Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Here We Come A-Quackling

You will be happy to know that, contrary to what you might have thought from the lack of activity from this blog, that the Scrabble couple has not:

  • died (old Scrabble players never die, they just constantly draw a blank.)
  • retired from Scrabble (perish the thought!)
  • broken up (ditto!)

We've just been incredibly busy. So, a quick update on our doings:

1. Elyria: Ah, the Burning River Blowout. Always a fun tournament. Heather finished first, 11-4 with a +666 spread. (Yes, 666. I'm not quite sure what to make of it, either.) My record also included a 4 and 11, although not quite in the same position. It was enough to make me wonder if I shouldn't be out campaigning with Pete Zeigler instead of playing Scrabble. Heather goes from 1037 to 1061. I meanwhile go from 900 to (eeeghh) 829. Sigh. 829. Alas.

2. Rocky River Local Club Tournament (aka Stockjobber:) How does a Scrabble player celebrate his birthday? With a Scrabble tournament, of course. Initially, this was supposed to be an unrated, just-for-fun tournament, but at the last minute, Dan Stock asked if we wanted to make it a local club tournament. A good time was had by all. I played decently, if predictably, losing to the aforementioned Mr. Ziegler, Jeff Clark, Mauren Kennerk (no good draws whatsoever); Heidi Nemeth, and Kevin McCarthy. (Let's just say this about my game with Kevin: Some day, somewhere, someone will play the word CLOGGIER on you. You will think you should challenge it. Don't.) However, I did manage to beat Cecilia Huber twice, which I consider an accomplishment as I consider Cecilia a pretty strong player (whom I had never to this point managed to beat in a tournament.) I gain six ratings points.

Meanwhile, Heather is awesome (but I could have told you that), beating both Messrs. Zeigler and McCarthy despite being significantly lower ranked than them, and gaining ten ratings points.

3. Battle Creek Cereal Bowl: I go 3 and 4 in Division C, for those of you keeping score at home.

Meanwhile, Heather gets "knocked up" to Division B as the tenth seeded player in a 10-person division. This does not deter her from going 6-1 (or 6 and Knapp, if you like) and winning the division. And picking up 150 ratings points. And getting to 1220. And no longer being a novice. And having a boyfrend who randomly exclaims for the rest of the weekend, "1220! Do you realize what you just did?!"

OK. So one half of the Scrabble couple has this game down pat.

That would leave me. I am absolutely thrilled for Heather and couldn't be prouder. I would like to eschew mediocrity.

So, here's the thing. It's not that I think my word knowledge is lacking. While I woudn't pretend my word knowledge is stellar compared to even midlevel players, I am satisfied with my studying and my learning words. It seems my strategy is off.

Enter Quackle. Quackle is a program where you enter your racks, your plays, and your opponent's plays, and the computer suggests what it would have done. The hope is you learn why. It's very interesting -- and a little intimidating. It's not so bad when you see words you didn't know (for instance, I had no problem in having missed SUASION the other day -- I didn't know the word) but it is a little scary when you realize the plays you missed wth words you know.

Anyway, I just started. One of the challenges is that you have to keep track of your racks so that you can tell the computer what you have, and it can tell you what you missed. I started doing that tonight at club, and have already noticed that it tends to focus your mind for both looking at your rack and tile tracking. Anyone else noticed this?

As a side benefit, I'm also hoping this wil allow me to provide a slightly better overview of my games for this blog when I play in the Cleveland Classic this weekend. (Heather has a friend visiting in Ann Arbor and will thus be unable to attend. I will miss her, and will probably have to fill my Saturday night...I don't know, perhaps blogging about how I did???) It's fifteen games, which makes me really happy. I like the longer form tournaments.

PS: Speaking of which, it was decided tonight: The Scrabble Couple is headed for Albany. What better place to spend New Years? :)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Division Multiplication

I've been thinking lately about the multiplication of divisions.

No, I'm not talking math-ese (I haven't taken math since high school! You do not want me talking math-ese).

But...with a tourney coming up so soon, my thoughts have been on where exactly I'll end up seeded in the whole melee of players. Yesterday, all evidence indicated I'd be first seed in Division 3 of 3, but divisions are like Michigan and Ohio weather...wait five minutes. They'll change.

I'm now fourth seed in Division 3 of 4.

Makes me much happier :) I've never had to deal with the trickiness of being first seed in a division, but I don't really want to. As first seed, I might have been more statistically likely to win money, but the consequences if I have an off game or two are far more severe. (Not to mention that in any given tournament, I'm there personally for fun and for rating points, not for money!) I'd consider - for me personally - a tournament to be far more successful if I gained rating points but didn't finish in the money than if I won money but lost rating points because my performance wasn't statistically up to expectations.

And if an off game or two exists for you, and you're one of the top seeds, you might miss out on both the money and the rating jump. Also, in any given tournament, it's likely that there are one or two people whose rating might be equal to or lesser than yours - that, for whatever reason, you don't have a consistent record of winning against.

There are several players I can think of about whom this is true in my case. Michael is one of them! For whatever reason, although I am fairly consistent in wins when we're hanging out at Starbucks and playing endless games on weekends (we've calculated that I've won just over 60% of the games we play in this context), the record reverses in tournaments. The same percentage is just about true in tourneys - except, there, it's Michael who statistically comes out ahead.

