each day of tournament play.  Margaret had plenty of time.  She sat down at a nickel slot machine and began playing.  I wished her luck and headed out into the early morning sunshine.

The reason that I have yet to be paired with Margaret during this tournament likely has something to do with the fact that it is well-attended:  We have more competitors in my division that there are games.  In other words, there are some people in each division whom you will not get to play against.  Margaret is seeded 33rd and I am seeded sixth, so that may be a factor as well.

Instead, I have been paired against a lot of young whippersnappers who play with me in the bottom division only by dint of the fact that this is their first or second tournament and they haven’t established much of a formal rating yet.  This is the next generation, the up and coming Division 1 players of the next few years.  Meanwhile, I get to suffer against their superior Scrabble prowess and their young, agile Scrabble memories.  In my last game today, I was completely blown out of the water by a young man who had just graduated from middle school.  He told me he is 13 years old, lives in Connecticut and is here in Reno with his entire family “because I wouldn’t have been able to get here otherwise.”

Eek.

Okay, so I’m old.  I think we moldy oldies need to stick together.  We need to have our own division and let the youngsters duke it out among themselves.  We don’t stand a shadow of a chance against them.

And there are a lot of us.  I have played tournament games against opponents more than 90 years of age, some of whom have beaten me soundly.  I have sat across the board from seniors using magnifying glasses and special lamps due to visual impairments, who get extra time on the clock due to arthritis that is so bad that they can barely pick up the tiles, who show up in wheelchairs and connected to oxygen tanks.  Scrabble is a game we can play at any age, continuing to show off our word knowledge and mental skills long after our bodies have betrayed us.

This morning I was paired against John, whom I met at the very first Scrabble tournament I ever attended, in Silicon Valley’s Los Gatos.  It was a short one-afternoon event, and John was directing.  It was held at a ratty pizza joint, and I had no idea where I was supposed to sit or what I supposed to do.  I still had to learn the tournament etiquette.  But John was unfazed and showed me much kindness, gently explaining about the pairings, ratings and assorted tournament paraphernalia.  I reminded him of this today, making it a point to let him know that his kindness had much to do with the fact that I was not scared away and have been playing in Scrabble tournaments ever since.  He told me that he remembers that day.

That was the last tournament that John directed.  I remember that he told me he was retiring to Florida that very week.  That was at least eight years ago, and John has been living in a small town in the Tampa Bay area ever since.  His elderly mother was already there, and he shared with me today that he had 22 months with her before she passed away.  He had been laid off from work and decided it would be better to retire to a cheaper area than to be a poor, unemployed job hunter in the mean Silicon Valley job market.  Technology companies routinely recruit at colleges for new, young blood.  The tech industry has no use for oldies like us.

Meanwhile, it turns out that John hates Florida.  Not only does he find the heat and humidity oppressive, but he misses the intellectual stimulation of Silicon Valley and he can’t find any worthy Scrabble opponents around.  To my surprise, he tells me that the stereotypes about Florida retirees only being interested in shuffleboard and endless games of cards is accurate.

I’m guessing that John is not quite 70 years old, but he says that the seniors living in his area only want to pay three- and four-handed Scrabble, don’t really keep score, and prefer to spend more time chatting than playing.  It’s all about the socializing, and it doesn’t really matter whether very many words actually make it off the rack and onto the board.  As a very competitive player, this frustrates John to no end.  He finished me off handily this morning.

I’ll say it again:  We oldies have to form our own league or something.  It’s too bad that we live all over this wide country of ours, in Los Angeles and Florida, in Sacramento and Texas and New York.  Perhaps we can start a club online, like the email tournament in which I have been participating for more than a decade.  I doubt that it’ll ever happen, but it’s a pleasant thought.  I may have a chance of someday improving to John’s level, but I know I’ll never be able to get anywhere near what these young folks are doing.  Surely there has to be a unique place for us in the world of competitive Scrabble.

Margaret finished playing her slot machine and ambled across Virginia Street and the wide plaza to the Reno Ballroom, where our tournament is taking place.  She waved as she walked by.

