How to Dismantle My Hopes for Progress
Friday, December 3
Traffic? Bah! Compared to a Blizzard It's Nothing
With the drive to Stamford from two weeks earlier still fresh in my mind, I left work even earlier to give myself even more spare time (that I knew would somehow disappear anyway). There were still a couple of Starbucks to visit on the way, if time allowed, but a stronger motivation for leaving earlier was to avoid the inexplicable delay along an 11-mile stretch of I-95 in Delaware. The past few times I had drive that route in the afternoon, traffic had moved smoothly and quickly, at speeds of 80-90 MPH, from Baltimore to the state line. Once in Delaware though, traffic came to a near standstill for those 11 miles, and for no apparent reason, except that most drivers are just incompetent.
As usual I passed the driving time with LeXpert, continuing on with the high-probability 8s I'd started during my Thanksgiving trip. I also tried to catch up on an old log until my crappy LCD started to flake out from the vibrations of the computer on my lap. Stupid Dell. So I switched to trimming my toenails, a task that, when driving a manual transmission without cruise control, requires true skill.
I only suffered a two-mile delay in Delaware, but some of the time I saved I just as quickly lost when I took an exit for US-130 much too early, like by about 20 miles, and had to turn around and get back on the interstate. The reason? An interview with Bruce Hornsby (he's still around!) on The World Cafe. Twenty miles down the freeway, I was again distracted, this time by a story about how Paul McCartney produced a record for some obscure band (Bongo something? Ruddles?, Neil Ennis?), and I missed the real exit to US-130. I had to detour through Camden, a city that recently made news when it was declared the most dangerous in the country. I was carrying with me a copy of Tom Wolfe's new novel, and so I couldn't help but think back to his example of the unfortunate consequences that can result from a wrong turn (from an earlier novel).
Pearl Jam, "Nothing Man". Which album?
Traffic on the GSP had some heavy patches, but the delays were nothing compared to the blizzard of the previous year, so I hardly minded.
I still had time to spare, so I detoured to a new Starbucks in Hillsdale. The actual visit went smoothly with no delays, but when I tried to get back to the GSP I learned there was no northbound ramp at exit 168. I had to backtrack to the previous exit, and I had to pay the same 35-cent toll I had just paid! Cheating bastards!
Traffic flowed smoothly once in New York and Connecticut, and when I reached Bridgeport I had fifteen minutes to spare. Fifteen minutes is an eternity in my mind, and I concluded I had enough time to pop into Teddie's, one of the wildest strip clubs I've found. I barely spotted the place. There was no neon sign. Huh? And the driveway into the parking lot was blocked off. What gives? I tried to ask some guys in a creepy white van, but they just drove off. I walked across the street to a liquor store, where a customer stated that Teddie's had been raided. Raided??? Those bastards! They closed Teddie's! And they probably killed Kenny too!
Later, I looked on the Internet to see if I could find a new story about Teddie's closing, and I discovered an amusing fact, that Bridgeport had seen a recent spike in the sale of inflatable "adult" dolls.
Well, at least I arrived in time to face off against Marie Puma with a full 25 minutes. Not that I needed the time. That first game turned out to be one of two easy games during the tournament, though I might have blown it when I got greedy and playing BARKINGs instead of BReAKING, hoping to draw a challenge because I was sure I had seen it on my list. Well, I got the challenge, and I lost, and it took me a couple of turns to get the bingo. I remember other games where that one mistake ruined the entire game--thankfully it didn't start out that way for me in Shelton.
After getting such good tiles in the first game, I was hopeful that may this would be thetournament. But despite being 300 ratings points above #13 Charlene White, there was just no way to come back from the damage done by RUsTIER, CLARIEs, and OUTLIES just falling out of the bag onto her rack.
