A Blank Is Terrible Thing to Waste

April 16, 2004


Not long after arriving at work on Monday morning my thoughts turned to the upcoming weekend's tournament in Saratoga Springs. I noticed the NSA web site did not include pertinent information like where and when, so Googled and found the web site for the event. I noticed that director Gary Moss maintained a list of entrants, and I further noticed that I was #13 in the top group. This was immediately worrisome, because, with several day to go before registration closed, I was sure to be bumped to the top of the second group. If additional entries did not push me towards the bottom of that division, it would be very risky to even play.

I was on the edge of my seat in anticipation as I e-mailed Gary on Thursday to see if I was still in the top group. He replied affirmative, but added that 7.5 hours remained before registration closed. Anything could happen.

I didn't want to be a pest, so on Friday I held off contacting Gary again. I hated the thought of having to pull a Kantimathi, so it was with trepidation that I set out that afternoon. I left quite early, at 3:30, to visit several new Starbucks...

My detour ended about thirty minutes after closing in front of a Starbucks in Brighton, NY (outside Rochester). The Starbucks had T-Mobile, so I got online and double-checked the location of the tournament, and Gary's phone #, and the phone # for the Saratoga Arts Council (the tournament venue). I sent Gary an e-mail letting him know I might be late, and I planned to call in the morning.

I backtracked to the Wegmans just down Monroe Ave. As I approached, I asked a girl exiting with about three cases of Bud Light if they were closed. She said they were open, to my relief. I figured she was going to have a heck of a party. My headache was now in full force, and my nose was really dripping, so I was going to have a cocktail of my own, consisting of Nyquil (generic substitute) caplets and Tylenol Sinus (generic substitute) pills.

I retired to the back of the parking lot to try and get as much sleep as possible before morning. It was just past 12:00 AM, and if I slept the whole time I could get almost 6 1/2 hours. But that was easier said than done. Despite having forgotten the foam cushion, I was comfortable enough to fall asleep, but I just couldn't. I guess it was the combination of pills, plus maybe anxiety about the tournament, because soon my body started tingling. The door to dreamland remained locked to me.

I lay there for almost an hour, from about 12:15 to 1:09, trying to drift off, before finally having to return to the Wegmans. During that time, all sorts of things kept running through my mind, like another cool character name, "Groovy McFluffin'", and Cappadonna's lyrics from track 10 of the classic Only Built for Cuban Linx, and the beginning of a They Might Be Giants song about how you are getting older and time still marches on.

I bought some daytime cold medication and some chapstick at Wegmans so as not to arouse suspicion. This was the third time I'd entered, and each time there had been one or more employees sitting on benches just inside the entrance. I was sure they wouldn't care even if they did see me go in, use the restroom, and come back out without a purchase. Would you? At 1:00 in the morning? But why take chances. Plus, I look rather clown-like and conspicuous in my red plaid pajama bottoms, dark blue/green plaid pajama top only partly buttoned, white t-shirt underneath, and black t-shirt under that.

I returned to the small portion of the parking lot I'd staked out and tried once more to sleep. I managed to reangle the car so the parking lot light wasn't hitting me right in the face. I lay in "bed" for about 25 minutes completely unable to fall asleep and feeling more and more awake. At least the fake Benadryl had kicked in and my nose was almost clear. Would that I could have said the same about my mind. "Your's not the boss of me now." "Shake like the faggots in daytime." Should I abandon the Starbucks and just start driving towards Saratoga Springs? I need to get some fucking sleep. I wish that fucking Starbucks didn't open so fucking late in the morning. I need to get a voice recorder. Not that it was important. I need to get a CD player for the car so I could excise some of these lyrics from my mind by playing the song. I didn't have any They Might Be Giants. I could go park outside Starbucks and download the song probably. I was going to be so tired all the next day. It must have been the "big sleep" that I had Thursday evening, for the better part of 14 hours. "Donna dumb deaf and blind." Fly beats but homophobic lyrics Miles Davis beat his women. A million things kept running through my mind, when I really needed to clear my mind and get to sleep.