So if I need to win 6 of 7 games in a tournament because I'm near the top of the division, and Michael's one of the people I have to play - I know that either I have to pull out a win that is historically somewhat unlikely, or else I can't lose any other game in the tournament!

Middle-of-the-pack is just about right for me in terms of division placement. I'm the underdog and don't need to have a brilliant performance. If I place well, it's a pleasant surprise and an equally pleasant rating boost; if I don't, it's okay because statistics never expected it of me in the first place.

There then comes the question: how tightly packed is the division? By that I mean (and I think this is what Michael's going to do a post on when he emerges from the Great Swamp of Private Practice Law Must-Do's, so I won't go into it too in-depth here) what's everyone else in the division rated? Are everyone's ratings close together, as in the division I'll play in in Battle Creek if nothing changes? We're all within about 200 rating points of each other there, from 935-1184. This is great in that anyone, statistically, has a chance to place well if they perform just a little beyond what probability predicts they will! It's not the greatest for rating point gain - you've got no really high-ranked players who would raise your performance rating whether you win or lose the game(s) against them. But it's a fun, evenly matched division in which there should be a lot of really down-to-the-wire good games!

Anyone have any preferences as to where they like to be seeded? Why do you like it there?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Gregorian Scrabbler

It's such a pretty day outside - and a Scrabble tourney is so close....

(please, by the way, register for Battle Creek, everyone! I know, I know, it's a one-day, but Carol's tournaments are so cool....and Idon'twannabefirstseedinadivision!!!!!!!!)

/end rant

...that I thought I'd share a wonderful creation of mine. This creation, while not particularly up for any Song of the Year awards or anything (pity, that) promises to instill a certain set of Scrabble words into the minds of all who choose to learn it. I've not yet found a tune for it, so it's not quite a song....more like a chant. Thought I'd share nonetheless. I call it "The Vowel Dump Song" :


(the state in which you do not want to die-a)
(these are tiles you do not want to see-a)
(too many vowel dumps, if you ask me)
(we're done with vowels too soon - oh my!)

Weirdly enough, this song and its accompanying rhymes for some of the lines have put many of the vowel dumps in my head. It's kinda neat to know more ways to get rid of weird tiles!

Dan at the Rocky River Club taught me that the LATRINE stem takes any consonant or vowel in the phrase MOVING FUNNY SPICES. I always remember that KA takes any consonant in BETSY'S FEET to form a 3-letter word.

Anyone have any other cool ways to remember sets of words?! I love mnemonics!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Franklin, My Dear, I Don't Give a Damn

I have a Franklin. WOW, most Scrabble players would say - awesome! Anagramming at your fingertips, fun word games, ability to play the games at various skill levels - so cool! A Franklin is a hand-held computerized device which is supposed to let you (among other things) type a rack into it and press enter and have it give you all the anagrams of the letters in that rack. Instant bingo-finder, right?! Should save you a lot of time and mental anguish thinking about just what was in that tricky rack last game. I have this to say about the device:

Devil, thy name is Franklin.

More likely, the proper conclusion is: Hello, my name is Heather, and I am completely inept at technology of any kind.

But really - this thing is giving me fits. It's built off the wrong dictionary (the OSPD instead of TWL), so I know it won't have all the possible words in it. But I should be able to get most of them, right?! And my Franklin has four keys - BUILD, PATTERN, GAMES, and SKILL. How hard can four keys be to figure out?!

I want the anagramming function. That is all I would really ever require a Franklin to do, when push comes to shove - just anagram things for me if I can't be right by a computer to type in the racks. For this purpose, the BUILD key seems most likely to give me what I want. Press BUILD, type in the rack - and I get a bunch of random words, of varying length. Some have 7 letters, some don't - but it seems like this is trying to act like a spellcheck, because for a rack of DENTUV? it gives me things like UNDOES. "Here," it says, "this word has a few of your letters! I have deemed it necessary to tell you there are no more words besides this! Be complaint-free, and know that I am FRANKLIN!!!"

Thanks, Franklin. You get the seat of honor right on the floor somewhere-or-other while I turn to my trusty computer to solve all my anagramming woes. And the computer knows just what I need, after a fascinating day at club in Rocky River. I not only played three fascinating games, I also got a bye to roam around during one game and watch everyone else play - oh the racks I saw! oh the interestingness! oh the bingos! The computer tells me within a few seconds about some of my greater curiosities that day:



And by the way....not only can you be disgruntled, you can be DEGLNRT? ---> GRUNTLED. (I am find out there's a word in there!???!!?? What the heck?)

Oh darn....this would have been good, especially in a game against Michael (which it was): AJNRST? ---> JURANTS.

And with regard to a rack Michael and I were toying with - ANRRST? - RANTERS as well as ERRANTS are both good.

I had been looking at this rack forever....DEIINST - INDITES (saw that!!!! didn't think it could be spelled like that!!!) and TINEIDS are both good.

And a random one I saw someone miss at club as I was walking around: BDEILNS ----> BINDLES.

That is nine - count 'em, nine - bingos the computer did quickly while the Franklin did not seem inclined to do them at all. Franklin, the COMPUTER'S being friends with me.......

Well, finally the Franklin (like other beings that go randomly, confusingly, and dramatically antipathetic on innocent people for no good reason) decided it thought it might like me again. It just has rules for our interactions that it didn't want to tell me about, but it got angry when I didn't know about and follow these rules.

