Attack of the Killer Flies

July, 2003


I departed the Reno tournament with mixed feelings. I felt that if there was any cosmic justice, my studying had to be rewardeded. I was itching for a chance to redeem myself, but at the same time I felt no desire whatsoever to play any Scrabble outside of a tournament. As I headed down to California, I had lists of all the local clubs, but I didn't even bother to look, because I felt that if the game wasn't in a tournament, it didn't count, and therefor didn't matter. That whole thing about how Scrabble is a game that one is supposed to enjoy didn't even enter my mind. I wondered how long it would take to get the love back, or if it would happen at all.

I played a couple of games at the Tucson club, and it wasn't so bad. By the time I returned to Houston a few days later and Sunday club rolled around, I was kind of enjoying the game. Not to the same degree as pre-Reno, because I found that the three club games were enough. I used to stick around and play one or two more games, but I was now shifting away from wanting to play so much to wanting to study more.

I soon began to anticipate the Houston tournament. The seven weeks between Reno and Houston were the longest I had gone without playing a tournament since my first in January, and I was going nuts from the frustration of not being able to afford to travel to a tournament sooner. I felt that I was better than my performance at Reno would indicate, and the sooner I could prove it, the better.

I could not bear to look at a word list in the weeks after Reno. It took me a while to clear my mind and remember that studying does pay off, even if Reno was not indicative of that fact. So I set some goals. I wanted to review the intermediate and high-point tile 5s I had already learned and learning as many of the others as I could. This means writing down a set of words, like all the Os, or all the LAs, enough times to be able to recall all or nearly all from memory. Of course, by the time the tournament rolls around, I start to forget many of those words, so 99% recall of the Ds in early late July drops to less than 50% recall by tournament time. This is unfortunate, but unavoidable for me, without spending even more time reviewing and reviewing, and if I do that I'll really start to hate the studying.

August 27


The days prior to the tournament were consumed with increasingly heavier studying, as much as I could bear without starting to hate it. For some reason I didn't mind memorizing lists of words, as long as I didn't take it too far.

On Wednesday I began reviewing my fours, and I tried something knew. I kept track of how many I missed out of my set of 1106 fours that either are not in my vocabulary or have not been cemented into my permanent memory through play. Around 20 percent. But the metric isn't wholly meaningful, because a portion of that percentage are words that I really do know, and would instantly recognized if played by my opponent or if I had the tiles on my rack. Not being able to recall them cold is not a requirement for Scrabble, but so far it's the only method I've come up with for studying the words. I keep trying to think of some computer program I can write that will give me a more accurate reading of how many words I know, but no good ideas come to mind. I also wondered how the 80% retention compared with other players in my division.

It occurred to me that it might be interesting to take the best players and test them to see how many words they can recall from scratch (with no tiles to aid them), and then correlate that with their tournament success. Or it might just be a meaningless statistic.

I took a break from studying on Wednesday to meet a few players at Borders for our regular informal session. I had intended to spend that time studying, but I figured that by playing, I could later blame Jan if I underperformed at the tournament. It's always a good idea to have excuses prepared beforehand.

August 29

I had planned on "early to bed, early to rise", but then I discovered that Batman would screen at a local independent movie house, the Landmark River Oaks 3, on Friday and Saturday at midnight. I was pretty sure I hadn't seen that movie since its release in 1989, when I saw it 6 1/2 times. I might have seen it once more on video before the sequel was released in 1992, in a rare exception to my rule of not seeing feature films on a small screen. And maybe once more during Warner Bros. 75th anniversary festival of classics in '98 or '99. In either case, it had been long enough, and I could not miss it. Since play would not start 'til noon on Saturday, but 9:30 on Sunday, it made sense to see the film Friday night.

And if I didn't win, I could blame it on Batman.

August 30

Beware the Evildoers

Because of Batman, I had to forgo an early rise and the recommended workout of the Day. I tried to sleep until the last possible moment, but anticipation got me out of bed earlier than I had hoped. I rushed from my parent's house on the southwest side to the DoubleTree to check-in so I could go get coffee. I was delayed by the doorman, who wanted to take the keys to the car I had left parked in front of the building. He said it was a security measure, but I can't figure out what it was supposed to prevent exactly. A bomb? Why would a terrorist enter the building he was about to bomb until he was strapped with explosives himself. Hmmm...