Tournament Update:  After a great morning in which I had three big wins, I had a disappointing afternoon in which I won a game by 2 points (in a recount, no less), lost the next one by 3 points due to a truly stupid mistake, and then got squashed like a bug by a young’un.  My best play of the tournament is pictured above.  After laying down GRIEVE one spot from the triple line (hoping my opponent didn’t have a D, R or S), I drew both the Q and the U simultaneously and was shocked to find that I could play QUAILED for 122 points!  As if that weren’t enough, my opponent wasn’t familiar with the word and challenged the play, giving me an extra turn.  I followed this up with another bingo, STHENIA, a word I know only from my study of bingo stem lists. If only every game could be like this one!

The Scrabble Dictionary Has Gone Crazy

Over the years, as family and friends became aware of my Scrabble obsession, they’d occasionally ask me questions about the game and its rules.  Among the most common of these has been “Why are foreign words allowed in Scrabble?  I thought we were playing in English!”

The simple answer is “they’re not.”  Look at the instructions on the inside of the box and one of the things you’ll notice is a clarification that words that must begin with a capital letter and words in foreign languages are not permitted.

Well, sort of.

For a long time, I thought I had this explanation down pat.  Just because a word may begin or often begins with a capital letter doesn’t exclude it from Scrabble if there is also another meaning of the word that does not require it to start with a capital.  For example, it is true that “Jack” (with a capital J) is a personal name.  However, one can also jack up one’s car to change a tire or draw the jack of clubs from a deck of cards.  Neither of these uses of the word “jack” requires a capital letter, and the word is therefore acceptable in Scrabble.  (I won’t even start getting into the compound uses of the word, such as jackrabbit, jack o’ lantern, jack in the box, jack cheese and even the archaic jackanapes.)

Foreign words, I’d explain, are not acceptable in Scrabble if the exact same thing has an English equivalent.  For example, gato and caballo are not acceptable, because these Spanish words have the English equivalent of “cat” and “horse.”  However, if a foreign word has no equivalent in English, and the word has therefore been widely incorporated into the English language, then its use is permissible in Scrabble.  One of the best examples of this phenomenon is the word “taco.”  Sure, it’s a Spanish word, but there is no other way to precisely describe the concept using an English word.  Thus, “taco” has been adopted into the English language; most people know exactly what you mean when you say you’re going out for tacos.  The word “taco” has been found in the Scrabble dictionary for years.

Another example is the French word eau.  Yes, it is the equivalent of the English word “water” and one might therefore expect that it would be impermissible in Scrabble.  However, it is used to describe fragrances such as eau de cologne and eau de toilette, as well as a type of brandy known as eau de vie.  And, yes, in Scrabble it is pluralized with an X, just as it is in French.  While some will argue that one can just say “cologne” or “toilet water,” aficionados of Chanel and others of that ilk are quite familiar with the complete phrase.  Thus, the powers that be saw fit to include it in the Scrabble lexicon.

But that was then.  Ever since the latest version of the Scrabble dictionary went into use in tournament play in March, all bets are off.  There no longer seems to be any rhyme or reason for the scores of foreign words that have now squeezed themselves into the pages of the Scrabble dictionary.

The official reason for this, I am told, is that these foreign words may be found in more than one of the major dictionaries of the English language.  Supposedly, if it’s good enough to get into standard English dictionaries, it’s good enough to be permissible in Scrabble.

I beg to differ.

In my opinion, which counts for exactly nothing, just because one prefers to use a foreign word rather than its English equivalent doesn’t justify its inclusion in the Scrabble dictionary.

Lately, I have found myself particularly frustrated with the many Yiddish words that have found their way into the Scrabble dictionary.  This is somewhat ironic, as I have more than a passing familiarity with that wonderful language due to my eastern European, Jewish heritage.  I rejoice in the fact that Leo Rosten and others have published books celebrating the Yiddish language.  But that doesn’t mean that they belong in the Scrabble dictionary when they have clear English equivalents, just because other dictionaries have chosen to include them.

For example, kvetch has been in the Scrabble lexicon for a while, when it just means to complain, bitch or bellyache.  Now, with the new Scrabble dictionary, even the Yiddish word zeda and some of its derivatives are permissible.  It just means “grandfather” or “grandpa.”

