Last Chance in Dry Gulch (The End of the Road)

May 21, 2004

Anxiety, Distractions, and Other Bumps Along the Road to Piscataway

After a week of club, in Exton, Landsdowne, and Philadelphia, my last-chance pre-tournament practice #56 in Manhattan on Thursday night was rough--I lost my first game despite the fact that I challenged off two of my opponents phony bingos and racked up a good lead. His drawing the final blank, S, and X at the end allowed him to create a setup I couldn't block, for SEXPoT. Then in my final game my opponent again drew almost everything and bingoed four times to stomp me by about 250. Thus was my mood soured, and my turbulent dreams reflected this. In one dream one of my male rivals took on a different personality, becoming aggressive, and almost taunting me into a physical confrontation. The end result was that I awoke with great anxiety, not just about Scrabble, but about my big Starbucking project with a Washington Post Magazine reporter, and the prospects of media coverage the following Monday morning when a new Starbucks in Times Square would open.

I picked up Woody Chen in downtown Manhattan during rush hour, and Woody noted that it took us well over an hour to get to the other side of the Holland Tunnel. I didn't mind so much sitting in traffic, because I had plenty of words to study. I was, however frustrated by my inability to get into the correct lane to the tunnel, and I was diverted twice by an asshole cop who thought I was trying to sneak along in the bus lane, when I was really just lost, never having before faced the insanity that is trying to exit Manhattan during rush hour.

Still we made it to the Embassy Suites in Piscataway with over an hour to spare, giving me time to leave again and find a grocery store. While the "downshifting" of my metabolism to accept a much lower daily caloric intake for the summer was proceeding well, the morning bagel and the crappy turkey sandwich the reporter had bought me didn't seem like they were going to do it. I'd only spent 65 cents of my own money on food that day, so I felt comfortable investing in some fruit and yogurt.

I returned to hotel and found my way to the correct ballroom, and I immediately feared that a week's worth of preparation would be ruined by an unfortunate coincidence, that being the placement of the Scrabble tournament next to some 8th grade middle school dance. 8th grade means teenage, and teenage means trouble.

I asked Margaret how she could had scheduled our tournament next to this dance. Given my personal weaknesses when it comes to teenage girls, this was a disaster in the making. Poor club-mate Shane Tourtellotte, who had been bumped up to Divison 2 against his will, and without even a class prize to give him a chance at much-needed cash, asked me if I was planning on an encounter with the police later. Why not? It would only have been my fourth of the week. Still, I showed some self-control and parked myself on the far side of the ballroom, as far away as I could from the pull of that concentration of nubility, and I tried to lose myself in the music like Eminem.

I didn't even give the wall chart a second glance, because this was one of those tournaments in which the players are listed in alphabetical order, not by rating, which is just frustrating, because I had no idea how many people were above me in the field and didn't care to look up everybody's rating.

The Very Definition of Getting Lucky

I wanted so badly to finish my first night 3-0, and by all rights, even despite a couple of horrendous mistakes in the two games I did win, I should have done it. I worked incredibly hard in that last game to keep my opponent from bingoing, despite having to deal with miserable draws. After he spent about five minutes trying to find a bingo through the one line on the board, a V, I was sure he had a blank. When he started leaving triple lines open for himself, I knew he had it. After he gave up on the bingo and played NAOI, I actually held a no-go myself, RUNTIER. I went ahead and played the word through the I, for 8 points, in order to block the O and I he had just opened, and hoping to draw good stuff. I drew bad stuff--EIIOOSS. Then he opened a triple line with REB at 6L. Oh, crap. I was forced to burn both eses with SIS for 15 points. SEI would have saved an S, but left a greater chance of his bingoing off the I. Then he played ME at 14C, leaving himself an E hook. I was dying to exchange, but I had to block the line, and the best I could do with my EIOOOG? was GEM, once again leaving myself crap. Then he played REM at C13, leaving RE hanging next to the triple line. Too many hooks for the RE and the EME (SEME, DEME) to leave that hanging, so I tore my hair out once more and played off my third S for a so-so SO for 24 points and a IOOOT? leave. I was seriously pissed off by that point at the fact that I had drawn nothing but 1-point tiles, a G, and the blank for the past several turns, limiting my scoring potential as my opponent created beautiful openings.

