Desperate Measures

February 25, 2005

With a weekend break from Scrabble before Wilmington, I was thinking about plans for a possible Starbucks trip when I received an e-mail from Susi Tiekert with no body and a simple subject line "1735". No!!! As I feared, I had dropped slightly, and, more importantly, come in below some guy named Steve Krieger as the the other lowest wannabe.

Another player had tanked at Danbury and dropped below me, but too far! She had dropped below 1700 and, according to Charlotte's playup rules, would be bumped to Division 2, which didn't help me at all!

I scrambled to work out pros and cons, and I decided that I needed to go out to Farmington to try and pick up the 14 points I need to get ahead of Krieger (assuming his rating had not changed), and I quickly left work to go home and pack up.

I had been wanting to get some tires and an alignment, but Firestone couldn't take me right away (not that I expected it). They tried to convince me that with school's being cancelled because of the snow traffic would be right, but I knew that was bullshit. I followed my gut and sped towards I-270, which I knew got crazy during the rush hour because I heard it every day on the radio. Sure enough, though it was not even 4:00 yet I got pockets of heavy traffic all the way out to Frederick, where I stopped at a new Starbucks, and I was thankful that I wasn't delayed even longer.

Meanwhile, because I always have to multitask, I awaited return calls from Bill the documentarian and the recently re-schmoopified Jodi about meeting up in Chi-town after my tournament. I had considered stopping in Hagerstown to get those new tires, but when Jodi called and said that Ani DiFranco was playing Saturday night, I decided to needed to hurry up and try to arrive sooner and get more sleep in case I needed to rush Chicago right after the tournament.

The weather, at least, was cooperating, and I made good time all the way into Ohio, but in the back of my mind was concern about the return trip--they were reporting a serious storm a-coming. I got some light schnee as I approached Mayfield Heights (Cleveland), where I stopped at another new Starbucks, but it didn't slow me down and soon dissipated as I continued on into Michigan.

Stupid Michigan rest areas along I-75 into Detroit were still closed, but I found the parking lot of the same factory outlet in Monroe that I had used the last time, and it served me just fine.

I'd bought DoubleShots at the two new Starbucks I'd visited, and the caffeine triggered a night of wild Scrabble-infused dreams during which I woke up every hour or two. Besides the caffeine, part of the reason was that cold are kept leaking into my cave of warmth. I would keep adjusting the blanket until I thought I was sealed in tight, but then I'd feel cold hitting me here or there. So frustrating.

As morning neared, I continued to debate whether to try and visit two new stores before the tournament, one in Windsor, and the other outside Detroit. On the one hand, if I went straight to the tournament, I could sleep a full eight hours, and maybe that sleep would help me perform better. I didn't want to end up wasting the long drive. Or even worse, knocking myself out of Division 1 altogether by winning less than three games.

On the other hand, it didn't look like my work schedule would allow me months on the road in 2005, and so I needed to make the most of every opportunity to visit new stores while I was in the area. Decisions, decisions.

February 26

I had reset my alarm clock about four times during the night as I waffled between heading straight to the tournament or visiting Starbucks, and as I tried to decide just how much time I'd need.

I finally started driving shortly after 7:00, before my alarm went off, and I made great time up and through the Canadian border. Well, once I found the bridge after a wrong turn. Even with a map right next to me to tell me the exact route and distance, I seemed managed an obscene number of wrong turns during my travels around the continent.

The previous day I had heard a report on NPR about method acting. One of the interviewees, who was a critic of "The Method" mentioned some actor who always had to scream before a take. Well, I don't know anything about acting, but I do know that shouting and howling is a good method for waking up before you've had your coffee. Maybe it's not so good if you have roommates, but in a moving car no one's going to hear or see you waving your arms and pumping your fist except maybe the spy satellites.

The Canadian border agent waved me through without even looking at my ID, but I could see traffic stacking up in the other direction on the Ambassador Bridge. At the Starbucks I delayed myself when I noticed that the new cups with the quotes on them were in English and French. I hadn't expected that, but it made sense, since all the other text on Canadian cups has been in both languages. Since the "The Way I See It" cups had debuted in America, I had fallen back into my collector's mentality and tried to get all of them. I thought it would be the coolest thing to have dual-language versions of all the cups, but the store only had one, the controversial #14.

I also asked the barista to confirm there were only three Starbucks in Windsor. That was correct, but according to him they would have a total of seven by the end of the year. Grrr... I had detoured into Canada even though my time was short because I assumed that Windsor just didn't get new Starbucks that frequently. I might as well have waited, if I was just going to have to return anyway.

