2018 Word Cup Scrabble – Day 3

BURBANK

Playing room at the 2018 Word Cup Scrabble Championship (Burbank Airport Marriott Convention Center).

Lately, I’ve been receiving a lot of junk calls on my mobile phone. I no longer answer if I don’t recognize the number, but sometimes, if I’m not paying attention, I get caught unaware. There’s the robocall offering me an expense paid trip to a resort (“Congratulations, winner!”). Click! There are the calls urging me to support a particular candidate or cause. And then there’s my favorite, the one where I am asked to subscribe to an asset management service. “Actually, I have no assets to manage,” is my standard reply. “Would you like to provide me with some? Hello? Hello?”

Being of a certain age, I also get calls offering retirement planning services. This always gives me a good laugh. They simply don’t understand that, here in the real world, a lot of us will never be able to retire, no matter what we do. They don’t want to know that some of us have to continue working until they carry us out on a stretcher. I thought about those calls this week while perusing the New York Times on my phone and running across an article about how we should begin active retirement planning activities at least five years before our planned date of retirement. For example, it went on, if you earn $140,000 per year. . . . At that point, I closed the article and moved on. Who the heck do they think we are? Are only rich people supposed to be reading the Times? Talk about being out of touch with reality! I spent decades earning less than $10 an hour. Come on, who earns $140K? Doctors? Drug dealers? Wall Street types and CEOs? Perhaps I need to look for a newspaper that caters to the rest of us.

While I enjoy working, I must admit to more than a bit of jealousy directed toward many of my fellow Scrabblers who are now retired and have enough money to allow them to roam the United States and Canada, competing in Scrabble tournaments across the continent. It seems like a lovely life, and is one I shall never be able to enjoy. I should be grateful that I am able to make it to two or three tournaments each year.

The director of the Word Cup Scrabble Tournament in which I am currently competing likes to start out his events by reminding the participants to keep their cell phones on, volume up and set “to the most obnoxious ringtone possible.” Everyone laughs, but we get the message. No one wants his or her concentration to be interrupted mid-game by a raucous cell phone going off. It happens anyway at least once during the tournament. It’s easy to forget to put your phone back on vibrate after lunch.

The prejudice against ringing cell phones is pretty much universal, but I never cease to be amazed by some of the other things that annoy my fellow competitors. There certainly are a lot of quirks and peculiarities in our little Scrabble world. One player insists on the game clock being positioned to the right of the board, another refuses to use a particular style of tile or rack, another insists on announcing both her score and the running total after each turn (technically a violation of the rules), while yet another uses the board as a work area, changing her play several times during her turn (a really big violation). You can complain to the director if you’re really that annoyed with an obnoxious opponent, but usually I grin and bear it. “We aim to please,” I say with a forced grin. Um, whatever. Life’s too short.

Although I try to be easygoing, there is one behavior that unreasonably sets my teeth on edge: Competitors who like to justify their own weirdness by saying “after all, it’s just a game.” Grrrr! Why are you spending all this time and money to be here if you truly believe that? Sigh.

My performance today was largely a repeat of Saturday.  Seemingly stuck in a Ground Hog Day-style time warp, I again won all my games in the morning and completely pooped out in the afternoon. Weird, as I don’t consider myself a morning person.

I remain stuck in ninth place, but as my wife reminds me, it could be a whole lot worse. Still, I am annoyed with myself for throwing some games away due to sheer stupidity.

Game 1: My opponent started out with the X (COAX for 26 points), but then drew nothing but trash for the rest of the game. I had everything, including both blanks, which I used to bingo with LOOSEST for 77 pt and SNORTED for 65. I felt badly for my poor opponent, who is extremely kind and directs lovely Scrabble tournaments in her home. Win: 380-286.

Game 2: This was a very even game marked by a fight to the finish. My opponent and I were neck-and-neck until the third-to-last turn. Each of us bingoed just once, both with naturals and both with B words: BLONDIES for me (80 points) and BETTIES for her (81 points). BETTIES is a phony, but I was afraid to challenge it despite my doubts. After all, how does one express the plural of apple brown betty? At the end, my rack was GENORT?, with the question mark representing a blank. The only bingo I could find was TONGERS, which I knew as a study list word (TONERS + G). The only problem was that, by then, the board was blocked up and there was no place to play it. I was surprised that I noticed that I could play rhe 6-letter TONGER on the triple word line, hooking the R for RHO and preserving the blank in my rack. It only netted me 24 points, but it turned out to be the right play. My opponent unsuccessfully challenged the word, losing her turn and allowing me to play out and collect an additional 14 points from her rack. Win: 370-309.

Game 3: My last game before lunch was against a very old lady who has beaten me soundly at past tournaments. Fortunately for me, the luck of the draw was on my side and I had both blanks, which I used for ROSTERS (68 pt) and SLAINTE (77 pt). The latter I was able to play on the triple word line by hooking the T to WIT. I was pleased with myself for finding a bingo that contained the necessary T as the sixth letter (and for being able to explain to my opponent after the game that the word is an Irish toast). I also knew that it does not take an S, alleviating any concern about my opponent coming back by tripling a word in both directions. She had one excellent play with JANE for 60 points, playing the J on a triple letter score both horizontally and vertically. Win: 427-347.