The pain wasn't over. My opponent played off WIN for 6, and I could have used that opportunity to exchange, but with the only bingo lines being through the SIS, or hooking to RAY and EH, I decided to take some points, thinking that I finally just had to draw good consonats. So I played off OT at D12 to make a nice fit, VOTER/GO/RET for what I announced as 19, but in fact turns out to be 25 (not that it makes a difference now), and what did I draw into--AIIOOE? Aaaagh!!! Nothing but vowels, vowels, vowels!!! And just at that moment, my opponent played OF/FRAY at 5K, leaving a glaring bingo line to the O, and there was nothing I could do short of playing cOOF, burning my blank for 6 points. That was just too much to take, and I gave up and exchanged, drawing into another crappy rack, AUNLHX?. At least this one had comeback potential. But he didn't bingo, just playing PAD 4I, leaving a relatively safe bingo line, hooking to the PA. I was okay with scoring, and played WAX, thinking that with the UH I could score again with XU/UH. But he got down WAXY/YIN to take the lead. My rack was still ugly UHLNTV?, and I probably should have exchanged again, but I played LUNT at 3J to reduce that bingo hook to just an A ending and score some points.

Finally, after eight turns, my opponent gave up on bingoing with the blank and played aZALEA for 45. After my COZ, I was only down 33, and holding plenty of scoring potential, IOHLVW?, and with more time on my clock to my opponent's four minutes. I felt that I could definitely make up those 30 points and win it. And then the gates of hell broke wide open, and the only thing that could have saved him occurred, as he drew into that bingo ending in A, RETSINA. I had done everything I could to prevent him from bingoing, and through dumb luck he stumbles across one of the few bingos that would fit on the board. In fact he admitted as he played the bingo that he had gotten lucky. There was nothing I could have done--without an A I couldn't have blocked that line without the blank, and without the blank my chances to recover the 30 points would be reduced.

I was more upset and pissed off after that game than I could remember. I shook my opponent's hand, but I really just wanted to pound the wall behind me until it, or my hand, gave. I told him that he had no idea how badly I had wanted to end the night 3-0, and how hard I had been working for it, studying and practicing for hours every day all week long, on top of the weeks and weeks of increased study for the past month as I tried to qualify for Division 1.

I sat down to try to cleanse my mind of the disaster, and I overheard Kevin McCarthy asking another player, who was too tired, about a game. I don't usually play side games at tournament, getting enough at club, and preferring to write or study, but I needed to get my mind of that loss. If I was still pissed off the next morning, it was going to affect my other games.

One of the benefits of informal games, outside of club, or at a more relaxed club like Mitchell Brook's, is that I can run simulations as I playing the game. I find this to be very instructive, but also extremely humbling, as I get to see moments after I've made a play that I could have made a much better play. And puzzling, as sometimes I just don't understand Maven. It opens up triple lines way too much for my comfort.

I had to pass on a second game because it was past midnight, and I needed to get as much sleep as possible during the night, because once the sun came up it would be harder for me to sleep out there in the parking lot. At least I didn't have to drive far, because the hotel was miles from the heart of Piscataway, in more of an industrial area with office parks. I just drove across the street to the Fitness by Design building. I was a little concerned that the parking lot would fill up early in the morning with fitness buffs, but during the night it occurred to me that, the location being a bit far out, the building was probably company offices, not an actual gym.

I didn't fall asleep for quite a while. Besides wondering whether a cop was going to hassle me or not, what bugged me almost as much as that final loss was that, for the first time in a long, long, time, I had actually been enjoying myself at a Scrabble tournament. I had been having fun (gasp!), and that last game had completely ruined my jolly mood.