Back into Wegmans. Apple yo. Learn QUINCE, a word I had learned and played two weeks prior, is a fruit. 2:00 AM now. Decide to get head start by gassing up. Hess POS unavailable. Citgo pumps stopped. Dead cat in road. Inbound on Monroe seeking gas. Monroe inside I-490 night life. People pouring out of bars. No-name gas station pumps don't take credit card no bathrooms. Heavy traffic and pedestrians. Further inbound on Monroe to I-490 fasther way back to Wegmans restroom and water. Never was sure if Joe, another contractor at Siemens, called it a "bile break" or a "bowel break", but in my case it was definitely "bowel". 2:27. Title of Dr. Dre track "Xxxplosive". Oh shit this is serious need restroom!

Closest call ever. American Pie scene. Turn briefs pajamas inside out to make sure. Felt sorry for anybody who had to clean that toilet. In this 21st century no one should have to clean toilets. That's what the robots are for. Should have bought some Charmin to take into the toilet. Maybe that's why I couldn't fall asleep? Can bowels move while asleep? Looked at the inside-out pants and wondered why not just wear them like that all the time. Because that would look stupid, that's why. Look what became of Kriss-Kross. Thought I had been overcharged for Chapstick but it was really the candy underneath that was 79 cents. 2:51.

April 17

Timepoints (Tens of Thousands of Google Results)

I found a darker park of the parking lot in front of the Barnes & Noble, and I finally managed to fall asleep. At 5:48 I went back to the Wegmans and decided I could finally buy some yogurt (to avoid melting), plus some bread and juice and an energy bar. 5:57 back into to the car to try and sleep, leaving juice and yogurt outside the windshield. At 6:09 I awoke again. At 6:12 I wondered if it was worth trying to get more sleep. At 6:19 I finally got up and head over to the Starbucks. Two customers pulled up, tried the door, and looked annoyed as they left. I used the time to take a photograph. At 6:28 or 6:29 I tried the door. Still locked. A partner saw me and opened the door. Thankfully I remember to get a spoon and some water along with the DoubleShot, though I almost left my wallet in the bathroom.

At 6:33 I left the Starbucks, with 226 miles to go. I still had to go back down Monroe (route 31) to the other store and take a photo. At 6:42 I headed out to the Thruway. At 6:48 I got on the Thruway, and I had 221 miles to drive still. At mile 343.6 I spotted a trooper heading westbound. 90.5 had some good, alternative, wake-up music. Shortly before Syracuse I picked up a white compact "hatuchi", a car going so fast that I felt safe pacing it at a good distance, maybe 1/8 - 1/4 mile. At mile 271, in the rearview, I spotted another trooper, and I slowed down and let the hatuchi go on ahead. The trooper eventually caught up and passed me, and then the hatuchi, and we were all slowed down for miles and miles until he exited. Once the trooper exited I tried to keep it about 80 MPH, like as if I would blow up if my speed dropped below, like in that movie.

Just past 9:00 AM I exited the thruway onto I-890. Upon reviewing the route the mapping program had plotted, I noticed it was taking me several miles out of the way to a further exit of I-890. I ignored the map, which only listed exits 4C, 4C, 4C, and 4C. I took exit 4B which put me right on Erie Blvd, and then on SR-5 across the famous Erie Canal to pick up SR-50 towards Saratoga Springs. Not quite 9:15, and 21 miles to go, but I couldn't expect to make the same kind of time as on the thruway. Not that I didn't try.

About 9:40 when I pulled into town, and then another few minutes to double-back to the Saratoga County Arts Council building that I had, of course, passed up, and to park, and then to sprint up the street and into the building, and then a good long time to relieve the pressure that had been building up in my bladder over the last three hours. I spotted Gary at the end of the hall. I entered and he pointed me to my first opponent, Rod McNeil, who had already stopped my clock. 3 minutes 36 seconds gone. But I had ended up in Division A after all. At the very bottom. Yes!

