My Scrabble Story: Quantity over Quality [Aug 9–13, 2014]

Between August 9th, 2014 and July 27th 2015, I played more tournament Scrabble games than anyone in North America.

The National Scrabble Championship [NASC] is contested every year in cities across America. In 2014, that city was Buffalo, NY.

I played 31 games of Scrabble in 5 days and had the time of my life. ‘Nationals’ isn’t just a tournament. It’s a Scrabble convention — 524 players attended this tournament, and it felt like I met, spoke to, or shared a drink with half of them. Buffalo’s proximity to my hometown of Toronto meant that the Canadian contingent was significant. That meant that anywhere I went; at the event hotel, tournament site, restaurant or bar contained friends I knew, or would soon make.

All the Nationals I have attended have followed the same format: 7 games a day for the first four days, followed by 3 games on the fifth.

Day one: Losing the first two games no doubt put me in an anxious mood. When I started my competitive Scrabble career, the first ten tournaments I played in began with a first game loss. This was more than coincidence; it was nerves. I managed to string together three wins after that, including a six point nail biter against Ruth, a plucky older woman who I’ve played four times in four different states and remain unbeaten against to this day. I closed out the day with losses against Jim [I remember I tried to front-hook the word oink with a Y, making Yoink* [phonies are denoted with an asterisk], remembering both a Simpsons episode and an inside workplace joke, which was promptly challenged off] and Mary, a charming southern belle I met for the first time that day, who has since rocketed past me in the ratings [a performance indicator], and who whenever I have come across at tournaments since, can’t wait to meet again. Day one record: 3–4.

Day two: My strongest day at this event saw me start with 2 close wins, then a blowout loss. I won my next three games, the first of which was played against Jennifer, who despite nursing an injured leg [propped up on a chair throughout] seemed really smart and focused. I drew the bag [got all the good tiles] and won by 160. I’ve since learned that Jennifer works in a science role at the White House, which has got to be about the most competent thing I can imagine. I lost the last game of the day by six points against the elegantly named and mannered Marichelle. I’m usually terrible with names, but that one was recalled instantly on meeting her again in Atlantic City 5 months later. Day two record: 5–2.

Day three: Things took a turn for the worse as I did a lot of losing that day. 131 point loss to Brad from West Virginia. 235 point loss to my buddy Crayne from back home. 182 point loss to Diana from Massachusetts. 23 point loss to Margaret from Dundas, Ontario. 104 point loss to Betzy from Vaughn, Ontario. My two wins were interesting though. Wilma, or ‘Willie’, as she likes to be called, had beaten me three times in three tries at a tournament in Las Vegas in 2013, but I got the best of her here. And I met and beat Laura from Scarsdale, New York. Laura had a spark to her when we played; an energy that I took note of. I would get to know Laura better over the course of the year, and even spent a night in her home on a trip between Scrabble destinations. After picking me up at the airport, she took me to an exotic pet store to see parrots after we had learned that each of us had cared for one in our past. Day three record: 2–5.

Day four: A workmanlike day bouncing between wins and losses. Two games stand out. A 111 point win against Diane, a tough player who employs a defensive style from the New York circuit who knows way more words than I do [who I incomprehensibly have a 7–3 career record against] and a 69 point win in the last game of the day against Dave, from my home club, who normally owns me [career 5–14 record against him]. We shared laughs over beers in the hotel lobby a few hours later as I jokingly ribbed him, announcing to the dozen or so players in attendance that I had finally cracked the code to beating him. Day four record: 4–3.

Day five: There was a lot on the line for the final three games; a shot to leave the tournament with a winning record. I had finished the 2013 Nationals with a 15–16 record, losing the very last game in excruciating fashion [I had that game in the bag before my opponent bingoed, garnering a failed challenge from me, then drew the last seven tiles and bingoed again to rip the game away]. My goal at these Nationals was to improve my record by at least one game. I would have to win two out of three to do it. In the first game against Bruce from North Carolina, I eeked out an eight point win. That left me with two chances to win one game. The drama ended quickly however as I drew everything against Chad from Florida, romping to a 226 point win and my highest score of those 31 games. I lost the last game, but had achieved a winning record for the first time at Nationals. Day five record: 2–1. Tournament record: 16–15. Rating gain: 32 points.

The parts of this story that I left out include lots of drinks, some exploration of the crumbling downtown of Buffalo, ordering way too much to eat at Dinosaur Barbecue, a shared birthday dinner (mine) with about 30 players at the hotel steakhouse who wouldn’t split the cheques, leading me to spend 45 minutes working out everyone’s bill, and meeting fellow Scrabble troublemaker Roderick who will appear more stories in this year. On the last night of Nationals [I would leave for a another tournament in Delaware the next day], Roderick and I, along with my buddy Andre [back home], hit a casino and I had an amazing blackjack run, winning over $300 in about 45 minutes. It was an incredibly lucky finish to a really great tournament.

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