I had no choice but to hand over the keys so I could check-in, and then head back out to the Starbucks down the street for a much-need cup o' joe. I can't imagine starting a tournament without Starbucks, which is why I won't be playing Bozeman, MT, anytime soon. The nearest Starbucks is 350 miles away in Ketchum, ID, although the 400-mile drive to Spokane, WA, might be faster because it's on the interstate.

I finished making my list of 4s that don't take an S. I wouldn't have time to meet my goal of learning the list, but at least glancing at the list might make a difference in a game or two. I've read or heard somewhere that last-minute studying is ineffective, but I've had more than a few experiences to refute that, case in which I had a chance to play that word that just happened to stick in my mind from glancing at a list before the tournament, or in between rounds.

Not yet having completely turned into a soulless Scrabble-playing machine, I headed back to the hotel a few minutes early so I could see which of my Dallas mates had shown up and chat a bit. I had not seen Dallas regulars like Bruce, Richard, Pat, Mike and Michael, in 2 1/2 months since Mid-Cities. Though I first played at Judy's club in Houston, I immediately started working in Dallas and became part of the community up there. And unlike the competitive chess that I remember, Scrabble seems to have more of a community spirit.

It was suggested, in jest, I'm sure, by a player who apparently had read some of my log, that I might perform better (at Scrabble) if I stopped fixating on these women at tournaments. Yeah, like that's ever going to happen. Maybe when I settle down with someone, he replied. Yeah, like that's ever going to happen. I did a better job of focusing during this tournament, I think, perhaps in part because the one cute player had come to the tournament with her mother, and maybe even her father. Not only did the prescence of her mother make her seem younger than she clearly was, but it also served as a deterrent. Mothers can often sniff out a no-account worthless scoundrel, so as a general rule I avoid the parents.

The primary gaming room was smaller than I would have expected, and the smallest of all the tournaments I had attended thus far. It didn't really seemed cramped, though. And if you combine the two gaming rooms and the break rooms into one room, I'm sure it would have looked bigger. Still, since the room, as I understand it, ended up being free, thus freeing up money for the prize fund, there is little cause to complain. Except for the flies and the leak. More on this later.

A few of my buddies expressed surprise that I had not elected to play up to Division 2. But as I explained, after my disastrous performance in Arlington, I could not count on winning any money in the tougher field, and I would need to win money in order to justify making the trip to Albuquerque or Brownsville, TN.

Be Still My Beating Heart

Though I had been quite calm while chatting with the other players and waiting for the pairings, when I sat down with Laura Landsbaum for our first game, it was as if a switch had been flipped. All of a sudden I became nervous, as I often do at the start of the tournament, or critical games. I usually calm down once the game is in the progress, but my nervousness increased as the game progressed. Towards the end, I could feel my heart beating and my hands trembling.

I agreed with my first Laura Landsbaum that we played a good game. The draw was balanced, and it came down to word knowledge. She gambled that I wouldn't know that JUN does not take an S. But nine days earlier, at Minute Maid park, in between pitches as the Astros stomped the Cubs, I had been reviewing my 3s that don't take an S. So I challenged QUIDS/JUNS* off the board and that allowed me to go out first cost her the game, by 15 points. Whew!

Amusing Distraction

Shortly after I began my second game against Harvey Wilson, Richard Johnson, sitting at the board next to ours, accidentally drew two tiles to see who would start in his game against Pat Barrett. Neither player was sure of the proper procedure, so they called over one of the directors (and surprise guest star of the tournament), Stephen Fierros. Poor Stephen appeared flustered at this bizarre scenario, but pulling from the well of infinite wisdom available to all Scrabble directors, he decided that Pat should select which tile (face down) would go back in the bag.

