Crapping Out in Atlantic City

August 29, 2004

Sapristi! I don't know what it means, but Gambit from the X-Men says it, and it was the first thing that popped into my mind when I awoke and looked at the time, 8:38. I had spent the night at a service area on the Pennsylvania Turnpike after many hours, more than I expected, of driving from Farmington and detouring to visit a couple of Starbucks. I could still have slept another hour and left myself no margin for error in my timetable, but why sleep if it's not strictly necessary? Plus, my head wasn't on fire, and I took this to be a good omen.

While the drive was better during the day, with the road not slick from rain, I still hated the Pennsylvania Turnpike for being so curvy and hilly, making it impossible to sustain any kind of speed without having to slow down to avoid careening over the edge.

At first I grumbled that my schedule force me to settle for a BK breakfast sandwich on sourdough instead of a biscuit (not offered up north), but when I left the service area I was thankful that I had arrived just before a tour bus full of geezers. I guess it's all about perspective.

I had tried to kick-start my morning with the coffee I had saved from my visit to the Mansfield, OH, store the previous night. But as sleep deprived as I was, four ounces wasn't going to cut it, so I had to break out one of those magical little yellow pills. Wisely, I waited until after my breakfast sandwich because, from past experience, that much caffeine on an empty stomach can make me ill.

At the next rest area I sympathized with an older gentleman who could not seem to get the automatic faucets to work. I find the devices to be most ineffective, and I wish they could come up with a smarter technology. I mean, these things are near useless for shaving, and not that great for brushing teeth either. I down with conserving water, but instead of penalizing everybody, they should just go after the people that forget to turn off faucets. Install cameras in the bathrooms to catch them, and then severely penalize the offenders. Some might thing death is too harsh a penalty, but is it really, when you consider we'd be saving the planet?

I wish I could see the algorithm used by Microsoft Streets and Trips to plot a route between two points. Sometimes it just gives weird results. When I entered a starting point far west on the turnpike (with the Holiday Inn as the endpoint), the program indicated I should stay on the turnpike 'til the end and then take US-206 to the Atlantic City Expressway. But when I moved the starting point closer to Philadelphia, it had me exit the turnpike and take I-76 through town, which seemed like a shorter distance anyway. That was fine with me, because I'd have a chance to check my e-mail sooner and see if the Washington Post Magazine article had generated a flood of e-mail yet. And believe you me, I couldn't have been more eager to get off that Pennsylvania Turnpike, so much so that I didn't even mind so much the heavier traffic on I-76 into the city. I was an hour ahead of schedule anyway.

But as usual, there is no quantity of spare time large enough to avoid my frittering it away. Defunkyfying in the Starbucks bathroom, dawdling online, then wandering around the Whole Foods, and next thing I knew I was going to have to hurry. Despite this, I couldn't help but drive through downtown so I could stop at Borders and pick up a copy of the Sunday Washington Post because the Washington Post Magazine finally published its article about my Starbucks project, the longest article yet. I knew I'd lose time, but my ego made me do it.

I started to worry as traffic on the Atlantic City Expressway was crawling along at 60 MPH. But after about 10 miles the speed picked up, in part because I pulled a highly illegal maneuver to get around the suburban that had cut in front of my (limiting my view) and ended up bypassing a bunch of cars. But further down, the highway widened to three lanes and several of us really opening it up, to about 90 MPH all the way in.

As I drove, I kept having to raise an lower the passenger side window depending on how fast I was moving to avoid losing my t-shirt to "the suck". My middle finger was still sore from having caught it in my tripod a few nights earlier, and I had to turn the handle carefully to avoid putting pressure on the injury. Sometimes it would slip, and it would hurt like heck and cause me to pull my hand back and extend my middle finger in pain. On a few occasions I noticed other drives looking at me, and I hoped they didn't think I was giving them the finger. Like in that episode of Seinfeld.