My loss to Maurice Decanio hurt more than most in recent memory, for the reason that it would have been such a sweet victory. I drew only a single S, but because Maurice exchange 3 times and then used both blanks and an S on EuPLoIDS, I was able to stay in the game. In the end, I lost because I saw one play for his Q, QUESTS, but missed that he had INQUEST off an I on a triple row for 51 points!!! And I could have blocked both lines, but I was trying to set myself up to go out. Aaaaahhhhhh!!!
After that loss, I really didn't need to get outdrawn by Carla Chase, whose win in Parsippany had killed my chances for first place. But she was 3-0, and I was worried. Well, on the third turn I decided to go for the points and a possible challenge and played CROFT for four more points over CORF, and this gave her a hook for INTENTS. Then she got the killer X play, 54 for VEX, and I was sure I was sunk. And I almost ended up sinking myself with a suboptimal J play when I suddenly realized PEER takes a front S and was able to play JOWLS for 55. This drew a challenge, and had it not been for my extra turn I might have lost my hook for GREISEn, which put me in the lead. Carla came back with HEAD for 38, and the game continued close, with me on the edge of my seat and sweating bullets. Finally I drew the second blank and found rEUSING along the one good bingo line. When I drew the five remaining tiles I saw that Carla had EURRTTT, and I relaxed. Then she played TUTTERER* and I about fainted. Of course I challenged it off and won, but those seconds while we walked to the computer were about my most anxious of the tournament.
Now it wouldn't be a Ginger tournament without some wackiness, and Shelton was no exception. First there was a spill, coffee or tea all over the table, and a player's viard, that seemed to take longer to clean up than the Exxon Valdez mess. Later, there was a rules situation that Ginger had to consult with Joel Sherman about. From what I could overhear, one player exchanged, the other player played, and then they realized there hadn't been seven tiles in the bag. If I heard correctly, this resulted in the "death" rule, in which one player got to choose which tiles went back on her opponents' rack. Ouch! Later still, I made a mess of my own when I knocked over the garbage with a cup full of white liquid in it. That's the very reason that I am never in a position to made fun of others who spill things--I'm the king of clumsy.
With a 2-2 record, it was clear that the new pre-game ritual I was trying out was an abject failure. Back to the drawing board.
What was worse was that I dropped the game against Maurice for no good reason. As much as I wanted to reach 1600, I had to admit that my skills that night were lacking. Some games were just going to be beyond my control, so I had to wins the ones that were. That's what it means to be an expert.
Why I Went to the Woods
I went to the woods to find a mansion of a house, a comfortable bed, and hospitality courtesy of a player who displayed friendliness incongruous with the epithets I bestowed upon her a year earlier after a particularly vicious run of bad tiles. I slept soundly in the guest room, and a good night's rest went a long way towards easing the stress of the long drive and a couple of losses that first night.
Curses! and The Curse!
The hospitality extended to breakfast, bacon and eggs. Compared to the way I usually lived during tournaments, I was truly getting the royal treatment!
It was a fairly well-balanced game against Ember Nelson that started my second day. With a 239-241 score, I made a critical decision to be bold. Instead of taking 16 points for SAU, using an open triple at the same time, I exchanged UUI, leaving myself AES?, and I drew into a bingo with two places two play. I got the better spot, the triple, SCALdED for 90, and Ember then needed to bingo to win. Given pool of remaing tiles, IUUCGLNRT?, I wasn't too worried. Still, after what had happened against Maurice, when she played HUT to open another line along the triple (if she used the blank as an S), I looked at her remaining tiles carefully and finally saw that she could win with CURsING. So I blocked the spot and was feeling very proud of myself, and when she started playing through an open T I was sure it was just a hail mary play. Well, it was, CLoUTING, but by some miracle it was good! I was even more shocked than by Maurice's INQUEST, and my heart just sank. I could have played for 7 points and blocked both spots, but I never imagined she would bingo through that T with those tiles. CLoUTING??? CLoUTING??? Curses! Curses I say!! English is really a fucked-up language.
