Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Number One Novice Scrabble Player in Australia says what?

Ugarles threw down the gauntlet. "You should go play Sowpods Scrabble in Australia!" If you have guts, he added.
I laughed when I read his comment because I had played a Sowpods game once with one Joe Grossberg and I was so totally lost when he played Gi and the computer let it stand (even thuogh we were playing non-challenge Scrabulous) that I think I resigned the game right then. Bullshit Sowpods words, I said doing my best imitation of any one of the lameos who won't play Scrabble with me because I play "Scrabble words." Boo hoo, I respond "there's no such thing as Scrabble words, just sore losers."
Anyway, it didn't at all seriously cross my mind that I would play any Scrabble during my two and a half week trip to Australia, save a couple of games in the airport with friends or maybe out in the countryside when we got bored. Well, sure enough I played in the airport. And in the countryside. After racking up a few pretty lopsided wins, no one would play with me anymore. Then, somewhere around the mid week mark, after moving my luggage to the third of five different housing accomodations, I started to feel homesick, which is weird cause when I'm home I don't really like anyone here.
Well, sure enough I called home, realized everyone I know is an assface, which was a comfort in a way since I remembered why I was so keen to hop on a plane and leave them behind. But I was still sort of feeling alone and stranger in a strangelandish. So I went to my friend the internets and found me a Scrabble club in Melbourne. I copied down the address, made Mary promise not to laugh at me and then took a cab to the address at the appointed time.
I got out of the cab and was met with the shut gates of a storefront. No. Good.
I walked up a few blocks to see if there was anything resembling "The Prince George Hotel."
There wasn't.
I went into a 7-11 to ask for directions.
"Ah, yeah, it's up that way about three blocks."
I walked those three plus another four and still there was nothing.
I went into a bar to ask after further directions.
"Ah yeah, it's up about three blocks."
I started to wonder if "up about three blocks" was Australian for leave us alone you stupid American girl.
Finally, about three blocks up, I reached my destination. Hooray!
I saw a handful of players sitting across two boards, one guy was playing two games.
He kind of looked like your quintessential 60s hippie.
For one brief moment I thought about bolting. But then I remembered I had just walked twenty blocks, paid a cab $26 and had no idea how to get back to my hotel, so instead I walked right up to them and said
"Um...are you guys..." don't say playing Scrabble don't say playing Scrabble don't say playing scrabble don't say..."playing Scrabble?"
The looked up from their board and smiled.
"Um...I'm looking for the Scrabble club...I'm visiting from the States."
"No kidding," said the hippie.
"Be nice, Jerry,' said the friendly white haired man, "you can play with me."
Jerry scooted his chair over, so that now he was only playing the woman.
I drew tiles and started my game with Tim.
They played on funny Australian boards, where instead of writing signifying "double word score" or "triple letter score" they had like crazy colored squigglies. Now, I play enough Scrabble that some tiles I know instantly, but there are some I had to ask about.
Tim would tell me. He also kept score! Plus, there were no clocks. Oh, and Australia rule Scrabble (actually, everywhere except the US) allows no penalty challanges. Well, if the word is no good, you have to take it off the board and lose a turn. But if the word is good, yuo don't lose your turn for challenging it.
Which was good and bad. Good because since they played with the sowpods dictionary, I could challenge "te" without penalty. Well, I was laughed at and there was pointing for me not knowing a simple two, but I got to play my turn.
I caught on to the new twos pretty quickly" ea, ee, oo, ja, zo...just to name a few. And I gave up challenging everything else. I lost my first game.
I didn't bingo at all...the score was fairly lopsided, but Jim was kind.
My second game was against the woman.
I bingoed on her almost immediately.
She made some big plays with the x and the z, but in the end, I drew extremely well and beat her by ten points. When I won, Jerry, who basically ignored me, but for his snarkish comments when I first arrived, started to warm up to me.
He asked if I played in the Joel club in New York. I said yes, we talked a bit about New York and then it was my turn to play him.
A slaughter doesn't even begin to describe it:
He bingoed on me five times, he psyched me out of playing "quinates" hooking my bingo tannres onto his opening bingo. "Don't think you can do that love...or maybe I know you can, I just don't wantcha to."
And then he'd laugh.
And I got scared and played tanners somewhere else.
He was just plunking down words left and right. AND he refused to keep score. So I had to do it.
It was sheer misery.