A Grand Opportunity

Rod offered me some time to unwind, but I was amped and got into it right away. Well, not really. I was never really in it at all. Heck, I fully expected to lose to Rod, who had won his division in Boston. But I hoped for more of a chance. I started off okay, able to score with the Q and then the Z. But everything went downhill after that. I had a choice of 34 points for BIZ or ZINGER for 32. BIZ did not offer a counterplay. I considered ZINGER as a way of blocking the possible MAUVER*. But I knew Rod would bingo eventually, and I needed to rack up points without giving back points. And Rod had just exchange 6--what were the odds of his drawing into a bingo. So I took BIZ. And Rod drew his bingo, FIERIER. Hooked to MAUVER*. Seemed perfectly good to me. Shame on you, Rod, for taking advantage of a hapless novice! I was afforded no more opportunities, and I scored no more than 26 points for the remaining turns. I even lost a challenge erroneously, though I would not realize this 'til after the tournament. My one bright moment was playing REPUGN, which I had seen just the previous day while browsing sixes.

I beat Anita Rackham, but it was an ugly, ugly game on a tight board that came down to amusing chuckles on both sides of the board as we each scored a few points here and there to end up a mere six points apart. The most interesting thing, to me, about the game, is that I threw my opening AEGQSV? into Maven, and after 4000 4-ply iterations it prefers VEG, with my QuAGS second. One of the experts told me Maven could be valuble if used right after games. This makes sense, but I feel like I'm missing something without an explanation for why Maven favors a certain play. Unlike chess, in which the number of reasonable openings is small and can be memorized, this is impossible for Scrabble. So what I need to understand the reasons why certain plays are better, so that when I get similar racks I can make similarly better moves.

I got a killer draw against Lydia Keras, and it was a good thing, because I was crashing hard. I could barely think. When I found NEONAtE and paralleled it along her JUTE, I called out a T but wrote down an N. Fortunately I had not yet hit my clock, and Lydia was sporting enough to alert me to the error. And yay, Maven likes my opening play of VEX, leaving AFIQ! But boo, Maven sucks up my processor power like a mother. Can't run a simulation and do much besides type.

The tournament venue was the Saratoga County Arts Council. It was almost directly across the intersection from the Saratoga Springs Starbucks, making it the best tournament venue I've seen yet! Restaurants, too, were within walking distance. However, since the street parking had a 2-hour limit, I had to move the car during lunch, and again after two games. I hoped that parking enforcement wouldn't consider the same car moved from spot to spot to be a violation.

I order a burger from the Stadium Cafe to take to the Starbucks. I don't usually tip for take-out, but the waitress discovered they had forgotten the cheese before delivering my order, so I figured it was worth a buck. Or maybe the amazing rack she was sporting dazed and confused me into thinking I was in a different kind of bar.

At the Starbucks I got online and worked out that 8 games, as unlikely as that was, would gain me a new peak rating. Starting off 2-1, I was feeling pretty hopeful that I'd easily win my minimum of four games and go on to win several more. I couldn't even conceive of the disaster that was to come. In order to improve my chances, I deferred the writing I've typically been doing during breaks and opted instead for word study. Fat lot of good that ended up doing me.

Driving So Far North Only to So Quickly Head South

After our game, Mark Miller told me that "I know it's no consolation, but I drew everything I possibly could." I was proud of myself for resisting the urge to remind him that he had done the same in our last game. Or maybe it wasn't self control. Maybe I was too tired to respond.

I was completely outdrawn in my next game, too, but this time with the addition of annoying sound effects. Nothing complements an unmerciful ass-pounding like idiotic verbaculations. At least Mark Miller played his bingos and kept quiet. But what was most annoying was her shoving the sheet denoting the blank in my face. Yes, I know you just bingoed with the blank--I don't need it shoved in my face to boot. If this continued, I was going to run out of Preparation H.