Game 4: I thoroughly enjoyed going out to lunch with my wife instead of taking a nap. Upon my return, however, my good luck from the morning immediately went south. My first opponent of the afternoon humbled me early in the game with back-to-back bingos, VARIATES for 76 points and MISPLACE for 86 points. I got off just one bingo, PILLAGE for 73 points, courtesy of a blank. I managed to keep fairly close in score to my opponent by tripling first the X and then an F in both directions. But I got stupid and lost a turn after challenging my opponent’s play of WEBERS, a technical term that only a retired engineer would know. I had the Z and the X, while my opponent had the Q and the J. With a blank apiece, the game was fairly even overall, resulting in a recount that still left me the loser by seven points. Loss: 399-496.

Game 5: I couldn’t manage a bingo in this game, which never bodes well. My opponent, by contrast, laid down DETAILS for 69 points and ORIENTER for 68 points. My only decent play was ROQUES for 55 points, which my opponent successfully challenged. This may have given me the win had I not gone stupid again. I put down a parallel play on the wrong side of an existing word, forgetting that the blank on the board was an E. That created the phony LE (duh!) and that was it for me. Loss: 328-351.

Game 6: My next opponent was a pleasant young man who strategically outplayed me and who deserved the win. We each had a single bingo, he with WINCERS for 70 points and me with TINNERS for 68. But he was able to triple the J in both directions for 48 points and finished up with several excellent parallel plays. Loss: 381-330.

Game 7: My last game of the day was against an opponent whom I have competed against several times before and who is famous for her phonies. (In the first game I ever played against her, about ten years ago, she bamboozled me with the phony bingo GEFILTE.). This time proved to be no exception. I started out fairly strong with VIAND for 26 pt and FLAWED for 33 pt, after which my opponent drew a blank and bingoed with TAENIAS for 73 points. Several turns later, I drew the other blank and bingoed with STOURIE for 74 points. My opponent then got away with the phony OUVRE, which I recognized as misspelled about ten seconds too late. There was an open J in a triple line, so to block the spot, I played JARK, which my opponent challenged off the board (although only after I had my hand in the tile bag; I should have called for the director). This was one of several times throughout the tournament that I inadvertently played a word that is acceptable in the “other” Scrabble dictionary (Collins) but not in ours. As I have played with the British Collins and SOWPODS dictionaries online for years, code switching has started to become a problem. I may well be approaching the point when I will need to switch over to playing Collins in tournaments. I scored ten points or fewer on each of my last five turns of the game, making for a tight ending. I was just 12 points ahead when my opponent played out, but she exceeded her time by three seconds, netting me an extra ten points. Win: 376-354.

Tomorrow is the last full day of the tournament and I will need to pick up several wins to have any chance of a prize on Wednesday. I realize that this is not likely. The competition here is just too good.

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2018 Word Cup Scrabble – Day 2

BURBANK

On a neighboring board today, I noticed that a competitor had played the word COQUIS. I had never seen the word, but he said that the coqui is a type of frog. Of course, I had to look it up. Indeed, the amphibian is native to Puerto Rico. I always find it interesting when I learn new words at a Scrabble tournament.

The severe heat in Los Angeles is relatively unusual; temperatures of 110F and above are much more common at home up north in Sacramento. It’s as if we came down here and brought the heat with us.

When we got back in our car after going out to lunch on Friday, we were surprised to see the digital thermometer on the dashboard read 122F. It sure felt like it though. Just walking from the rear parking lot around to the front of the restaurant felt like an oven or furnace. The worst part is that the relatively mild temperatures here mean that not everyone has air conditioning in their homes. This can be deadly for the elderly or disabled. The hotel desk clerk handed out bottles of water and urged us to drink aplenty. He didn’t have to ask us twice.

The demand for electricity is enormous when it’s this hot, and the strain on the power grid may result in blackouts. While we have not lost power here, we did lose A/C for a couple of hours today. My wife was glad that we brought along her big fan.

In the playing room at the Marriott Convention Center next door, the air conditioning continued unabated as we played the day’s games in the coolness.

Today, I did worse than yesterday, losing to a series of lower rated players and winning just three games. I dropped down further to eighth place.

Game 1: My opponent drew the Z, but I had the J, Q and X. Unfortunately, the blanks stayed away from me. My opponent played a single bingo (WESTERNS for 72 points) while I had none. Each of us had a 50+ point non-bingo, mine courtesy of tripling the J in both directions. I struggled throughout the game and was lucky to lose by just 18 points. Loss: 360-388.

Game 2: I went second and started out by bingoing with ARANEID for 63 pt. My opponent bingoed right back with the phony MENTORER, which I challenged off. He never did get a bingo down on the board all game. I later had a second bingo with TANSIES, also for 63 points. I was surprised when my opponent called “hold,” as this is a basic list word, TISANE + S. Ultimately, he did not challenge, although he did unsuccessfully challenge my play of ESPY (on the triple, hooking the S to U-less Q word TRANQ) right at the end of the game. My favorite play of the game was BARONY for 33 points. I had never played the word before and was surprised to find it in my rack. It’s nice when things go your way. Win: 410-299.

Game 3: My opponent drew the bag and wiped the floor with me while I contended with a steady diet of vowels. She played just one bingo, HELPING for 85 points, courtesy of a blank. My best word of the game scored just 28 points. Sometimes you just spin your wheels and pray that the game will be over soon. Loss: 245-386.

