Sunday, June 29, 2008

Tournament Time (finally)

So, believe it or not, here are my vague recollections of my very first official scrabble tournament. Post traumatic stress disorder may have deleted or warped some of the events, but I will do the best I can (or at least the best I feel like). So this event, like most I have subsequently encountered, had something called a commuter fee. This lovely concept (which is not present in magic or chess tournaments) is that to play in the tournament, you first have a choice to make. You can either stay in the hotel chosen by the organizers (usually exorbitantly expensive or rundown and sketchy) or you can pay the fee and choose a lodging that you might actually stay at if you were in town for some other more sane reason. This particular tournament's organizers impressed me by finding a place that charged like an elegant Hilton Hotel, but looked like Paris Hilton around five in the morning (That's so not hot...). The concept is (I am guessing here) that if enough people stay at the place that the tournament occurs, the hotel will give a discount to the organizers for the conference room or business hall or unused parking in the back or whatever that they are renting. I would rather just have everyone pay a higher entry in the first place or, God forbid, find a nice clean place that is not attached to a hotel. Peggy managed to do this for the club sponsored tournament and the earth did not stop spinning (though I am sure a couple scrabble players somewhere lost their last bit of sanity to make up for the deficit of crazy that her sensible decision caused). Since I did not feel like paying hundreds of dollars for the right to be stabbed by cockroaches, I paid the commuter fee and worked on finding other options for lodgings. I was "lucky" enough to find out my in-laws were going to be R.V. camping relatively near the location of the tournament (twenty minutes as opposed to the four hours from my house).
They would conveniently be in the area the weekend before the the actual event... I asked them if they would be willing to switch the dates, they said no. I asked the tournament organizers if they would switch their dates; they said we play and organize scrabble, we don't have dates, but if we did we would take them to the movies and then take them back to our place for scrabble and sensuous massages and certainly not "switch" them (unless they were into that kind of thing, we wouldn't know, we don't have dates...). So back to the in-laws and after weeks of begging, pleading and shrewd negotiating I had a place to stay I could afford and reasonably expect to live though (all I had to promise was a month of grass cutting, two truck washings, and promise to not actually go to the tournament, who says in-laws aren't kind and gracious?) Maybe it was just a dinner at a nice restaurant, I just remember being horribly traumatized. With that load off my mind, I continued to diligently practice at the club and with some of the members on additional days as well. I pored over word lists (I tried pouring first, but I kept getting sticky and it didn't seem to make my scores go up). I even harassed my poor students into helping me:
"Good morning class. Your quiz today is to list as many five letter words as you can, containing a 'z' but no 's' in the next five minutes."
"What does that have to do with To Kill a Mockingbird?"
"What doesn't it have to do with To Kill a Mockingbird? You must not have read carefully. And you only have four minutes left now, hurry up!"

