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.)

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Greek Intervention, MTV Style

Paging Howie Mandel… You’re needed in Brussels!

The leaders of Europe spent the entire weekend playing the Euro version of “Deal or No Deal.”  When the moneymen couldn’t decide on whether and how to bail out bankrupt Greece, the heads of state took over, although they fared no better by Sunday night.

Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, is there, playing the prodigal son and offering to return to the fold by allowing the European Union to tighten the screws by imposing ever more stringent austerity measures to obtain the billions of euros necessary to prevent the Greek banking system from collapsing.  This repentant attitude is a total about face from Tsipras’ position just a week ago, when at his urging, the Greek people voted “no” to increased austerity, even if it means leaving the Eurozone and returning to the drachma.

So, Alex, what’s in your case?  Looks like you’ve pulled all the high dollar amounts off the board before you even got to Brussels.  Is that a phone I hear ringing?  Uh-oh, Howie is telling you that the banker, sitting up there in his booth, has slashed his offer yet again.

The two Jimmies (Fallon and Kimmel) and whoever it is that replaced David Letterman must be having a field day with this stuff.  I don’t watch late night television (all right, you got me, I don’t watch TV at all), so someone please tell me if I’m right.

So Europe is twisting itself up into more knots than a pretzel in a German biergarten in order to keep Greece in the family and thereby to continue the charade that the European Union is indestructible.  The clownish shenanigans in Brussels remind me of those intervention shows that they used to air on MTV back when I wasted my time on such things.

Can’t you just see it?  The family gathers in Brussels, each member with a somber look on his or her face, awaiting the arrival of the bad boy, at which point they intend to pounce.  The idea is to convince him to give up his wicked ways and go to rehab or else be expelled from the family, with no hope of further assistance of any kind.  As I recall, after much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, the addict would realize that he or she has been ambushed and is now effectively trapped.

Oh, Mr. Tsipras — The limo is waiting at the curb to take you the airport.  Next stop:  Rehab.

The question, of course, is whether Greece is so far gone that it may no longer even be capable of being rehabilitated.  A third bailout in five years?  Where does it end?  Greece says it needs well over 50 billion euro (that’s a lot of zeroes) just to keep its banks going, but European finance ministers estimate that it will need a good 80 billion euro to prevent its economy from disintegrating.  Something tells me this rehabilitation will fail.  Either Greece will escape the rehab center in the middle of the night, or it will dry out and then go looking for another fix the second it graduates from the program.

In many respects, Greece reminds me of a rebellious teenager.  I remember once seeing a meme online that went something like this:  “Teenagers!  Tired of being hassled by your parents?  Get out now while you still know everything, get a job and pay your own bills!”  Hmm, come to think of it, I may have seen this on a greeting card at a truck stop on the I-5 in Santa Nella.

Greece proved its rebelliousness, much to the ire of European leaders, by putting further austerity to a vote of its populace.  Europe was not amused when 61% of Greeks backed their fearless leader’s resolve to go it alone if necessary rather than subject itself to another parade of horribles.  With the store shelves going empty, gas tanks going dry and only 60 euros per person per day available at ATMs (the banks have been shuttered for two weeks), many Greeks can’t blame Tsipras for backpedaling, begging for debt relief in return for more austerity.

But there are still plenty of Greeks who are burning up Facebook and Twitter urging Tsipras to stick to his guns, walk out of the Brussels talks and return home to Athens, come what may.  How far will this teenager go?  It’s possible that he may be willing to go couch surfing or even live on the street to avoid being told what to do.  Maybe this teen will end up hungry and cold, but at least it will be on his own terms.

The problem is that the parents are fighting with each other and can’t seem to decide what to do about their wayward child.  Meanwhile, the teen is milking the situation for all it is worth, doing his own thing even as he knows that his days under his parents’ roof are numbered.

My bet is that, despite Teen Greece’s open defiance of last week, its current contrite posture will win the day.  Looks like the teen has decided not to go homeless after all.