I followed the same lunchtime pattern as yesterday, napping for 90 minutes and bringing a slapped-together sandwich back to the playing room.

Game 4: I should have lost this game, winning on a fluke. Both my opponent and I had our problems, with each of us exchanging tiles twice. She had one bingo (a great vowel dump, ENTITIES, for 68 points) to my two (PARTING for 71 pt and TENDERS for 67 pt). I drew the Q, held it for several turns with nowhere on the board to play it off, and finally threw it back in the bag to avoid further jeopardizing my bingo opportunities. Toward the end, I inadvertently played a phony (ZATI for 33 points), which is acceptable in the Collins dictionary that my online tourney group uses. My opponent was later quite upset with herself for failing to challenge the play. (Could that be why she stormed off without squaring the tiles at the end of the game?). Still, we were just three points apart after turn 16. Then a funny thing happened. Remember the Q that I had exchanged earlier? It’s baaaack! Only this time, a triple letter square was open and I held a blank, allowing me to play QI while tripling the Q in both directions for 61 points. Win: 402-342.

Game 5: Next, I had to play the division’s top seed, so I felt that a loss was inevitable. Also, I have played this gentleman before at Berkeley, and know what it’s like for him to drag me through the mud. I guess I should be grateful that I lost by only 39 points. Still, I would have liked to have done better, considering that I drew both blanks. They enabled me to bingo with ENTRUST for 70 pt and NOTARIES for 64 pt. My opponent was unable to bingo at all, which did not stop him from winning (the guy is really good). Undeterred, he played XI with the X tripled in both directions for 50 points. He pulled ahead of me about halfway through the game and I was unable to come back. At the end, in desperation, I laid down the only play I could find that would use the open triple. Unfortunately, VOIP is good only in the other dictionary. I was not as lucky as I had been in the previous game, my opponent swiftly challenging it off the board. Loss: 373-412.

Game 6: Against a much lower rated player, I bingoed early with TANNERS for 70 points, then immediately drew the X and was able to lay down AXITE on the triple word score for 60 points. I just had everything this game, and my poor opponent hardly stood a chance. After dumping a couple of Is with RADII, I drew both blanks and used them to bingo with FAILURE for 60 points. Then I promptly drew the Z and used it for ZAIRE (48 pt). I felt badly for my opponent, such a nice lady from the local Los Angeles area. Win: 414-251.

Game 7: After that big win, I had to be brought down a notch, a task accomplished with aplomb by my last opponent of the day. Like many other opponents I’ve faced, she managed to pull it off without a single bingo. I bingoed early with BRAISED for 76 points, the only rack-clearing play I had all game. My only other decent play of the game scored 39 points, while my opponent came up with plays scoring 51, 33, 33 and 35 points. It may also have helped that she drew the J, X, Q, Z and both blanks. Nevertheless, she played well and deserved the win. Loss: 314-390.

This left me at four losses and three wins for the day, bringing me to 8-6 for the tournament so far. My playing leaves a lot to be desired, and I anticipate being pulled still farther down in the standings tomorrow. I could make a lot of excuses, but I think it comes down to insufficient word study and making a lot of poor decisions over the board. I definitely need to do better at balancing my rack between vowels and consonants as well as not waiting so long to exchange racks full of junk. Will I ever learn?

2018 Word Cup Scrabble – Day 1

BURBANK

The anticipation surrounding a big Scrabble tournament is almost palpable. Meeting old friends from all over the United States and Canada, catching up on the latest news, reliving highlights of tournaments of days gone by.

“Where do I know you from?”

“Have we played each other before?”

“I know! Reno back in 2007. Right?”

And there is something else. Before the first day action starts, anything seems possible. Your scorecard is blank, a tabula rasa. There is still the possibility of going undefeated. You’re not yet chasing a spread that has fallen off a cliff into triple digit negative numbers. Everyone is still a winner. Maybe this will be the year when you show ‘em how it’s done. It could happen, right? Perhaps you will draw all the blanks and the esses, bingo with a QU word, find the elusive triple-triple. And surely you will remember all those word lists you studied and your brain will be firing on all cylinders, making anagram magic, rack after rack after rack.

Meanwhile, you banish from your mind all thoughts of racks full of vowels, struggles with unplayable vees, phony bingos being challenged off the board. All that was history from another time and another place. But not here. No, here you’re a veritable tile whisperer who will make the board sparkle and your opponents gasp.

Everyone crowds around the pairings posted in the lobby, scanning down the list to find opponent names, table numbers, ratings.

The morning announcements are made, the rattle of tile bags being shaken resounds through the hall, and the first game is underway.

This tournament consists of 88 competitors split into three divisions by rating. I am at the very top of the bottom division, seeded third of 26. That means everyone is going to want a piece of me, to supplant my position. All but two of my opponents will be lower rated than myself, meaning that any loss will drag my rating down into the dumper.

We played three games in the morning and four in the afternoon.

Game 1: My opponent struggles along and fails to bingo at all. I bingo twice, first with the natural YIELDER for 108 points and then, with the aid of a blank, ASTERIA for 85. YIELDER was the only bingo I could find on my rack and it almost didn’t make it onto the board for want of a hook. Just in time, my opponent played ALL, allowing me to hook the Y for ALLY and to bingo on the double-double. I wasn’t totally sure that YIELDERS is an acceptable word, but I checked later and it’s fine. As for ASTERIA, it’s a “list word.” One of the first word lists that most serious players study is SATIRE (and it’s wonderful when a word on this list shows up in your rack). I knew that SATIRE + A is ARISTAE, ASTERIA, ATRESIA. I hooked the S to DAK at the bottom of the board for a triple. Again, I wasn’t sure whether DAK takes an S, but it does. My only lame-brained move of the game was challenging my opponent’s play of AJI and losing a turn. Win: 425-320.