Finally the big day arrived. The four of us (in-laws, wife and me) drove up together each with our own warped motivations. Her parents to obtain an indentured servant, me to make people and influence words, and my poor wife to check firsthand if the man she had married had gone crazy a decade or so earlier than what she was anticipating when she signed the pre-nup. I was able to get a decent night's sleep after turning down her parents generous initial offer of "special" sleeping arrangements (a sleeping bag on the roof seemed unfair somehow and I still maintain it shouldn't count as sleeping under the stars if it is raining so hard you can't actually see the stars) I got to the tournament and stepped inside the building attached to the hotel that would be the site of my few triumphs and multiple humiliations (ironically, the game I played five rounds later when I actually got to use the word triumph, I lost by two hundred points). I will give the organizers credit for one thing. This place was huge. Like airplane hanger huge (though it smelled more like pigeons than 747s). There were around 150 of us there and we easily could have fit three times that inside (maybe that is how many came but the others actually stayed in the "recommended hotel"and I mean stayed as in "You can check in any time you like, but..."). I was in the bottom of four divisions with around 40 other people who had also decided, hey I think I'll play scrabble with strangers for fun and, uh, profit? Some of us, like me, were complete newcomers (or at least were willing to lying about their identity for the chance at winning a couple hundred dollars, no joke I heard rumors concerning a suspiciously good "new" player in my bottom division), some of us played casually and used these tournaments as an excuse to travel and see new places (gotta love the eccentric rich) and some of were former scrabble stars that time and/or non prescription medication had reducing to slumming with the rest of us. There was a short presentation given to the new players to familiarize us with how tournaments work.
"You are not at the kitchen table anymore. You have to use a clock. You both have to record your scores. You can't call your opponent names. You can't get up in the middle and go watch Matlock."
Is Matlock on right now?"
"Um, as far as you know, no, no its not and you can't have your commuter fee back even if it was."
I met a nice lady during this speech. She told me she was just here to have fun and to make new friends. She said she loved to learn new words and didn't know why everyone took the game so seriously. She seemed agreeable and well adjusted. I should have known this was a bad sign. We were randomly paired for the first round and I looked forward to a pleasant start to my first experience as a "real" scrabble player. We smiled, shook hands and wished each other good luck.
Then the round started. It soon became apparent that what she lacked in word knowledge she made up for in psychosis.
" What's your score?"
"I'm not sure, I'm still counting."
"Hurry up."
"But I'm the one using time from my clock..."
"Your time is my time!"
"Huh? What does that mean?"
"Don't you 'huh' me young man, just hurry up." Then on her turn...
"I didn't say anything."
"You're breathing too much!"
"But I need oxygen!"
"That's my oxygen, you little punk!"
"I don't think you are supposed to call your opponent names..."
"Did they say I couldn't shove tiles up your big oxygen stealing nose?"
"Sorry, I'll try to breathe less, Ma'am."
"That's a good boy."
I lost a very close game (and several brain cells from only breathing every other minute) and afterwards it was as if a switch was flicked back.
"What a nice game. I hope you have a wonderful day. It was nice meeting you and good luck in your next round."
"So you aren't going to asphyxiate me?"
"Ooh what a wonderful new word! I knew this would be a fun learning experience!"
"I'm just going to back away slowly then..."
"You silly young people. I hope we get to play again soon..."
The next round I was paired against one of the two people I knew who had also come from the club. The debacle that ensued (and led to my desperate need for a duck) will have to wait for next time in Tournament time Part Two: "No you can't quit and you're too young to watch Matlock anyways."

Friday, June 27, 2008

Which came first, the duck or the knockout?

This post was originally going to be about my first tournament and my various misadventures there. I promise to get to that soon, but felt the need to respond to a comment made in the replies to my last post. On a related note, if you want to leave a reply or to read the replies already made, you can click on the line comments at the end of each post in light blue lettering or that's not your style, you can click on the beginning title of a post and then scroll to the bottom again and click on the cryptic command "post a comment". Either way, share your voice. I really don't want to feel like I'm here alone with the people who have posted so far. Specifically, this lovely response was recently added to my last post:

PiCurious said...

I came hear for scrabble knockouts. Nerdy babes hopefully spelling naughty words on the board. Instead I get just one picture and its a duck. Whatis going on here?

Wow. So the poster is either someone who really should not be left unattended in a bakery, or they have "special feelings" for slightly more than three!? genders... Other disturbing questions to ponder: This site is not currently covered by yahoo or google search. Did someone just decide out of the blue that would just hit the spot and would actually exist? Were their previous blind searches as well like or Maybe just would not load fast enough... The more likely scenario is that this is one of my friends or family's idea of a joke. I'm not sure if this is better. That still means someone close to me has the online alias of PiCurious and thought this was the best way to ask their question. I just know I am not looking forward to my family's next Thanksgiving:
"Try the pie! It has a special ingredient and I spent five hours on it...."
"Um, before I do, do you spend much time on the internet, Aunt Gladys?"
"Why do you ask? Is there a good place for me to learn more about pies and all the exotic ways you can..."
"Never mind, I think I'm just going to have some ice cream."