All that remains to be seen is whether he can follow through with his promise to abide by Mother Europe’s rules.

Greece is the Word

Greek flag

Had I the slightest bit of artistic talent, I would have headed up this post with a cartoon that looked something like this:  Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and German leader Angela Merkel would be sitting across a table from each other.  Tsipras would have an enormous goblet of Greek olives before him, which he would be slowly sharing with Merkel.  The caption would read “Two for you, one for me!”  In the next pane, Merkel would take the single olive off of Tspiras’ plate and move it to her own.

If you’ve been following the shenanigans in Greece over the past few weeks, you probably understand to what I refer.  If not, I’ll make it incredibly simple by stating that Greece is billions of euro in debt to Europe and that it has approximately zero chance of ever paying it back.

The complicated part is the politics.  Greece is broke and missed an important payment deadline at the end of June.  Should the nation’s creditors put up with this and risk setting a precedent that their loans need not be repaid?  Or should Europe refuse to extend yet another bailout to Greece, causing the nation to leave the Eurozone, quit the euro and return to its former currency, the drachma?  Perhaps that would send a message to other profligate European nations… but perhaps it would be the wrong message.  Perhaps European nations with struggling economies (think Italy, Spain, Portugal) will figure that defaulting on their obligations wouldn’t be so bad; after all, they can just go back to the lira, the peseta, the escudo.  And there, of course, goes the whole European Union.  A Greek exit from the euro, which the media has of late been referring to as a “Grexit” (eye roll here), could potentially pave the way for the whole idea of a united Europe to come tumbling down like a house of cards.  Perhaps the real lesson for Europe here is that their union is built upon the sand, not upon a rock as they would have the world believe.

It’s not as if the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and other creditors don’t have any compassion.  They offered to lend Greece more money in exchange for “austerity.”  Now, it’s not as if Greece hasn’t already been up to its eyeballs in austerity.  To even get this far, it had to cut pensions, raise taxes and lay off government employees.  This, of course, created a lot of problems, not the least of which is that the people are sick of it.  More than a quarter of working age Greeks are already unemployed.  With the country’s stagnant economy, that has little likelihood of changing anytime soon.  As for elderly citizens on fixed incomes, let’s make it even more difficult for them to survive, by golly!  That’s right — acceding to Europe’s demands would involve slashing pensions by another 40%.

Of course, Rome… er, Greece, wasn’t built in a day.  Sure, taxes have been raised, but reports are that they’re not collected particularly vigorously.  And the government is by far the largest employer in the nation.  As is common in Europe, employees receive six weeks of paid vacation annually.  And then you can retire — at age 38, with a full pension.  Must be nice, eh?  And it’s not like you need to move to Florida or Palm Springs or Costa Rica to enjoy your retirement.  That’s because you already live at the sun-kissed intersection of the Mediterranean and the blue Aegean.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some want Greece to pay dearly for its perceived economic profligacy.  Drive those spendthrifts to their knees and make them pay dearly for their sins!  Germany is seen as being the standard bearer for this camp, with Merkel being backed by Eurogroup head Jeroen Dijsselbloem.

But it’s not as if Greece was about to give up without a fight.  For a while, it seemed that Greece could hold all of Europe hostage with the threat of causing its precious union to come apart at the seams.  You want to hold it together?  Bail us out!  Again.  (And again, and again.)  Europe wasn’t about to put up with this.  So Greece had to prove that its threat was real.  Tsipras and his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, asked the Greek parliament to put the matter to a vote of the people.  Should we cave in to austerity measures that are worse than what we have already experienced?  Or should we tell Europe to go to hell?  You know, do the Grexit thing and merrily go it alone?  Tsipras argued the latter and his parliament agreed.  The vote was slated for last Sunday.