I got a break against #4 Tim Anglin. Clueless about what to do with my AAEFIKU, I threw caution to the window and played KAF, fully expecting to draw into an all-vowel rack, but hoping for better. I got better. ABUSIVE. I drew crap EEIINOO, but that crap turned into 21 points when Tim put the D on the triple line. Then I got sLEUTHS, and later ArANEID. Then I drew into the natural ROTATES, but I could not play it, so I tried ROSETTA*. Tim challenged it off, but then I saw TOASTER, and two places to play it. Four bingos!!! It was the first time I had ever played four bingos in a game. Had I not been so tired I would have been more excited. After the game Tim commented about how I did not challenged his SCUNNERS. I replied I had not basis to challenge, as I had not gotten anywhere near that word. Earlier, I had taken a look at Mark's PISMIRE/LOUIES, and decided to challenge. But Mark is a couple of hundred points under Tim, and I was kinda hoping LOUIE was an adjective like OORIE.

Oh, I really blew my game against #2 Bernard Gotlieb. After the game, he admitted that he had been playing poorly, and that was what would have allowed me to win. He played too many tiles with NOVICE and drew the Q and was going to be stuck with it. But I did not realize this, because I had just bingoed managed to fit NURSINg along SO/ID/NE/gAT to come within 30, and drawn the Z, X, and S to boot. I was so busy trying to figure out how to set up a power play with those tiles that I didn't realize how few tiles remained, and that I risked being stuck with the Z. I played IF for 5 to set up SAX, but of course Bernard blocked it, as I should have expected. I should have taken more points. Actually, I should have gone ahead and played that Z. Because as it turned out, he got stuck with the Q, but I got stuck with the Z, and I lost by thirteen.

I was not thrilled about 3-4, nor was I devastated. I fully expected to pick up at least two more games against the weaker players I'd be facing in the morning.

My oversized burger from earlier turned into dinner too, which was good, because I was beyond exhausted and in a mood to neither hunt nor gather. I ate as I made my way south to the Clifton Park service area. As I pulled in I was instantly put on edge by the presence of a patrol car. Reflex. Fortunately, it was only parked there. Inside the building I heard French, which made sense, given my proximity to Montreal. Speaking of Montreal, it was a tempting destination, with its looser morals, but I really wanted many more games and pick up more ratings points, and I hoped additional sleep and study would help.

The Secret Life of Codgers

After six hours of sleep I felt restless. I found 91.1 on the dial. The reception was spotty, but the station was playing some funky hip-hop. A pair of DJs calling themselves the "crunk allergists" played some real hip-hop including Wu-Tang--always a good sign--and then went into thirty minutes of Big Pun, the only Puerto Rican rapper to make it big (prior to his death). I parked in front of the Clifton Park Starbucks and tried to figure out which station it was. My best guess was a college station out of Potsdam, NY, but since the DJs, to my irritation, never identified the station, I couldn't be sure. As I drove towards Schenectady (a town with funk built into its name), I lost the station.

I took a lightning tour of several strip clubs, spending no more than a few minutes in each, at all. These were true dives, and the only redeeming element was the amusement I got from watching the patrons and dancers alike huddled outside for their fix on account of the smoking prohibition. I spotted a few bars on State Street and decided to try something completely different. I decided I'd pick some bar and try to charm some lucky young lady with my Scrabbling prowess. Ginger's Ten-Ten Bar had an appealing name, so I chose it. As I walked up the stairs, I had fantasies of some cute patron, or perhaps a waitress, being impressed by my diligence and intrigued by competitive Scrabble enough to invite me back to her place for a game and shots of Cuervo. The reality, however, was disappointing, yet a the same time amusing.

If there was a patron younger than fifty in the bar, she was only just barely younger, and definitely small-town anyway. No, many of these ladies were easily over sixty. Ordinarily I would have been thrilled by the female-to-male ratio. But that night I opted to hide behind a wall and hope nobody winked at me. The waitress was surly and insisted that I looked nothing like my driver's license photo. Karaoke was the attraction of the night--I never understood its appeal. I ordered my second drink in three weeks, though I guess one could argue that a Smirnoff Ice is not really a drink--at least not a real man's drink. But I'd done my dances with Jagermeister and tequila in the past, and I had nothing to prove.