Considering the unfortunate circumstances that preceded this Atlantic City tournament, I think a modest degree of chaos was acceptable, and perhaps even appropriate. Or maybe I was just so relieved to have arrived on time and without being on the verge of crashing that I didn't mind that we were late to start. Actually, I was most happy that, in contrast to my previous AC, and Piscataway, the names on the tally board were listed in ratings order. Finally!

I'd seen a lot of the players just a month prior in New Orleans, so it wasn't exactly a reunion for me to be back, but I was really surprised to see Ira Cohen and Tina Udelson. It seems they were still on their long road trip, and I could totally relate!

Before the start of the first game, I was chatting with another player who asked if I was sleeping in the car, and if it would be cold. I chuckled inside, because she didn't realize the temperature was nothing compared to the 10-15 degrees I endured during January's AC tournament.

I always worry when I start out playing someone towards the bottom of the field, and with #21 Mona Larsen it was no different. When I examined my AEEGLOT rack, I wracked my brain to remember if it was one of the racks I'd seen while quizzing myself with LeXpert during my four-day drive. I kept thinking, I'm going to miss the bingo and it will cost me the game, but I couldn't see anything. So I went for turnover and a possible challenge with LEGATO and drew in SITTERS at just the right moment, to counter her ARENITE. Whew! Then finding KEEPSakE/K made me feel a little better, but not completely, because I only scored 63 and slotted the E next to the TWS to give her 42 points back. I considered not playing the bingo for that reason. Then she scored 44 with ZED, and 36 with FLAME, and I started to worry. Then I sensed she was trying to bingo, and I was able to close up the remaining lines and score enough to put myself out of reach. Whew!

In my opinion, Jay Strieb should have exchanged his AEIONY? opening rack rather than playing YO, because I interpreted the play as having five very good tiles, and I moved to close the board up as quickly as possible. After the game, an extremely low-scoring 320-228 during which we had to pass to end it, Jay admitted he had both blanks for most of the game, and I'm glad I went with my defensive instincts, though I tried to find a balance that allowed me to score some.

Outblanked again in game three, but I managed to keep Susan Silverstein from getting down a bingo with her second blank while I gradually built up a lead. It could have gone south, though, had she been able to bingo when I opened a hook with KIER intending it to be more defensive (against a TWS play) than KEIR, but overlooking the S hook. Gotta look at all aspects of the play and stop focusing on the most obvious counterplay.

I had assumed that all the Philly players were heading back, but I clearly have a warped perception of what constitutes a "short" drive. So I hit up my shower companion--wait, that's the wrong word. Shower buddy? Nope, don't like that one either. How about "shower donor"? Yeah, my shower donor came through again. Though they prefer to remain anonymous, no doubt they would be considered heroes in the Scrabble community for contribution to fresher air.

Those photos I've been taking of the restaurants I visit on my trips came in handy during dinner when I couldn't find that Colombian restaurant. At first I thought it was on Atlantic, and, when I didn't see it, that it had closed and been replace by the Baltimore Grille. It occurred to me to pop open my laptop and pull up the photo, and sure enough I find the building, but on Pacific. The sign identifying the place as Colombian was missing, but I recognized some other signage on the wall.

I'd like to complain about the crappy tiles (and they were crappy that brought my winning streak to a screeching halt, but I have to forfeit that right after making the mistake of playing a phony three, NEH*, which Shane Tourtellotte promptly slapped off the board.

I would have felt bad for Jeff Jacobson because he was obviously sick. He talked about possibly dropping out after the first day, and I encouraged him to take some pills and see how he felt in the morning. Scrabble over all else, after all.