Perhaps I just need to stop kvetching and recognize that Scrabble has gone multicultural.  Just don’t ask me why, if foreign words are now permissible in Scrabble, gato and caballo will get challenged off the board.  I have no idea how to answer that one anymore.

Except, that is, to say that the Scrabble dictionary has gone crazy.

Tournament update:  I have been losing games left and right by huge margins, but I also had a few big wins.  My record currently stands at 8 wins and 6 losses, which has moved me down to the bottom half of the pack.  My spread is somewhere around -160, which effectively exposes me as the rank amateur that I am.  I have to keep reminding myself that I enjoy spending a lot of money for superior players to beat up on me for five days.  Oy vey.  (Oy is good in Scrabble, vey is not.  Yet.)

Who Goes First?

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The playing venue at the 2015 North American Scrabble Championship

RENO, NEVADA

Which player goes first in a game of Scrabble?  As with so many things in life, I shouldn’t think it would matter, as long as someone goes first.  While I can’t imagine an “after you, my dear Alphonse” type impasse, as far as I’m concerned, if you want to go first, just go already!  Are we going to sit here all day?  I’m not about to have a philosophical discussion of who should play first.

In formal Scrabble clubs, such as the one to which I belonged when I resided in Fresno, who goes first is generally determined by drawing tiles.  Each player sticks his or her hand into the tile bag and draws out one tile.  Whoever has the tile closest to A goes first (with the blank tile trumping all).

In nearly every tournament that I’ve attended, the prevailing rule has been different than at club.  The usual “draw one tile” procedure is used for the first game, after which players are supposed to take turns going first to keep things even.  So when your opponent sits down across from you, the first question is always “how many firsts do you have?”  One is not expected to remember how many times one has gone first.  The tally sheets have indicators for “1st” and “2nd” next to each game, and you are expected to circle the appropriate indicator.  So when the inevitable question arises, each player starts counting down the little circles on his or her tally sheet.

“Well, I’ve had five firsts,” my opponent announces.

“I’ve had six, so you’re first,” I’ll say.

To my surprise, I learned that none of this applies at the North American Scrabble Championship.  That is because “who goes first,” along with every other little detail, is already decided for you ahead of time by the tournament organizers.  Some may not care for such regimentation, but I absolutely love it.  This is by far the best organized event I have attended in my seven years on the tournament scene.  I am seriously impressed.

Before the start of each game, the players check the postings on the bulletin board for their divisions.  Listed is the name and number of the player whom you are playing next, the number of the table you are to sit at and which player will go first.  It’s amazing.  You need to have attended some of the woefully disorganized little tournaments I have attended to appreciate how incredible it is that this giant tournament is organized down to the last detail.  I credit the hard work of the extensive staff.

At a lesser tournament, even the matter of where to play can be contested.  For example:

“We’re next.  Come on over here.”

(whining) “Well, I haven’t played on my own board all tournament.  Can we play at my table?”

Whatever.

At the North American Scrabble Championship, there is none of this.  I have encountered no whining, no arguments, no pettiness or cattiness.

There aren’t even any worries about equipment.  Each division’s leader and assistant, dressed in referee stripes for easy identification, walks around during the game to ensure that each table has plenty of challenge slips.  Your pen ran out of ink?  You need a tissue?  Just call over one of the Stripers and ask.  Oh, and if you start coughing, which may disturb the concentration of the players, the division leader or assistant will visit you with a cough drop in hand.

A bit Orwellian?  Perhaps.  But I wouldn’t have it any other way.  If only every tournament could be like this.  Now I understand why people travel the country to attend this one year after year.  One of my opponents told me that this is his ninth consecutive year of attendance.  I had to bite my tongue to hold myself back from asking if he’s rich.  Reno is only a two and a half hour drive from my home in Sacramento, but how on earth can anyone expect me to lay out the kind of money necessary to attend next year’s tournament in Fort Wayne, Indiana?  Not unless I win the lottery between now and then.

So, you may ask, how did I do on the first day of the tournament?  Not nearly as well as I should have.  I finished the day with four wins and three losses.

