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I am Dave Kingman


Word Cup flyerI finished the tournament with one win and one loss.

The Win

In the weeks leading up to WGPO Word Cup tournament I dithered about whether to play in it or not. This tournament–the annual national championship of the WGPO–was a five-day, 31-game affair. Previously, I had only played in one similar tournament, the 2005 National Scrabble Championship in Reno, a four-day, 28-game tournament.[1] It was an exhausting experience then, and I had serious doubts about my ability to finish a five-day tournament today given my health.

The primary challenge I face as a result of ALS when I play Scrabble is my loss of strength and manual dexterity in both hands. I can use my left hand to (barely) grasp and hold the tile bag, but nothing else. This has been true for a while, but now my right hand is quickly weakening and losing its dexterity. It is becoming quite difficult for me to draw tiles out of the bag and placed them on my rack without fumbling them all over the table and floor. I use a fat pen which helps somewhat, but I struggle to write on my scoresheet (keeping score, recording plays, and tracking tiles).

Stamina is my other challenge. For a variety of reasons, ALS is a physically exhausting disease. I knew coming into the tournament that sitting hunched over a Scrabble board for seven hours a day would not be easy. Overworking my arms would only compound the problem.

The tournament directors were aware of my condition and allowed me five extra minutes on my clock each game. They provided me with a “permission slip” that I showed to each of my opponents, all of whom were understanding and accepted the condition without hesitation.

“The Win” is that I was able to complete the tournament. I did tire over the course of the five days: I only used my extra time twice over the first three days (21 games) of the tournament, but used it in nine of 10 games over the final two days. As each day wore on, I cramped up. This mostly affected my left side (neck, shoulder and middle back) and both hands. But overall I was happy with my ability to get through the tournament physically. I know I’ll never play another five-day tournament, but I am reasonably sure that I will be able to play in shorter tournaments through the end of this calendar year at least.

The Loss

Dave Kingman 1971 Topps baseball cardAfter starting the tournament 8-4, I went 5-14 the rest of the way. I would like to blame my downward spiral after game twelve on my physical challenges, but I’m afraid the blame lies with me. I played down to my seeding. I was seeded 34 of 40 in my division and placed just a little better than expected. I may have picked up a couple more wins over the final three days of the tournament had I been in optimal health, but it is just as likely that my poor results had everything to do with my poor performance. No need to look for excuses.

For as long as I have been playing this game, I have been something of the Dave Kingman of Scrabble. I love the long ball a little too much. Kingman played for a host of major league baseball teams over the course of his career. For every ten times at the plate, he hit one or two home runs and struck out seven times. He wore a glove in the field for no apparent reason. He was fun to watch, but he wasn’t a winner.[2]

The bingo[3] is the long ball of Scrabble and according to Bull Durham, “chicks dig the long ball.” But it is the efficient player who can go deep when the situation calls for it and consistently hit line drives the rest of the time who really wins. A little glove work (defense) helps too.

In 39 tournaments played prior to this one I out-bingoed my opponents 28 times. My opponents out-bingoed me 7 times, and in 4 tournaments my opponents and I played the same number of bingos. I totaled 644 bingos to my opponents’ 511 over this span, while compiling a record of 245 wins, 224 losses and 1 tie.[4]

In the Word Cup I really swung for the fences, out-bingoing my opponents 62-37! This means I somehow racked up an average of 100 bonus points per game to my opponents’ 60, all while being outscored by an average of 9 points and losing 18 of 31 games. We call it “fishing” in Scrabble when a player makes suboptimal plays while saving “bingo-ish” tiles on his rack in hopes of hitting the big play on his next turn. I would swear on a stack of Joe Edley’s Everything Scrabble that I wasn’t fishing, but the data says otherwise .

It wasn’t just the fishing that lost me games.

I play a wide-open, less-defensive style of play. I often will open a “bingo line” in hopes that I will be the one to hit it, not my opponent. This of course can and does backfire. I am also prone to setting up my opponents to score well with shorter words. My bingo-tunnel-vision creates a blind spots that obscure these setups. All of these tendencies hurt me in this tournament.

And then there were the mistakes and boneheaded plays that cost me games. Two examples should suffice.

In one close game I chose to play DERAILER* instead of REDLINER. I couldn’t feel sure of REDLINER even though I knew REDLINE and REDLINED are good. But REDLINER is good, while DERAILER* is (ridiculously) spelled DERAILLEUR.[5]. I did get down REDLINER after DERAILER* was challenged off, but the misplay and lost turn likely cost me the game.

In another game I failed to challenge my opponent’s phoney bingo RETINNED*. I saw that he could have played INTERNED on the same spot, and guessed that he might have played a more obscure (but acceptable) word in hopes of drawing a challenge. In retrospect I see that I made two mistakes. The first was that—because I could not win if the word stayed on the board—I had to challenge. Late in the game, the 70-point play put the game out of reach. I bingoed two turns later in a case of “too little, too late.” Secondly, I know the word SINTER and its anagrams. There are eight words in that rack and even if I couldn’t have recalled all of them[6] at that moment, I knew—if I’d only thought clearly about it—that RETINS* was not one of them. D’oh!