A Brief Taste of Fun

See, my first game had been quite a hoot. First of all, there was the steady stream of heavily base-laden music (including 90s favorites like "Baby Got Back" and "Ice, Ice Baby") easily pentrating the wall separating us from the dance. Then there was the dog that mysteriously appeared a few feet from my table before Matt Hopkins scooped him up. Then there was Frank Tangredi, who pretended he had a microphone and lip-synched to the music, much to the amusement of the other experts. I noticed all this, but I suspect my opponent did not, as she had other worries. See, she had read one of my journals, in which I revealed that I would make it a tradition of playing a phony against her. And I knew she knew, which gave me the opportunity to use this against her.

With a 40.4% blank percentage over the last six tournaments, I was amazed, and relieved, that my opponing rack actually contained a blank (gasp!) and and S. I saw an opportunity to win, and I was a little worried that playing the obligatory phony might cost me the win. I hoped to lead up to the phony with obscure words and maybe a couple of won challenges, and my plan worked. At my first bingo opportunity, I purposely picked SETLINe, hoping to draw the challenge. My opponent held, but let it go. Three turns later, I played HERRY. She held, and challenged, and lost. Then I played THARM. It had been played agaist me in club earlier in the week, but I had forgotten to look it up (gasp!), so I wasn't sure. But I associated it with THACK, from my studies, and so I was reasonably confident. She once again held, but let it go. Then she played off AN for 2, opening up a bingo line. I blocked the line with VODUN, and drew the challenge. At this point I was really having fun. I was having to suppressed an evil grin every time I played a funky word, and a beaming smile as I won the challenge. My next attempt to draw a challenge, though, was a horrible, horrible mistake. I was planning on finally playing my phony, OVORA*, when she played TA to open up a triple line. I couldn't let that go, and while I should have played VOE, starting thinking about drawing a challenge and playing off another vowel (from an AAEOORV) rack, and I played AVER. Awful, awful, awful, because with the right four tiles (and I was sure she had a blank), she could have had a non-bingo triple-triple. I started to worry, and I was desperate to block it without opening up a bingo line. But she hung an N on a triple line, and I had to deal with that, with GOON. Then she hung a G on another triple line, and I had to deal with that, with CORGI (hoping for the challenge). Finally she gave up and just used her blank for LEAVERs, for only 27, and I relaxed. With a 200-point lead, the game was over. I was even able to play my phony, AESU*, and she let it go because otherwise she risked getting stuck with the J if I went out. Now that's what I call a good time.

My second game of the night was tougher. By all rights I should have lost. After we trade natural bingos, her DONATES to my CAPTAINS, we proceeded to play a tight board. I created an opening with AROYNT, hoping to draw a challenge, and Mira Stulman was able to get her bingo down first, IMpOSED, while I held EIUNPR?. There was nothing through her I, and the only other spots were an O and Y through play through. INPOUREd would have done it, but I didn't know the word. Mira didn't lead by that much, though, so she tried to score with FIB and block that I line, and she immediately realized she had made a mistake as I played RIFE from the TWS for 29 to take the lead back, and I left myself that R to bingo from. And boom--REtINULA. And then I screwed up. I knew I could stick her with the Z, and I became so focused on optimizing my end-sequence, wondering if I should let her play ZIT for 24 so I could come back with RAZE or AZO for 42 or 36, using up 10 of my twelve remaining minutes, that I finally outsmarted myself. She played IRK, and I missed that she was setting herself up for ZIG. I could have easily blocked it with AI, I didn't even think about it. I played off an E, still trying to dink out, and my jaw dropped when she played ZIG to go out! Final score, my 407 to her 404, and I was praying I wouldn't lose it in a recount.

As I lay there in the back of my Civic, I was glad I had won two games, but I was shaken by the horrendous mistakes I had made, and I resolved to focus the next day. I finally managed to get to sleep, though Scrabble would consume my dreams.

May 22

Thus Endeth the Fun

As at previous tournaments, I had time for more sleep, but anxiety got me out of "bed" earlier than necessary. Scrabble had been in my dreams once again--I had drawn even on blanks in my first three games, and I hoped, like I had been stating all week, that I would draw significantly more than 50% to make up for the blank deficit (40%) I'd racked up over the previous six tournaments.

