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Dopiest, dewiest, eggiest: our man at the Scrabble champs

All literature is Scrabble with nouns and punctuation. Nick Ascroft reports from the national Scrabble championships, where he played FIREBIRD.

The National Scrabble Championship was held over the three days of Queen’s Birthday weekend in Wellington. Before the event, when my agent was haggling the fees for a before-and-after piece with the commissioning team at Newsroom’s skyscraping glass offices, we promised a classic sports movie arc in two parts. So that’s what you get. It’s time for part two.

The first reel established me as a washed-up has-been finding his moment of crisis. With a month to go before the redemptive national tournament I had been back in training. I was taking another shot at that big brass ring.

The games began at 9am on the Saturday. My not-quite-two-year-old had kept me up through the night, so I was feeling vague. Also a little flustered, being part of the organising committee and having only locked in the lunch catering the day before. Would the food turn up? How would I divvy it all out anyway? I don’t say these things to set up excuses. For the most part I felt warm and optimistic. The moment before the games kick in anything is possible. I felt confident.

I hadn’t quite completed all the word revision I had hoped to. But in having actually done a lot more than in the past five years, my head was abuzz with words. On the bus in I had looked over all the seven and eight-letter words ending in WORT. They are gross-sounding words, which makes them memorable: FLEAWORT, MUDWORT, LUNGWORT, etc. Ew! I connected them to a story about a witch’s kitchen. I looked away from the list then recalled each of them through the story mnemonic.

But this was my fanciest bit of word work. The rest had been more mundane, more back to basics. The WORTS got me halfway to the bus stop, so in the Zarf app on my phone I brought up the 145 words of seven letters that end in –IEST. You know: DOPIEST, DEWIEST, EGGIEST, etc. I used to know them all. They are probably the most common type of bonus word in Scrabble, especially in the lower grades. The S means you are more likely to be able to put it on the board, compared to say –ING words. A few surprise me, like HAYIEST and MINIEST. Are they newish I wonder?

That’s one of the fun things about Scrabble, the list of playable words doesn’t sit still. Every four or five years a new swathe of words comes in. If you don’t keep up, and my efforts have not been exemplary, you suffer. Also, this is pretty much the only time you hear about Scrabble (or dictionaries) in the news. Every few years the same headlines float up like that jelly-froth fat in a pot of saveloys. English language under siege! You’ll never guess what word is now allowable in Scrabble! This year, as of 1 July, you can play OK, ZE and EW. I will allow you a moment’s froth. Part of me froths too. Not at EW of course. But we Scrabblers just play on. Whatever is in the list is in, and whatever isn’t, isn’t.

What isn’t in the list becomes a problem in the first game. By the sixth turn I have had three words challenged off. My confidence tells me that you can spell DIASTOLE without the final E. You can’t. In fact, despite how inviting the letters A-D-I-L-O-S-T look, there is no bonus word there. Long ago I knew this, but that knowledge has become warped at the edges, convincing me that in fact something lies hidden in the letter. Oh it’s ODALIST I realise and slap that down. Nope. I’m thinking of SODALIST. Off it comes. Two turns later I play TINGLES onto ORA, making ORAS. But ORA is already a plural, the plural of OS. My opponent Cicely Bruce walks me up to the laptop where we self-adjudicate a challenge. The play is unacceptable says the machine, so we trudge back and I remove the tiles from the board. ‘I learned it isn’t a word the same way,’ she says. ‘That helps it stick in the memory.’ I wonder. Memory is a strange and wobbling thing.

I play another dud later in the game, but either Cicely has pity on me or she thinks I must know it and doesn’t challenge. I play *YAULM, a hybrid of the allowable YAULD and YEALM. Two nights previous I had revised the five-letter words starting with a Y. I have a creeping feeling that my word learning is a hindrance not a help. ‘Too much in the brain’ suggests Rosemary Cleary of Whanganui later on when I am playing her, as if that is a thing everyone else knew about and no one told me. Can you revise too much? Cicely beats me soundly with some good play and the whopping score of 561 to my 294. Not creeping over 300 is always a little mortifying for the tournament player.

That I know I will have to write this piece gives me a little solace. It’s a good story, I tell myself, the protagonist has to go down first before they can rise. The others in the tournament seem to know I am writing this too. A lot of people come up to me between rounds to tell me they read the first piece. Not all 78 competitors, but enough to give me the heebie-jeebies. They look at me as if to say, and you can quote me on that. One old dear of a man says, ‘You know you could be a writer. You could write books.’ I feel icy feet figure skating over my grave.

*

They also look at me with a little extra pity as I proceed to win only three of the first eight games. I’ll be fine I tell myself. It’s just day one. I have 14 games left to rally. But I am being a little previous. This sequel is more of an Empire Strikes Back, which is to say bittersweet, a tough sidestep on the road upwards. What would success have looked like anyway? (As they say in governmental make-work meetings, and which I find myself saying in them too these days with a whiteboard marker in my hand, while circling the word ‘engagement’ or ‘strategy’.)