And at the end I took my picture of the board and he said "why do you do that?" And I said "so I can learn new words."
He seemed to like that answer and said he wanted to play me again. This time he critiqued my moves and explained his. It was unbelieveable. I learned more about Scrabble from him in those few hours than I have from anyone on any subject in so short a period of time. He was like a savant...and someday when my word knowledge is stronger, I might share some of his strategy. Anyway, he said I was "pretty good" and suggested I play in a tournament that was happening in Victoria that weekend. He took down my info and said he would have the woman register me for the tournament. She agreed and she and Jim left.
I played about another four games with Jerry and by the last two he was only beating me by low double digits. And yes, I count 45 as low, especially considering the 200+ crushings I started out getting.
I went back to the hotel and I saw that I was registered for the tournament.
The woman had sent a lovely email to the tournament director saying: "Dawn Summers from New York was at the Melbourne Scrabble Club tonight. She is over in Melbourne for the Australian tennis Open. She would like to play in the tournament on Sunday, so I said that I would let you know and enter her. We have given her directions to get there. She may be arriving by train, but she has the address. She hasn't been playing competitively that long and said she had a rating in the 700s in the USA. I imagine that you will treat her as a novice.

Dawn knows how to play Scrabble, she beat me tonight! I have included her address in this email, so she will know that she has been entered."

Now, I don't know why I included that as a quote...except I guess as proof that I did beat someone in sowpods Scrabble on my first day playing it.
I woke up early Sunday morning and braved the cold, rainy Melbourne morning to get to the tournament.
Now, here’s the thing they don’t tell you about the “directions by train,” in Melbourne, the trains decide where they are going…oh…about three seconds before the doors close and they head down the track.
So, when I got on my train that said it was going to the tournament, but then it decided…nahhh, I’m not going to the tournament, I couldn’t get off in time and had to take that train an extra stop inland, take another train back and then wait for another train that was actual going to say it was going to the tournament and then actually go.
Tough fricking business, let me tell you.
Anyway, so I finally managed get on a magic train with my combination of saying and doing. However, I got there forty-five minutes late. Fortunately, since this was Australia, that meant I got there an hour early, whew.
I was indeed placed in the lowest division. Each division was divided up into eight players with a round robin format. Except the highest division which was four young guys. The youngest people in the room period. I ung out with them for a while until they started playing some verbal word game whose rules I didn’t even understand. And then I went to hang out with the only other American in the room and we both wrung our hands and cried over the fact that Knight Swam is a wholly useless mnemonic device in sowpods.
Damned, Tears Of.
Finally, the match was underway. My first game was against a tournament newbie. I explained to him about the clock, crushed him by 125 points and then showed him what he did wrong. Hang your j next to the triple word line? Mistake. Hang your z next to the triple word line? Big mistake. Play zoo when zol would have gotten you twice as many points? Well…you get the idea.
My next opponent was a seasoned pro. I bingoed on her pretty early – an impressive eight letter bingo using no blanks or esses!
I held a steady lead until I played ‘gol’ and she challenged it off the board. Then I started to panic. And choke. And lose, until I bingoed with nailset and she challenged it! When she came back to tell me it was good and said “she’d never seen the word before,” I was like…wow…she’s never seen a satine word before? I can so beat her. And beat her I did. By six points.
I then faced a black woman. She was fierce. She bingoed on me with both blanks on her third turn, used the j two ways, and well was pretty handily kicking my ass. The score got so lopsided I decided to rely on one of the Dawn Summers’ patented hail mary plays. She bingoed with seeming, so when I had a e f i n s t on my rack, I put the s under her g to make seemings and fainest. She said challenge. My heart was beating so fast. In the US, you challenge a whole play, so both words that I had made, but in Australia, you have to pick the word you’re challenging…and so when she said “challenge….fainest” I was sooooo happy since that was the one word I knew was good. Challenge invalid! I then bingoed on the triple line with reasons to pull even closer (can you imagine the score such that those two bingoes still didn’t give me the lead? Oy…) I finally took a small lead in the endgame, with no tiles left in the bag when I played vier.
She couldn’t make up the deficit and I beat her by the two ells left on her rack. Two points.
Holy. Mother.