So about that web address... While its true that there are in fact some beautiful people who play scrabble (in a wholesome and nonthreatening and unattainable sort of way if you are reading this lovely wife) the term came from a list I recently devised. Warning the following couple sentences are vaguely related to scrabble strategy. So the j,x,q, and z are big shots in scrabble. You get a fair amount of points just for being able to play them since they go in relatively few words. You also get a bonus of 50 points if you manage to play all the tiles on your rack at once. I seem to have to a knack for being stuck with high point tiles and no words that I know to make out of them. The list I made is all the seven letter words that contain any two of these high point tiles. Managing to play one of these words usually results in around one hundred points and a highly demoralized opponent. Hence the boxing term, knockout. I have so far manged to play two of the words on the list (bezique and quezals) and scored big victories in both of those games. End of explicit scrabble content. I originally called the blog that because it was a term and a list that to the best of my knowledge I was the "inventor" of. I quickly made a horrifying (if somewhat obvious) discovery when reading over my first post and some of the other scrabble blogs (yes, heaven help us, there are several of these out there) its really, really boring to read about other people playing scrabble. Mostly they sound something like this (parentheses have my commentary):

I went into the tournament as the third seed. I hoped to be able to do better than the first and second seed(but not the lower seeds I guess). In my first game I played two bingos, anestri and stearin. My opponent foolishly (calm down there tiger)tried to challenge stearin off the board. But of course it was good (of course because we have all been stearin for years...) Unfortunately, she got both blanks and an x and there was nothing I could do (hold on a sec while I call for the waaahmbulance). I start off with a loss 376 to 377 (and I start and successfully accomplish falling asleep).

Don't get me wrong. Coverage of the top players at big events like a national or world championship is neat (for me at least) and sometimes there is useful strategy tips to be found online. I'm not a top player though and the amount of bandwidth I would need to share my strategy secrets would be, umm I actually don't know anything about computers or the internet. Awkward... So I want to talk about scrabble, but the typical genres aren't my forte. What do I have that is halfway useful then? I have...A duck! Scrabble is fascinating to me because of the crazy people who play it. I feel comfortable saying this because I am aware that I am thoroughly one of them. I have gotten so stressed out at tournaments that I have had blurred vision and felt like I was going to pass out. This is obviously the appropriate response while playing a board game with strangers for pride with no chance even at the pitiful financial reward that would not cover the cost of the gas it took to drive across two states to get there. I sincerely promise we will get to this first calamitous experience next time by the way. Oh yeah, the duck. So I am crazy enough to freak out in the heat of the moment, but sane enough to realize afterwards that maybe all that heavy breathing was not pleasant for either myself or the poor lady I just drove to quit scrabble and go back to knitting sweaters for her cats. To prevent further incidents such as that I found the cutest least threatening object I could. The winner was new Ducky friend. She now accompanies me to every tournament. I have "fixed" my problem by simply talking to my duck when the going gets tough. She looks in the bag to see what tiles are left, whispers suggestions to me, and does her best to cast little ducky spells of confusion on my opponents. So, umm..., I am all better now. Problem Solved! I will leave you faithful (and/or psychotic) readers with this last little nugget to think about. When I went to change the address of the blog to match the new title, both ScrabbleDuck and ScrabbleLuckyDucky were already taken and unavailable. I shudder to think what kind of weirdo they belong to...

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Final Fearsome Foursome (featuring flamboyant friperry...)

Sorry about the title. Alliteration: awesomely awful or awfully awesome? Inquiring minds want to know... So there are a few remaining regulars that deserve their own description. Lets start with Candace. Forget ex-military, she is current, been to Iraq and back, was on the televised scrabble championship and is not impressed by your play. Apparently, end game time pressure is not as distracting as live gunfire either. We appear to be evenly matched ability wise (aside from the fact that she could snap my neck should she choose to be a poor sport). The minor distraction of a multiple child household seems to be all that stands in the way of complete scrabble mastery and subsequent world domination.

Regina is both a great start for a bingo (play that uses all seven tiles) and a very nice person who also frequents Panera. She is somehow involved in Academia at the local University, but I can never quite figure out how. I think she said was a lady and visiting professor or maybe it was lady of the evening that visits professors. Anyhow, she shares my frustration over the vagaries of language and specifically how words from great literature such as Hamlet and Ulysses has somehow escaped inclusion on the acceptable word list for scrabble while such wonders as youse and tup made the cut. She is either kind enough or degenerate enough (depending on your perspective) to laugh at my "jokes" so she's ok in my book.