So apparently, if I type in the rack and THEN press BUILD, it will give me the anagrams I desire. CLEAR will get me to a screen to type in a new rack, and the random square at the lower right of the keyboard is the blank. Maybe I'm not so bad at technology after all?!?! Or at least - the Franklin has decided to be my friend again. Let's see how long this lasts!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Give Me Lists or Give Me Death

The promised Michael-and-Heather-post about our solution to the Scrabble HPOWNC issue will appear sometime this weekend :) Until then, I thought I'd regale you with a tale of yet another method of studying...perhaps we could call this the "Plan B: List" Method.

Michael wrote about his distaste for studying and quest to find a method more orderly than flash cards. I know a lot of people say flash cards work...but for me, Miss Neat Freak over here, there were few things appealing about having a million flash cards around to take flying leaps off my desk and get stuck under my chair and in crannies around my room and to take up oodles of space. (Except, of course, for the times when I could steal Michael's flash cards and bring them along with us on journeys to Scrabble tournaments - yay shamelessly mooching off my boyfriend's long hours of toil creating easily accessible knowledge!! Slightly ashamed to say I never paid attention to how - or if - he organized them, though :-P)

Anyway - I was never the flash card girl, or actually the anti-studying girl either. I like school! I might end up going for a Ph.D! I always got my kicks out of studying for academic competitions - memorizing speeches for public speaking competitions, studying lists of words for spelling bees - that was my gig, and I was pretty good at it, if I do say so myself. I never needed to see the word - I could just visualize what I was spelling in my head as if it were typed there, and I'd spell it while it was up there on the "computer screen" of sorts in my head.

So when Michael and I became members of the NSA, and I saw a bunch of lists in our membership packets, I was SO sold. Here's everything a beginning Scrabble player needs to get going on the millions of words out there! 2's, 3's, Blockers, J/Q/X/Z 4's, Quasi-Proper Names That Are Actually Good, The Poo List, the Top 10 Bingo Stems (everything from SATINE to SANTER and IRONES), 4's-That-Can-Be-Formed-From-3's....lemme at 'em!!!!!!!

Tedious though it may sound to some, I love my lists. I'll look at them and I'll say words to myself, I'll write the list out again by hand (writing puts things into memory for me), I'll write just the members of the list that I'm having trouble remembering - it's great. I've learned the 2's, most of the 3's, and the Top 10 Stems from this method so far.

Is this everything?! Heck no. Is it something?! Yeah, for sure, and it's all served me well. I may not be studying the obscure 7's and 8's yet, but I'm learning more probable words that show up on my rack a whole heck of a lot more often than things like RESOJETS, for example (I will forever remember that word because the commentators said someone - and I forget who, because I wasn't an avid Scrabble player yet - missed it as an out play in the televised Nationals a few years ago.)

These lists may take me a long time to get through - like I've said, I hardly ever have time to study! But they'll take a good while. The question once I'm through with them, of course, will be - what then?! Zyzzyva, AnaHack, more lists, ???

Here's a question for any who care to weigh in: are these lists enough to tackle at one time, or should I simultaneously be studying some of the more bizarre words?! I don't pretend at all to know what I'm doing, and I know all the list stuff is probably extremely basic and taken for granted by most halfway-decently-ranked Scrabblers.

I know I'll have to probably break from my precious lists one day. But don't worry. I won't go into list-withdrawal shock. Despite the title of my post - there are far cooler ways to die.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Scrabble HPOWNCs, there's no six-letter word in that. You can stop trying now. (Of course, I don't rule out the possibility that some Division 1 player is now going to email me or comment that I'm wrong and there is in fact some term meaning "a rare Asian type of shrub that grows only in May under a full moon" or something in there...)

It's funny to note that there are certain areas of the United States that are quite hoppin' parties of wild and craziness (HPOWNCs) for Scrabble. The funny thing is, the Scrabble HPOWNCs are not always HPOWNCs in other respects. You'd think that an area which was accommodating enough of diverse interests to have a Scrabble scene would have a lot of other stuff going on, too. But instead, Scrabble hotspots are places like....

...Michigan. Okay, Michigan's got Ann Arbor, which I can say firsthand is cool and probably as cool as a college town could ever get. But Scrabble tournaments are never IN Ann Arbor! Instead, they're in the boonies of Farmington, Fenton, and even places this native Michigander has never heard of, like Ortonville. These places are cheap, I'm sure - and I'm not trying to say that our wonderful MI directors pick bad venues. Only that....other than Ann Arbor, sedate places like these are all Michigan's got!

...Ohio. Michiganders, 'nuff said, right?! Who ever finds a wealth of fascinating and diverse entertainment in Ohio?! Just a couple months ago, I swore up and down (even directly in front of my wonderful native Ohioan boyfriend) that I would never ever live in Ohio. Of course, look at me now - and I even actually really like it! But am I gonna end up permanently in Ohio?! You are all allowed to deliver to me a very swift kick to the head if I do in fact, because maybe that will restore my sanity. There are so many completely boring parts of Ohio...yet so many Scrabble tournaments!

...Texas. Okay, none of my exes live in Texas, and I've actually never been there. I love warm weather and would not mind ultimately residing in a place where snow and subzero temps are completely alien. But 110 degrees and even above?! I think it's just as bad to not be able to go outside because of the cold, as it would be to not be able to go outside because of the heat!