I went into the lunch break at 3-0. I was feeling good. I reviewed some of the three letter word hooks Jerry showed me and looked at the boards that I’d played. My next opponent was a WWII vet with no teeth. He played a very solid smallball game of three-four letter words for 25-35 points a turn. I, however, kept fishing for bingoes and he opened up a good lead on me. I finally got my seven letter word - as they call bingoes down under – and closed the gap and then played smart for the rest of the game. I ended up winning by six points because he misplayed his last four tiles and didn’t go out a turn earlier.
I was channeling Tom Brady. I was unstoppable. Unbeatable. I am the---Bang.
For game five, I ran into the only other player besides the black woman that I feared. And well, she beat me and beat me baad. She got to go first, I drew a fistful of iiieiou and had to exchange, she tilted her rack out over the board exposing the bingo “natures” and I had to exchange. It was disgusting. At one point I played a single I next to an h opening up the triple line and she punished me in merciless horrifying ways.
Disaster. I had lost my first game and was so bitter about it. Which, of course, is ridiculous. I was doing better here than in any tournament I’ve played in the states even though I was playing by different rules AND a different dictionary. Losing one game is nothing. Of course, I didn’t have much time to ruminate on my idiocy, the next match was afoot. I don’t really remember much about this game, she was an older woman, not bad, but not good and I dispatched her by 60 points.
I was back, baby!
For my final game, I drew another first time tournament player. She was the girlfriend of the guy I beat in my first match and she was terrible.
And I don’t mean me at that tournament in Queens terrible, I mean, she opened the game against me with the word Dome for twelve points using her BLANK AS AN E. SHE USED A BLANK AS AN E FOR TWELVE POINTS!!!
And so, I don’t know why, I just decided I was going to break the high scoring game record against her. And I did. She played quat on top of a double word square, I broke up a toners bingo rack to turn that into quate. She played live next to a double word square, I extended it with an n. She played help on top of the triple line, I used an ess to score sixty points extending it in two directions with an ess. I played an eight letter bingo, got sixty something point with a k on the double letter square hitting the triple word box. I was a Scrabble savant. And in the end, I had 547 points and she had a hundred and something, plus she went over on her clock for more deductions.

At the end of the evening the judges finished tallying the records and spreads and announced that the winner of the Ibises division was Dawn Summers our visitor from America!
I won a laminated certificate, cash money and a box of chocolates!
Oh, happy day.
So, yes, Ugarles, I have guts and cojones of steel.

Friday, January 4, 2008


Tonight Joey returned to the club for the first time since he left for college. He's a young kid, about sixteen. One of those Scrabble prodigy types who started playing when he was four and competing by the time he was ten. My Scrabble student - a Jamaican woman in her sixties - told me that when she first came to the club, she was matched with him. He evidently bingoed every turn basically by preying on her reluctance to challenge. I think he played kwijibo like twice on her.
"Can you believe he'd do that to a new player her first time?" she said to me with a tone that suggested the answer.
Of course, I had nothing but respect for Joey. A win is a win is a win.
You can't unstage that.
Anyway, he after he finished his games, he came to watch the end of one of my games and when we were done my opponent asked him how school was going.
"Badly," he said.
"Too much partying?" Dee said smiling.
"No. I work very hard, I just can't seem to pass these classes, I don't know what's wrong."
The look on his face, the mark of defeat after a lifetime of unparalled success was devastating.
Poor kid.
After he left, the club director was talking about him to some other players and he said something like "yeah, we had a lot of hope for him...but he's kind of plateaued in the 1200s...we thought he'd be better than that by now."


Last night I went back to the Manhattan Scrabble club for the first time in a few months. Everyone was kind, chastised me for not telling them I was sick. "I'd have come over to play with you. I love a good game," Steve with the square afro said.
"I'm so glad you're back! We missed you," Dee said hugging me. I smiled even though I do not like to be hugged.
And then there was Walter.
Here's the thing about Walter. He's 94 years old, frail, half blind, mostly deaf and brash.
"Who's back?"
"Where was she?"
"She had foot surgery."
"Well, now she's back."
I laughed.
I played Walter...once.
He uses a magnifying glass to read words, constantly ketvches about counting the score and he takes forever. Usually a competitive game lasts a maximum of forty six minutes. In my game with him, he went over on his time by forty-five minutes.
There's not a night that goes by where the silence of forty people searching for bingos and word hooks isn't shattered by his booming voice complaining that his opponent isn't keeping score right or putting the tile bag where he can see them.
Last night was no different.
"Where's the bag...put it back here!" I heard him yell at Dee. Not yell, it's just how he talks.