Speaking of books, way back in the second post I introduced Kathy with a K (not to be confused with Cathy with a C). So umm, Cathy with a C also comes to Panera and should not be confused with Kathy with a K. This Cathy is training to be a nurse which should come in handy when the inevitable bloodshed from our powderkeg of personalities finally boils over into a physical conflagration. (I don't usually do asides, but reading back over this post and particularly this sentence, I have no idea what I was actually saying. Can a powderkeg boil? If it did boil, how would that induce bloodshed? Is there such a thing as a non physical conflagration? Did I mean confrontation? Maybe three in the morning was not the best time to try to write. End ridiculously long aside.) Its my understanding that Peggy recruited Cathy through her job teaching nurses, but the timing was such that she was told to join after grades were submitted. Seems fishy to me, but maybe I am just jealous I have not had any students good enough at scrabble that I have wanted to coerce them into joining our eclectic ensemble. Whatever the circumstances that brought Cathy with a C to us and whether or not she disappears once Peggy can no longer go back and edit her grade, it is still nice to have her.

As may or may not have become apparent, the majority of the members have ties to one of three areas. The university, the military, and medicine. It seems fitting then, to close my description of the "main" members with Galen who spans all these worlds and many more. She is (I kid you not) an ex drill sergeant who worked as a therapist in suicide prevention before leaving to start a job teaching for the university. All roads may lead to Rome, but I think most of them make a pit stop at Galen. Galen is different even for a scrabble player. She frequently serenades her opponents with the eternal question "Don't you wish your girlfriend was a freak like me?" If no answer is forthcoming, time and topics may pass only to culminate eventually with the solemn and almost wistful " Don't cha?" Random whistles and curses also punctuate most of her turns, much like a parrot that has been left overnight in front of HBO. The important thing to remember about Galen though is this: she has a pool and an outdoor grill. If "freak like me" means relaxing swimming and delicious burgers then yes Galen, now and forever, in response to your heart's one question, my answer is wholeheartedly yes.

Clarification and Further Characters

Just to be clear, I meant Crusty Crew to refer collectively to all the people who play at Panera bread. It was merely coincidence that the first three I described (the Silver Squadron) happens to be umm, well-aged. I am now afraid that Kathy will use her theoretical spy skills to eliminate me . Perhaps more worrisome, even if Jo Ann only knows every other person in existence, that still means she knows half of all the assassins, half of all the mercenaries, half of all the people who give really bad wedgies, etc... Maybe I will be lucky though, and receive no more than a withering glare and another finger from Louise.

Anyways, there are many more scrabble monkeys in this menagerie to cover. The leader of our tribe is Peggy. She resurrected the club from the ashes of a previous incarnation and grew the membership to its current healthy level. This perilous journey journey was filled with enough intrigue and pitfalls that I will give it a separate post some time I am feeling especially brave and/or foolhardy( seriously, something weird went down in the shady, scrabbly past and now some people won't talk to others and no one ever sits in a suspicious booth in the corner that smells faintly of brimstone). Whatever happened, Peggy keeps the club healthy and growing now and handles the logistics of having enough equipment, keeping people informed about upcoming events, and buying enough food so the management does not not kick us out for taking over half of their tables. She is also responsible for the club's greatest triumph: the creation of an annual tournament which in its first year drew around fifty people from several states and got the club (and yours truly in particular) on the front page of the state's largest newspaper. She is also at least partially responsible for the club's greatest shame: the Napkin Incident of '07. The less said about that painful chapter of our history the better though.

I think it is about time to reveal some of the male members of the club. Hmm, that doesn't sound quite right. We have guys that play too, is what I am trying to say. Aside from my shining masculine example there are several other Y chromosomes hanging out at our den of inequity. Lamar comes to mind first, perhaps because of all the stereotypes he breaks effortlessly. He looks like a wide receiver in the offseason, with the only faint tinge of nerdiness being a pair of fashionable glasses he wears occasionally (perhaps he has a Clark Kent alter ego he is perfecting?) Good enough with computers to buy a new house, and strong enough to lift heavy furniture by himself when he was helping me move; he would be a good candidate for a nemesis if he wasn't such a nice guy. As it is, I am not jealous at all...