With no cute girls to distract me, I was able to focus on my studies quite well. But "She Bang" started up, I could no longer contain myself and started chuckling as several of the ladies packed the tiny dance floor to the voice of a gentleman who was not nearly in William Hung's league. When the music stopped, things got even wacker as the oldest of the ladies, easily over 70, started repeating "She Bang, She Bang" over and over in a throaty voice. This caused her friend to repeatedly burst out in paroxyms of laughter loud enough to pierce through the music. I couldn't help it--I had to laugh. It was just too funny. But that wasn't all--the old lady then started getting racy, talking about who was getting in the sack with whom, and what they were doing there. This was not what I wanted to hear from ladies old enough to be my grandmother. I tried to shift my focus back to my words and find my happy place.

Upon leaving the bar, back down State Street, a rabbit ran across the road. I swerved left to try and miss it but it did a quick 180 and ran underneath my tires. Ouch! I was sad for all of two seconds, and then I figured I had done rabbitdom a favor by removing those bad instincts from the gene pool.

April 18

A Grrr Morning

I got up early enough to stop by Uncommon Grounds for a bagel sandwich. I perceived unfriendliness from the staff and wondered if it had to do with my Starbucks shirt, and the effect of the Starbucks right down the street. The juice was supposedly fresh and squeezed downstairs, but it tasted nothing like juice I've seen squeezed right in front of me. The sandwich was mediocre, yet filling--I was able to save half for lunch.

When I sat down at the Starbucks at a table next to a power outlet, the couple next to me got up and moved to another table. Did I smell that bad?

As I walked across the street to the Arts Council building, the sun had come out, and it looked to be another beautiful day to be spent cooped up inside playing Scrabble. I wondered if any directors out there organized outdoor Scrabble tournaments.

In my first game of the day, to add insult to injury, after drawing three naturals, not from rack balance, but merely from luck, to win by 135, my eighth opponent told me that next time I should draw the blanks spaced out, not together. Gee, ya think? That goes high up on my list of most annoying post-game remarks ever. I'm sure he realized I would have bingoed sooner if he hadn't kept taking the lines I was opening. But for all my bitching and moaning, I probably would have won the game if I had challenged off his PARTERS*, which would have allowed me to play my bingo in its place. Rod came up to me after the game and told me it was phony, and I knew I had blown yet another win.

No stupid mistakes in game nine, except having sat down at the table to play against a player I just can't draw well against. Why didn't I feign illness? This was the fourth game of the tournament where I had gotten blown out with no hope, although I discount the one against MacNeil--he probably would have won anyway. But when a player with a 2-6 record blows me out, pushing me to what is probably my worst spread ever, -675, that really hurts.

Meanwhile, Gary kept on announcing special round prizes. A nice touch, I suppose, but I cared about little else that trying to get some more wins. And now that I'd lost to the two weakest players of the day, I expected it to only get harder. I'd be lucky to win one more. Five was looking hopeless, and six or seven--no way.

Not a blowout, game ten. Just that she beat me to the bingo to take a small lead, and then my racks were consistenly worse that hers, affording me no chance to catch up. I only wonder about two things. Whether I should have exchanged sooner and given up the 31, 29, and 20 points I scored before finally throwing the Q back in. And why Maven doesn't even list playing my opening BIRTH at 4H instead of 8H, giving up the two points to avoid BIRTHING and any other extensions (BIRTHDAY).

During lunch I forced myself to continue working on 2001-3000 sevens, even though all hope of a significant ratings gain was gone. I kept thinking about how it seemed like my opponents were getting all these easy bingos, while my opportunities were limited to harder ones like ODoNATE. So I made a list...



...and I had to admit that there weren't as many list bingos in there as I thought. So I had to throw that theory out the window and try to come up with other reasons for why I was losing.

Outside Uncommon Grounds, where I had lunch, a cute girl had an orangish cat perched on her right shoulder. She walked on, still carrying the cat. That's one pampered, lazy cat, I thought. It's going to get fat. And then I wondered if I had ever seen a cat on a leash. Do people walk cats?