Because the day's games would not begin until 11:00, my anxiety had ample time to intensify as I sat in the New Brunswick Starbuck and digested the previous day's events.

It didn't take long for the blank bullshit to begin, as Sally Ricketts, just like in Corona, outdrew me, to score 64 with one blank bingo, 74 with another blank bingo, 36 with the Z, 41 with the Q, and 38 with the X to completely blow me out of the water on a completely open board on which I had not a single bingo opportunity despite three promising racks, AECMNST, AUCNPST, and EUCNPST. Despite consistent scoring and good leaves, the much-needed bingo never came.

Gloom and doom entered my mind early in my fourth encounter with The Evil Outdrawer. First XI, then GROWS, and then STARERS, which I should have known, but challenged. I'd been so busy studying non-stem high-prob bingos that I had neglected the stem bingos. I was in dire straits, and so I did something radical, for me. Instead of 20 points for REDID, hung the D in the triple column with RADIOED for the turnover, hoping to draw a blank (plus five extra points) or other power tile. For once, it worked--my opponent was only able to score 21 with DAY, and I drew QUINCEF. I had a mininum of 40 for QUENCH, 44 for QUINCE, but even better, I got QUEEN for 72 and was back in the game with a slight lead. I relaxed a bit when I drew one blank, and then a couple of turns later when I drew the other I felt that I had a chance. I found the bingo through the one open line, a D, RIDdLInG, and that sealed the game. My opponent was gracious enough to admit that I was due the tiles. But being the complainy complainer that I am, I was miffed that I hadn't been able to bingo separately with each blank, like Sally did to me. I kept that to myself though.

It Gets Worse

Just when I was starting to get ahead, at 5.5/2.5, the tile gods decide to remind me that I'm cursed as far as Scrabble goes. Immediately after the 82-point double-double LOAdERS, my opponent scored 93 for pREZ/BIZ. As if the game weren't already all but over, a couple of turns later he draws into PARTNERS/R and then immediately METTLES to bingo out for a whopping 209-point victory, and one of my fiercest and most brutal rapes to date, so much so that as he played out he admitted that the game wasn't even close to fair.

Even my great draw against Ann Raymond in our 8th-round rematch wasn't anywhere near that good, because she drew a blank and was able to get a bingo down with it. No, I hadn't had a draw like Robinsky's since the previous year's ArdenCup. And I don't think it's because I'm a worse player. I know the words, but I rarely get the easy killer plays with common words that my opponents seem to routinely get against me, and never all together in the same game.

So the afternoon turned out brutal. Except for the aforementioned rematch, all the others were tough. In my first game against Ann, she beat me to the first blank to take the last bingo line, and that last-minute blank was all but useless as I struggled for me to get my first tie ever out of it, and then only because she went over time. Heck, if I had had a scoring tile instead of a blank, I might have won.

And my game against Woody turned sour when I couldn't block the bingo line, and it was a nail-biter as I eked out a 2-point win because Woody missed GIRON, playing ION instead, and getting stuck with the R when I went out.

More Chaos

The only consolation for me was that my disastrous game so quick, only 12 fast turns, that we didn't have to deal with the night's fiasco. The tournament schedule ran head-first into a wedding, and shortly before 6:00 all players not yet finished had to neutralize their clocks and move into a different room. Many were pissed, and with good reason, because we had started so late, at 11:00.

Okay, I take it back. That wasn't really a consolation. Just like Friday night, the final game of the day soured my mood for the rest of the night. I debated about going to dinner with Mitch and Jeff, or maybe with Woody, but besides being on a budget I really need to sulk for a while.

It occurred to me that I hadn't seen Rob listed in too many tournament results. I figured that I had probably played hundreds more tournament games in the past year, and yet I had not gotten that kind of draw. How many had Rob played?