But with his first play WEARIEr, my sympathy began to wane, and after my loss to Shane I started to get images of gloom and doom and bad tiles. An inspired find, DEBONING/B, got me back into the game and put the pressure back on Jeff, but I screwed up big time when, faced with AEIOUDT and only leading by 28 points, I opted to score instead of exchange, with OUTED for 24. But that left a glaring hook, which Jeff took with his second blank for pUTTING, and I was again in trouble. Thankfully I got 35 points off the triple he opened, and a chance. What turned it around was the amazing dreck Jeff drew post bingo, a mess of high-point tiles but only one vowel to go with them. Rarely have I seen a better example of an opponent's bad tiles saving me from doom.

After the game, I rushed immediately to the bathroom and washed my hands before even using the toilet to avoid any contamination--I'd already played a Scrabble tournament while sick and didn't need a repeat, not with $425 riding on the outcome.

My mistake against Lou Sabin couldn't have been clearer. I didn't want to burn my blank for 30-some points to block the S hook for OH, and I hoped that he wouldn't know the word or wouldn't have the bingo. I was also hoping that even if he got the bingo, with my blank and Z I could draw into a big play. I didn't.

Those two mistakes had left me in 4th place at best, and one of the 5-1 players, Shane, I had already faced, so I would have to depend on others to take care of him for me while I set my sights on Karen Wilson Moss and Maxim.

Not terribly hungry but not wanting to risk food poisoning either, I went over to the 7-11 and heated up my remaining beans and rice rather than leaving them for the next day, and I went to my usual spot, the Jitney shuttle parking lot.

August 30

Shortly after 5:30 I awoke, and I knew that the sun would up soon, eliminating the privacy I had found between the Jitney shuttles, and that I would have to move also to avoid being noticed by shuttle drivers arriving for their shifts. I figured I'd head up to a new Starbucks in Absecon and use the bathroom their. Before leaving, I drove down Pacific to see what the local hookers looked like. I wasn't buying, but I decided to have some fun with one anyway and ask a bunch of ridiculous questions, like whether they charged more than $20 and whether we had to get a room or if we could just do something quick behind that van over there, which happened to be a police van. She was noticeably peeved to have had her time wasted. But I was still pissed about 4-2 and in a mood to be annoying.

I took US-30 up into Absecon and passed an abandoned gas station on the way, so I just pulled next to the dumpster and slept for the next three hours. I dreamed that a cop had tapped on my window and was questioning me, and that I was responding that there were no signs prohibiting parking and so I was within my rights. As cool as the air had been around 6:00 AM, when I awoke the car was starting to warm up despite the cloud cover and I was beginning to become coated in a film of sweat.

When I reached the new Starbucks just minutes away, the first thing I did was rush to the bathroom to wash up. Out of instinct, I hid my face so the staff wouldn't notice that I had entered unshaven and the mysteriously appeared clean-shaven. But I couldn't shave, because I couldn't find my razor in the car. I didn't want to spend $10 or whatever on a new Mach 3 razor because that money could be significant if I didn't win anything at Scrabble. And I knew if I limped home broke and complained to my mother about not being able to afford a razor she'd give me the money.

As happens during nearly every road trip, I had left my folder with my article (as proof that I wasn't making the story up) back at a Starbucks. This time, however, I didn't have to find a Kinko's to print one up, because I had the Washington Post Magazine article with me. The manager had already heard of me, and I got more than my mandary dose of coffee even (I'd need it to get through day), so I didn't really need to show anyone else the article. But I couldn't help it--business was slow anyway and the barista at the counter looked board and I couldn't help showing her the article. I was so proud to see that many of my photos in print!

When I arrived at the meeting room I discovered that three of the players at 5-1 had had byes already, and lower-rated Shane was the only one to have actually won five games. Then I noticed that while I had a bye in game 3, my first four games would be tough, #5, #3, and Betty Burton, who, despite being #18, had won four games (plus a bye), indicating she was on a roll and thus dangerous.