Close games, against Lynne Mitchnick and Annette Bailey, that could have gone either way went my way, but then I ran afoul of the curse of the low seed. No glaring mistake. No poorly-played endgame. No, just no chance at all against #14 Susan Silverstein who started off with two bingos and then had jewels falling from the sky onto her rack. When I finally got a break, a blank, for ALIENEEs, I had a chance, but I really, really need to not get stuck with the Q. You can guess what happened. But that wasn't the most frustrating moment of the game. It was when she started to hook OWE with the last S, her fourth, and the K, but then took it back. I really needed that last S and the K, and as she fumbled for a play I had to think about how it would be next to impossible for me to catch up without a Q stick.
I had a lot to get off my chest after the first eight games, so I went for the quickest lunch option, a pizzeria across from the Starbucks in Trumbull.
After one of the morning's games, one of my opponents had commented that I was more fun to play than in the past. She had previously commented that I was too intense. I acknowledge that, with the pressure of qualifying for Nationals, I was not as intense about the game as before. Proof positive of this was my choice to do the best to could to catch Avrin at Shelton, but not spend the money to travel to Kissimmee, Farmington, or Los Gatos.
My first game after lunch was against Steve Sikorsi, who was in one of the top positions, if not first, and had beaten me more times than I him. I got the first bingo down, DETONATE, and managed to maintain a healthy lead, and curiously enough, leave him stuck with both blanks at the end. One curious thing was that ADEEONTT had appeared in the list of top 1000 8s that I had been quizzing myself on a week earlier, and I had not been able to see the bingo. But for some reason, with the tiles on my rack, and easier to move around, the word came to mind quickly.
After the two more or less balanced games that we split in Stamford, my seventh against Kevin McCarthy was my easiest of the tournament. After taking a lead with NOVENAs, I challenged off his transposed TAXIDE and then let him have the 45 for TAXIED so I could play TENURIAL. Then I got the other blank, for an eventual INTORTED that put me so far ahead that I wasn't even fazed by his end rack, AEIINST and the wide-open board that allowed many out bingos. The most interesting thing about the game, for me, was to find out whether I was right to pass up a bingo in this position. Holding AEIOBT?, nIOBATE left the word slotted next to a DWS, and OBvIATE hit the DWS but slotted it next to the triple column. So I played ABO/AX/BI/OE for 33 and kept my blank rather than give up a big play. Well, ABO sims higher than the two bingos I saw, but it turns out REOBTAIn sims highest, but I didn't see it. IcEBOAT also sims higher, but I don't understand why, since it would also have been slotted nex to the triple. Maybe because OBvIATE takes both a D and S?
I opened with both blanks on my rack against Judy Steward, and the 80-point VacATION, but because she opened with 48 for QUOIN and then 30 for QUAERE, we evened out. Several turns later I risked hanging CARE next to a triple column so I could take 47 for COZY. She countered with 45 for PYX, but having left myself EIT yielded DELATION, at which point I started thinking I might actually go 7-4. For some reason, this got me really nervous. The fact that all four eses were in the bag, with CARE hanging out there, also made me nervous, and I tried to play as many tiles as I could, each time praying for an S. But no eses every came, and Judy started scoring like a fiend and catching up while my racks turned to crap. Had the tiles not run out before she caught up, I would have lost.
So I was 7-4 and looking at the possibility of 8-4, but I had to get past David Johnson, who was having a miserable tournament. I knew the guy could play, so to have only won 2 games mean he must have been drawing some shitty tiles. I had to hope his luck wouldn't decide to turn at that very moment, against me. At first, though, it sure looked like he was going to have his game, and in a big way, opening with ANDIRON and then immediately STAGIEST. After my play, he commented that I had just blocked a bingo, and I became convinced he must have drawn a blank. I might have started a comeback at that point, but he blocked a 42-point YAW play. Then he played XI for 38, and it seemed that things were just getting worse and worse. I was down 123, and the resignation rule started to look pretty good. I saw myself losing by over 200 if things continued.