Game 2: After a fine start in the first game, I sat across the board from an opponent whom I have played several times before. I never forget his name, as it is the same as my Dad’s. We played a very tight, relatively low-scoring game. Again, my opponent was unable to get off a bingo, with his highest scoring word being worth 42 points. I laid down just one bingo, ENTASIA, for 63 pt. This is another very basic list word (TISANE + A), so I was surprised when my opponent challenged it. What may have turned the game in my favor was my play of PURFLE on the triple for 33 pt about three-quarters of the way through the game. Still, my opponent kept slogging away and I nearly lost. When he played out the last three tiles on his rack, he collected an extra ten points from my remaining tiles, leaving me ahead by a mere seven points. Win: 345-338.

Game 3: My opponent went first, laying down JAM. I was able to hook an S and bingo with REMIXES, with the X on a triple letter score, for 97 points. That was my sole bingo of the game. My opponent came up with PAUSING for 70 points, which was her sole bingo (she adroitly hooked the G off her own play of AGO for AGOG). I drew the Q and a U out of the bag together, and was able to play QUOTED on the double word for 38 pt. I surely had the better draw with the Q, X and Z, making it tough on my opponent. Win: 383-313.

At lunch, I was undefeated and I headed up to my hotel room for a nap during the hour and 45 minute hiatus. I should have known that trouble was coming in the afternoon.

Refreshed, on my way out the door, I assembled a quick sandwich to munch on in between games.

Game 4: My first game of the afternoon was against an opponent whom I had not seen in many years. Renowned for her closed board style, I resolved to open the board at every opportunity. I got lucky and completely drew the bag, bingoing with REQUEST for 93 pt (which nearly didn’t make it onto the board, as I found the E-hook to AGE for AGEE at the very last minute) and TENDING for 71 points with the aid of a blank. My opponent used her blank for her one and only bingo, RETIRED for 65 pt. I had my highest spread of the day at 179 pt. Win: 441-262.

Now at 4-0 for the day, I should have known that pride cometh before a fall.

Game 5: I drew two Us in my initial rack, which I immediately dumped courtesy of ULU, inadvertently setting my opponent up for a series of high-scoring plays. She bingoed first with CLEATED for 68 pt, then with the clever vowel dump LAITIES for 75 points. My opponent drew the J and the X, leaving me with the Q and the Z, and us with a blank apiece. I used mine with an S for a non-bingo Hail Mary play near the end of the game. It fell flat (SIZED for 58 pt), handing me my first loss of the tournament. Loss: 374-426.

Once you lose the Big Mo, it can be hard to bounce back. I suspect that psychology tells you that you’ll just lose again, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Game 6: This was a hard-fought game, with my opponent and me each laying down two bingos. Mine were RANDIEST for 70 pt and BEANIER (using a blank) for 86 pt. Hers were SKATING for 77 pt (using a blank) and, all the way at the end of the game, VETOING for 83 pt. The latter she played on the triple word score, hooking an I to FUND. I had completely forgotten about the word FUNDI! Even placing the X on a triple letter score in both directions for 52 points couldn’t help me out of this one. My opponent simply played better than I did, and her win was well deserved. Loss: 389-415.

Everyone is tired by the time we get to the last game of the day. Fortunately, I’d had a nap at lunchtime.

Game 7: My opponent and I each had a single bingo apiece, he early on with VARIOUS (using a blank) fir 70 pt and me with the low-scoring natural STRAINED for 60 pt at the end of the game. My opponent drew the J, X and Z, while I had the Q. He performed well, with two 40-point plays. I somehow eked out a small 15-point win, which seems unlikely in hindsight. Win: 351-336.

I finished the first day of competition at 5-2, with my standing having dropped to sixth place.

When I returned to our hotel room, my wife was napping. I joined her, and we proceeded to sleep right through the evening reception before waking for a late dinner at Denny’s across the street.

Tomorrow, I will be facing opponents with ratings closer to my own, setting me up for a tough day of competition.

Grand Canyon

Duck on a rock

An odd geologic formation known as “Duck on a Rock” at the Grand Canyon.

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, ARIZONA

We were arguing over the meaning of the word oe.

It was the last day of the Scrabble tournament.  I did fairly well on Friday and Saturday, and now it’s down to the final three games on Sunday morning.

I’m fueled up, having had my Cheerios, banana and almond milk in our hotel room.  Water? Check.  Long rack?  Check.  Pens?  Check.  Score sheets?  Check.

After sitting atop the leader board in my division for part of the day yesterday, I dropped down to second place late.  I have to win all three games today to finish in first.  No pressure.  Hey, I tell myself, I’ll be “in the money” even if I lose them all.  After all, there are cash prizes down to sixth place.

I lose the first game to an old lady from Israel.  By a lot.  I wreck my spread by leaving an open S on the board at the end, allowing my opponent to bingo out.  She chastises me for failing to engage in defensive blocking.  Not wishing to be thrown out of the tournament right before the end, I do not utter any of the Scrabble-acceptable words that I feel would be appropriate in that situation.  I square the tiles, mumble “good luck” and quickly leave the room.  What I really want to do is scream.

