Hard Time in the Big Easy
July 30, 2004
It is almost an understatement to say that I had been looking forward to my first Nationals since even before I attended my first Scrabble club meeting in December of 2002. Merely reading Stefan Fatsis' account of trying to qualify for Division 1 made me wish that the even were held every year so I wouldn't have to wait so long.
But wait I did, and over the course of those 20 months I grew truly obsessed with the game. With winning, with increasing my rating, with reaching 1600, with qualifying for Division 1. Some goals I achieved, and some I didn't In the end, I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn't qualify for Division 1, and I decided to go for the money. I truly felt that I had a chance to win that big $2500 prize. And despite all my disappointments in the nearly 50 tournament I had played in that time, I could not conceive that I would do as poorly as I eventually did. Perhaps. Perhaps there was a slightly feeling dread that I would have horrible luck, but I was trying to suppress this feeling and truly believe that I was due for some good tiles.
The distance from Houston to New Orleans is only 350 miles, but I ended up driving over twice that distance because I had to detour to Dallas to pick up a paycheck from the two weeks that I worked. Actually, it wasn't so much a detour as driving nearly in the opposite direction. It was either that or survive for four days in New Orleans on just a few bucks.
I took advantage of my trip to Dallas to see The Village with some friends. It wasn't that great--I should have waited until after the tournament. By the time I ended up heading out towards New Orleans, it was mighty late, and I didn't quite made it to the Lousiana border before having to stop.
I didn't managed drag my ass out of the back of my car until the last possible moment, and so once again I found myself racing to reach the tournament in time. I didn't expect that they would simply cut players from the tournament that didn't arrive to register on time, but I didn't want to take any chances. I made good time to Shreveport, so I decided to pull off for some breakfast. The first Burger King I encountered had run out of biscuits. No biscuits!!! That should be a crime in the South. So I went a-hunting, and by the time I got onto Interstate 49 with my biscuit sandwich I calculated I'd be cutting it even closer.
After some time I got a little restless and decided to browse through 6s that came from 5s. Mere minutes after setting the computer on my lap, a white knight, in the form of a white Eclipse, passed me doing 90+. Just what I needed to make up time. Of course, following the speeding car and his buddy made the studying more difficult. I looked upon as a challenge. As if speeding and studying weren't enough, I decided to call my schmoopie and warn her that I might die in a blaze of fire, just in case she had any last words to say to me. Boy, she called me back right quick--talk about a way to get someone's attention. She usually likes to talk on and on, but my description of weaving in between the cars with only one hand on the wheel prompted her to cut the conversation short, lest it be cut short by squealing tires and crumpling metal.
My timing was almost spot-on, as I pulled into a parking space about five blocks from the Marriott right at 3:45 and then hustled down to the Marriott and found the registration line. I spotted Sam Kantimathi while in line and asked to buy a new timer, and after registration I followed him up to his room to get it. I had planned to immediately head over to Cafe du Monde for the beignets I'd been craving, but whaddayaknow, it started to rain. Heavily.
So I hung around the foyer and chatted with Dan Barry, whom people kept saying looked like me. I didn't see it. But there were other similarities, like
I said hello to other Scrabble acquaintances. And I started to take note of the Scrabbling hotties that passed by. I anticipated a good crop.
After a while chatting with Dan and Scott Kitchen who had arrived from New Jersey, and staring at the rain outside, it lightened up enough that I decided to go for it. I got wet right away, but I held the bag containing my NSA goodies so as to protect the SamTimer, and I didn't think the rain was enough to pentrate my backpack. But if the rain wasn't bad enough, I stumbled across a pair of doofi who decided it was fun to splash people that passed by. I kept walking, and then I got a real urge to go back to my car, get my baseball bat, and do a drive-by batting. But I just knew I'd end up in jail if I gave the guy what he deserved, so I decided to try and get them busted. I walked on and finally, after several blocks, spotted a patrol car and waved them over to the curb. Yeah, they looked really interested in apprehending the miscreants. Serving and protecting--my ass.
I'll point out that this afternoon rain must be a fact of life in New Orleans, because many of the tourists were wearing cheap plastic ponchos obviously peddled by some enterprising souls, because ain't no way that many tourists came that prepared.