But then the game started to turn. I scored moderately while David seemed to struggle, scoring only 23 points across three turns while I scored 84, putting me within striking distance. And in the meanwhile, I had managed to pick up a second blank. That, more than anything, gave me hope, because it meant David did not have it, and that I did not have to worry so much that that third bingo would come down at any moment. Nor did I have to futz around to find my bingo--with EONRW?? and a C to play from, COWERiNg for 86 jumped out almost immediately, and suddenly I was in the lead. I commented that "I might actually have a chance." David replied, incredulously, "You might have a chance? You're winning!" But even though I led by 34, my mentality was still that of doom, and I expected my lead to disappear in an instant. And it would have, too, if not for chance intervening again, in my favor, as my best Z play, GAUZE, which I didn't see at first because the G was a blank, blocked David's hook for ORALISM. He could have instead played ZIRAM for 32 and then, with the final S, score again off that Z, but instead, after thinking until his time was running low, decided to try to hook the work to ABOIL. Well, ABOILS* came right off the board, and my lead finally started to look more secure, even though I had to play ZED for 13 to block ZIRAM. The Q could still have sunk me, but thankfully David was focused on a different part of the board, where he needed to try and create an opening for a bingo, and even the meagre 12-point QAT was enough to save me once he failed to bingo.
The Mystery Keys
As nerve-wracking as my game with Judy had been, my game against David was doubly so. After those two, my nerves were shot. I could hardly think, hardly even feel relief at having made it to 8-4. I needed to calm my nerves, and in my experience naked women have that power. So I headed down to Bridgeport and refound Scruples, a club I had spotted the previous night. Now, "Scruples" would seem like like a silly name for a strip club, wouldn't it. Unless, of course the management is trying not to get raided. "No, officers, no funny business here. We've got scruples."
The sting of missed opportunities, a possible 10-2 record, was mighty hard to ease, but I've gotta say that a 22-year-old Brazilian hottie sitting on your lap goes a long way. As expected, Scruples was much tamer than Teddie's (which is probably why it's still in business) and so I cut the dancer off after one dance and went on my way.
Before I entered the club I changed into some slacks. As I was putting them on, I thought I heard some keys fall, but I assumed they were my own. When I returned to the car I saw the keychain, unrecognizable to me, with one key on it. I had no idea where it had come from. The keychain read "Sikorsky", and I wondered if I had somehow walked away with Steve's key? I thought it more likely that they keychain had been in those slacks for so long I had forgotten where they had come from. I thought about it for a while, but I just couldn't remember anything and went about my way.
Next stop was one of the local massage parlors. I usually avoid the Asian massage parlors because they rarely give a good massage, charge too much, and the girls rarely speak English. But for $30 with a coupon from the Fairfield Weekly it was worth a try. And surprise, surprise, the Korean girl, from Seoul (my possible Christmas destination) did speak English. And she had pretty good hands. But in the end, she wanted a heftier tip than I was prepared to offer and ended up being disappointed. I concluded that because of the lack of options in Connecticut (compared to a more populated city like Houston), the prices were higher.
Next I found gas station where I heated my leftover pizza so I could eat it while heading to the movies. As I cruised down Fairfield Avenue, with hot leftover pizza on my lap and a Tradewinds tea in my hand, I felt like the shit. This was the life! Cruising around Connecticut on a Saturday night with an 8-4 record and acoustic folk music on the radio. It just didn't get any better than that!
I found a movie theater showing Closer, a movie I'd been looking forward to since I heard about it, because of three of the stars--Natalie Portman (future lover), Clive Owen (Croupier), and Jude Law (twistet killer in Road to Perdition). Julia Roberts--I didn't really care about her either way. I had to wait until the 9:50 show, which of course didn't start until after 10:00. From the first scene on, I kept hoping the film with turn that corner and reach the point at which I was drawn into the story. It never happened. A little after 60 minutes into it, I decided I just didn't care what happened and was better of getting more sleep, so I left. I stopped at the restroom, and I had to hit the wall--just once--because I had really wanted the movie to be good. I hate it when I get myself looking forward to a movie, book, CD, etc. and it disappoints.