Trounced by the blue hairs again.  “Trounced” isn’t even the right word.  Crumpled up like a used candy wrapper is more like it.  Hemingway was right about grace under pressure.  I start burping up Cheerios.

Next, I have to play the woman who’s been sitting in the number one position for the last few games. That is, since I’ve been unceremoniously knocked off my throne.  Okay, I figure, I must be in third now.  But I’ll probably lose to her, go down to fourth, and then finish up in either third or fifth.  That depends on with whom I am paired for the final “king of the hill” round.

I return from the rest room and find myself standing in the aisle at my opponent’s table. Her previous opponent is conducting a “post mortem” (commenting on what went wrong and right during the game), marking up her tally sheet, slowly gathering her belongings before she finally moves on and I get to sit down.

I ask my opponent where she’s from. (It’s polite to be friendly to your opponent, even though you want to place a curse on her rack, her tiles, and her mother’s teapot.  Easy there, cowboy. She wants the same for you, don’t you know.)

Florida, she tells me, near Fort Lauderdale.  I tell her about my grandparents, my aunt and my wife’s friend, all who hail from the area.  We figure out who goes first and shake the tile bag.  That’s when she asks if I would mind if she runs to the rest room.

“Of course, go right ahead,” I say.  Some things you don’t mess with, regardless of the fate you might wish on your opponent.  You don’t want anyone peeing in their pants. Not to mention that such a thing would be horrible karma.  Next time it will be me who is doing the pee-pee dance and begging pardon of someone sitting across the table.

“I might be a little while,” she warns me.

“That’s fine,” I reply. “Take your time.”  What do I care?  More time to relax.  If I’m just going to lose to this shark, there’s no point in rushing it.

I close my eyes for a minute and remember yesterday, when I, too, had to use the rest room between rounds and took a bit longer than might be expected.  As I exited the rest room, here comes the director.  “Your opponent was worried about you,” he said.  Can you believe that the director was actually headed to the men’s room to track me down in a stall?  I had to bite my tongue to avoid blurting out “my opponent doesn’t give a shit about me!”  (Shit being the operative word when you have the kind of GI problems that I do.). On second thought, I should have said, “Oh, sorry, director, I was busy jacking off!”  Grrrr!

I open my eyes and the chair across the table from me remains empty.  All around me, I hear tile bags being shaken and word scores being announced.  Here comes the director.

“Who’s your opponent?”  I tell him.  Then I fill him in on the details.  “She went to the rest room. She said she might be a little bit.”

The director starts my opponent’s clock and tells me to neutralize it when she shows up.  About a minute later, she does.  Here comes the director.

It’s not like she should have been surprised.  The rule about starting your clock if you’re late was posted in the tournament flyer.  “Didn’t you tell him I was in the rest room?” asks my opponent accusingly the moment Mr. Director leaves the table.  I tell her I did.  “Why didn’t you tell him I’d be a while?”  Now she’s just sounding whiny.  I assure her that I relayed the message and that, as far as I’m concerned, she can take as long a rest room break as she likes.  I don’t tell her that I’ve been there.

Phoenix, about 7 or 8 years ago.  Same director.  I was having a particularly bad GI day and ended up stuck in the rest room between games.  The director started the clock in my absence; upon my return, I found myself left with just ten minutes to play a 25-minute game.  I was so angry that I rushed through the game on pure adrenaline, practically throwing my tiles onto the board the moment my opponent hit the clock.  I won, too, to the surprise of the elderly gentleman from L.A. sitting across the table from me.

I thought of this recently while watching World Cup speed skating from Stavanger, Norway on TV.  The announcer described the demeanor of one of the Dutch competitors as one of “barely suppressed rage.”  Uh-huh, I thought.  I get it.  The secret I know is that its application is not limited to physical pursuits.  I’ve seen how it works with mental ones, too.

But here, at the Grand Canyon, I know that losing just one minute off the clock would have little effect on my first-place opponent.  What did not occur to me until later is that having the director start your clock in your absence presents a psychological disadvantage.  It may not have been a serious psych-out in this case, but I do think my opponent’s nerves were rattled.  I kept the major bingo lanes shut down and generally played in a more defensive style, having been schooled in spades in the previous game.  My opponent is behind and begins grasping at straws.  She plunks down the phony OUTWRINGS, which I promptly challenge off.  I managed to pull off a win.

I head back to the rest room while waiting for the pairings for the final match of the tournament to be posted.  The loo is disgusting, as always.  A lot of these guys seem to have chosen Scrabble over archery as their chosen pastime simply because they can’t shoot straight.  I step my shoes into a puddle of sticky pee as I approach the urinal.  I see guys turn around and walk out as soon as they finish their business.  “Wash your hands, pig!” is what I’m thinking.  Some of my fellow Scrabblers don’t appear to be fully socialized.  I wonder if they have mama issues.

In the playing room, there is a hubbub of conversation as we wait.  There is talk of flights and airports and shuttles.  I mention that we drove all the way from northern California and had a tire blow out on Interstate 40 in the middle of the desert.  “You’re hardcore!” opines one of my fellow players.  I roll my eyes, but I guess I am.  A lot of us move heaven and earth and spend thousands of dollars per year just to play this silly game.