Lamar's good friend and former partner in crime (or tutoring underprivileged children as they claim, still sounds like a scam to me) is Victor. He recently passed the bar (and after he finishing drinking took some big legal test). Thankfully, this led to new employment which takes some time away from his regular routine of studying list after list and practicing with the best players he can find before coming to Panera and mopping the floor with us (which was very unsanitary and seemed a rude way to celebrate beating us at scrabble). He may, in fact, have outgrown us a bit, but hopefully the continued improvement of some of the players at the club and his limited time for study will eventually let us catch back up. He still drops by occasionally and if one of us is fortunate enough to beat him we can be assured of his presence the next week to restore order to the universe through a merciless pounding of the earlier winner.

There is also Michael who does telemarketing by day and competitive square dancing by night. He is randomly bilingual. I keep wondering if he is like the guy who got hit by a car and came out of a coma able to speak another language, but with no memory of their former life. He claims that one day he got the urge to go to the library and "look up scrabble" (does that mean he did not know what it was before that?) and while there he stumbled across our club listing (scribbled by some unknown benefactor in the back of a reference book?) However it happened, he now drifts through the club like a tumbleweed with a beret. Strolling in late, playing some bingoes (at least one of which will be challenged as not in the dictionary, but apparently good in Mother France) then disappearing early, presumably to hustle somewhere in the underground world of illicit square dancing. Pondering the mystery of Michael gives me a migraine (and a slight accent somehow). Time to rest. I will wrap up the rest of our Crusty Crew (like the bread, not anything else you may be thinking) next time.

The Crusty Crew

Hello again,

When last we left our intrepid hero he had stumbled upon the world of competitive scrabble at his nearby bakery and been soundly defeated by a sweet little old lady. Louise is one of the regulars at Panera. When asked how she is doing, she invariably replies “fat and sassy” though she is neither overweight nor caustic (a stiff finger joint did result in her infamously giving an opponent the bird in the middle of a game though). Somehow she manages to make intricate art in miniature scale using bird eggs as backgrounds for tiny scenes from the life of her friends and family. She plays scrabble with a group of friends that though younger than her, are much more set in their ways. They have bizarre house rules, tend towards group games and not one on one contests, and shun all the myriad methods available for improvement. Louise just shrugs and beats them with the knowledge and techniques she has gained from the club.

Kathy (with a K and not to be confused to Cathy with a C who we will get to soon) is another regular and also a senior citizen though not quite the link back to Babe Ruth and Roosevelt our matriarch provides. Kathy acts and writes and publishes books and goes to game show tapings and generally stays pretty busy. I hear she is ex-military though she looks like a strong wind would whisk her away. Maybe she was kind of skinny secret agent able to fit into (and sneak out of) tight spots. Hmm..... And the scrabble skills come from years of code breaking and memorization. I have probably said too much... Moving on.

The last of the Silver Squadron (as I think of them) is Jo Ann. An active member of Friends of the Library (and unconfirmed founder of Foes of Blockbuster or F.O.B.) she also is very involved with her church. She claims that these activities are how she knows so many people. The math just doesn't check out though. She appears to know every other person that passes us by. I privately believe she knows the other half also, but just does not like them as much. Her vocabulary, like her social network is also near infinite. If there is a word that a person could learn from life experience and/or extensive reading, she knows it. Not just the spelling mind you, but the meaning as well, which is extraneous in scrabble. It is only the truly obscure, the words that scrabble list memorizers have learned (or at least their spelling and pluralizations) that are sometimes outside her grasp. She is learning those too though. Heaven help us all...

There are many more members to go, but it is time for a break. Club will meet in a little while and I want to find a few words/ people that are odd enough that Jo Ann will not know them. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

First Post

Hello World Wide Web,

This is a blog I am starting to chronicle and record my scrabble exploits and the peculiarities I observe in the bizarre world of tournament scrabble. I have not ever done anything like this before, so we will see if it works well or not.

So the story so far is this: I have been playing various games competitively since I was around 12 or so. When I say games, I mean activities that involve strategy and not much physical exertion. Chess is the obvious and stereotypical example. It is a fun game and I became proficient enough to win high school state titles as in individual and as a team (still waiting on that promised letter jacket SHS by the way) and in college to win a state amateur title. I did not see anywhere to go from there though. I could study everyday for the next twenty years and not be able to compete with the grandmasters who now play in our states top division. Also the game gets a bit repetitive. Same pieces, same openings, blah blah blah. The clincher was when my two best chess buddies left the state to pursue their graduate degrees. It is one thing to practice and compete with good friends, it is quite another to do so for the "love of the game".