...North Carolina. This one for me holds the allure of "I've never been there and I've never heard anyone say anything bad about it." But I've never heard anyone say anything good, either! What on earth is in fact in North Carolina?! Apparently Scrabble tournaments...and....c'mon, help me out here! Anyone? anyone?

....California. I like Cali. Lots of stuff going on if you're in the right places. But those places aren't always where tourneys are, and are expensive as all get-out, because you like Cali but so does everyone else...and I don't see the point of the random extraneous isolated suburbs because you now have all this money that you can't do anything with because you're not around any cool place to spend it!

Where Scrabble Tournaments Are Not:

-Chicago. This one makes me sad. I'd probably be very happy in Chicago, but then again I'd get to go to - what, one or two tourneys a year?! CLNOOU!!!! Chicago has such a wide variety of stuff going'd think there'd be some nerdy wordy people around??

-New York. Except Albany (Michael and I are totally going this year, btw - anybody else?!! We've never been and are deathly curious). Another cool place you'd think would have a better Scrabble scene than it does.

-Iowa. This makes me sad, too, only because I might go to the University of Iowa for a PhD in speech path eventually. And when/if I do, what am I supposed to do about Scrabble?! Go to a big city like Chicago for my Scrabble fix?! Oh, wait...can't....nothing there! I do imagine getting a PhD would take up a good bit of my time, but not so much that I'd want to/have to give up what is currently probably my favorite hobby that I've ever had.


It's just kind of funny, if you think about it. a Scrabble tourney player who wants to continue playing avidly, but who probably does not want to live in either Michigan or Ohio for the rest of her life....what on earth does one do?!?

And there, my dear readers, is where I shall leave you hanging, wondering where on earth I'm going with all this.

....Stay tuned for the answer in an upcoming post from Michael and Heather.......


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Awwww....little Scrabblers!!!!

I'm not talking in the title about the kids and teens who take the Scrabble world by storm here. (If you think about it, those players can hardly be deemed "little Scrabblers" - they might be younger than most of us, but a lot of them know a lot more words and use a lot more complex strategy than other players who might be older. Hence, their skill at the game cannot be called "little").

Instead, I'm referring to you and me and all other people, at the point where we just start(ed) getting into the world of tournament Scrabble and began to figure out what we needed to do to be ready for those first and second-ever tournaments. What a daunting task it was, right?!

Just about a year ago, I was a very little Scrabbler myself. (Being rated just over 1000 now, some might make a compelling case that I still am, lol). When Michael first brought up the idea that we should enter a tournament, I was all for it. I'd played pretty avidly in the University of Michigan Scrabble Club for a few years and played one of my college roommates pretty frequently when we'd lived together. But I knew I wasn't all that good. I don't think I ever won a game against my roommate. And one member of the U of M Scrabble Club liked to make high-scoring plays while providing a "friendly neighborhood reminder to watch your triples!"

I was always so confused by that. I found a place to make a word! I like the word! You're telling me I should find a way to keep you away from the Triple Word Score (TWS)....AND play a word?!?

When Michael and I decided to enter the tournament scene....something told me I'd need to learn how to watch my triples around this neighborhood of probably-scarily-good people. I didn't trust them not to know how to keep ME away from triples. Such was my first introduction to the concept of Scrabble strategy.

I will be the first to admit I do not study Scrabble as much as I should. Michael may spend an hour or two per day with Zyzzyva...I'm lucky if I get two to three hours studying in a week. (I don't use Zyzzyva, either...but my actual studying methods are a whole 'nother post.) But I also know that there was a point in my Scrabble "career" when all I was really concentrating on was keeping people away from triples and making neat words with 2-4 letters. My rating was in the 7-800 range then. I knew all the twos, some of the threes, and almost none of the strategy.

Then came along a foreign concept to both Michael and me, brought to us by Flossie, a very nice woman from Michael's Scrabble club: "When in doubt, use more tiles rather than fewer in a turn. You'll see more tiles that way, have a better chance at getting the power tiles...."

[note to non-Scrabblers: there are ten power tiles: J (8 points), Q (10pts), X (8pts), Z (10pts), four S's (1pt each), and two blanks, which can be turned into any letter you want (0 pts). These are called power tiles because you have the potential to score a lot of points with them if you use them well]

"....and that way you'll have a better chance at winning."

I was intrigued. That concept became "The Flossie Principle" to Michael and me, and we began trying to incorporate it into our games as best we could. Using the Flossie Principle seemed to raise our scores and lessen the time it took to finish a game (which was a good thing, because - I'm ashamed to say - initially one or the other of us was frequently overtime).

The Flossie Principle was also, for me, a wake-up call: Hey! That actually made sense! What, you mean there're other things you can do besides studying and keeping your opponent away from the triples to give yourself a better chance of winning?! I'd never really put deep thought into each of my plays in a Scrabble game before. Maybe I should?

So, before my next tournament (in Rocky River, OH in February '08) I studied when I could and then decided I was going to do a little experiment: Let's see what the effect on my game is of really thinking about my plays! Here were some of the ideas I considered:

-Does my opponent seem ready to bingo soon? If so, can I block possibly advantageous places to put it?

-Are there any power tiles I think my opponent has? If so, can I block any good places to put them?
(Example: putting a Z on a triple letter score (TLS) next to an A and putting an A of your own below the Z to form ZA, ZA, and an acceptable two like AL or AN. This would be a 64-point play and would be a huge chance for your opponent to greatly shorten your lead or to lengthen his/her own!)