Of course the rain stopped as soon as I got under Cafe du Monde's tarp. The beignets were excellent, of course, but it was a challenge to study without dripping water on my list. My craving was soon sated, and I headed back to the hotel, delayed momentarily when I fell for the old quarter glued to the ground trick. I know that kid standing a few feet away wasn't responsible for the prank, but I'm sure I saw him smirk, and I wanted to smack the little brat.
My shirt and pants were soaked as I returned to the Marriot. I thought about going to the car to change, but why? It's not like anybody expects GQ from me.Suzi Tiekert reached the line to enter the reception at 5:38, and entered the salon at precisely 5:39. While I was making sure I got her arrival time down correctly, another player said hello. I had no idea who she was. When she told me who she was, my first thought was of a line from a current country hit, by overnight sensation Gretchen Wilson I think, "I'm not a ten but the boys say I clean up good." And boy, did she. She was definitely there for the party.
I continued to try to write, my concentration continuously broken by people passing by. I guess I could have picked a corner instead of a table right in front of the door to the salon, but that would have been too smart for me.
Like, for example, a fellow Texan (or Oklahoman, which should be part of Texas anyway) who came up to me and asked if I knew her name, and then said she had a present for me. Then she said she had been reading some of my writing, and that's when I became suspicious. Maybe it was the devilish look in her eye, too. I decided that it would be with no small measure trepidation that I would open that "present".
I wasn't in a hurry for food, as I'd just had the mandatory beignets. So I started with a soda, and while I waited in line I saw that goddamned motherfucking cocksucker from hell. I recognize that, after several months, I should had cooled off a bit and let it go. Blowouts are just part of the game. But I guess those I still hadn't gotten oveer the damage to my psyche. Hell, my hand alone took months to heal.
Meanwhile, I continued to see more Scrabble hotties present at this year's event. I figured it was important to track this data over time. And the numbers were looking goooood. Certainly better than domestic job creation numbers.
I had decided that I would skip the reception in favor of studying. But I got caught up in saying hi to this person and that person and the next thing I knew it was almost 7:30. I found the after-hours playing room downstairs and set up to wait for a game. Just one game against Richard Popper, awkwardly played on that tiny travel set we had been given along with a t-shirt and folder. Then I started feeling tired, so I just headed over to Kinko's to check my mail, because Starbucks in Louisiana did not yet offer T-Mobile, and then over to the West Bank to camp outside a Wal-Mart Supercenter. I had high hopes that this West Bank, unlike a similarly-named region half a world away, would prove safer than the streets of New Orleans, well-known for a high crime rate.
Outside the Kinko's I got to play tour guide to a group looking for one of the famous chef Emeril's restaurants. The male, accompanied by more than his fair share of women, three, started off by asking the wrong question, if I was from the area. What he should have asked was if I had a laptop computer equipped with a mapping program that listed restaurants. Of course, given the man's inebriated state, I doubt he could have pronounced such a complex sentence. Nevertheless, I whipped out my powerful all-purpose tool and saved the day.
I was in New Orleans win, not to party. Nevertheless, when I got to the Wal-Mart I decided to throw my taste buds a mini party and get freaky by trying something new, this new Nantucket Nectar product they are calling Nectarfizz. Not so much the party, really. First of all, I assumed the drink was some sort of cherry-flavored lemonade, but it was actually grapefruit juice. Just like it said on the bottle. And the carbonation--not really what I wanted right before bed.
But the real discomfort was, of course, the heat and humidity. I dripped sweat for hours, constantly wiping. I knew that, technically, the sweat would serve to cool me off. But it itched as it dripped down my face and arms. "Almost busted piinh"--that's what I put in my notes. A week later, I have no idea what that means.
As I tried to fall asleep, I puzzled over the sudden resurgence of my odd infatuation with one of the top experts. No, not Pollock-Daniel, which would make perfect sense, but rather one of the males, which made no sense whatsoever, as I, some experimentation aside, am straight as an arrow. I couldn't figure out what it was exactly, whether simply a high degree of respect for his playing ability, or something more. Truth be told, he wasn't a bad-looking guy, but neither was he a Colin Farrell. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to be around him.