Meanwhile, on a board nearer to me, Harvey played TETRADS, and my focus returned to the game that mattered. Blinded by the need to score, I layed down JEWING/YING*, but thankfully I took a moment before hitting my clock and it dawned on me that I was out of my mind thinking that YING* was good, after hundreds of games playing knowing that it's YIN. After all these games, how did I get confused? I got my points, however, with LOWERING/R, and I was pleased that of late I've been doing better at finding non-list bingos and eights, a critical skill for moving up into the intermediate and expert division. The bingo got me a 65-point lead, but with a blank and the Z unseen, the came could turn around. And it almost did. With the blank and Z and access to a TWS, Harvey almost caught up, but 42 points wouldn't do it and I preserved my win. There's nothing like the threat of a last-minute comeback to keep a player on edge.

Attack of the Killer Flies

During my third game against Virgie Wright the aforementioned flies became particularly annoying. Chris Cree and Iffy sitting next to us took the annoyance in stride--I guess that's another critical expert-level skill, to be able to ignore insectoid distractions. Virgie, however, was maddened by one particularly pesky bug and was determined to see its death. After several attempts, she proudly proclaimed that she got it! But in the midst of its death throes, the much-maligned fly called out to its brethren, and they took revenge on Virgie, tripping her as she went to dispose of the carcass. The fall was not serious--I suspect only her ego was bruised.

I can see where Virgie was coming from, though, as these flies were not the ordinary house flies that we have at home, but a larger, scarier variety with big orange eyes. I tried not to think about the dead fly though, because images of flies and cockroaches can trigger nausea in me.

Meanwhile, I was in the midst of my own battle, fighting back from a hefty deficit since her 98-point bingo on her third turn. With a bit of gambling my part that paid off, and a couple of surprising plays of hers that I challenged off (SENTS and JULIP), I was able to come within a point. The end-game was a close one, but I pulled it out by 12 points. I wondered if I should credit the fly for an assist.

Vengeance Thwarted Once More

I went into game 4 with both anticipation and trepidation. It was almost as important for me to finally beat an opponent who had beaten me three times in Arlington, and yet I feared that her magical streak of drawing luck would continue across tournament boundaries. The outcome was as I feared, and to add insult to injury she got away with the phony FORTED* and blocked the one bingo rack that I managed to get the entire game. I suppose I should be grateful that the spread didn't go over a hundred.

70 Games Later

During the course of some seventy games and four tournaments (plus early birds), I had been cursing my miserable drawing luck and wondering when it would start to balance out, as other players kept saying it inevitably does. Well, the tiles finally turned golden for me, against the unsuspecting Bill Huttel, at least for enough turns to make a difference.

I was so pleased with myself as I play CHAnGED for 84 points immediately after Bill exchanged on his opening turn. I pointed out the coincidence between his exchanging and my play, and I was thinking to myself, "oh, I'm so clever", when it hit me that by playing the H on the DLS to maximize my score, I had left open a couple of powerful counterplays, EXCHAnGED and UNCHAnGED. I was kicking myself and thinking that if I lost the game I would totally deserve it. I was lucky that Bill was not able to capitalize on my mistake, but it would still be a race to see who drew the extension first. I held and R and an E, and I thought of RECHAnGED, but I was unsure, so I did not play it. Since I held a U, I played off as many tiles as I could, hoping to draw the N, and I did. Bill was not able to take the spot, and so I on the next turn and beat Bill to the 45 points. But I still shudder to think about what could have happened had he had the E and the X. I am still mystified as to how I could have let that one get by me. Luck favored me once more, as I drew the second blank and was able to play immediately play it for one of many available bingos, MATAdOR, to lead by a whopping 190 points. I should point out that Bill was taking my luck in stride, much better than I would have dealt with the same situation.

Turns out I would need that lead, because those two blanks would be the best tiles I would draw until the end of the game. I scored in the 20s, while Bill scored in the 30s and 40s for most of the remainder of the game, and I was beginning to worry. Thankfully, we ran out of tiles before he was able to catch up, and one last bit of luck with a S and the Q netted me 44 points and a healthy spread. The game was bittersweet, however, because after ammasing 223 points in 4 turns, I had high hopes for a killer spread and perhaps a high-game prize--certainly I expected to reach 500. But I only ended up drawing 4 power tiles, and I could not build a rack amenable to a third bingo, so I ended up with a meagre 449.