No glaring mistakes against Michael Turniansky, my mysterious and formerly unseen proofreader. Just really bad racks that never even looked bingoish except for the unplayable OEDIPAL, and whenever I actually managed to score and come close to catching up, like the 53-point JoISTS, Michael was already a step ahead with a big play. The final insult--while I tried to figure out the best way to avoid getting stuck with the Q, it was a waste of time as Michael had an out bingo, TURNSOLE to guelch 38 points off my rack.

Well, I take it back--I let him get away with his opening GLUB*. I was distracted by my horrible BLNNPRW rack, which I threw back instantly only to get IUUFPRT.

Clunk again against Ann Raymond, with all but one rack containing duplicates, dual duplicates, or triplicates, but this time hers were even clunkier, based on how she was scoring. They key to the game was an early timely rack that allowed me to play the 63-point CZARS. I presume she risked opening the triple line for 20 points because I had just played off one S, SILICA--I supposed I would have taken the chance too. With a modest lead, I proceeded to tighten the board up, assuming the way she was playing that she had a blank. But in the end, I drew both blanks together as my reward for getting away with the phony NOGGY*, and after creating a couple of openings I managed to go out with UNVAluED to recover most of the spread I lost against Turniansky.

My bye came at a good time, right before the very short break, allowing me the time to do something unusual, walk, to the Colombian Restaurant (now called Pollos Marios).

I returned to the playing room eager to see the results. When I had left, Maxim Panitch had not yet finished playing Shane for (momentary) first place. I was rooting for Shane. Not because he was a clubmate from Somerville or anything warm and human like that, but because I figured him to be the weaker player and easier to beat in the KOTH round. When I returned the results had still not been posted. I couldn't resist, so I took a look at the tally slips in the box. Maxim had gone into overdrive and killed Shane. I started to set my sights on second place. Hey, a couple of bills in AC, and a couple in Parsippany, and I'd still be in good shape.

Before my game with Betty Burton, I worried that she was on a lucky street, being #18 yet in third place with seven wins. I was right. After the game, she said it was a "good game", because it was close, 21 points. That was bullshit. She started off with EXACTO* and after I slapped it off (though I considered leaving it for the 31-point counterplayer) proceeded to outdraw me, pulling all the high-point tiles and the K, scoring doubles or triples with each. Even though I probably drew the blank first, right after my first play, BEEFY, she got the easy hook first, SORDINe, while I had to find FEINTINg through her N. I led, but my post-bingo dreck of AAAEEEU cost me a valuable turn, and when she pulled the final two high-points, ZEK for 38, she also pulled into the lead while I held AAAIITT and had to give up another turn. Then she started fishing for a bingo, playing AR for 10, then GO for 5, then IT for 2, and LA for 4, allowing me to build up a lead. In the end, she got the bingo along the last line remaining, RETSINA. I knew it was a risk when I opemned the line, but it was either take the 23 points for GAPE/GAZE and leave the hook, or allow her to score 20-plus in that spot. With such a close game, giving up net 50 points like that could have been the game.

That game upset me more than all my others because had she been just slightly less lucky I clearly would have won. But all those power tile points plus two lost turns on my part added up to a lot of points.

She would have gotten the bingo anyway, but I made a glaring mistake in my game against Merble Reagon, missing the G hook to NAW, so focused was I on the S I didn't have and my dearth of options in our nearly perfect ladder to the sky (to the bottom left-hand corner). With two blanks, she could have hooked ZEsTINg to JOG anyway, but for fewer points, and maybe then I wouldn't have challenged, thus falling further behind. At that point, only great luck could have saved me, and it almost happened. I felt a surge of excitement when I played GUV to open an additional bingo line besides the existing L, and I would have had SALARIED if she hadn't block it, and it a most cruel fashion--with a 55-point BOXERS. The only redeeming factor was finding an out play. Hey, I had to take whatever I could get.

After the game, Turniansky came by to let me know his GENNETS* was also a phony--yeah, that's what I wanted to hear. I could have started the day on a high note--instead I was sinking fast.