I also puzzled over the fact that, after 20 months of anticipation, I did not seem to feel a great deal of excitement over finally being at the Nationals. Now, I'm a fairly dispassionate person, true, but I do recall excitement at other events, like Reno, at least before the despair set in. So why not here at Nationals? Perhaps it was that it felt anticlimactic after all the publicity I'd been getting. Perhaps I was just tired. Who's to say? The only thing I know is that other than the usual bout of nerves, I was pretty dispassionate about the event, I didn't feel any excitment until my excellent run on the second day.
In the wee hours I got restless and decided to drive back into New Orleans and around the French Quarter. I immediately remembered why this is almost never a good idea, at least during the crowded times. And it was mighty crowded, even at the late hour, well past 3:00 AM. Traffic just crawled, and I had to watch out for drunken revelers who would just move right into the path of my car. And because I had to drive with the windows down to stay cool, I feared that one of the drunkards would decide to toss a beer through the window and maybe hit my laptop. I quickly met my quota of "excitement" and headed back to sleep.
As I headed back to the expressway, I spotted a suspicious-looking character appearing to peer into car windows. This reaffirmed my decision to pass my nights away from New Orleans proper.
Back in Harvey, I pulled into the Shell station and noticed a woman in a green dress (that's cruel) stumbling away and across the street. I lost track of her as I tried to get into the Shell only to realize the doors were locked. I went across the street to the Exxon and noticed a man running and looking alarmed. He picked up the girl, who had either passed out or collapsed. I wondered if she was sick, or just drunk. This being New Orleans, the latter was just as likely.
I'm not sure if breakfast started at 7:00 or 7:30, but it was all but gone by the time I reached the Marriott, a few seconds later than I might have if I had chosen to park my car in front of a large group of indigents citizens across from RESTAURANT. The buzz was that they'd be bringing out more bread, but I just took the situation as an excuse to satisfy my unceasing craving for beignets.
It wasn't raining this time, but the heat and humidity was almost as bad, and by the time I walked the six blocks to Cafe du Monde my face was once more dripping with sweat. Around the corner from the Marriott a passed a group exiting a restaurant to have a photograph taken by a waiter. One of the females, tall, dark-haired, slender--otherwise attractive except for the green dress (that's cruel) stumbled, clearly noshed, and I wondered about something that I guess I could just have assumed--do the bars in New Orleans serve alcohol all night?
When the "waitress" brought out the plate of beignets, I suddenly wondered how I had ever managed to put away two of those. I used to really binge during my first few trips to New Orleans.
It was absolutely not the way I wanted my first Nationals to begin, to have my opponent draw both blanks for a win that, if she didn't think it was easy, it was only because I anticipated her second blank and made her second bingo more difficult and time-consuming, and then started pushing her on time. If only I had drawn the X when I purposely slotted an A next to a TLS instead of after I had taken the spot with a lowly B. Besides the clunky racks, I was further annoyed by her constant sighing in spite of a near 100-point lead. "Oh, that's terrible!" "I'm only going to score 66 for my bingo." "It's going to give my opponent a counterplay." "Oh, how awful!" The final annoyance--she missed her out play, GUDE. I made a mistake myself, being so sure she knew the word that I didn't plan on having another turn--could have scored a few more points.
As I mentally criticized her play, I wondered if my posting her mistake would elicit comparisons with Kenji.
The playing room was large, but at the same time participation was high, so I felt cramped. The Hasbro-mandated boards, of course, sucked. I learned there were supposed to be new ones, but that they were stuck in China.
I saw the tiles headed in a southernly direction right away in my second game, against Jamila Atcha, and I made the correct the decision to go ahead and exchange, drawing into AZOTISE. Playing it would either set up a triple-triple or slot the A above the TLS. I chose the former, and sure enough she had the X. Then I drew the blank. It was like a roller-coaster of good luck and bad luck! I picked up an extra turn with HORAL, but I held dreck with the blank, and she beat me to the S hook with STOrMED. A few turns later I got down sWEETEST to retake the lead, but the pendulum looked like it would swing the other way, and too late for me to recover. But Jamila shifted her BANDIES over, thinking VERTU was VIRTU, and hooking the E instead of the S. I challenged it off, and this put me in a position I've never been strong at, figuring out if there were any 8s formed by whatever letter I chose to block with. I started to play EAR, because BRANDIES wouldn't play, but I wasn't sure if there was an anagram that would play. So I changed it to EAU, figuring the U would be less likely to offer an eight. I totally missed UNBIASED, which scored even more, and it played. I won, but not by as many points as I could have if I had correctly blocked the bingo. Later, I realized that BRANDIES is just SARDINE + B, a high-probabily seven-letter stem, and that I should have known if it had any anagrams.