After sinking to a spread of 61 after my fourth game, I was able to get my spread back up to a healthy 407 after my sixth game against Ruben Solis, picking up an uninterrupted 159 points on the last three turns when he challenged my CRAVEN (which I played instead of CRAVENs, which is good), I played PESTERs, and then he attempted InDIANS* which I challenged off to go out first. I had thought about playing INDIANS* in club a few weeks earlier and looked it up after the game. Before looking it up, I had thought it might be good.

I had hoped for an undefeated record, but I knew that wasn't realistic, so I was not disappointed with my 5-1 record after six games, and after those last two games got me back to a decent spread, I had high hopes for the following day.

Not having traveled for the tournament, I did not have to hunt around for food and a place to sleep, and so I was able to get a bit more studying done after much-needed nap. After eight tournaments during which I either slept on a couch or in my car, it felt strange to finally sleep in a bed.

August 30

The thing about sleeping in a car is that I have no desire to stay in bed once I've woken up. Conversely, when I sleep in a bed, "se me pegan las cobijas", and so I had to drag myself out of bed Sunday morning with just enough time to breakfast and stop for coffee before arriving at the DoubleTree.

The Calm Before the Storm

Though Bruce Shuman and I had attended many of the the same tournaments since January, and played many times in club, we had never played a tournament game, even during my short-lived Division 2 appearance in Arlington. Though he had his lucky pig, my lucky shirt was more powerful, and I was able to break through our back-and-forth battle of leads and find the decisive bingo first, LiFTERS. I had trouble finding that bingo, though. LoFTERS occured to me first, but I was unsure. It's on the OSTLER stem that I had downloaded a couple of days earlier but not yet learned. After the game, a several other bingos came to mind, FiLTERS and FaLTERS, and I groused at having allowed that rack to FLuSTER me so.

I had played Waheed Thompson during my first or session club session in Houston, and then again in the month prior to the tournament, and he had beaten me both times. So it was with a bit of fear, and nausesa, that I went into our game. Nausea because Waheed had killed a fly and then wipe it onto the floor. I would not feel secure until the fly was in the trash, so I carefully picked it up and dumped it into the bin. But looking at it triggered the nausea that I had feared, and I had to steady myself to avoid an "incident".Perhaps then it was for the best that a drop of water's landing on my scorecard distracted me from my anxiety. The roof was leaking, a reflection of the rain outside, or perhaps a precursor of the stormy games to come, and so we moved the table over. I told the directors about the leak and they replied that they had reported it. Boy, the DoubleTree sure seemed like a luxurious hotel from the outside, but flies and leaks have to give one pause. But I guess a future homeless person like me oughta start getting used to those minor inconveniences. Anyhow, it turned out to be a close game, with one bingo apiece, but I managed to win it by 46 points, exactly what I scored with SIZY, a word I had learned from my study of fours, and the only play at the time that scored well with the Z without giving a counterplay. Hurray for studying!

My record against my next opponent, Gertrude Savadge, was 1-1, and I knew that, besides being no slouch, she had the ability to play very quickly and put me under time pressure. But it wasn't time pressure, but stubbornness against sacrificing turns and valuable tiles, that caused me to make the critical mistake that, in all likelihood, cost me the game. I started off with a promising blank, but not the tiles to support it, EIKPUZ?. I played ZEK and drew IIPRUV?. No improvement, but I was able to dump the V with VIZIR to draw APSTUU?. At this point, I think I should have exchanged the UUP, but I instead went for the easy 22 points on the DWS with TAP, thinking that at least I was preventing Gertrude from using the spot. But all I did was give her more points, 32, on the next DWS up the diagonal, and use up some good tiles. So I guess I deserved the miserable JLNUUS? that I drew. At this point, I should have played ULUS/VIZIRS for 26 points. Besides the points and clearing out the worthless double Us, it would have opened a hook, SULUS. But instead I played the JIN for 12 points, and she play VIZIRS/EYES to make bingoing difficult on that side of the board. I finally decided to exchange the UUL, and I drew DDW to my NRS?. Remembering Ben Withers advice from a recent club meeting, I exchanged again and finally drew a more reasonable EEONRS?. I didn't see the common bingos, and had to wait one more turn to play SERMONs.