My first game was with a snot-nosed kid who could not have been more than 12 or 13 years old.  I cast no aspersions upon his personality by so characterizing him.  In fact, he was a very polite young man who shook my hand both before and after the game.  I am merely remarking on the fact that he kept blowing and wiping his nose throughout the game, repeatedly dropping and retrieving a tissue.  The game was a squeaker; I ended up winning by four points.  I was surprised when the young man did not request a recount.  Perhaps he had never done one before.

After winning each of my first three games by a whisker, I then proceeded to lose my next three games by more than one hundred points each.  There goes my spread, down the drain.  I managed to win my last game of the day, although only by seven points.  My opponent then requested a recount.  It turned out that I had cheated myself out of a point and he had given himself four points too many.  So I ended up winning by 12.

I began the tournament as the sixth seed out of 48.  After Round 1, I was in 21st place.  After Round 2, I was in twelfth place.  After Round 3, I was in sixth place, back up to seed.  Then I lost the three games and dropped down to 30th place.

As we have a March Madness style bracket contest going on, I think I owe an apology to the thirty or so players who saw I was seeded sixth and selected me for their brackets.  Sorry!

The Scrabble Rules

RENO, NEVADA

The big day is tomorrow — the start of the 2015 North American Scrabble Championship.  We have arrived in town and unpacked.  I have registered and obtained my name tag.  I have prepared my vegan sandwiches for lunch.

Now, if I can only avoid letting my nerves get the better of me.

One of the annoying, but totally necessary, things about tournament Scrabble is that there are a lot of rules.  I don’t mean the rules printed inside the cover of the Scrabble box.  Special rules that are necessary to maintain some type of semblance of order when you have 300 super-competitive people playing in one giant room.  If you’re interested, you can see a condensed set of tournament rules here.  Then there is the Code of Conduct, which I can succinctly summarize as “Be polite.  Don’t be an ass.  No cheating.”

I am pleased to say that cheating, or attempts thereat, is extremely rare among we Scrabble people.  I can’t understand why anyone would want to cheat, but I’m told that, occasionally, we run across someone who wishes to win at any cost.  This is my ninth year playing competitive Scrabble, and I am grateful that I have yet to run across such an individual.

And yet, we engage in certain elaborate rituals to show everyone that we are not cheating.  For example, before the start of the day’s first game, as well as after each game, the 100 tiles are arranged face up on the board (typically 25 in each corner of the board) to show one’s opponent that no tiles are missing.  If there is any question that the correct number of each letter is present, either player may request a “distribution,” which involves counting out the tiles to ensure that there are nine As, two Bs, three Cs, four Ds, 12 Es, etc.

To pick letters to place on your rack, one must draw tiles out of the tile bag.  The rule is that you are supposed to show that you are choosing tiles at random, not looking in the tile bag first.  This is done by holding the tile bag up at shoulder level and looking away from the bag while drawing out the number of tiles needed.  This may seem like a pain, but after a while, you do it automatically and without a thought.  For decrepit old people like myself, by the end of the day (we’re talking about playing Scrabble for eight hours), we’re lucky if we can still lift our arms. (And after a five-day tournament, we’re stiff as boards and chowing down naproxen and ibuprofen like candy.)  Scrabble is supposedly a mental pursuit, not a physical one, but there are still times when I am convinced that it is a young person’s game.

Even the particular set of tiles you use can become an issue.  For tournament play, the tiles are supposed to be perfectly smooth, so that when you stick your hand in the bag and your head is turned the other way, you can’t feel what letter you’re touching.  Attempting to discern your letters in this manner is known as “brailling.”  Most modern sets of tiles are smooth enough to be “unbrailleable,” but I have witnessed at least one heated argument over the matter.

I’m telling you, the little things get tournament players riled up beyond all reason.

After a game is over, if the scores were really close (within ten points of each other), either player has the right to request a “recount.”  This involves going back to the beginning of the game, recounting the value of each play, comparing it to what was written on the score sheets and making adjustments as necessary.  Your opponent is likely to be seriously pissed off if you ask to do this.  However, at one tournament, I gained several points in correction by doing this, with the end result being that the score had been a tie.  My opponent, who believed he had won, was steaming mad.