Crappy tiles once again in game twelve, but this time I was saved by my nameless opponent's inaptitude (or is that ineptitude). She hooked OUtRAGE to my ZIP, and I countered with TOYER. She had BARNIEST off my T, but she tried BRAINERS* instead and I slapped it off. I myself didn't see BARNIEST until I had already played HOG, and quickly realized that it would still play, forming SHOG. Thankfully, she didn't see it and played BUS/ZIPS. I wasn't sure if she had picked up a second S, so I tried to keep it tight and still stay in the game, but miserable racks limited my scoring potential. The turning point came when I played VESICAL, causing her to hold for a while and let her time get down under 8 minutes. So I started to push her on time, and she got down to under four minutes before trying GADdIEST*, missing GAuDIEST. I challenged it off. Then she was over time, and she tried AGnISED*. Buh-bye. Finally she got the bingo down--I just couldn't block the spot, SaNDIER/SEME/ABAS. Thankfully I had left one tile in the bag on purpose, allowing me to play off my Q, but still getting stuck with the J, 22 points in all. She would have won, except she lost 60 points on time.

Looking back my last three games, I might have made some mistakes, but I definitely had crappy tiles. I desperately needed my luck to even one for the final six games.

Meanwhile, one of the ladies was walking around displaying some serious cleavage, and this was stirring up passions within me. I had a strong urge to head to a strip club and find me some womens with the big breastesses (yeah, yeah) and get 'em all up in my lap. But given that I had blown my wad on gas and entry fees, I couldn't even afford a girly magazine and some of that new KY Warming Lotion that Johnson & Johnson had just introduced. I really needed to win some cash, lest instead of the strip club I headed over to the local megaplex that tended to crowded enough with on weekend nights to allow for "accidental" groping.

So in a quick reversal, Lord Maximus had become my hero, and I rooted for him to win all his games the next day, except for the one against me. I figured he might help me out by beating some of the players I'd be competing with for second through fourth place. Though at 7-5, with at least six people ahead of me, even fourth was looking dicey.

As I waited for the elevator, I started thinking about Turniansky's GENNETS*, and how I needed to continue along with my usual method of studying words, from lists, in addition to alphagrams in LeXpert (or flashcards, or word tapes, or whatever), because for me, the actual image of the words on the page was stored in my memory, and I could run through these lists when faced with an unfamiliar word and have a better chance of knowing when to challenge. But the LeXpert alphagram quizzing was also important for being able to find the words on my rack. So much studying to do--never enough time.

I'm sure most people fail to understand the freedom that comes with sleeping in a car. See, if you book a hotel room, and the frat boys next to you decide to party loudly all night, you might get moved, or get your money back--but you'll be at the mercy of the management. On the other hand, when I spotted shady looking characters near my usual parking space, I simply drove around and found another suitable space, next to an empty and boarded up building. Sometime in the middle of the night I heard a car door slam. Though my fogged up windows I could see that it was simply an Asian gentleman, perhaps in a state of inebriation, also answering nature's call behind the building. Well, actually just to the side of the building--those drunk people rarely seem to care who can see. I on the other hand, trekked into the alley behind the building, fervently hoping the mosquito population would be light.

August 31

I got up around 8:30 and drove over to Constantino's for some breakfast. Since winning any money was now in doubt, I ordered to go to save on the tip, and I forwent meat and juice. During my previous trip to AC, the sidewalk next to the cafe had a soft curb allowed cars to drive up and park. Since then, it had been repaved with hard curb, so I had to go back out to the car and wait for my order to avoid a ticket. A pair of homeless persons walked down the sidewalk. One was clearly male, but the other's sex was unclear. What was clear was that he/she was in dire need of dental work. Anyway, they stopped and the "female" began hitting the other with what appeared to be a makeshift whip. How very odd, I thought. Then the male started whipping the woman. Is this some type of performance art, I wondered? No, that would make sense in NYC, not Atlantic City. I think maybe they were trying to get sand off each other.

