Matt Hopkins Stole My Wordplay!

December 26, 2003


With 22 games between the early bird and the main event, Parsippany would be my best hope for cracking 1600 in the next three weeks, are at least coming close enough to play in the top division in Atlanta or Bayside and pull myself up. So I deferred some other activities and set out to review fours, fives, 7-letter stems, OUT- words, OVER- words, RE- words, -ER words, -ING words, and high-probability 7s. Unfortunately, things just kept getting in the way, and I didn't end up studying nearly as much as I had hoped.

On Wednesday I received an invitation to Christmas dinner with my cousins in Ashburn, VA. They have always treated me kindly, and I didn't feel right declining in favor of studying and club. The morning was occupied rephotographing a selected set of Starbucks in the greater Philly area. Because nearly all Starbucks are closed on Christmas, that day presents a once-a-year opportunity to photograph stores without the cars and people that would otherwise be present. So I tried to sneak in word review here and there throughout the day and night.

Still, I felt stronger going into Friday's early bird than I had going into recent tournaments. I had determined that I only needed to win one game in the top division in order to gain points, but it was completely out of my control whether I would even out the top division, or whether other players would enter and bump me down to divison 2 for sure. I contemplated sending an evil leprechaun to Rich's house to "persuade" him to align the divisions in my favor, but I decided just to let fate run its course.

It turned out all right, because a few more higher-ranked players entered, making me 5 out of 6, and well-positioned to gain points if I could just pull myself out of my slump.

First Blood

I drew first blood before the early bird had even started. As I tried to remove a spoon from a plastic wrapper, my hand slipped and I actually opened a half-inch slit on my middle finger, and I started bleeding! How in the world...!? It seems that, just like Pink, I'm a hazard to myself. Would that I were as cute.

After relatively easy game against Mike Ecsedy during which I got to play cool words like PTErINS, WEALD, GROSZ, and MINCY, I came up against Tom Kelly. I maintained a lead throughout but never pulled too far away--he answered my bingo with his own, and then I screwed up and focused too much on a triple line he had opened with a G at N1. I played HAGS for 36 points, but I had a G in my rack could have played the same word at 11O, hooking the S, for 45. Those extra 9 points plus the points he would not have gotten for his play, HORN, could have meant the game. I failed to consider the entire board.

I recovered my stride, however, and outbabinated the Babinator. Towards the end of the game he took a 2-point lead, and then I came back with three bingos in a row, LEGgiESt/L, INTERTIAL/I, and finally TINKERED through the E he had just played. That must have really sucked for him. I know it sure did when it happened to me in Farmington.

Against Diana Spiller I busted out BORNITE, from the STONIER stem (minus the S) to take a lead for the first time in the game, and then as she was catching up I used my blank for the 44-point TROoZ, which I had just learned, to ensure a victory.

I jumped to an early lead against Ember Nelson with the 51-point WINK/OW/BI/PIN/YAK. Then she bingoed and began to outscore me and catch up, and it ended up 332-333. She began a recount, and when we found she lost two points for 330, she abandoned it and let me have the win.

And blam! I finally placed again after months of trying, and in five games I had recovered the ratings points I had lost in my last three tournaments combined.

I stepped out to grab some dinner and coffee before the main event, and as I drove towards Denville, a report on the news stated that New Jersey had passed, or was considering, a law targeting those who drove recklessly due to insufficient sleep. Guess they must have found out I had been living in the state.

I returned to the playing room to find it empty. I know I'm often late, but I couldn't have been that late! Then another player told me we had moved to another room. After some wandering around I found it, and I was pleased to see that it was huge! It looked like all or most of use would have tables to ourselves. No booty-bumping necessary this weekend (a disappointment for some people I'm sure).

Q Squared

I didn't have long to enjoy my victory, as I was blown away in the first game of the main even by Maurice Decanio, and playing with my full 25 minutes didn't help. After he exchanged on his opening turn, I said "oh crap", and I was right. After I played my GANEFS, he played ESCOTED, and then the unfun began. I hooked my TENDRIL to the E, setting him up for a killer ELF/FORKY for 51. TRINDLED would have avoided the counterplay, but I've no idea when I'll get to that word. My T was still in the triple-triple column, but the best I could do was VETS for 33, so I opted for DEMY/DE/ED for 37 instead, opening up another triple line and hoping I'd get one of the two. Sure, I got it, with PEAVY for 39, but only because Maurice found JALOUsIE for 78, and then JOLTS for 39, and it was going downhill fast. It was the kind of game in which, just as I drew the Q and had a play, he blocked it. So I exchanged it, and then once more later in the game, and in the end he played PICQUET (non-bingo). Yay!