Then there are rules about “designating blanks” (when you play a blank tile, you must immediately declare what letter it is supposed to represent and write it on the score slip that gets turned into the director) and about the precise ritual that must be followed in case of a challenge.  And there are rules about what happens when a player makes a mistake by drawing too many tiles out of the bag.  And there are rules about dozens of other things, some of which I don’t even know and would have to look up.

So, in the morning, I will do my best not to break any rules and not to be trounced too badly by my eager and esteemed opponents.

Wish me luck.  (I am going to need it.)

Scrabble Dreams

The dreams have started.

I always know when a big Scrabble tournament is coming up because the words, the tiles, the thrill and frustration of competition seep into my waking thoughts and invade my dreams.

On Friday, I head to Reno to compete in the North American Scrabble Championship.  In the Scrabble world, it’s the annual blowout shindig, the place where the big girls and boys come out to play.  It’s my first rodeo, and I am by no means certain of being able to hang on for eight seconds.  I just pray that my face doesn’t get stomped on by the bull.

For five straight days, 295 of us will fight tooth and nail to hold onto our positions and maybe even move up a few spots.  If the lesser tournaments I have attended are any indication, the competition will be intense.  There will be blood, sweat and tears.  There will be curses muttered under the breath and hearts a-pounding when just the right tiles leap out of the letter bag for that elusive triple-triple.  I will kick myself for making stupid mistakes.  I will lose games I should have won.  I will win games I should have lost.  And a couple of dozen times, I will grit my teeth and say “good game” to my smiling opponent when I really want to punch a hole in the wall and tear my freakin’ hair out.  Just like on the old ABC Wide World of Sports shows we watched on Saturday afternoons as kids, there will be the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

The field is broken into four divisions, based on one’s rating, determined by performance in past tournaments.  I will be playing in the bottom division, which means that I’m really not very good.  However, I am all the way at the top of my division, seeded fifth out of a field of 45.  This means that I have nowhere to go but down.  Everyone will want a piece of me to pull up their own ratings, dragging me down into the pit in the process.  True, I could have opted to “play up” (compete in the next higher division), where I’d be at the very bottom and would have nowhere to go but up.  Passing up that opportunity, however, gives me the opportunity to maybe stay at the top of my own division and earn some prize money.  Or not.  A couple of mistakes, a few losses to lower rated players, and I could easily drop like a rock from fifth to 25th position, or even worse.  It happens all the time.  It’s a gamble, perhaps fitting for an event being held in downtown Reno.

Not that it’s about money.  On the contrary, it’s about proving just how good you are.  The real prize money is in Division 1, where the top players in the world compete for many thousands of dollars.  Down here in the cheap seats, however, the only real money involved is the hundreds of dollars we had to lay out for transportation, food, entry fees, equipment and accommodations at the host hotel for at least five nights.  I know perfectly well I’ll never see any of that money back.  Tournament Scrabble is an expensive hobby.  Case in point:  I haven’t even left home yet and just spent over $400 for a new board and timer.  These were far from impulse purchases; they were necessary to compete in the tournament.  My old timer finally died on me, and no amount of cleaning and fresh batteries would encourage it to come back to life.  As for my old beat-up board, it is rectangular — fine for playing in a local club, but a definite no-no for officially sanctioned tournaments.  One must have a round board that swivels so that the opponents can easily turn it around to face them when it’s their turn to play.  Many players spend heaps of money to have customized boards made for them.  I settled for ordering a standard model from an online purveyor.  You want a case to protect your board from being banged up in transit?  That’s extra.  You want wheels on that case so you can pull it behind you while lugging it through hotel lobbies instead of lifting 20 pounds of dead weight?  That’s extra, too.

Fortunately, I have collected enough racks and sets of tiles over the years that I didn’t have to lay out any money there.  I should mention that each competitor must bring a full set of equipment; failure to have everything needed at hand at the start of the game may result in a forfeit.  And, of course, one must have one’s own supply of score sheets.  I was low, which meant a trip to the copy shop and, you guessed it, more money down the drain.

And I thought golfers spent a lot of money on their little obsession.  I only wish there a way I could take a deduction from my income taxes for this stuff.