-Are my letters absolutely atrocious? (Examples: AIOOUWV or CDGKQVY - no easily-formed words there, even if there are random tiles on the board you can make words through). If so, the best option IS to change some of them and take the lost turn. (It took me a while to convince myself of this - I never wanted to lose a turn!

-Do I have a significant lead? If so, I might want to start closing down the board - making it tough for my opponent to bingo and possibly catch up with me. Am I significantly behind? Then I want the board open, open, open so I can bingo and catch up!

-I want to track tiles as closely as I can! That way, I know which power tiles or even higher-pointed tiles are gone, and I might have a fighting chance of figuring out what my opponent has at the end of the game if I'm a REALLY good tracker (which I'm not usually, yet :-P )

Funny to say I had never considered ideas such as this...but after my first tournament of doing so, my rating rose from 791-859, my largest jump so far. (It's worth noting that I started in September 2006 with a rating of 740 - so in the six months prior, my rating had only gone up 51 points). I decided to keep strategizing - and my rating has jumped about 200 points in the six months after. I THINK. I know why :)

It's important to note here that I am in no way saying strategy alone is the way to approach and to play Scrabble. Word knowledge is vital, and you can see Michael's post below for one method of heightening that for yourself.

I also do not claim to be anything close to a strategy guru. One example of my lacks in strategy showed in my game against George V at Tuesday's club tourney: George had (as expected) a pretty commanding lead. But I had pretty good tiles, and had had a few 7-letter bingos I couldn't fit on the board recently. Maybe I could catch up a little bit still? For the life of me, though, I couldn't think of any 8's that would fit either, even though there were several inviting-looking potential hooks out there.

It was almost the end of the game when George played a W four spaces away from the TWS on the right in the middle (if I had a board in front of me, I could give you the number and letter corresponding to the space, but I'm not snappy enough to remember that offhand yet :) I thought, okay, free triple if I can't find a bingo. Not that that was going to give me all that many points with the letters I had, but maybe I could still bingo on the next turn. So I played WORE 21 - three letters of mine gone to the play, four left - and reached in the tile bag to find only two letters remaining. I had only six letters and couldn't bingo now, since for the 50-point bonus of a bingo you have to have used seven letters from your rack. My hopes of catching up a bit were gone - I hadn't tracked well enough to know there were only two in the bag. Nicely played, George :)

George, of course, knew exactly what he was doing - his reasoning (which I found out after the game when I talked to him) was that if I'd wanted to open things up to possibly bingo, I'd play two letters next to the W and end just before the TWS, making a low-pointed play but the possibility of a high-pointed one on the next turn. But then he'd probably have a tile that would fit right on the TWS, and would make a word going vertically from it - likely blocking any bingo I'd have to put there. If I played three tiles instead of two (which I did), I wouldn't be able to bingo on the last turn anyway and he'd have nothing to worry about.

We all learn something new every day, and my favorite new thing that day was that expert strategy tactic! There are always new words and new strategies to learn. But my point is that if you make a conscious effort to include both new words and better strategy in each game you play, you might be pleasantly surprised at the results. Even little Scrabblers might be astounded at the speed with which they "grow up!"

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What, Me, Study?

It's funny to admit this as a person who holds three degres (a high school diploma, a B.A., and a J.D.), but I'll admit it: I always hated to study.

Until I met Scrabble, that is.

One of the things that I think often vexes civillians about Scrabblers is that we...gasp!..."use weird words!"

A good illustration of this was when Heather and I had lunch a few months ago with a former landlady of mine, who loved Scrabble. I'd played several games with her when I lived in her basement (which, as I recall, she soundly trounced me in), and she seemed to fit the prototype of someone who might really enjoy tournament Scrabble.

So, we started teling her about it. Tournaments, clubs, how much fun it was. She sounded somewhat intrigued.

Until we mentioned the words. Those pesky words.

"Oh, you're like my friend who uses weird words to play Scrabble that no one's heard of."

Well, no disrespect to my former landlady, but someone's heard of them. They didn't just sprout legs and walk into the dictionary. So maybe I didn't know APRAXIA (a speech pathology term), and would consider it a "weird word," but it's something Heather interacts with all the time. Meanwhile, Heather might think NOVATION odd, but anyone who's lived through a first year Contracts class knows it's a perfectly valid word (albeit, a very annoying concept.) (NB: NOVATED* is no good. Heather and I both learned that in Pontiac.)

So, really, there are no weird words. Just words you don't know. And, if you want to be any good at tournament Scrabble, you need to remedy that.

This is a revelation that comes to all Scrabblers, sooner or later. Epitomized by Tina (and stolen by Heather) as "STUDY MORE." Stefan Fatsis, in Word Freak, mentions there came a point when he had to confront the brutal truth: To be better, he'd need to learn more words.

OK, so I realized, I needed more words. But how? I ran into a problem from my academic days: I didn't quite know how best to study.

I started interrogating other, better, players on the Scrabble scene. (When you're a 615-rated player, as I was at my nadir, finding a better player is not hard.) Their tactics ranged from writing down the word, its inflections, and its definition, to printng out lists and going through the whole list to cram before tournaments.

Somehow, nothing spoke to me.

Then, inspiration appeared in the form of a good ol' fashioned butt-whoopin'.