Bill Nicholson baseball cardOh well. I did have some good moments. I played the triple-triple bingo PELORIAN for 131 points on my third turn of the first game of the tournament (and it was challenged!). I played DOTTRELS for 77 points with one tile left in the bag and down by 24 points in game five. My opponent challenged the play, I drew the last tile out of the bag, and played out taking 24 points from her rack for an 81-point win. (I played DOTTRELS again on day three of the tournament.) In the first game of day two, my opponent made what turned out to be her last play of the game: ANGELIC for 70 points and a 23-point lead. But I found KEITLOAS through an L for 74 points. She challenged and I took 44 points from her rack to win the game by 102 points. In the following game, I beat the eventual sixth-place finisher 470-334 despite her late 92-point bingo PENCHANT.

My opponents, of course, had some good moments too. More good moments than I did, evidently, though I haven’t found them to be as memorable. Funny how that works. One that I won’t forget occurred when with one tile left in the bag, my opponent bingoed with SINKAGE to take her first lead of the game. I challenged (given the situation I had no choice, but I didn’t like the word in any case). It’s good. A very nice win for her, and a memorable if painful loss for me.

Detritus

I won’t do my usual “counting of the power tiles” routine because I really don’t have the energy to go back through 31 sloppy score sheets and because it doesn’t matter. I will append the list of my bingos and my opponents’ bingos. This doesn’t matter either, but is just the sort of thing that that the Dave Kingman of Scrabble would do.

Mine

  • Day 1 – PELORIAN, COTERIES, TACTFUL, VIOLATE, SIGNORE, ERADIATE, REDYEING, LEERING, ENROOTS, DOTTRELS, SONSIER, LITTERED, LAUNDERS, TORMENT
  • Day 2 – MANLIER, DONATES, SHOWERS, KEITLOAS, GELATIN, SWIVING, OVERCAST, TANSIES, ENTERERS, STRENGTH, SANICLE, BONNIEST, TAURINE, DINGIEST, TAGGERS, NETTLES
  • Day 3 – REFLATE, DECASTE*, OUTDIVED*, DOTTRELS, POUTIER, BESTING, SANTERO, RESIDUE, FORMLESS, STINGILY, OVERREAD*, RETINOLS, DRESSIER, ANERGIC
  • Day 4 – OCARINE*, RAINIEST, ALTITUDE, REDLINER, DIVERTS, REASONER, GODEITIAS*, SOLDIERS, ENTICES, GOATEES, STRAFED, TAENIAS, INCITER
  • Day 5 – INSTATE, SLANTING, REPTILE, HIRINGS*, SARDONIC

Theirs

  • Day 1 – ORATION, WEIGHED, SOIGNEE, DOILIES, IODATES, PANIERS, REVALUE, DESTINED
  • Day 2 – ANGELIC, PENCHANT, EDITION, SINKAGE, ABODING, GROUNDS, SLAVERS, LUSTING, RADIATOR
  • Day 3 – SPIRANT, DEVICES, GESTURE, STORIED, SNAGGLE*, OUTHEARS
  • Day 4 – TOWERING, AUXITES*, RETINNED*, ENDWISE, RECLEAN, WITTING, TEMPING, LISTERS, WEARIER, BIPLANE, ANESTRI
  • Day 5 – WORRIES, ORDERING, DAMPEST, RAVINES

The words marked with asterisks are phoneys. It is interesting to see that I played 29 bingos and no phoneys on days one and two. Six of the 33 bingos I played on days three through five were phoneys. Likewise, I didn’t let my opponents get away with any phoney bingos over the first two days of the tournament, but I let three phoney bingos pass over the next two.

I did try five phoney bingos that were challenged off (the second and fifth of these were desparate “hail-Marys” that I didn’t expect to be good and, yes, I saw INSURED but it wouldn’t play): PADLIKE*, PEABRAINS*, DRIZZLER*, DERAILER*, INDURES*.

My opponents unsuccessfully tried two phoney bingos: STOICLY*, OVERASK*.

Notes

  1. The 2005 tournament was played under the auspices of the National Scrabble Association (NSA). The NSA no longer runs adult tournaments (preferring to invest its time in the School Scrabble program, which it hopes to raise to the prominence of the National Spelling Bee). Now we have a schism in tournament Scrabble. North American Scrabble Players Association (NASPA) is the larger organization and has the imprimatur of Hasbro, the corporate owners of Scrabble in North America. Word Game Players’ Organization (WGPO) is the upstart, smaller organization. See more on the schism here. This Word Cup championship tournament was the WGPO’s second annual. [^]
  2. I flatter myself too much when I call myself “the Dave Kingman of Scrabble.” Kingman was obviously a better ballplayer than I am a Scrabbler. Also, I’m exaggerating about his stats. According to BaseballReference.com, Kingman hit one homer every 17 plate appearances (this is better than Hank Aaron’s career average) and struck out once every four PAs (more than twice as often as Aaron). He once led the National League in homeruns with 37 while batting .204.
     
    I thought Bill “Swish” Nicholson might be a better comparison, but I looked up his stats and, at least for a five-year stretch, he was a better hitter than I thought. [^]
  3. In Scrabble-geek parlance, a “bingo” occurs when a player uses all seven tiles from his rack to form a word on the board. This might be a seven- or eight-letter word, or longer, and earns the player 50 bonus points. [^]
  4. Yes, I keep the history of my tournaments in a database. You aren’t surprised. [^]
  5. I agree with American cyclist and blogger Sheldon Brown who is on a one-man crusade to replace the faux-French word “derailleur” (pronounced in this country as “de-RAIL-er” instead of the actual French pronunciation “day-RAH-EUH”) with the common sense “derailer.” [^]
  6. The six words are: ESTRIN, INERTS, INSERT, INTERS, NITERS, NITRES, SINTER, TRIENS and TRINES. [^]

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