There are many theories about what makes a good Scrabble player.  Some say you must have superior verbal skills, while others insist it’s all about mathematics.  Some say you must have “board vision,” while others believe the key is in balancing your rack between vowels and consonants.  Some say you must have memorized word lists, while others insist it’s mostly luck.

All of them are right.

I do not possess a photographic memory, nor do I have the time or energy to spend hours each day studying endless columns and pages of words.  My practice consists mostly of playing a lot of word games.  For more than a decade, I have participated in an ongoing Scrabble tournament with opponents from around the world, conducted entirely over email.  I play Scrabble online in realtime on a site called ISC (www.isc.ro).  I play endless games of Words with Friends on my phone when I should be doing other things.

And, yes, I’ve even dabbled some in memorizing some of the “must know” lists of “bingo stems,” those six-letter combinations that, with the addition of one additional letter, will create a rack-clearing “bingo” that rewards me with a 50-point bonus.  There are hundreds of such word lists, and I claim familiarity with only a few.  There are mnemonics, funky little phrases to jog one’s memory as to which letters go with which bingo stems.  Phrases like “Old MVP jogs with a crutch” to remember the bingos that can be made out of the tiles in SENIOR or “Prez got caught having Monica” to remind you of what you can do with TOILES.

I’m not a fanatic, and believe me, there are many who are.  Hard-driving competitors who own shoe boxes full of annotated index cards, dog-eared word books scribbled in pencil three ways to Sunday, special computer programs that feature Scrabble puzzles and warn you when you’re falling behind in your studying.

Does any of this really help you win?  Sometimes it does.  Other times, not so much.  Most of us are not mental giants like Nigel Richards, who recently won the French Scrabble championship without speaking a word of French — by spending nine weeks memorizing the French Scrabble dictionary.  We try to get a good night’s sleep, eat a decent breakfast and hope that the ol’ grey matter is firing on all cylinders.  As for me, I silently pray a lot when I’m seated at the board.  I pray that God will jog my memory to recall the right mnemonic for the right word list for the tiles that happen to be on the board and on my rack at that very moment.  I expect that I will miss a lot of the obscure words that I never had time to study.  And yet, I hope that I don’t blunder by missing the opportunity to play a high-scoring word that I’ve been over many times.  In Scrabble, as in life, sometimes you can’t recognize the gem that is staring you right in the face.

For amateurs such as myself, much of the battle lies in fighting the tyranny of the timer.  Each player starts with 25 minutes on the clock. Go over your time and you pay the penalty of 10 points for every minute or portion thereof.  This means that memorizing a few word lists doesn’t do you a lot of good unless you can instantaneously recall them.  If you don’t have a list down cold as ice, it probably won’t help you in the clutch.

I have been a Scrabble poseur for enough years now, have spent enough time faking it, that there are a few word lists I could probably recite in my sleep.  This may have something to do with the dreams.

Like last night, for instance.  In my dream, my clocking was running down and I was behind in the score.  I had almost no time left and I was sweating out my final rack, my chance to “bingo out” and win or, conversely, to choke and lose.  I knew there was a seven-letter word in my rack somewhere.  I could positively feel it in my guts.  But, try as I may, I could not come up with it.

And then I woke up, drenched in sweat, heart pounding.

It wasn’t even a particularly creative dream, as that very situation has, at one time or another, happened to most of us who travel from state to state like nomads and lay out our hard-earned money to play this silly game.

And sometimes, the right word comes to you just in the nick of time and, just like that, you go from zero to hero faster than you can say “82 and out.”

Or not.

Later, of course, you will look up your rack online and find out that there were at least three viable bingos in your rack, any one of which would have won you the game, but you, lacking the grace under pressure so touted by Hemingway, couldn’t come up with a single one.

And you’ll wonder why a loser like you bothers to play this game at all.

And then you’ll go home, and like an addict hooked on horse, you’ll try to stay away but you’ll need another fix, and when you start shaking with the DTs, you’ll slide that credit card out of your wallet and dial up the hotel for reservations for the next tournament on the circuit.  And as the weeks wind down to the big day, you’ll find yourself stealing glances at word lists on your phone when you should be working and wracking your brain because you can’t remember the anagram for TOILETS.

(It’s LITOTES.)