I was playing Waylena McCully at the Fenton Late Bird in January. Waylena seemed to know all sorts of odd words, so I asked her the same question I'd been asking everyone: How did she learn all these words?

Waylena pointed me to Anahack (that's the link you'l usually find it at, although I couldn't open it while drafting this post.) It's pretty simple: the program flashes 36 alphagrams at you (an alphagram is the letters making up the word, so my name's alphagram is ACEHILM), and you have to try to solve them.

At first, I felt like it was pointless. Alphagrams would flash in front of me, I'd enter the wrong word, and it would say I was wrong. Surely, I was getting nowhere.

So, I tried something else. Whenever I'd miss an alphagram, I'd write the alphagram on the front (unlined) portion of the card, while writing the words on the back side. Then, I'd separate the cards into piles or the number of letters in the word (4, 5, 6 & 7), and then further divide them by those I'd figured out and those I hadn't.

This was great. I learned some really cool hooks (that an S can go in front of TIME, or that an A can go behind LIP.) I started to be able to anagram faster and recognize bingos on my rack. And I was learning words. Cool words, like PEDALO(S) and AXMEN.

There were only two drawbacks that I could see: One was that Anahack flashed things at you in a rather random order. But that was okay, I figured, insofar as there were a lot of words, and I needed to learn them all eventually (although, I will admit, the relative likelihood of AEMNX showing up in your rack...come on, you can figure it out, I just gave it to you in the last paragraph...was not great.)

The second problem was a bit more, to coin a phrase, EIGNVX (work on it. Work on it. OK, here's a hint, a good Scrabble player looks to group endINGs in their alphagrams.) You see, the more cards I got, the more space it took up, and the more cluttered my dresser became. Beyond that, every time I wanted to go through a pile of cards, it was taking longer and longer as I added more words. Sometimes, I would spend forty minutes just going through one group of words. While I didn't mind spending that much time studying, I did mind that I was spending a good deal of time flipping through words I had long ago committed to memory.

By the way, my last sentence reminded me of something I started to say. While I was never a huge fan of studying from Kindergarten through the day I passed the bar, such was not the case when it came to Scrabble. I find learning new words fascinating, and the process of decoding anagrams exhilerating. (Yes, yes, I'm weird, I know.) I greatly enjoyed the process.

Nonetheless, the issue of time and space. (You might call it the time/space continuum. But only if you were an incorrigible smartass.) Just as things were getting really desperate, a lady at my club mentioned she'd been enjoying using Zyzzyva. Zyzzyva is a program (and, yes, ZYZZYVA is good, if INCREDIBLY low'd need the Z, both blanks, a Y, a V and an A, all at once) which has a number of different ways to study things. It's also the way we adjudicate challenges in Scrabble (a whole 'nother ball of wax.)

The coolest thing, I've found, about Zyzzyva is the "cardbox" method. When you decode an alphagram correctly for the first time, it "schedules" the alphagram to be shown to you within a day or two. The second time you get it right, it's scheduled for 3-5 days later. And so on, until you're only seeing words you really know cold every thirty days or so. If you miss it, back to the front it goes, and you'll see it practically every day until you get it right.

The problem, of course, is that if you miss a few days, your cardbox gets very full. My goal was to have about 50-150 questions a day. Unfortunately, I missed several days in the process of being in Pontiac for the three-day tournament, and found myself with 501 3s to do.

Nonetheless, the good news is that these 501 3s are in my hard drive, not on my dresser. I think I have found a study method that works for me. And best of's kind of fun! HOW EKNW I CDLOU EJNOY DGINSTUY?

C'mon. You can figure it out. :)

Club (At?) Tourney!

Yesterday, due to my newfound Cleveland-ness, I was able to attend a Scrabble club tourney in Independence, OH at the quite-yummy restaurant Angie's Pizza. I must digress for a moment to say that while at this tournament, I certainly missed the presence of my (club??) attorney. Michael and I always attend Scrabble tournaments together - but he had to go be a good lawyer and defend constitutional rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness, bring justice to the land, all that cwap ;-) ;-)

Is that you I hear, readers? That teeth-gnashing, hair-pulling, the stomping of feet, the plaintive wail: "WHYYYYYY?! She just told us about Scrabble tournaments and now there are club tournaments and she's talking like they're different and I don't understand, oh I will never understand, and besides that she's going on about missing her boyfriend and I don't know WHYYYYYYY I have to put up with all this oh WHYYYY?!"

Okay, I'm overdramatizing and overemphasizing what is not likely a true disaster. But call me Calamity Heather and I Will. Open My CAN. and score over 600 against you on your own Scrabble board with your favorite tiles so quickly your head will spin.

Now that we have that cleared up, no further worries needed. I will explain the club tourney phenomenon.

This isn't something I understood either until a few days ago...but apparently there are fully rated tourneys, and there are partially rated tourneys, AKA club tournaments. As I understand it, a club can say "Hi! We wanna have a tournament! and register it with NSA and actually get their members rating points for it. Club tourneys are usually four games, might be on a weekday night (or whenever the club meets) instead of a weekend day, and are usually a pretty solid chance for everybody to play people of various skill levels. For example, yesterday I played two 1100-something-rated players and two 1500-something-rated players. (As you might expect, I now bear both the scars and the heightened sense of sheer awe that naturally flow from playing those rated 500 points above you).