More Q fun in the second game as I passed it away twice only to get stuck with it in the end. And I was actually starting to think I could pull it out, after Rebecca Soble opened with WOW, I passed my INRRVVX, and she played TOFFEES to lead by 95. TERRInE and the subsequent ZEST got me within 15, but then she got down EUCAINES and the race was on again. I passed the Q again and drew SALTIE+E, and I then I did something truly amazing. I placed an E at G13, and E at I13, and a T at G15!!! When Rebecca yelled challenge, I stared at the words thinking she had gone nuts. It wasn't until she explained to the word judge what I had done that I realized my mistake, and my jaw dropped. Yea, verily was I inventing new ways to lose games.

Allow me to spit. A respite in spite of mistakes I admit. I spritzed Stephen Schwitzer but I almost lost it. I let LIA* go due to playing less carely. Then after he bingoed I eked out just barely.

I evened up against Roberta Borenstein, but I had to take a few risks. I got away with the phoney FOILER* for 39 after her REMIXEs, and later I had to throw WAVIEST out there despite not being sure if TORC took an S. She got a 45-point counterplay, though, PACK and we were evened up. But after I drew the second blank for aSSUMING the rest of the game went my way.

After week after week of starting off several games behind, I was relieved to end the first day at even. By contrast, when I arrived on the east coast, I would have been grumbling about a 2-2 record.

Movin' on Up

I had planned to drive the 50 miles to back to Princeton, but fate decided to throw me a bone. A room already paid for, non-refundable, was going unused, and Rich was kind enough to offer to me, thinking I'd be sleeping in my car. At first I replied that it wasn't necessary, since I had a room back in Princeton, but I quickly changed my mind and decided there was no good reason to sacrifice two hours of sleep, gas, and mileage on the car.

The room was the picture of opulence! Finally, a piece of the pie, as they say. The beds had no fewer than five pillows apiece. The bathroom, in sharp contrast to many cheap motels I have known, had more towels than I could possibly stuff down my pants. Instead of soap there was a "luxury bath bar". I finally got a piece of the pie!

Since I had planned to return to Princeton, I had not brought extra undergarments. I had resigned myself to being funky the next day when I hit upon a brilliant solution. I could simply wash my socks and underwear! Though the Sheraton looked like a medieval castle, I imagined myself down by the river in the old west as I scrubbed my unmentionables in the sink. I hung them up and hoped they would be dry in the morning so I wouldn't have to Scrabble commando-style. Of course this meant I had to sleep in the nude. Having grown up accustomed to wearing pajamas, I felt kinda kinky sleeping buck naked, imaging myself like Hugh Hefner in his mansion, sans all the bunnies.

December 27

Reading Too Much Into It

Nothing really special about the Denville Diner, but it was nearby, and not one of those big corporate chains I dislike. Breakfast was so-so, but what was more interesting was the way this black guy kept looking at me. He arrived at the restaurant with three white women, and I didn't notice him until I got up to pay. His eyes seemed to follow me whereever I went. I wondered if he was trying to recognize me from TV, or if it was some kind of primal competitive instinct to defend his harem. But I don't want to read too much into it.

Across the street at Starbucks, my efforts to find love online were being frustrated by the same spotty Wi Fi reception I had experienced the previous night. Still, I managed to send out a reply to an ad, and a few minutes later as I pulled into the Sheraton parking lot I received a phone call from a lady who sounded pleasant enough and seemed to be interested in this competitive Scrabble thing (or was just good a feigning). I had to break away from our conversation to play my first game, and left to wonder for the remainder of the day if she would decide that a competitive Scrabble player was a little too kooky for her.