There are six grades at the tournament this year, and I have not made the A-grade. Twelve of New Zealand’s finest, all but two of the top 14 in the country, are fighting for the A-grade title and with it the chance to be champion of New Zealand. At least five of them have won it before. Competition is hot and spectacular. If there is any story of success against the odds at the tourney, it’s happening there. But in fact it becomes a march. Alastair Richards runs away with it. He wins 18 of the 22 games, with second place going to Howard Warner with five wins fewer (and a draw). Alastair’s Scrabble is formidable. He’s a young doctor of Australian extraction. He was easily top of the NZ ratings before the tournament, and even if the legendary champion Nigel Richards (no relation) returned to New Zealand, I would not bet against Alastair to hold his place.

Howard discussed with me after the tournament how he should’ve won in his final game against Alastair, but the endgame solution was counter-intuitive. He says Alastair explained to him the logic of why the winning move should’ve been selected. Howard had looked at all the permutations with six tiles unseen in the bag, but Alastair ‘had just looked further ahead’. Dylan, mentioned in the last piece, was also in the As and won the prize for highest scoring word of the tournament: PRESCUTA for 189 points.

*

Instead I am in B-grade. The last time I was in the Bs at a tournament, I was the top rated player in the grade and managed to defend that position, winning the second tier the way Norwich always do before being instantly relegated. This time the competition is tight as guts. I am the fifth highest rated of 12, but in a field which also contains three Aussies, whose NZ rating is looser having played fewer games in the country. Three players in the grade are grandmasters, which means they’ve previously been in the top 10 in the country long enough to hold that honour: Glennis Hale, Steven Brown and Cicely.

Glennis is an affable player with a calm demeanour, a nest of auburn-slash-silver hair and a canny way with the board. She seems to love the game for itself, win or lose. Glennis is one solitary rating point off playing in the A-grade. Over the 22 games of the tournament she ends up with 40 bonus words. Only seven people top that. (Alastair gets 51!) So when I sneak a win against her, it’s a sweet thing. In fact it ends up being the best game of my tournament. I spend five minutes on the endgame and find a play that I believe is a winner. Glennis has SHOTTLE on her rack. I know as I’ve worked it out. She can’t play her bonus, but there are quite a few spots for her to score highly. So my thinking has to be, go out in two moves (so before Glennis), score well and block some of the high-scoring spots that favour her letters. My highest scoring play is JUDO, but it opens the possibility for Glennis to score massively and win.

A perverse thought occurs. I can’t block all the spots she can score highly from, but I can open another similar one. I play JUNCO keeping M-A-D, giving me a chance to go out the next move, but leaving a new lane to two separate triple word scores. The overload method. While her clock ticks away (6 minutes remain on it), she has too many places to think about. The juicy places to score are there to take her eye away from the place where she can block my out-play, and score little. But Glennis is smart. She knows what I’m doing, and spends a lot of her time thinking it through. Luckily no solution presents itself and I win by eight points.

We go into post-game analysis. Perhaps there was a winning play for her. We examine it, and as we do I see her winning move. Not one the computer would suggest, because it relies on my stupidity. Block my out-play with anything and she wins. It turns out there is only one on the board for me: MAID (which I did). But I had mistakenly thought there was another. I would have played the dud word *MODA through the O of JUNCO and lost.

Here’s where computer analysis after a game helps highlight your weaknesses. Late on Saturday night I open the Quackle app on my old desktop computer to analyse my loss to Steven Brown. What was I doing wrong, I asked Quackle. You don’t wanna know buddy, it replied. My first play was PUCE. ‘Your favourite colour?’ quipped Steven in his deadpan manner at the time and I thought, bang on. Quackle asks why I didn’t play PUCELAGE. That kind of miss I don’t cry about. I didn’t know PUCELAGE.

What hurt more was the more endemic faults, the way I threw away my best bonus-building letters and combinations where Quackle opted to score less but improve my rack. It suggested ROWME. I didn’t know it.It suggested PEYOTL playing only –YOT– between the existing PE (gap) L. I didn’t know it. I remembered why I had stopped using the blasted thing. My son woke up so I went to bed, laying him between my pillow and Kate’s. Sunday morning arrived bringing his second birthday. We had a doll’s house for him that I assembed from flat pack without destroying it. He has a smile that can fart rainbows and I felt optimistic again.

I also played FIREBIRD in the game against Glennis. And if I may descend into high-school level allusion, it’s the moral of the tournament if we need one. That I may have ended up on 10 wins and come a mediocre 10th in a grade of a 12, but I know that if I put the effort in I will rise back up like that fiery (hubristic) bird. Not very high actually, but a little. And that’ll do. The B-grade is won by Australian Heather Long, who I beat satisfyingly as part of a five-game winning streak. So I am not far off.

There was also a prize for most unusual word of the tournament. Joanne Craig (ranked third in New Zealand and 15th in Australia) won with CACODYL, as judged by the Ryman’s representative. Look it up. It’s a bit lovely. I will either rise like a firebird or go down like a cacodyl cocktail. Likely both.

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