I lost a few more minutes before I could leave when I happened to ask I gentleman in a chair if Canadian schoolchildren outside Quebec were required to learn French, as I assumed they were. Though his kids were raised in Canada, the man turned out to be from America, and in fact had lived in my hometown of Houston for some time, and also done some graduate work at the University of Texas. We chatted about that for a few minutes before I pulled myself away and rushed off.

I was starting to run low on time, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to reshoot the Starbucks in downtown Windsor in daylight. Then I got lost again looking for the tunnel. Then, on the U.S. side, the customs agent questioned me for what seemed like an eternity, even asking to see my digital camera to prove that I had in fact been visiting Starbucks. I think she was suspicious because I had crossed the border less than an hour earlier, which was probably unusual.

Needless to say, as soon as my wheels hit the ramp for the freeway I floored it. My mind hurriedly tried to calculate the probability that I could detour to Utica and reach Farmington in time. As I had done several times in the past, I grumbled that Carol didn't have a mobile phone with her at the tournament site (or I didn't know the number), and that I kept forgetting to ask one of the other regulars for a mobile # just for times like these. Then it occurred to me it would make sense that Carol live close to the Farmington Community Library, and, that since the library didn't even open until 9:00, there would be no point for her to leave the house early. So I tried the house at 8:30, and thankfully she answered and I was able to explain that I'd be a few minutes late and to pair me and start my clock. Whew!

Carol told me no problem, and to be careful. I'm sure the last thing she had in mind was driving 85-90 MPH while trying to type at the same time. But if you think that's fast, there was a white Accord with a dented bumper (surprise, surprise) who blew past me like I was standing still. 100+ MPH, easily I figured. For all the good it did him. Turned out he had exited M-53, just like me, and I caught up with him at the red light, which must have been a really long one, because I'm guessing he had about a mile on me before I reached the exit.

Just beyond the light a cop had someone pulled over, and one we cleared him traffic seemed to explode up the road as at least three or four of us kept changing lanes trying to get ahead of the slower-moving cars. There was at least one instant during which I was sure somebody was going to have a collision.

Oh, hey, Starbucks "Coming Soon" in Sterling Heights. Surprise, surprise! Guess I'll have to go back.

8:57 when I pulled into the new Starbucks in Utica just as "Weekend Edition" was finishing a report about Academy Award winning songs (does anyone remember the song that won in 2004). Just past 9:00 when I got back on M-53, which was a freeway that far north, and I had 35 miles to drive. Flying down the freeway was no problem, but there was a seven-mile stretch that had lights, and it seemed to take forever. I almost blew it outright when, after weaving in between some cars into the rightmost lane, which was clear, I spotted a cop in my rearview. Oh, damn it to hell! I slowed down, of course, and then when I spotted a bus stop or shoulder or something like that I proactively pulled over. It worked--the cop asked me why I had pulled over, I replied "I thought you were going to pull me over" as I showed my license, and he just said to slow down and pay attention. Whew!

I arrived about five minutes after 9:30, and the cards were just being handed out. I had a few minutes to relax, to spend some much needed time in the bathroom, and to survey the competition. Wowsers, I thought, when I saw no fewer than five 1800+ players in the top group!

After quickly finding IRONIST against #2 John O'Laughlin, I had a brain freeze and lost my turn with YOH. A phony three? What the hell??? Just two weeks prior I'd chided another player for the same offence, and here I was doing it.

I got the turn back when he tried ABAYA*, and I got further confirmation of a something I'd been discovering, that even high experts were weak on fives.

His phony allowed me the luxury of an the exchange I needed to draw the S I needed to hook his BUDGETER, and a couple of turns later I tied the game only to have him serve up BURRITOs. For the rest of the game I tried to score, keep balanced, and create openings, and I finally got down RETINUlA, but it wasn't quite enough. Later I would find out that when I made what I thought was a pretty good place, OPENLY for 38, I had actually missed a bingo--appropriately enough, it was INEPTLY.

When I returned from the bathroom after our game and asked #1 Ron Hoesktra if he had found a win yet, he replied "Oh count thee the ways." But since I had pushed him on time and had over ten minutes to less than a minute for him, he wasn't able to find the moves, and despite having been down 50-70 points from turns 2 through 10, I managed to come back without a bingo by keeping the board tight and making Ron have to spend more of his dwindling time trying to keep a lead without giving me an opening for the blank that he probably suspected I had. Critical for me in that game was that I resisted the urge to create an opening for my great bingo tiles, because given the tile pool, there was a possibility that Ron also held a bingo. Just to be clear, this would never have worked had Ron not been low on time. I'd have to say that in that game, the clock was more valuable to me than the blank I held.