Someone alludes to “the incident.”  The word the director used in telling us about it during the pre-games announcement that morning.

If you’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, you may not appreciate just how remote a location it is.  This place is truly in the middle of nowhere.  I suppose that helps to preserve its natural beauty.  But for those of us who have no interest in camping and who generally prefer to experience the great outdoors through works of spectacular photography, the nine-building Maswik Lodge is just a bit out of our comfort zones.  My wife’s attitude has understandably deteriorated from mildly annoyed to frustrated to truly pissed off in the last three days.  She can work from wherever we are (have laptop, will travel), but depends upon having a reliable internet connection at all times.  Unfortunately, the connectivity up here is a joke.  Uploads and downloads proceed at a snail’s pace.  Email sent first thing in the morning doesn’t arrive until evening.  My wife’s work is backed up as it is, and she is about ready to tear her hair out.  “If you come to a tournament here again, you’re going by yourself!” she informs me.

It doesn’t help that the food here, well, just plain sucks.  Served cafeteria style, you take a tray and walk around to the various food stations.  As a vegan, I have the privilege of standing in one line for a baked potato, in another for some black beans, and in a third for a Tepa burger on a gluten-free bun.  By the time you make it to the cashier’s station, most of your food is cold.  Visitors get to pay premium prices for the privilege of queuing up like cattle for cold food.  And then they don’t even get your order right.  “This is the weirdest looking veggie burger I have ever seen,” is my first thought upon applying mustard to a grey-looking patty that strikes me as what airline food must look like in a Communist country.  I take one bite and spit it out.  Let’s just say that the taste of dead animal flesh is unmistakable.  I get up and look for a manager, who is already fumbling his way through an apology to another dissatisfied customer.  When it’s my turn, he explains that he’s been having a lot of problems with his interns from Thailand.  Apparently, they don’t know the difference between a Tepa burger and a turkey burger.  Then the manager is summoned to the table next to mine to take a complaint from one of my fellow Scrabble players.  She had ordered a Cuban and was served a Reuben.  Not that there’s a language barrier or anything.

And then there is the cold.  And the dark.  At around 7,000 feet in elevation, it gets bloody cold here in the November night.  Granted, it’s not exactly sunny and 75 in northern California this time of year, but temps down in the 20s are a bit out of our league.  The slightest breeze carries a bitter bite that chills you right through.  As for the darkness, the dozens of miles between the park and the nearest city lights render the nights pitch black.  Walking down the road from the main building to one’s accommodations, you can barely see the hand in front of your face.   We use the flashlight function on our iPhones to see where to step.  Others, however, are not so lucky.  I suppose disaster was inevitable.  Two Scrabblers, walking back to their rooms in the thick blackness.  One woman misses the curb and falls.  Her face gets pretty scraped up.  Her companion bends down to help her, and she falls, too.  Breaks her collar bone.  Has to be airlifted out to a hospital in Flagstaff.  The director tells us he will visit our unfortunate colleague in the hospital on his way home to Phoenix.

Back at my table, the discussion turns to the pluralization of “vowel twos” (2-letter words consisting solely of vowels) — which words take an S and which don’t.  Ae?  No, it’s an interjection, an exclamation.  Ai?  Yes, it’s a three-toed sloth.  Oi?  No, another interjection (although I know from playing online that ois is perfectly acceptable in the Collins dictionary, used by Scrabble players in most of the world outside the U.S. and Canada).  What about oe?  Does it take an S?  “Yes,” I immediately chime in.  “It’s a bird.”  I detect a dirty look shot in my direction.  “From New Zealand,” I add, authoritatively.  A fellow player seems pleased, declaring that she will henceforth think of a bird whene’er she sees the word oe plunked on the board, and will know that it can be pluralized.

“No!” cries the player seated next to me.  “It’s a wind!”  She jumps up and runs to her travel bag in the corner to rummage for her Scrabble dictionary.  Bird or wind, we’ve already established that it takes an S.  But her mission is to prove that she’s right and I’m wrong.

She plops back down beside me and riffles the pages, seeking the letter O listings.  Oe, she shows me, “a Faeroese whirlwind.”  That smug look of victory.

“I stand corrected,” I mumble sheepishly, wondering where on earth I got the idea that an oe is a Kiwi ornithological species.

The final game gets underway and I am desperate to win.  I must be in second place after winning the last game, I figure.  A victory here could put me in first place and net me a $500 prize.  I play defensively again, hoping it pans out just like before.  Between the two of us, we manage to block most of the bingo lanes and effectively shut down the board.  Neither of us is able to get off a bingo in this low-scoring game.  But my opponent is able to lay down QUITS for 61 points, handing her the win.

I am sorely disappointed, my first-place dreams dashed.  I try to console myself by thinking that I can probably still take third.  Someone had borrowed my clock, and I track it down after the score slip is turned in.  I pack up my stuff and walk out into the vestibule to take a look at the leader board.  Games are still going on, so I know that what is posted represents the state of the tournament after the penultimate game, not the final.  The director has drawn a line across the chart below the sixth-place player, to indicate that the money winners lie above that line.  My name appears below that line.  In estimating my standing, I didn’t take into account the predation done to my spread in the first game of the day.