I headed up to Elizabeth for some cheap beans and rice, and then up to the Starbucks in Newark where I received an e-mail from an expert who told me I played like a "paranoid bunny" and scolded me for giving up so many points in that game where my primary concern was to keep my opponent from bingo. I agreed--I never should have played so defensively with my greater word knowledge. I never should have played for 8 points to block him from bingoing through an I, when I could have scored 21 and turned over 5 tiles elsewhere. I resolved to continue to be more aggressive, as I had done earlier in the day when I played RADIOED.

May 23

The night was free of strange Scrabble dreams. Some players made appearances, but there was no violence or double-blanking. There was a rack, however, which I was trying to anagram into an ANTI- word, and trying to decide if it took an S. I recently learned that roughly half of the ANTI- words do take an S. I've no idea how I'm going to sort them out.


At 5.5 wins, I wasn't that bad off, and after the first two games of the day I was in really good shape. First up was a rematch with Ember Nelson, who told me after the game that my strategy had improved since she say me play in Oshawa. Our game looked like it could go either way early on, with her playing the 42-point KITH after I bingoed with GARDEnED, having wisely spent the time required to find the best bingo placement. I then made a questionable decision to play the 24-point KEIR off the triple she had opened, passing up the 50-point AX play, on the theory that if she took that spot, I would score 48 anyway with MIXED. She didn't take the spot, scoring 62 with JOINT, and I got my X play, actually WAX for four extra points. From that point, I continued with the more aggressive style I had adopted the previous day, risking hanging the G on the triple line to score 30 with BEING. It worked out for as, she played elsewhere I got CRAG and extended my lead. The game was sealed when she hung FURAN next to the triple, and I, unsure of whether it took an S, decided to go for it and hooked VOLTES to win the challenge and the game.

I'd played Lorraine Burton, of Word Wars and Marlon fame, in Baltimore. She claimed I had played her in another tournament, but I couldn't remember which one. That bothered me, because it was another sign that I was getting old and losing my memory. She was outscoring me early in the game and building up a good lead, but I made headway when I played BLUB and she challenged. She commented that she should have known it was a trap, but it really wasn't. I simply had not even thought of BULB, because my mind gravitates towards the uncommon anagrams that are on my study lists, which exclude words already in my vocabulary. She began to outscore me again, but then I challenge off her AERIATE, and then I screwed up myself and tried TOCK*. Stupid. But when just she began to take a lead again by opening up the board with RIGOR to the TWS, I played TeRTIANS through the R, hoping to draw the challenge. I didn't, but with a good lead and a closed board, I proceeded to take control and seal the win.

Meanwhile, in the bathroom, the Kimberly-Clark brand toilet tissue dispensers dispensed the tissues like facial tissue out of a box, instead of a roll. I found this very annoying. I don't understand why some people feel the need to "improve" on something that works perfectly fine. If they really want to make a contribution, they should figure out a way to change the biology of humans so that we don't produce any solid waste.

During the break, another player mentioned that he had a microwave in his hotel room, and he let me use it to heat up the rest of my $5 wonder-meal. While there, I imposed further and borrowed his shower, as I was starting to feel pretty ripe. As I showered, I hoped that I was not washing off my word knowledge or jinxing myself.

A Watershed Moment

My two wins earned me third place, and a crack at Jim Kille. I was seriously worried. I felt I was the equal of everybody else in the division, except for Jim. I knew he had stronger word knowledge and better strategy, and the only way I would win was to catch a break. I caught a break. Thought it didn't look good at first, when he played JOUStING for 98 to take a 50-point lead. I dealt with crappy racks for most of the rest of the game, struggling to keep him from pulling beyond striking distance while achieving some sort of balance. Finally I got ALOETIC on my rack, but no place to play it, so I settled for the 36-point LOCATE instead and hoped for the best. The turnover got me the blank. I was worried when I couldn't play IRONIEs off the one bingo hook on the board, as we were running out tiles, but I decided that this was one time where fishing was in order, especially because playing off the I created another bingo hook, LARI. Almost any tile would have yielded a bingo, but I got lucky and drew an S, for a plethora of bingos. I expected a player of Jim's calibre to know all the stem bingos, but I threw sONSIER out there anyway, hooked to LARI. He challenged (because of LARIS), and that sealed the victory for me; otherwise it would have been close.