Game #3 against Evan Berofsky was one of those games, in which Evan never seemed to have a bad rack, except for his third turn, when he fished, exchanged one, and then drew into BESTiAL. I'm sure I made a mistake in trying to block, but given what I drew the rest of the game, I would have ended up with a crappy rack no matter what I played. When you draw FKY into RNS? and have to choose between a 58-point FRiSKY/DHOBIS or an exchange (because you suck) and then your opponent comes back with THUYA for 45, you know you never had a chance... at least until you simulate the game and then discover that you gave up enough equity to kill a horse.

Neverthless, as useful as I was finding Maven for discovering just what a suck-ass player I am, I was still finding I had to disregard more and more of its suggestions as either useless because they didn't take the game score, among other considerations, into account.

Frank Miller wrote in a classic Daredevil story that "a man without hope is a man without fear", but I doubt he had Scrabble in mind. Christopher Sykes played two naturals, CEBoIDS (which I challenged), and drew nine power tiles (leaving me the S) to destroy my hope by 137. I didn't care about spread, because I wasn't there to win the tournament, not with three 1800+ players in the field (I'm not a total idiot, 530-mile drive for 14 ratings points notwithstanding). But four wins was looking impossible, three was looking questionable, and I started hoping fervently that, becauseof the strength of the field, two wins would kweep me above 1700. Fact is that I was afraid, very afraid, that I would knock myself out of Division 1 altogether.

That little cutie with the ornament that I don't know the name for around her neck was still at Big Apple Bagel, and this was reason enough to go even if they did get rid of the Naked Juice that's so much better than Nantucket Nectar. My new goal--to get her to smile at me before she graduates and goes off to college.

While I waited for Tom Sirgedas, John Terrell asked how I could study during a tournament. I replied that I had so much to study I had to make use of every available moment. He said that if he tried that, nothing would stick, and it would mess up his tournament. Whatever works, man.

My easiest game of the tournament turned into my most painful loss. I started off with SLITHER and ALATIONS, then QUEER for 30, GRUMP for 30, WEFT/TOQUET for 45, and KAF for 27 to lead 100. Then John Terrell hit about the only place to bingo, hALATIONS/hERNIAS. I had actually seen HALATION when browsing high-prob eights, but it didn't occur to me when I tried to determine what bingo lines were available. I countered well and still led by a bingo, so I wasn't worried, but a couple of turns later John played TOLA for 5, a dead giveaway that he was ready to bingo. I forwent my best scoring move in favor of trying to block by forcing him to back-parallel P and ET. And what did he have, but EVERTOR, which would not have fit had I taken my best-scoring play. The bingo brought him one point short of tying, but opened a triple on which I could have scored 39 for ERMINED. It was tough decision, but I challenged because I had already been through the Es in the top 7500 sevens, except for the 4001-5000 list, which I had skipped. I prayed the word wasn't on that list. It was, and then the worst possible thing happened, John got the triple-triple BEDsONIA for 140 to take an insurmountable lead!!! Even though I hooked the UNRIMED that was sitting in my rack, there were only three tiles left in the bag, and I was left to contemplate my worst loss in a long time. From 84 points up to 139 down--that's harsh.

While I waited for Paul Epstein I chatted with Scott Pianowski about my predicament. We both guessed that I needed to win that last game to stay above 1700. And if I weren't the most suckiest "expert" ever, I would have won handily. But somehow I missed the ID where my QA would have fit, and I exchanged the Q, and then several turns later, again. Those two lost turns plus the 14 I didn't get for QAID would have easily won me the game.

Of course, as I left the library, dejected, I did not yet realize the depths of my suckitude. I really thought I'd just gotten bad tiles. Later, I would be forced to wonder if I'd ever gotten bad tiles in my Scrabble life.

The only thing that could have redeemed the experience was if I had remained above 1700, and I was desperate to work out my new rating. During the event I had interrogated my opponents about any ratings changes in February, but when I got across the street to the Starbucks I discovered the online ratings calculator was still down. AARRGHH!!! My desperation was threatening to boil over into a fit of screaming and cursing that would have scared all the children around and required men in white coats to come. Fortunately for my sanity I found another calculator, and it put my loss at only fifteen points.

Whew! I was able to set off for a couple of days of Starbucking without the overwhelming weight of sub-1700-hood pressing down upon me like large stones on Giles Corey's chest.

Average Equity Loss Per Turn

L - 4.36, W - 6.58, L - 6.52, L - 7.52, W - 11.84, L - 4.71, L - 4.25: Avg - 6.54

Oddly enough, I seem to have given up more equity in the two games I won.

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