During the morning announcements, there was a lengthy explanation of the procedure for recording byes versus forfeits. But there was no mention of how to record when the opponent was physically present, but might as well have been away sleeping for all the good his tiles were doing him. For the third game in a row my opponent beat me to the blank bingo, and I was once again double-blanked. The fates dangled hope before me, as I managed to tie it up after her TRAIPsED only to have her draw the second blank for MOURNERs, and then score 78 with GAZERS on the triple where I was going to score moderately with a recent addition to my vocabulary, GUNITE (S). So far in three games, I had not had a chance to use any of the knowledge I had spent the summer acquiring. Had I not studied a lick, the outcomes would have been the same.
Even if I won some games, the tournament was already going south, because psychologically I couldn't handle this type of miserable luck early on. I looked to be put in position of playing catchup instead of trying to maintain my momentum.
Such was the depth of my dissatisfaction that I took no joy in my 186-point win over a player who had turned her previous victory over me into an excrutiatingly annoying experience. She wasn't so annoying this time, perhaps because she gave away her intention to bingo, prompting me to play a tight board and keep her struggling. She wasted so much time trying to bingo that I was able to push her over by 60 points. Ordinarily, I would have delighted in my revenge, but my mood was just blah. I was towards the top of the field, so a 2-2 record was nothing to get excited about. 3-1 was more what I needed. I was faced with having to win all four games during the afternoon session or kiss that $2500 goodbye.
I suppose they are all over New Orleans, but there seemed to be a great deal of homeless outside the hotel and in front of some building on Magazine, a couple of blocks from where I parked. I could have parked closer to the Marriott, but why offer up the temptation of a car sitting unattended for the entire day.
What Happens If?
Years ago I came up with an idea for a whimsical web site, whathappensif.com. The idea would be that people would post questions that they always wanted to know the answers to, in the form of "What happens if (you do) X?" For example, "What happens if you trip and as you fall grab a busty girls bikini top, pulling it off? Would the cops buy your explanation?"
I was toying with an addition to the thus-far-nonexistent web site during this trip to New Orleans, find out what would happen if I ate nothing but beignets for the duration. I felt this was a worthwhile research project, and so after retrieving the ProTiles I had forgotten in my car, I made my way back to, where else, Cafe du Monde. On the way I called my schmoopie and made her jealous by taunting her with descriptions of New Orleans and how it was so much cooler than Springfield, IL. Because I'm a cruel bastard, that's why.
I guess that psychiatrist was onto something when he diagnosed me with paranoid tendencies, because after the initial trepidation about what my "gift" would be, when it turned out to be fruit bits, the first thing that came to mind was that they were poisoned. Yes, of course that's ridiculous, but you should have seen the gleam in the giver's eyes. Actually, what was more ridiculous was my sniffing the bag, because I really have no idea what fruit poison smells like.
I won my fifth game, but my mood hardly improved because, once again, for the fourth time in five games, my opponent beat me to the first blank. At least I drew the second, and it made a big different in a tight endgame, scoring 18 for QAIDs/sAID and depriving Rose from picking up those Q points with her S. But only because she had made a mistake and played MINS instead of MIRS--had it not been for that, another game would have gone down the drain.
The miserable drawing continues in game 6, but taken to a new level. Paul Thornton drew not only both blanks (third double-blanking in six games), but nine of the power tiles. The only reason the spread was only 115 was that the board tightened up quickly.
On the heels of that disaster the tile gods decided to be particularly cruel and hand me the blank on the first rack, and crap to go with it: AAIUDP?, AEUNNZ?, AEEUGZ?, AEEURV?, EIICDR?, EDFNRR?, and AUDFNR? before I finally got down NEAREsT. With E and S hooks available all the while, the only bingo that would play that I missed was REVAlUE. True, I shouldn't have missed it, but that seemed a harder find that the bingos my opponents had been playing all day. To top it off, right after I got my bingo, Sandy Ada came right back with the other blank and DISTrESS, a truly appropriate word for my situation. It was still winnable, but her 70-point QAIDS sealed the game for her. Third time in seven games that an opponent got a 70+ non-bingo with the Q or Z. How many times had I had chance to do it? ZERO!!!