Anyway, you play four games, and if you're comparatively-low-rated and lucky, you might win a game or two of your four against the tough field. Enter uber-rating-points for you, since mathematical probability (which compares your rating to the ratings of those you played to determine how many games you are statistically supposed to win against these people) maybe says you weren't supposed to win more than a half a game or one game or something - and you just squeaked out two. Club tournaments, though, are not what is called "fully rated" - meaning you don't get all the rating points you'd get after a normal tournament. It's club, it's a small field, NSA apparently doesn't think clubs are as difficult as tourneys - so at the end of a club tourney, you get one-third of the rating points you would get at a regular, fully-rated tournament.

Example: Last night, I played two 1100-something-rated players, and got lucky to pull out two wins. I also played two 1500-something-rated players, and they executed two brilliantly-played and classic massacres of my semi-valiantly-struggling Scrabble corpse. But one of the cool things was, I still pulled out two wins against a field of people who were all higher-ranked than I. Whether you beat a 600-rated player or a 1500-rated player, in the end it all looks the same to the system that figures out your new rating: I pulled out more wins than I was supposed to against a particular field. I determined with the help of the Scrabble ratings calculator that if this had been a fully rated tourney, my rating would have gone up 57 points, from 1040--->1097. But because I'll only get 1/3 of those points, my rating will likely be up about 19 points, and I'll be 1059-ish once it's all calculated and done. Woo hoo!!!!!!

Now for the fun part - talking about the actual games. My first two were clear luck and nothing more by me - I drew well and closed down the board on two opponents I'd never played before. (Heather's Cardinal Rule of Scrabble: I DO NOT TRUST YOU NOT TO BINGO!!!!)

My next two were, as I mentioned, clear and brilliantly-played stiflings of the gasping breath of my Scrabble corpse. Did I mind?! Not in the slightest!

Confucius say: "Playing Scrabble with 1500-rated player instill in 1000-rated player deep sense of wonder and awe."

I learned new words, I marveled at the ability to turn racks like BDEEFIR and ADEILOS into bingos (DEBRIEF 86 and ISOLEAD 75, both played by the eminently skilled Pete Z), I got the chance to see games played by those with a level of skill I can only hope to someday attain. George V made the comment that I'd gotten much better since he'd last played me - which is a great thing and a wonderful compliment! But that also tells me, after a game I lost to George 470-294, that I have a heck of a long way still to go. That's okay. It just tells me one thing, loud and clear. I echo Tina in one of her blog entries:


And that, my friends, is why I study Scrabble words: So that one day, I can walk into a tourney or club and give the Petes and Georges of the Scrabble world a run for their money. This will take more years than I can measure, more time than I can ever dream of having at this moment. I am nowhere near where I want to be in terms of Scrabble prowess.

But you know what? The list of three-letter-words-I'm-not-quite-100%-on-yet is beckoning to me. I think I'll go give it a run-through. That way, at the next club meeting or tourney or the next fully-rated tourney (Battle Creek on the 27th, anyone?!?!!?! :) I might know and be able to bring to mind a few more words than I knew at the previous tourneys. And that, while not even close to everything, is certainly something of a step in the right direction. :)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


A recent event of note for Michael and me was the Labor Day Scrabble tournament in Pontiac, MI. Twenty games of Scrabble over three days...who could ask for a better way to spend a long weekend, really?! The most fun part of this is, of course, each and every one of the twenty games. The next most fun part, though, is seeing how addled your brain gets during the process of playing twenty games of Scrabble....

and for us, you could definitely make a case that the brain-addling began very early on.

Day 1 began at 8:45 with registration and at 9:30 with games, and ended quite sadly for me, with a 3-5 record and 6th place out of 10. Ack - I knew I could do better than that!!!!

9:30am day 1 means 9:30am day 2...right? of course. had to be. we were even a couple minutes early!

All was not quite right in Scrabble Land, though...and I started picking up on that as I headed to the bathroom before going into the tourney room. Why is no one out here talking?! It's awfully quiet...

I walked into the room to a sudden barrage of information: "Ohthankgoodnessyoumadeithereyou'replayingTinayourclockisstartedjustgo!"

The tournament had, decisively, started at 9am, not 9:30. I had slightly less than 12 of the allotted 25 minutes left on my clock.

I owe many, many thanks to Amanda and Tina for calming the nerves of a suddenly very frazzled me. Michael, you see, is the consistently faster player of the two of us. He had to play a 12-minute game, too (we'd arrived together, as usual), but he played with that time limit fairly regularly online. I'm a slooooowwwww plaaaayyyerrrrr.....and I thiiiiiiiiink a lot.......and I'm never overtime, but I often allow myself the luxury of using my time down to the last minute or two. This in a 25-minute game.

Visions of a 3-6 record danced through my head. My 1022 rating would be very, very sad after this.

....I have no idea which tiles I even got that game, let alone how I managed to win it.

My "brilliance" continued a few games later, playing a very nice woman to whom Michael and I have great fun talking, and whom we consider a "Scrabble friend." Unfortunately, the best plays I saw on a few turns (whether for the purpose of TLSs or simply dumping misfit tiles) materialized as DUMPY, MORON, FAT, and CRONE. She pretended to be insulted. I seriously do not try to win games by demoralizing opponents! That's not my M.O.! Really! :-P

The spectacular piece de resistance of this all came at lunch that second day. I was absolutely tortured thinking of a rack/ideal bingo line I'd had in the previous game. There HAD to be something in it. But I couldn't think of it. "Michael, what the heck is in AEIIRST? ? You know - AIRIEST plus the blank?" Michael couldn't think of it either.