A Mediocre Morning

Game five against Glenn Filzer was an unusual one. He opens with GIMP, I play QAID, and then he exchanges. I try to tighten it up, but he hooks ASTERIA. At least I forced him to open the triple line, and I get down KOALA, but then he plays COLLARS. Thankfully I also draw a natural, CARRIED, and now I'm only down 35. Three bingos and both blanks unseen. He plays WAX, and I play COZ, and now all the high-point tiles are gone too. With my knowledge of fours and fives, I think I have an advantage on this bingo-unfriendly board, but for the next six turns all I can draw is one-point tiles. Furthermore, Glenn gave himself away by trying to hook sNORTED to JUN, so I had to keep to tight. In retrospect, I should have immediately exchanged all my tiles to try and draw intermediates, eses, or the second blank. I succeeded in preventing him from bingoing, even with both blanks, but I just couldn't draw enough intermediate-point tiles to win.

A got a rare killer draw in game six against a sniffling and feverish Heidi Kujac. I won by 180, but around 70 of those points could have swung the other way during a critical moment. After Heidi finally got a bingo down, GRANTERS, I held for a few seconds and then responded with KOTH*. She held, and I tried to run through the list of KO- words in my head, and suddenly I realized where I had seen it. On CGP, and on tournament flyers! My heart pounded, but thankfully she let it go. I was reminded of Stefan Fatsis's anecdote about SUBOTIC*.

I got screwed in my seventh by an opponent who had outdrawn me during our last meeting, and who further had only won game. I hate losing to a player who is doing poorly. But I'll keep hiser name confidential to avoid getting CGP all stirred up.

Two Words--Planned Parenthood

I stepped out for lunch and coffee, and at the Macaroni Grill some excitement broke when, an energetic little rugrat got loose and had his father chasing him around the restaurant.

Back at the Sheraton, I looked at the results board and saw nobody was running away with the tournament. There was still hope to place. I overheard a player mention that she just wanted to feel like she played well, that she wasn't one of those ratings-obsessed people. I had to wonder if it was an intentional indirect reference to me. Nah--I'm sure nobody in our tight-knit Scrabble community would intentionally try to slight another player.

In my tenth game, I finally, after three tries, beat a player who had begun to haunt my nightmares, so often did she beat me. In fact, I dare say that I was almost as consumed with beaten her as with reaching 1600 and fostering world peace.

I had just won three games in a row and was now 5-4. I really wanted the last game of the night so I could pull 2 games ahead of even. But that final game was one of those examples of how playing well just isn't enough in Scrabble. What bugs me the most is that while I was playing words like KIRN, BUBO, ROAN, and YECHY, she was blowing me away with the likes of FIGHTERs and ERASION. But the most unkindest cut was when she played QuALES. I was pretty sure it was phony and challenged it off, but I didn't get to enjoy the moment because the play included the last of remaining power tiles. Unless she created an opening for me or just fell asleep and failed to block whatever opening I might create, there were no bingo lines other than one for a word ending in Y. So with about around 25 or more tiles in the bag, I knew the game was over. At that point I didn't even want to play anymore, but like trooper, or sucker, I played it out and managed to come within 10 points after she exchanged the Q. Had I just drawn that Q to go with my U, I might still have won, but of course she got it back and played for 22, and that was it.

That loss was particularly frustrating, as are all the losses that come just when I start to regain my hope.

At some point it occurred to me to wonder if Rich's explanation about the free room was just made up, and that the truth was that players had been complaining about my funky smell from sleeping in my car and pitched in to get me a room.

December 28


At SamIAm Bagels in Denville, I was disappointed that the menu did not include green eggs, but I quickly forgave them when I saw the cook cracking open a real egg for my bagel sandwich! As I left, I spotted the division leader in line. I quickly hatched a plan and offered one of the employees, who looked like he could use a few extra bucks, some cash to spike Stephen's bagel with the liquid laxative that I always keep handy. I didn't want to really hurt the guy--I'm not that evil. Just to keep him in the bathroom for a while.

Ups and Downs

Balance was restored as I evened out against Glenn Filzer. I took an early lead with AERONAuT, a play I was proud of because, of the several available bingos, it was the one that hit the triple, and I had just recently seen the word on a list of top 1000 7s. Glenn came back a couple of turns later with a bingo of his own, and I had to fight to maintain my lead.

By contrast, I drew exceptionally well against my next opponent and beat him so badly that after the game he said this would be his last tournament for a while. I hope he wasn't serious, because I kinda like the guy, and in general I'd like more people to get into Scrabble, not drop out. I did in fact draw well, but I also made some clever moves, demonstrating some strategic (or tactical?) progress. I chose INFESTER over SNIFTER hoping to draw a challenge, and it worked. Later, when he left COZ hanging next to the triple line, I correctly anticipated that he had the Y and used my blank to play BOyO. I only scored 38, but I deprived him of a big play, 33 points at minimum.