I drove back to the mansion, and all of a sudden I realized where the key had come from. I'd been given it, in case the doors were locked! I could hardly believe it. I'd been given the key barely an hour before I completely forgot about it. Holy shit, but I was getting old and losing my memory! I couldn't help but wonder what impact my apparent "condition" would have on my Scrabble progress.
8-4 was one of the strongest positions I'd been in in Division 2 of a larger East Coast tournament. But the last two times I could remember being in a similar position, Piscataway and Parsippany, the tiles had betrayed me in those crucial final games. So it was with a sense of dread that I sat down to play Mary Alice Lyons, whom I knew from experience to be tough. When I arrived at the Hilton she was counting her tiles and discovered one missing. I took that as an opportunity to finally break down and buy some of the nice ProTiles, hoping maybe they would bring me luck. We counted them, and as we put them in the bag I commented that we didn't really know if all the letters were there in the right numbers--there might be no blanks. Then Mary Alice drew for first, and she drew a blank! I drew, and I drew a blank!! I'd never had that happen before, and I chose to take it as a good omen. My opening rack was ODWYSSS, and I wasn't sure if that was good or bad. At least Mary Alice would not be able to draw all those eses. There was no way I was going to exchange them, so I played YOWS. She replied with VEX. I could have hooked it, VEXT, but wasn't sure about DAWT--dammit, still forgetting those fours. But my uncertainty worked in my favor--I played TAS/AYE/SOX... and she challenged! My heart started pounding. I immediately convinced myself that TA was part of TA-TA and didn't take an S. It was a long trip up to the computer, and I fully expected the play to be judged invalid. I was just as amazed as Mary Alice when the adjudicator, oh beautiful adjudicator, rule my play good. A couple of turns later, DARKNESS allowed me to see light at the end of the tunnel, and I maintained control for the duration and picked up 159 spread points!
Even with my boosted spread I remained in third place, and I thought I'd be denied another crack at Charlene because of a straight KOTH pairing. But Ginger paired 1-3, 2-4, so I did get to play Charlene after all. I tried to convince myself that she couldn't possibly be that consistently lucky over the course of fifteen games. But she indeed was, starting off our game with BEStING. After a weak-scoring but rack-balancing GYVE, I drew the other blank, to my great relief, and saw that my IUUNST? played through two separate Es, including a double-double. My hope that I would take the lead quickly turned to worry when I noticed that Charlene could (inadvertently) block both. I lost the double-double, but at least I got it for 65. I nearly evened it up with FAS for 29, but then I drew the A and F again, and back into a crappy AAAOFLP. I crossed my fingers as I layed the F on the triple column for a 28-point FLAPS, and I immediately got bitten by ZARF. Rain turned to pouring as I had to exchange my AAEOODQ (or take 14 for QAID and leave death on my rack) and then watch as Charlene played XI for 36 and once more led by a bingo. My exchange had yielded an extremely valuable S, and I was able to score 41 with SCORE to tighten the gap. But I remained behind for the duration as Charlene fell into these gimme plays. Finally, it came down to the point where my only chance was for her to either get stuck with the Q, or when she played off the open U to open a triple, that I'd be able to score. Well, she played QUAD for 16 right under the triple line, but my crappy EIIOUGG couldn't compete with her AEIORT.
By winning her 14th game, Charlene had locked up first place. Ginger was ecstatic. I guess it's that whole last name thing. Maurice was "gracious" and gave Charlene a hug, while I went off to the corner and seethed. I was sure I was the better player, and that if I had gotten anything like a fair shake I would have won. I had never gotten so consistently lucky over the course of a long tournament, and I couldn't help but be pissed off about it.