Except last night was different.
The club director had reached his breaking point.
"That's it Walter," he said.
The director is a thin, bald gaunt man. A curmudgeon in his own right and about forty years before he should be.
He handed the old man back his entrance fee and told him to get out.
"You slow down the games every night, you disrupt the room and all you do is argue. You're not welcome back."
"When do I argue?" Walter shot back.
"EVERY NIGHT," the director yelled.
He took the board up, moved Dee to a new table and the two of them started a new game.
Walter sat alone at his table.
He didn't move.
Through two more rounds of play, he just sat.
Finally, he stood up slowly, put on his jacket and said "okay, I'll see you next week? In the new year?" He voice uncertain, but hopeful.
"NO, WALTER. GET OUT AND YOU CAN'T COME BACK." The director fired back unmoved.
Walter shuffled to the door and began taking the steps one at a time.
"Next week. Okay?"
And then he was gone.
At the next break, the room seemed divided about what to do about Walter.
"Come on, have mercy. He's old," one gray haired lady pleaded.
"That old buzzard is impossible. He's just he's a pain in the ass, I don't know why I said contankerous," another old woman fired back.
The director defended himself.
"I've given him chance after chance for a year. He just won't listen."
"Joel, you're the same way," the first old lady argued.
"Yeah, but this is my club."
"Walter refused to play me last week because I didn't take my husband's last name," said one of my friends at the club.
We laughed, that's Walter.


I am hard on myself. My lacksadasical demeanor and devil may care attitude notwithstanding, I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed. My mother put that pressure on me when I was young, and in her absence, I pick up the slack. Of course, it doesn't always pan out. I am, without question, a terrible employee. I suck at math and fixing things that are broken and have a craptacular sense of direction. And while I am good at Scrabble, I should be way better.
The Queens tournament captured most of these failings in a neat embarassing package. After about four hours of play I was standing outside the hotel lobby in near tears trying to find a friendly ear who could hear tell of my woes and assure me that I didn't suck as much as I was telling myself I sucked. Finding no one (Fisch, who I used to play with a lot, was off on some non electricity using Jewish holiday. I then called Karol, my oldest friend from high school. Since we play a lot of poker together, I did my best to explain in poker terms what was happening, but merely got a "wait...are you really talking about Scrabble...yeah, not'll never believe who Ari is possibly dating!!!"
My mother was all "I don't know what the hell you're doing in just had surgery, you idiot.")
Sigh. Okay "You suck at Scrabble and no one cares about you," I said to myself after four hours and twenty minutes. "Dude, why don't you try to cross Queens boulevard again and hope that the law of averages kicks in. Oh, that's right you don't even know what that is because you suck at math so bad."
Myself is a total bitch.
But I've gotten a wee bit ahead of myself.
I had surgery, I was laid up for a while and I was itching for a game. There was a tournament out in Queens -- I live in nearby Brooklyn. For something like $55. Okay, I'm in.
I packed up my meds and input the directions into my GPS, had a hearty breakfast and I was on my way.
I got lost about six minutes into the drive. Thankfully, with the GPS, I was able to get back on track.
I then got lost about about ten minutes in Queens.
I finally found the Holiday Inn where the games were taking place, parked and ran to the conference room.
I was late and my tournament clock had already started running.
I was down two minutes.
But that's okay, the one part of my Scrabble game that is generally flawless is my time management. I am often left with a good eight or nine minutes. Losing two wasn't going to kill me, especially since in tournaments we get two more minutes than they give at the NYC club where I usually play.
I opened with a bingo...and I was comfortably in the driver's seat. My opponent plays Joes on the triple on me to retake the lead, but we went blow for blow much of the match. With no tiles left in the bag, I had a slight ten point lead. I then played 'poshier' to bingo out. The problem with playing a bingo you're not sure of as your outplay, is that it's basically an automatic challenge. She challenged, she won it. I lost a turn, she went again, retaking the lead. I played posh. She went out and got credit for my remaining tiles. I lost by 24. I immediately went to the bathroom and threw up my hearty breakfast. Nothing to do with losing, I'm sure. It just didn't sit well with all the sudden turns, potholes and "running" to the game site.
I cleaned myself up and went back out to shake her hand and say good game.
I'd do better next game.
I sat down across from my next opponent, your quintessential Jewish mother -- complete with her two adult quintessential Jewish sons underfoot.
"You okay, ma?"