It almost didn’t happen.  There were issues of constitutionality and procedural irregularities such as the fact that the people are supposed to be provided at least two weeks of notice prior to a vote, not the one week they received.  But the Greek Supreme Court gave the green light and voting booths were hastily assembled from Athens to Thessaloniki to the isle of Rhodos.  Tspiras went on national TV and radio and urged the people to reject austerity.  Proud Greeks, stand up to Europe!

Photos of the Greek people demonstrating against European oppression appeared around the world.  In the streets and the squares, in front of government buildings and on the islands, large OXI (“No!”) signs seemed to appear everywhere.  There was a significant “yes” faction, too, of course, those who believed that Greece should stick with the euro for better or for worse.

The vote was thought to be a dead heat.  My wife and I were out of town at a Scrabble tournament in Reno, and I followed the action on my iPhone with bated breath.  Rumor was that a “yes” vote would constitute a vote of no confidence in the ruling liberal Syriza party and would leave Tspiras with little choice but to resign.

But Tspiras did not resign.  In fact, he won.  The people agreed with him, with about 61% voting OXI.  Instead, Varoufakis, his finance minister, resigned the next day.  I had to laugh when The Washington Post reported that he lived up to his “bad boy” image when he followed his announcement by walking out of the ministry building and riding off into the sunset on his motorcycle, his wife on the back.

But all that was Sunday and Monday, ancient Greek history.  In the intervening four days, a lot has changed, notably the mood of the nation.  Having your banks shuttered for two weeks, with a daily limit on ATM withdrawals of 60 euros per day, could do it.  (It is estimated that if the banks were to reopen, the ensuing run on deposits combined with virtually nonexistent cash reserves would cause the banks to be out of money in less than an hour.)  Shortages at the supermarkets and empty gas tanks could do it.  Fear of a deep economic depression has a way of engendering another type of depression entirely.  Somewhere around Tuesday, the defiance of the Greeks seemed to wilt along with the abandoned OXI signs.

After asking his people to vote “no” to austerity, Tsipras went right ahead and renewed negotiations with Europe for another bailout in exchange for more austerity measures.  He was quoted as equating his country’s predicament as a choice between “your money or your life.”  He’d have to choose the former, he said.  Clearly, someone forgot to tell him that you’re supposed to give up your life; you need your money for old age.

The Eurogroup is expected to make a decision on the fate of Greece today.  Despite the tenacity of some hard liners, the end result is preordained.  Greece will be bailed out yet again and its people, particularly tens of thousands of poor pensioners, will suffer even more.  The whole charade of the vote, proud defiance and cries of “Oxi!” will have been for naught.  Greece has turned into a joke, and a not very funny one at that.

Greece is not the only one caving in on this, however.  Germany, which has expressed a preference for providing humanitarian aid to ease the suffering of the Greeks rather than offering another fruitless bailout, is on the losing end, too.  In fact, all of Europe loses, as they flush ever more money down the toilet.  It’s a classic no-win situation.  There are only losers.  And I will bet a nickel that, before long, Greece will be right back where it is now, only even more in debt and more beaten down by endless austerity.  Meanwhile, you can support impoverished Greece by purchasing its exports:  Ouzo, olive oil, feta cheese, delicious kalamatas, Greek yogurt.  Oops, maybe not that last one.  Aren’t Oikos and Chabani made right here in the States?

I hope that, one of these days, some creative writer turns the current Greek debacle into a play.  It might be a tragedy or a drama, both forms that the Greeks themselves invented.  On second thought, it should be a musical.  Songs could include “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” performed in front of the Acropolis by Yanis Varoufakis and his biker gang; “Eurozone Dropout,” performed by Angela Merkel; “Look at Me, I’m Alex T,” performed by Tsipras and the Syriza Seven; perhaps finishing up with a resounding rendition of “We’ll Always Be Together” by Jeroen Dijsselbloem and the Moneymen.

Greece is the word, baby.  (Shoo-bop, shoo-bop.)