I am totally disgusted.  I buttonhole the director to thank him for a great tournament and beg off the award ceremony, pleading a very long drive home ahead of me.  I grab the handle on my heavy Scrabble bag and pull it through the lobby and out to the curb, where I lean against a wall.  I take in the bracing air as I text my wife to tell her I’m done.  She tells me she’s in the cafeteria having a sandwich and asks me to join her.  But I don’t want to go back in there.  No way.  When I am upset, I cry.  So I ask my wife to come on out whenever she’s done.  A few minutes later, she shows up with half a sandwich and fries in a Styrofoam take-out container.  We walk to the car and then head south, out of the park, stopping in Tusayan, the first town, for me to stuff my face with baked potatoes, care of the drive-through at Wendy’s.

After a 12-hour drive home, the next day I look up oe in each of the dictionaries in my collection.  It takes me a while to find it.

First, I consult my trusty Webster’s New Collegiate with the red cover, a sentimental favorite of mine despite its age.  My parents gave it to me around the time I started high school, and today it has a place of honor on my desk at work.  Nothing.  I then check my employer’s standard, the American Heritage.  Still nothing.  I suppose oe was deemed a sufficiently esoteric word that it didn’t make the cut in the editing process.

I check my gigantic Random House Webster’s Unabridged, where I do find oe listed — as an interjection meaning “oy.”  Well, that’s surely not going to take an S!  Next, I go to my Chambers, my British dictionary.  OE is listed as an abbreviation for Old English, but that’s it.  What am I to make of this phantom word that has somehow made its way into the Scrabble dictionary?  It’s a bird!  It’s a wind!  It’s Superman!  Uh, it doesn’t exist?

Finally, I reach for the last dictionary on my bookshelf, Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed., 1997).  And lo and behold, there it is, oe in all its glory.  It is indeed a Faeroese whirlwind.

I feel stupid, but not as stupid as I do the following day when the tournament results are posted online.  Apparently, I ended up in seventh place, just out of the money.  However, the woman in sixth place won a $200 cash prize for finishing highest above seed.  Due to a rule that players can’t win more than one cash prize, the sixth place award went to the seventh place finisher, yours truly.

And then I feel stupider still when, two days later, my winnings arrive in the mail in the form of a check for $150.  The attached note states that it is for “highest place finisher in the lower half.”  The director asks that I email him to let him know that the check arrived.

I do so.  I don’t mention that I didn’t finish in the lower half.

Elk

We were surprised to encounter an elk at the side of the road at Desert View, near the east entrance to Grand Canyon National Park.

The Scrabble Zone

The 2017 Great American Escape

SPRINGFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS

It is difficult to adequately explain the intensity of a five-day Scrabble tournament to one who has never experienced it.  Yes, it is a grind to play seven or eight games per day for days in a row.  And you can’t help but notice the yawns and drooping expressions on the faces of the competitors when the last round of the day is underway and it’s close to 6 p.m.  But we always come back for more, spending thousands of dollars and our precious annual vacation time to fly and drive around the country to do it again.  As one of my opponents here at Word Cup 7 explains, “it’s like heroin to the vein.”

Merry Scrabble addicts all are we, counting the days until the next tournament, eagerly anticipating the next fix.

Scrabble truly is an all-ages game, as is borne out by the wide range of players here.  Over the last few days, for example, I have been soundly trounced by a boy who is on his summer vacation after having finished seventh grade, as well as by a very old lady who has to be close to age 90.  The boy, who has won prize after prize here, tells me that he practices with his mom’s boyfriend.  Then he kills me by over 150 points.  The old lady tells me that winning or losing doesn’t much matter to her and that she’s just glad to still be here and able to play.  Then she puts her word prowess on display and proceeds to beat me to pieces.

And we come from all over.  The tournament director drove here from Iowa, while the Minneapolis-St. Paul area is well represented by a contingent that traveled from Minnesota.  There are players here from Arizona and Florida and Oregon.  I am one of five Californians who made it out to New England for this event.

The local newspaper and TV station show up with cameras to shoot video and stills and interview some of the players.  The mayor sends a representative with a proclamation.  It is a big deal locally.

Many of my fellow Scrabblers have never been to Springfield before, but to me it is something of a homecoming.  I lived here for three years while attending law school back in the 1980s.  I am pleased to discover that a few of the eateries that I so enjoyed back then are still around and thriving decades later, serving new generations of students.

In many respects, however, it makes no difference what city we’re in when we are caught up in the excitement of the game.  When we shake hands and shake our tile bags, announce our scores and hit our clocks, it’s as if we’re lost in another world.

“Hey, did you hear that Trump fired Scaramucci after eleven days?” one of my fellow players announces between games.  Indeed, I had not.  Accustomed as I am to reading three or four newspapers online each day, I suspend my usual habits when attending a Scrabble tournament.  For here, under the crystal chandeliers in the grand ballroom of a big hotel, the world goes away for a while.  All that matters is finding that next big play for 90 points, chasing after the elusive triple-triple and notching up another win on our tally sheets.

We have entered the Scrabble zone.

 

Road Trip, Here We Come!

The 2017 Great American Escape

Here we go merrily driving across this great nation of ours once again, with the goal of seeing the USA on the way to the Word Cup Scrabble Tournament in Springfield, Massachusetts. On last summer’s trip to the east coast, we headed straight east on Interstate 80 as far as Iowa, then took a right turn to dip down into the Southland.  This time, however, we are taking a northerly route that will enable us to visit Montana, the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Among the places we plan to visit are Mount Rushmore, the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame and Niagara Falls.  After that, I get to indulge in six lovely days of Scrabble competition.