The Table of Division 1 Phenoms sat behind us having lunch there at Zoup. You know...those guys that all of us 1000-1200 players dream of being in, like, ten or forty years. I know many of them, I like everyone - and I had to know what I'd missed. Or maybe there wasn't anything in it after all????

Steve Knapp quickly enlighted me: HAIRIEST!!

Yeah, I know, you readers saw it five minutes ago when I first mentioned the rack. The depths to which my brain must have been shot are, in retrospect, remarkable. If Michael and I are the Scrabble couple, you can just call me the Scrabble airhead. :-P

Even more remarkable, then, was my completion of the tournament with a 10-2 record in the last two days. I finished 13-7 +762 for second place (behind the newest, youngest, and lightning-quickest up-and-comer of the Scrabble scene, one very talented Chris W.), a rating jump of 18 points from 1022 to 1040, and a prize of $105.

My inspiring message of hope is this: All ye tired, downtrodden, and brain-addled of the Scrabble world, fear not. If I can overcome

a horrible day 1
being needlessly and unintentionally insulting to another player
and easy-bingo-blindness

to place in a tournament, you certainly can too!!!!!

Just trust me. I'm not, like, an airhead or anything.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Opening Rack

We're a happy couple who've heard "Get a room!" our fair share of times. We sort of already have one, though. It's called Starbucks, and it's our haven for endless games of Scrabble - so much so that the local baristas learn our usual drink orders within a week or two. We'd never dream of trying to steal Winter's gig of visiting every Starbucks there is. But we certainly wouldn't mind if, one day, he happened to pick our local Starbucks to wander into. He'd probably find us there on any given day or time, and we'd be more than happy to start up a game ;-)

We're Michael and Heather, most recently both of northern Ohio. Michael's 28 and is a domestic relations attorney in private practice in Port Clinton. He enjoys politics and Ohio State football, and would love to finally find an open bingo line to play DIVORCE. Heather is 24 and works as a speech-language pathologist in Cleveland, after recently moving from her hometown of Ann Arbor, MI. (Yes, she roots for that *other* team - football Saturdays would probably be pretty heated if she actually cared about a bunch of men wearing spaceman suits and crashing into each other every three feet!) She's enamored with music by the band Lifehouse and with following figure skating and gymnastics, despite her utter lack of past, present, or future ability to take up either of these sports. She dreams of the day she'll get to play ATAXICS.

We met in June 2006 on Despite being polar opposites in one respect - Michael was becoming disillusioned with the world of online dating after having been registered for two years; Heather, confident that all men attempting to date online were crazy people, had signed on on a whim just the night before Michael emailed her - we clicked immediately. As they say, the rest is history.

And most of it, actually, is Scrabble history. We were both casual players in our youths. Heather now bemoans the existence of a picture documenting a board on which she played the phony two RA, having no idea it isn't good. Michael wishes he could erase the memories of being beaten routinely in Scrabble by his mother, grandmother, and at least three good friends, all of whom are living room players with no vested interest in the game.

It was only on our third date that things began to crystallize slowly for us as serious players. We decided to play a game of Scrabble at Bubble Island in Ann Arbor. (Heather won, and has won more than 60% of our games since then.) Scrabble became an intermittent guest in our activity plans - but only one game at a time, 'cause who had ever heard of playing more than that in one sitting? It was June of 2007 before Michael brought up a novel idea - we both like Scrabble, and there are tournaments, sanctioned by the National Scrabble Association (yes, there is one); maybe there would be some around us? Maybe we should actually think about playing in one? Could be fun....

A Carol Ravichandran tourney in Battle Creek in September of 2007 was our initiation into the world of competitive Scrabble. Tile gods, you've had us hook, line, and sinker ever since. We simply pray for power (tiles), wisdom (to forever obey the Golden Rule: Thou Shalt Not Open Needlessly Thy Triple), and thoughtfulness (to remember what exactly is in that seemingly perplexing AADEINR rack).

Since then, Scrabble has become a compelling passion for us, even lending the name for the blog. When we find a weekend without a Scrabble tournament or some other diversion, we are frequently at one of the aforementioned Starbucks, "practicing" Scrabble. (We call it practicing, even though it is so darn much fun.) These practice sessions can go seven or even eight games in a day.

Prior to Heather's move from Ann Arbor, our favorite spot to play was the Starbucks on South University. We got to know the staff pretty well. One day, the manager said to Michael, "I'm almost embarassed to ask, but what's your name?" When Michael supplied it, the manager asked for Heather's name. "Well, my staff has nicknamed you 'The Scrabble Couple,' and I figured we needed some names!"

We didn't realize we'd attracted so much attention. Who would think that sitting down with a customized Scrabble board, using a chess clock, and frequently announcing, "I love you so much! Now let's beat each other's brains out!" could bring such notoriety?

Hence, the name of the blog. Our purpose? To give you an inside look into what it's like to combine love for each other with love for this complex, maddening and underappreciated game.

And we hope, too, that in chronicling our Scrabble adventures in this blog, we are not QIS-y and do not make you QOPH in disbelief at our antics or our musings.

Enjoy! This blog will, hopefully, become filled with posts from one or both of us regularly. And may the J, Q, X, and Z be with you.

Except, of course, if you're playing either of us.