At the Starbucks, when I request my short coffee, the barista told me they only sold talls, grandes, and vintes. So I pulled out the receipt from a few hours earlier showing that I had purchased a short at that very location. BUSTED! And then I proceeded to lecture him on how I had been on the phone with Starbucks a few weeks earlier and confirmed that shorts were still supposed to be sold on demand, and how they apologized and sent me free drink coupons and told me they were looking into it. I think I might have scared him a little, with the intensity and irritation I was projecting, a carryover from my tournament performance no doubt.

I was greatly relieved to win my fourth game, against Linda Espallardo. I'd at least pick up a handful of ratings points. I longed to win one more game, but since I'd be facing #5 and #3, that didn't seem too likely. I had my chances in two of my earlier games, and I blew it.

"Roll Over." "Play Dead." "Good Boy!"

No chance at all against John Morse, bringing my blowout total to five and a spread of -808.

The smallest ray of hope against Steve Oliger, when I played DEVOURER/E a turn after his BeASTIE to come within 20. But I had nothing after that, not even the will to continue. Later, as I ran the game through my head, I would conclude that I basically rolled over and played dead to his phonies.

So there it was, my best chance for a significant ratings gain in many tournaments, blown completely. I called Betty McDaniel and registered for the Berlin tournament. I had hoped to be able to skip it and focus on Stamford, but I need to keep trying to gain even a few points.

The weather had been quite warm, and on the drive home I could smell the effects of two days sans shower. But I didn't smell that bad, really. And I decided that this was a smell people could get used to. And if we all cut down on the showering, we could save a lot of water. Another cause for me to champion when I finally went to prison and had plenty of free time.

After the new Starbucks in Yonkers and two new Manhattan stores, I saw a rather offbeat independent Irish film, Intermission. It starred one of my current favorite actors, Colin Farrell. Now, I'm completely confident in my heterosexuality, but if I had any leanings in the other direction, I'd definitely have the hots for the rougish Colin Farrell, one of Hollywood's current bad boy.

I've seen other players post to CGP analyses of how many power tiles they drew during a tournament, and, despite my own complaining, I've thought this pretty much a waste of time. Nevertheless, as I drive back to Princeton I could not help but look back at my scoresheets. Turns out I had drawn 11 of 26 blanks--not a great disadvantage. But of 11, I was only able to bingo with six of them. For the other five it was too late too bingo, or the playable bingos were words I had not learned yet. Does this mean I was less lucky during this tournament? Perhaps. But what is a fact that I could have won three more games had I not made specific readily identifiable mistakes, and this makes it hard to blame it on the tiles.

As I drove back to Princeton and continue to reflect on the tournament, I was hit with the realization that FEWS*, Steve's hook for LONGEST, was probably no good. I had been through my custom list of 4s many times, and I had the 3s that unexpectedly take an S, like BIGS and WONS, on that list. I was sure I had most of the (not in my vocabulary) FE- words down--FEAL, FECK, FEOD, FERE, FEME, FESS, and FETA. Had I run through that list during the game, I would have been 95% sure that FEWS* was not on there. But at the moment that Steve played LONGEST, my mind went blank. Quite literally, the thought of challenging did not even enter my mind. I can only conclude that, after 12 games and only 4 wins, I was demoralized, perhaps in shell-shock. I definitely didn't give my all in that game. What's funny is that I bet 99% of players, even sub-1000 novices, would have challenged FEWS*. Anybody who hadn't studied the fours as much as I had would have been dubious of the word. So what happened at that critical moment?

Steve got another phony past me, DISAVERS*, but by that time, with no tiles left for me to draw and no real opportunity to bingo, I had truly lost all heart. I did consider whether the word was good, but I guess I didn't even want to expend the energy to think about it. I just wanted the torture over with.

Later still, I remember that I had asked another player for advice on how to beat any of the 1700+ players I'd be facing. He specifically told me that Steve might try phonies. As the tournament approached, I specifically made a mental note to be on guard for phonies when I played Steve. And maybe if I had faced him first I would have remembered. But by that 13th game I had completely forgotten.

All that talk about how if I could just get myself into that upper division, I could show 'em a thing or two. Well, I showed 'em all right. I showed 'em how a wet paper bag plays Scrabble. What a waste.

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