So what have I been doing to prepare for this trip?  Aside from mapping out an itinerary, not much.  Although we’ve planned this vacation for at least six months, it seems to have crept up on us.  It was months away, and now it’s here.

I have been doing some planning for the Scrabble tournament, however.  This involves reviewing familiar word lists and memorizing some new ones.  I am seeded eighth in a division of 23, which means I am going to have some work to do to prevent losing to lower-rated players, with my rating suffering accordingly.  Here’s hoping I draw good racks and that my memory of prime bingos does not fail me.  It’s an uphill battle for an old guy like me competing against these young whipper-snappers with memories like steel traps.

My wife and I recently took a taste of road life during my two business trips to southern California over the past three weeks.  So now we’re ready to do it for real and burn up the interstates.  Ride along with us as we share our adventures in traversing the continent.

Ventura

San Buenaventura Beach, Ventura CA

 

Cilia Than You Can Imagine

BERKELEY

It’s amazing the things that stick with you from your schooldays.  I remember seventh grade science as a horror for many reasons.  Among them were the fact that my mother was teaching more or less the same curriculum in another school a few miles away, the fact that my mother had worked with my teacher and knew him quite well, the fact that my teacher was a mean old so-and-so, the fact that I came close to having a nervous breakdown that year, and the fact that I had no interest at all in the subject matter and never bothered studying for the class.  Science just wasn’t my thing.  In that regard, I favored my father, the English major, far more than my mother, the biologist.

Accordingly, I am shocked that I still remember the unicellular microorganisms that we learned about in that class, more than 45 years ago.  There was the amoeba, pretty much the basic model, just a blob with a nucleus.  Never mind that drinking the water in Mexico could introduce a few million of those critters into your system, resulting in the ghastliest case of Montezuma’s revenge imaginable.

Then there was the euglena, which has a whiplike tail called a flagellum that it uses for locomotion.  And finally, there was the paramecium that contained all kinds of anatomical structures that I never could remember.  The only ones that have stuck with me are the vacuole and the weird hairlike structures, the cilia, that surround the organism on all sides.

I found myself thinking back to seventh grade science class while attending a Scrabble tournament in the Bay Area this past weekend.  Allow me to start by saying that Leesa is truly the hostess with the mostess.  This was the fourth tournament that I have attended at her home in Berkeley in 2017.  Most of the tournaments that she hosts are one-day events on Sundays.  For the Memorial Day holiday, however, she held a two-day event followed by a “late bird” on Monday.  Although I did not attend the extra Monday session, I learned quite a bit over the weekend.

By the way, “vacuole” is a seven-letter word, a rack-clearing “bingo” that nets the player an additional 50 points.  But it was those paramecium hairs that have gotten me into some interesting spots during games lately.  Keep in mind that “cilia” is a valuable “vowel dump” in that it allows a player to clear two Is and an A off his or her rack.

So last weekend, I played in a one-day tournament in San José (a six-hour round-trip, thanks to traffic on Interstate 680), where I was paired with host John Karris for the final game.  The guy is good.  He grabbed a blank out of the bag late and bingoed out with “ciliates.”  I assume those are critters that, like our hairy friend the paramecium, are blessed with cilia.  Then, in Berkeley this past weekend, I had plunked down “cilia,” whereupon my esteemed opponent attempted to bingo by hooking an S to my play.  Challenge!  Off the board it went.

I guess it pays to know your Latin.  “Cilia” is already a plural and, hence, does not take an S.  The singular, in case you’re interested in such trivia, is “cilium.”  After I won that challenge, my opponent sheepishly admitted that she had erred, that “cilia” actually takes an E hook (“ciliae”).  No!  It doesn’t!  Granted, adding an E to the end of certain nouns is a way to make them plural in Latin.  And while “ciliae” has a certain ring to it, it comes back down to the concept that one cannot pluralize a word that is already a plural.

I was not so lucky when it came to other plays.  One of my opponents started our game right off with a bingo, “beetier.”  I thought it plausible, so accepted it and struggled to make headway against my opponent’s 72-point lead.  Just call me stupid right now, shall we?  Let’s just say that there are a lot of words with “-ier” suffixes that are permissible in Scrabble.  Among my favorites (although not a bingo) is “eelier,” which gets rid of three Es and and I.

If a particular comestible tasting of grapes can be “grapy,” “grapier” or “grapiest,” why can’t a food tasting of beets be “beety,” “beetier” or “beetiest?”  To make things worse, some veggies and fruits only take you half the way.  Does that taste like onions to you?  The Scrabble dictionary says it’s definitely “oniony,” but cannot be “onionier” or “onioniest.”  Oh, you think that’s bad?  Well, what’s good for the goose apparently is not good for the gander, at least when it comes to garlic.  Forget the onions and grab yourself a K, as the Scrabble dictionary allows “garlicky,” “garlickier” and “garlickiest.”

These things seem more than a little arbitrary, don’t you think?  When it comes to citrus fruits, for example, you’re in the clear when it comes to the superlatives of “orange,” “lemon” or “lime.”  My favorite grapefruit is feeling left out of the citrus pantheon.

But that’s quite okay.  I’d probably have to tear my hair out if one of my opponents were to try to extend the word “grapefruit” into the 14-letter phony “grapefruitiest.”