Since Charlene was Gibsonized, I had to face Maurice for second, which was actually good for a better rating... if I beat him. This time around, I didn't get completely outdrawn. I didn't outdraw him either, but I got some breaks, like an early MOTIONs and then some good scores that allowed to build up a lead that came in handy when my racks fizzled for lack of an S. My critical break I think was when, holding an awful EGLLLPT, Maurice played GIST next to a triple column. I didn't see the hook at first, so I guess it was just chance that I decided to be bold and play TELL for 16, opening up another triple. Then I saw the GIST hook, and I drew an A! Maurice burned his blank for a 41-point CZAR, but VOLTA for 30 evened it up. Then I got my second break by finally drawing an S, to hook TELL for 32 points. Then it just came down to the end tiles, and getting rid of my J. I had one spot, JEE for 22, that would have given Maurice back at least 39, or worse if he played JAWED instead of JADES. But his attempt at blocking, EL for four points, gave me JEEP/EEL for 29. After I played, I heard Maurice mutter "putz". I nearly took umbrage, but then I realized he was probably berating himself for having given me the hook. After some time, he came back with SPAWN for 42 off that JEEP had opened, but he already knew it wasn't enough. He went out first, but I won by 4. I expected a recount, but I guess he was just frustrated, because he was out of there almost as quickly as I would have been in a similar situation.
At the time, I was not completely displeased. Yeah, first would have been better, and 11 or 12 wins might surely have pushed me over 1600, but I, in my delusion, wasn't ruling out the possibility that 10-5 might push me over. I needed to stick around for awards, all the while anxious as hell to calculate my new rating.
Meanwhile, in the other contest, I had picked up 2 win over Paul Avrin, less than the 3-4 I had expected. Since he was sure to win well more than seven games in Kissimmee, that contest was pretty much over. As competitive as I am, I just couldn't sacrifice a couple of day's wages on top of the money to go down there, not with an overseas trip planned for Christmas. My best plan, then, was to take Paul out of commission, but unfortunately he saw through my attempt to trip him with my laptop's power cord. Curses, foiled again!
As I waited for awards, I simmed that critical FLAPS play against Charlene, and it turned out it was an awful play. PACA would have scored 24 and not opened the triple line, and that could have made the different even with her drawing the Z and X. So maybe I did have a chance after all. But it's just so much easier to draw the tiles instead of having to make every play optimal to win.
Later, I had to wonder whether Charlene had really been able to get lucky over so many games, or if she had somehow ratcheted up her level of play for those 15 games. I guessed there was no way to know. The next day, I read that the tournament win was Charlene's first, and I felt a little bad that I had not shared in her joy for being so focused on my own performance and perceived injustice.
During the awards ceremony, delayed due to a double-recount that ended up in a tie that knocked both players out of first place, Ginger mentioned that I was "on a tear". She was doubtlessly making a reference to my 7-0 at her previous tournament, in Bayside, and not realizing that given the strength of the field, my 10-5 record was hardly spectacular. Little did I realize just how unspectacular it would turn out to be.
But for the moment I was chill, in part because of my hopes for a good ratings boost, but also because I was finally having a chance to listen to the new U2 disc I'd been carrying around for over a week, and, unlike that crappy Closer, U2 did not disappoint. It was too bad that I couldn't listen to it in the car (at least not without headphones, which is risky), but my mood was elevated nonetheless by the much-improved weather. The sun had come out, and it made for a beautiful drive. I looked forward to some Colombian food, and my hopeful mood continued until I got to the Starbucks in Fairfield.
It was a detour from a direct route home, but I couldn't resist finding out what my new rating would be. So it was all the more disappointing, then, to learn that I had picked up all of seven freaking ratings points. SEVEN!!! All that hoping, all that anticipation. All for naught.
Tournament after tournament, I continued to land in the mid-1500s, and I just had accept that I was not an expert player. After countless failed attempts, my hopes were finally dismantled. I sucked at Scrabble, and I would continue to suck for the forseeable future.