That win earned me the right to play Kille again. I truly did not expect to be able to win again, but I continued my aggressive, more wide-open ways, and I benefitted from them. But once again Jim got the early blank and bingo, and I risked a phony, URIDE*, for three extra points to cut his lead to 2 points. It remained close for the remainder of the game, and I had hope when I drew the second blank, but I began to worry as my racks looked nothing like a bingo and, once again, the tiles began to run out. Finally, after giving up on finding a bingo with my AEICRV? rack and playing off the AV, I was able to find DECRIaL to bingo out and win.

I was stunned that I had actually managed two beat Jim twice in a row, and without a killer draw either time. In fact, I had only drawn 9 of 20 power tiles. I think I surprised the guy with my altered style of play, so much so that I thought I saw him playing tighter in our second game. I really think I had taken my game to another level during the course of the tournament.

Yet More Chaos

Meanwhile, during our first game, there was chaos yet again as the directors began moving tables towards one wall as games finished. They informed us that we would have to be out of the second room by 4:00 PM. Players around me were clearly dissatisfied, and one commented that this was "the worst planning ever." I couldn't disagree, but I was too focused on winning to really care.

Fish in Barrel, Meet Hot Lead

Just as I finished clawing my way up to first place on the final day of a strong division 2 field for the first time ever, and just as I was riding a high from beating Jim Killee twice, I got fucked once more by that same cocksucker that raped me before. A natural ANNELID to open, then MAnGERS, then strong plays with the J and the X, and I'm beyond seething. When he plays his third bingo, the "pedestrian" OUTLINE, as I'm stuck with miserable tiles to go with my almost-usless blank, I just lost it. I had to pull a Marlon go compose myself, and for a moment I'm not sure how I was going to be able to continue playing, so strong was my rage and frustration. I wanted to cry, but of course I couldn't, because, well, because there's no crying in Scrabble

So far the guy had not demonstrated, as least to me, that he is that good of a player, certainly not on Jim Kille's level. He hadn't played a single word I didn't know. It was all just so easy for him, and all my work was going to waste. By the time he pulled BOOSTER out the bag I was done. I was out of energy. I just lay there and took the beating. Hundreds of tournament games, and I can't get a draw like that, and he who hardly plays tournament does it twice in a row. It was just wrong.

No Threepeat for You!

I was still in contention for second place, but it was just too much to hope for to beat Jim Kille three times. Maybe I could have done it, had I ditched my Q sooner, but for the third time in a row Jim beat me to the first blank and the bingo, and this time around I was not able to get that last-second bingo to pull the game out.

During that final game, the reporter from the Washington Post Magazine arrived, and proceeded to interview Matt and a couple of other players. When he finished, we took off, stuffing Woody into the trunk of the Civic to drop him off in New Brunswick. I was thankful for the Starbucks project to keep my mind off how I was robbed, and how I would not be playing Division 1 in New Orleans.

Nefarious Schemes

Two days after the tournament, after I finished traveling with the reporter, I resumed working on my list of 3001-4000 most-probably 7s, and I noticed the last word typed was GARRENT*. I had no idea how that word had gotten into the list. I had no choice but to wonder if someone had sneaked up to my computer while I wasn't looking and typed in the phony to throw me off. I guessed I was a more feared opponent than I had thought.

The Final Analysis

Four days after the tournament I finally got around to counting up the blanks I had drawn. 13 of 30. I just didn't seem right that I consistently drew fewer blanks. I was sure that, had I drawn a couple more blanks, specifically against a particular player, that I would have placed higher and won some money.


Five days after the tournament I attended a pre-wedding dinner with family. I shook hands several times, and my hand still hurt. I hoped that I had not done any permanent damage. Previously, when I had written about hitting the wall until my hands bled, it had seemed like such a cool fantasy. In actual fact, it just hurt.

Nine days after the tournament, I visited a Starbucks in Blackburg, VA. The manager, a woman, shook my hand. My hand still hurt.

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