I felt miserable! Results for the first four rounds were posted, and I recognized the names of players with four wins that I knew I was better than, players that had hardly ever beaten me.
There was no balance to be had in my final game, as I was double-blanked for the fourth time, dropping my blank percentage for the first day to an even, and miserable, 33%. I won, however, and the only thing that saved me was some browing of 6s from 5s I had done during the drive into New Orleans on Saturday morning. My ending rack of AIICCRW looked pretty fucking miserable. I led by 21, but I was sure I was dead because Clayton (Colwell) had drawn the S for a 30-point SQUIRT/SOP play that I could not block. And there was no way I was going out first with that rack. Until Clayton played an N, and my crappy rack turned into ACINIC, with both Cs on triples for 22 points! And leaving the RW to go out in two places.
After eight games, seven of which were miserable, I finally got to put my recent studying to use. I received a slight ego boost from that, and maybe a little bit of hope. I mean, there were tournaments I'd started off with worse records and fought my way back to first place until fate finally screwed me. So it was still doable.
I didn't find very many listings for massage therapists in the local weekly, but elsewhere on the Internet I found a # for one that charged $60, about the average price, and I set up a tentative appointment for when I finished the day's games. She was still around, so I went over there and got a much needed shower. I hadn't yet been that long, only three days, but I figured I'd defy expectations of body odor. As an added bonus, I got a look at some serious tattoo work. I never fails to amaze me how people can put themselves through that type of pain to cover that much of their body.
I awoke around 7:15 and looked in the rearview mirror to see blister-like marks on my upper link and cheek. I feared for a moment that I had caught some dread disease, but it turns out they were just beads of sweat. Despite having slept from about 9:30, I still had some catching up to do. But I had to meet a television producer at the hotel, so I had to get moving. Despite my fatigue, I skipped coffee because I expected to get plenty of complimentary coffee at the Starbuck we would be visiting that evening.
It was raining, and this slowed my crossing the bridge, and also made me wonder about how the television shoot would go. The second day of the tournament would take a interesting twist as NBC's revived Real People show came to New Orleans to film me playing Scrabble and then visiting several Starbucks around the area (a historical reenactment). It was a little distracting to deal with the producer when I needed to be studying, or sulking. But at least I got a free breakfast out of it, and free valet parking at the hotel. I hoped that getting my mind off the previous day's disaster and a good meal would help. But I was dead wrong.
Because I truly was poxed, but it wasn't a physical ailment. It was a decree from the tile gods, that I would not be allowed to win the tournament no matter what I did. My opponent, Edward Neugroschl even admitted that I had outplayed him, but it didn't do any good, because for the fifth time in nine games I was outblanked. It was getting to the point that I didn't even want to continue, because I'm not stupid--I can't win this tournament with a 33% or worse blank percentage--who could? You tell me that--who could win a tournament under those conditions?
As I went into my tenth game, I grumbled to myself that this tournament was already a lost cause, and that there was no reason to continue except for the threat of being barred from future tournaments if I quit. I had already given up on winning, so the tile gods decided it was okay to throw me a bone and hand me a great draw, both blanks for the first time, for a 164-point win. "It's about goddamned time, " I said, and I felt little or no sympathy for my opponent.
Maybe things were really turning around, I though, as I drew both blanks for the second time in a row, against Paula Catanese (heiress to the infamous Catanese crime syndicate). It was an ugly, ugly game on a horrendously tight board, and for once I managed to draw the blank, open a line for myself, and get the bingo down before my opponent took it.
So I had a measure of hope, but mostly trepidation, as I went into my twelfth game against Steve Sikorski who had bested me three times prior. I figured I was due, and I got payback in a big way, doing something I had never done in my 500+ tournament games. First I opened with TRAWLED. Then I struggled a bit with my AEIOMP? before finding DOPAMInE. Then I drew an easier rack AEEINT? for TrAINEE and 160-point lead. Eight power tiles remained, so I didn't take a win for granted, and with a wide-open board Steve could have caught up had the tiles cooperated. But they didn't, and I was able to pick up another 152 spread points to bring mine to 298, not bad for 7-5. Though I knew I need to win at least two, if not all three, of the afternoon's games to really get into the tournament.