While I was futzing around to find a bingo rack and a hook, Gertrude was having a grand old time running up the score to the point that I would need more than a second bingo to catch up, and it was all over but the crying. I went into the lunch brain swearing to myself that next time I would exchange more quickly or dump those bad tiles even if I had to use an S.

Incident at 1702 Post Oak Boulevard

I was glad to have over an hour before the next game, because I needed to get out and clear my head. Sunshine would have been nice, but I guess I could have been thankful that the effects of the tropical storm were not worse. I had not polluted my veins with a greasy Chick-fil-a sandwich for a while, so I decided to satisfy my sudden craving when I realized that it was Sunday, and the (presumably) religious-minded Truett Cathy keeps his stores close on Sundays. So I did a 180 and decided on fruit and yogurt from the nearby EatZi's. I couldn't find the yogurt, so I settle on the closest nutritional equivalent, a cheese danish. I also spotted a brand of bottled tea I had not seen before, SweetLeaf. I decided to give it a try in the hopes that it would be as good as the TradeWinds brand I found in California. I sat outside to review some stems and took a bit of the danish. I swallowed and immediately felt this irritation in my throat and began to choke and cough. The momentary panic passed as I realized I could still breath, but the irritation persisted no matter how hard I coughed or how much tea I drank. The tea, by the way, was bland. Worse that Snapple and nothing like the heavenly TradeWinds. Try as I might, I couldn't get rid of whatever it was in my throat, and so I went inside and called for the manager, who had me fill out an incident report and refunded the money for the danish and the tea. My lunch hour wasted, I returned to the hotel and managed to eat the banana without difficulty. Once the 10th game began, I still feel something, but I ignored it as I focused on the game.

Another Chance

To my surprise, both the final two rounds of the tournament were paired King of the Hill, and so I had a chance to retake the lead from Gertrude. She surprised me in game 10 by playing more more slowly than usual, eventually going over time. Once again a drew a blank early and was still plagued by Us, but this time around I had the opportunity to get rid of them one by one and score some points. It took seven turns, however, to get a bingo rack, and by chance Gertrude opened up a spot for my ETESIAn. I had no trouble maintaining my lead, but unfortunately I was not able to use that second blank for another bingo--the board was just too tight, as Gertrude tends to keep it. That was too bad, because those spread points would turn out to be critical in the end.

Turnabout Yet Again

It was a forgone conclusion that Gertrude and I would play again, so it seemed pointless to have to wait for the parings, but procedure is procedure, I guess. This would be my first time playing an opponent three times in a row. I wasn't sure how I felt about that. I was sure that I would rather have played another opponent, as I didn't like my chances against Gertrude once more. I did the best I could, managed to even it up even after her early 102-point bingo, but I just couldn't find enough points at the end of the game to keep up, and I couldn't make effective use of the blank that I had drawn too late, and so she got me by 34.

So there it was. Second place, and nobody to blame but myself. The first time I won second place, in Ardmore, I was quite pleased, as I had only been competing for a little over three months. In Chicago, the division included plenty of players with ratings much higher than mine, and I was okay with losing first place to someone ranked a few hundred points above me. But this time around there I was fifth from the top, and I should have won. I was glad for the money I would need to compete in upcoming events, but I was disappointed at the same time. I thought back to my first major tournament, when I asked an expert how he had done and he said second place. I said that was pretty good, and he replied by kissing the wall, saying that's what it felt like. Now I think I understand how he felt, although I won't go around kissing any walls, on account of the germs and all. Don't wanna catch anthrax.

I did my best to smile when I went up for my prize, and then I scooted on out of there, in a hurry to eat and nap before a screening of Billy Wilder's The Apartment at the Museum of Arts. I was exhaused, though, and couldn't drag myself out of bed in time for the film, which is just as well. I would need every penny if I figured out a way to travel to Albuquerque or Brownsville, TN, or Atlanta for upcoming tournaments, and I was anxious to come in first as quickly as possible.

More Confessional