"How are you feeling ma...I'm sure she'll let you have more time in the game if you're not feeling well," the son said waving in my general direction after his mother said she was hot or cold or wanted him and his brother to call more and while they're at, where are her grandchildren? No, I mean seriously. It's like they walked right out of a book of stereotypes.
As for me, I was all "hell no, I'm not giving your mom extra time, are you drunk? This is Scrabble, not pictionary, kid." I mean, I didn't say that, of course, but I was thinking it.
Real freaking loudly.
Game started and I again opened with a bingo- frosted! The game was mine all the way. Halfway through she started bitching about her tiles and how she went 8-0 last week in Albany, but now she can't pick an ess to save her life.
Yeah, yeah, tell it to someone who cares, grandma...want me to get your sons?
I won. I bingoed three times, I did draw amazing tiles and I put them to good use.
Not too shabby.
And then...and here's the only picture I took that day:
I was just outplayed something fierce. This board is an example of why it's so unfair for people to be able to self select their division. I should not be matched with someone who knows voile is a word. I just shouldn't be. I lost five or six turns on challenges, then started making Hail Mary plays that she challenged, until finally I gave up. She beat me bad.
My next match was worse. For different reasons.
Again, I drew very lucky. I had THREE bingoes in that game. I had a 150 point lead with thirty tiles remaining. And then I stupidly fucking stupidly, played ax...I don't know what I was thinking...except that I obviously wasn't. She had an f, played it on the triple letter going two ways.
I was so deflated. She then hit me with the q going two ways, my lead was evaporating quickly.
And then, in haste, I played a word...I don't remember what, but the instant that I hit the clock, I saw that one of the other words it formed was "ni." She challenged instantly.
I told her she didn't need to bother going up to the judge (a computer). I took back my tiles and lost a turn.
In the end, I lost by three points. I bingoed THREE times and LOST.
Then I played this guy that I had just watched go over his clock by 12 minutes. TWELVE! (You get deducted ten points per minute), so I did my best to rattle him by playing fast. It mostly worked, when the game was over, he was at - 1 minute, but he outdrew me in spades with the tiles. I bingoed out with a phony on him, which he didn't challenge, but even with that and his penalty, he beat me by 9 points.
I just kept losing these squeakers that break your soul.
I played the last match before break against the son of the woman that I beat.
Talk about a tile rack. This dude picked both blanks, all the power tiles except for one ess, but I was still pretty close to him in points. Near the game's end, I played storier to take a small lead. He challenged. It was no good. I lost the game by 14 points and at 1-5, was ready to open a vein.
That's where my post opens with me outside about to play frogger across Queens Boulevard.
"Hey, how's it going," asked Woody, one of the guys from the NYC Scrabble club.
"It sucks. I keep losing by like one point and I pick shitty tiles," I told him this story, pretty much as I've written it and he said " should have played rioters."
"Great AND I can't find bingoes by simply putting the ers letters at the back and finding a commmon four letter word. FUUUCCCKKKK I hate Scrabble."
"Nah, you just need to practice. I'll help you."
We sat outside for a while going over hooks for two letter words and I was starting to feel better...yeah, I don't suck. I just need practice.
A older black guy came over and said "Dawn Summers?"
I smiled at him and said "yeah...?"
"I sold you your car," he said.
"Oh my gosh! Mr. Wilson, how are you?"
(I'm not a dork who remembers her car salesman's name. He was also the father of two girls at my high school.)
I asked about his daughters. He said they were fine and he went back inside. He played in Woody's division, so Woody asked how I knew him. I told him.
"He's a very good Scrabble player...but I beat him," Woody responded.
Woody went on to win his division that day.
I went back in determined to, as Fisch always says, "win a game."
My next opponent was an older black woman. I killed her on the clock and with phonies once I realized she wasn't a challenger.
For the last match of the night, I was paired up with the player who had a similar record...the Jewish mom.
"You again? Are you going to pick all the blanks and esses again?"
"I hope so." I said coldly. In no mood was I.
She had the lead most of the game, but I bingoed to pull close...with a blank, because I remember her saying "there you go again."
And in the end I victoriously pulled out back to back wins.
She was not happy "Am I the only person you can know I'm not feeling well...I think it's my back from the weather." She was 0-8.
Look lady call me after you've puked and rallied at a Scrabble tournament.
That's right.
No mercy Summers. 3-5. Better than my Philly tournament...still not good.