I went over to the only real Starbucks in AC to get online, because the Wi-Fi in the meeting at the hotel was being flaky the previous day. I of course dawdled and ended up arriving late to the playing room, but had only lost a little over a minute of time, which I quickly made up by playing just as fast as Nancy Hanley. I couldn't remember if she always played fast, or if she was trying to push me on time, but it didn't matter. The game came down to the fact that my draw just turned miserable after I had built up good lead without bingoing while Nancy exchanged twice and made some small plays presumably to try and get a bingo down with her blank. I used mine for the 46-point JIVeS because, after holding it for four turns and getting dreck, it just wasn't worth exchanging. But once the board was almost bingo-proof, I started drawing nothing but 1-point tiles, plus a G, D, and a B. On a tight board, Nancy's 3 and 4-point tiles allowed her to catch up, and that blank and S allowed her to go out first to win by 9. A perfect example of how it just isn't fair--but we all know that already.

The bad tiles continued in game 14 against Ember Nelson. I managed to score with one S, and then RATLINS, but she leapfroged me with HoRNIER. A couple of turns later when I drew the blank I just could't make a bingo happen before we ran out of board and tiles, and I ended up stuck with it. Migthy is the sting of an unused blank.

You could say it was a mistake to let Maxim get away with TICE*, but even though I was 99.99% sure it was phony, it was a 12-point play, and I had a 32-point JILT play that I didn't want to risk. I'll stand by that decision and maintain that I lost because of luck, pure and simply. I drew the Q at the worst possibly moment, with only seven tiles left and Maxim to play, all Us and As gone. At that point, the only thing I could do was try to draw one of the two unseen blanks, so I played off four tiles and drew MVVN, and with two blanks it was easy for Maxim to go out and get 40-off my rack to win it. After the game he said he didn't deserve to win that game, and I agreed, but it didn't really matter. After my first two losses I was already pretty much out of the money even if I had beaten him, and the tournament was fast approaching disaster territory.

During the game I thought about how I had gotten some pretty good tiles at the one-day Farmington tournament, at which the most I could have profited was $30. I really could have used those tiles in Atlantic City, where the prize was much larger.

My penultimate game nearly became combative at the end when my opponent hit her clock, reading 0:00 and then announced her score. Vernon agreed that the rule was clear, she needed to announce her score then hit her clock, but he had no way to verify what happened. I could tell he was flustered, and I was going to lose by four anyway absent a recount, and the tournament was a lost cause anyway, so I let it go.

The game was so meaningless anyway that I let my mind wander, back to Maxim's TICE*, and I changed my mind. I decided I should been confident in my word knowledge and challenged it off.

Scrabble bathrooms had been dull of late, even at Nationals, but there was some last-minute oddness as I encountered a gentleman whose method of standing at the urinal resulted in his shorts hanging down so that his ass has plainly visible. Uncool.

By the last game, I was just going through the motions. I decided to have some fun with Jeff Jacobson and try ZUKARE* for 58. Didn't work. I didn't even bother to go up to the computer--I just chuckled and took it off. Later, he tried WUS*. Same thing. I expected to lose, but his tiles were so bad that it would have been hard for me to. Didn't matter. The tournament was a complete loss.

As we finished Ira Cohen came over and said he was eager to leave. I was giving him a ride back to his hotel, pretty far from the Holiday Inn. I picked up some practice and some dinner in exchange, but after two games I had to beg off, momentarily exhausted with Scrabble. I took US-40/322 towards Philadelphia, and I soon stopped in the parking lot of a Pathmark, far out where it was dark, for a nap. I figured since the store was still open I wouldn't be bothered, but I guess Egg Harbor Township police had a different opinion, and clearly not enough to do. I encourage everybody to commit crimes in Egg Harbor and give those guys something to do. So I moved on and found a residential area where I spent the night and tried not to think about the disaster that the tournament had been.

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