So what else is out there for a young overly competitive male? For a long time the answer I found was a card game called Magic the Gathering, or simply magic. I am not sure why, but not many people seem to know what this is outside of a certain demographic. To oversimplify in the interest of brevity: take the artwork of Dungeons and Dragons and combine it with a limited information, multiple resource management math game. Umm, or put chess, poker and Lord of the Rings together if you are still confused and/or impatient. Magic solved my frustration over chess's oppressive deja vu since there was a much more random nature to each game while still maintaining significant strategy elements. I became fascinated with something called a "metagame" also. In magic you choose before you sit down to play what cards you will use (although they are shuffled into a random order in your deck) the cards you have chosen may be a good choice against one opponent, or even one group of opponents, but not another. It is like a huge version of rock paper scissors. The trick is to improve your percentages. A person could make a "rock" deck that beats scissors decks 66% of the time, paper decks 40%, and other rock decks 55%. This would be a very good deck to take to a place full of scissors, but not so much paper. So before a big event part of the preparation is deciding what others are most likely to be playing. What if many others think the same way as you and decide to change their choice of deck at the last minute. Of course there are many more than three possible archetypes and the fields are in constant flux. Furthermore the company that makes magic releases new cards several times a year. This alters the strengths of the various deck types and even creates new choices altogether. When a person feels they have found something new that has a favorable match up with the pre-existing decks, the common parlance is "I have found the hand grenade." (which obviously is unimpressed with rocks paper or scissors...). So stagnation is not an issue and the strategy level is high also. Why is this blog not about magic then? Well similar to chess, I reached a certain plateau with magic also. I won a state title and even made the playoffs in a south eastern regionals with hundreds of people present. The only step left would have been to make the pro tour. Yes there is a pro tour for this game you have not heard of and yes people can make enough playing it to support themselves. There is even a hall of fame for the truly elite: The two other factors that led me to drift away from magic were the financial cost of continuing to update my collection of decks to remain competitive and my outgrowing the bulk of the player base. While the best players around the world are largely successful bright and sociable individuals, the teeming unwashed masses are just that. Smelly and mob-like teenagers tend to constitute the majority of the lower level competitions. I continue to have friends that I play magic with casually at each others houses in casual invitation only events of our own design, but in the interest of continued sanity, the days of long road trips only to deal with brats with access to their parents credit cards are long over.

Which brings us to scrabble. There have certainly been other less long lasting detours (poker being the most notable ) but nothing had the mix of strategy, pleasant people, competition and variety that I was looking for. I had played scrabble some as a kid and as a voracious reader had a decent vocabulary to deploy (800 sat verbal for instance). I overlooked the strategic elements somehow though. I also had no idea there was an organized play network. things started to change when I saw a scrabble national championship on espn (espn2 probably). By this time I was an English graduate student and working as a first year instructor for freshmen English. I shared an office with several others in a similar position and any opportunity to halfway justify all the years we had spent buried in books was eagerly welcomed. Casual scrabble games led to a full blown league with updated standings and pairings. Around the time the league and semester finished, I stumbled upon a group of people playing scrabble in a Panera restaurant. They were using clocks similar to what I was used to from chess and were clearly serious about their pursuit. Feeling cocky from my recent victory though, I sat down to play an older lady that reminded me of my grandmother. If I can beat PHD candidates easily then an octogenarian would be no trouble at all right? Umm, no. Scrabble uses real words that can be found in most dictionaries, but many of the most valuable words to know in scrabble come from disparate and often obscure locations. Greek letters, Chinese spirituality, African currencies, chemistry adjectives all meet and mingle with the only shared denominator being their construction from "power tiles" such as the j,x,q, and z. There was a whole new world to discover. Pleasant people to meet and befriend from all age groups, ethnicities and genders. New ways to think and new strategies to employ. Most importantly, a new mountain to climb.

Next time I will introduce a few of the fellow climbers I have met along the way and begin to catch up from that fateful day in Panera to the present as I stare my first National Championship in the face.