The gift of fruit bits and Bob the producer's breakfast had ended my beignet experiment, but still it was back to Cafe du Monde for lunch. I was feeling highly sexually charged as I walked down Decatour. This being summer and New Orleans, there were plenty of young girls in short shorts and skimpy tops, and they served as distractions from what I needed to focus on, which was developing a positive attitude for the games to come, and additional word study. As ACINIC demonstrated, any last-minute word could be the one to win a game for me. But these girls, they were everywhere, and it took all my strength to resist the urge to reach out and touch someone. Let my fingers do the walking, if you will. As I entered Cafe du Monde, I lightly tapped a girl blocking my way. On the hip only, but my hands were this close to sliding down. I need to cool off before I got myself in trouble and the word "charged" took on a whole different meaning.
As I ate, I heard clapping, for a gentleman playing what I assume to have been a French horn. But I don't know my musical instruments, and my schmoopie suggested making flash cards and delights in pointing out instruments like, "That there's a drum!" Besides that musician, it seemed Jackson Square was full of entrepeneurs trying to make a buck. Most interesting was the older gentleman painted up to look like a bronze statue. It actually fooled me for a moment when he started moving. Further down, a young girl didn't have any entertainment to offer--she was just begging with her dog. I never understood why so many homeless had dogs or cats they were trying to feed, as if feeding themselves wasn't hard enough. Couldn't animals fend for themselves? I guess it's for the companionship.
I counted up my blanks thus far and saw that I was exactly even. At the same time, I knew that I needed to stop fixating on the tiles I was drawing, as really it was a waste of energy.
When I returned to the hotel I once again spotted the hated one, and this time I got a flash urge to hit the guy. I wondered just how long I'd be holding a grudge.
My first game after lunch was against Aniekan Uwan, but not even the force was able to save him.
Then the production team for Real People arrived to set up to film me, and I consulted with the division leader and the other players whether it would be okay to switch tables so I'd be at the end and easier to film. My opponent seemed resigned to the idea, but began to protest when she realized they would be filming for a while. She said it would distract her. I thought she was just being difficult. She went over and talked to Bob the producer and I guess they worked it out. The crew only filmed for a short while from that angle and then went upstairs where other TV crews were filming. But maybe she was right, and it was a distraction, because she challenged my TONEY*, and I was able to even it up with the extra turn, and then pull away with RESOLING for sweet revenge.
Then I got Woody, aided by the phony WALLERS* and the ATRAZIN (non-bingo) that Joel Sherman taught me. That's why it's good to play top experts. The ass-kicking is worth the words one invariably learns.
I was on fire! I had won six games in a row! I couldn't remember the last time I did that. Probably way back in Jonesboro, AK, when I won seven in a row and won the tournament. Or was that Chicago? Yeah, Chicago, according to my database, when I started the tournament with seven wins, a feat not repeated, and not likely to be repeated now that I'm not longer stronger than my division, as I was when I started studying.
But I had no time to bask in the glow of my performance, as phase two of the Real People shoot was on, the Starbucks portion. First the producer interviewed me in the playing room. Then they had me exit the playing room after a cute comment so they could transition from Scrabble to Starbucks. Then we went to four Starbucks in all, with the crew filming me from their van, with a cameraman inside my car, and inside the stores introducing myself to the staff, getting coffee, and then photographing myself in front of the stores. Bob the producer amused me by repeatedly telling me and the crew to be extreme. He said he wanted "extreme", but he kept rejecting my suggestions. I thought my having to fight throughs ninjas to get to the Starbucks would be extreme. Or instead of walking up to the counter, jumping down from the ceiling. But my ideas have always tended to be a little progressive.
Starbucks wouldn't let us film inside without having one of their corporate people chaperoning, to make sure the crew didn't film anything not allowed, like the menu boards or certain angles behind the counter. No PR person was available, but a district manager was. That was fortunate, because otherwise the crew wouldn't have been able to film inside.
I was famished...