Between rounds, I gave the division leader the once over and asked him how he was feeling. But he looked fine, not at all sickly like I had hoped, and he said he felt just fine, and probably wondered why I was asking. Geez--if you want something done right.... Still, I saw on the tally board outside that he dropped a game, which meant I could definitely challenge him for second. First was not out of reach, if Maurice lost a game or two, but I'd be very happy with second.

Q: What do you call the girl that puts the results up on the tally board?
A: The tally ho!

So basically I was feeling pretty strong yet anxious going into my next game, another rematch, and against a player who makes me wince whenever I see her. After passing my opening BYYLVG (and some other consonant) I got crappy draws through the entire game. My only bingo probable racks were AEIUDLR (UREDIAL) and later, NNTENSE (needed an I, not three Ns). Things could have turned out differently if I had challenged PIGNOLE*, but I just couldn't risk blowing a 53-point X play that kept me in the lead. But after her SnEaKED, I just had nothing to work with. To add insult to injury, my opponent commented, just as she had during our first game, that I played well. I don't know if she realizes how irritating that remark is, because playing well and losing is worse that playing poorly and losing.

So I had my lunch break to think about what a critical game I had been screwed out of. Winning that game would have likely meant a chance to get a rematch against Maurice and challenge him for first. I beat the guy in Shelton after arriving late with only half the time remaining on my clock, so I knew if I got a decent draw I could beat him again. But at 8-6 I might not even get the chance to play him again.

I witness some drama at another table as a player is late, and Rich wants to start her clock. But her opponent, a club-mate, protests profusely and doesn't want to do it. But Rich, the Iron Fist of Order, lays down the law and starts her clock, explaining to the opponent that this player has a habit of being late, and to defer the blame for starting to clock to Rich, so he won't ruffle feathers with his friend.

All hope is gone after lunch as I'm outblanked again, but in a worse way. Just like the last game, I have to exchange my opening rack, DFGLLTR. Somehow I manage to screw up the exchange and dump my tiles in the bag first. Joel says "Tough luck!". I pay for my mistake with an equally crappy draw. Meanwhile, Ember exchanged all of 1 tile from her first rack and drew into INCITES. I tried for a while to figure out which tile she exchanged. After that bingo she draws EROSION, and later a blank for HOaRDING, and the game is pretty much over.

From a hopeful position to completely out of it in two miserable games. Jeez.

I beat Lou Sabin, but just barely, and despite myself. Towards the end of the game, he came within 17 points with NAtURES, a bingo I suspected would come along the last remaining bingo line that I had wanted to block but couldn't figure out how. I was left with DUKINGE, and I had let myself get so low in time that I couldn't work out an end game that guaranteed a win. I rarely get in time trouble, but I was really starting to fear I wouldn't be able to ditch my K before running out of time. I found DUKED and Lou could only come within 3 points with his out play, but it was scary. I think I got a little too complacent with my lead there.

In a final twist of fate, I got my rematch with Maurice after all, but only because he was Gibsonized and I was out of contention for a cash prize. I exchanged my opening AELLNRT and drew OUTEARN. Then I missed the bingos in AAECPS? and played off the CAPE (to avoid getting stuck with two Es) and drew into SOLARIa (missing the more obvious SAILORs). I had a healthy lead, but later Maurice started to catch up as I futzed around with SATINE+O, A, and S and nothing but an E to play through. I missed ETESIANS, played off the S for 23, drew a U, and then Maurice took a chance. I could see it in his face that he was debating whether to take the risk for the points, or perhaps rack balance because he might have been holding the second blank. He went ahead and played YIP, giving me the hook for SINUATE, and that was the game.

10-7, definitely enough for a ratings boost, but with the posted ratings now three weeks old, and knowing that many of my opponents had played in Shelton and Philadelphia, I doubted the online ratings calculator would give me an accurate result. This posed a dilemma, because knowing my exact rating and the ratings of my potential opponents would affect my decision to spend the money to play in Rome. Some players think that we should play for the fun and experience and not worry about the ratings, but I can get plenty of practice in Jersey without spending a couple of hundred. The only reason to do that is to achieve a specific ratings goal within a time period.

More Confessional