I had the recollection the venue was the Burwood RSL, same as last year’s Nationals. Staying with friends in Darlinghurst, I made my way to Town Hall station on Saturday morning and found the platform with about five minutes to spare, then quickly checked the event website on my phone. Crikey, it said the venue was Bankstown, same as last year! I grabbed my things and raced up to the concourse to see if there was a train going there. There was, in about three minutes. I got to the right platform via an Escher-like sequence of escalators then tried to call a couple of people to confirm – Bob J answered, and I told him the website stated Bankstown. “Does it? No, don’t pay any attention to that, every bloody email has mentioned Burwood”. OK, so I scurried back to the original platform and made the train with moments to spare, and this on a blazingly hot day (luckily it was air-conditioned on board, which was much needed after my pointless scurryings). Then when I got to Burwood, his wife Liz opined that it was silly of me to go to the wrong venue.
The first couple of games went well, getting wins against the blanks. But then the rot set in, with a string of losses to opponents who just seemed to have better tiles. E.g. I pulled back to within ten of Rael Hayman towards the end (who by the way had used the board as a ‘thinking area’ for about five minutes as he dithered between various possibilities with his opening AEILRR?), then I pulled out AAAAENQ; I got rid of AQAE around a handy U for 18, then drew two more A’s which completely scuppered me…Ivor Zetler was comfortably able to survive his hopeful try of ISOLATER* thanks to superior resources…Karen similarly tried UNEASED* but had the tools to outscore me…then the final game on day 1, after a horror 3-5 record, was against John Barker. Despite huge domestic and international experience under his belt, he habitually plays his every move within a few seconds, and at least on the face of it devotes minimal thought to the opponent’s previous play. At the start of the game, some people like to scrape all their tiles off the board onto a suitable receptacle (e.g. the initial tile layout sheet), then transfer the tiles into the bag by forming the sheet into a funnel. I hadn’t seen John do this before, but he duly started scraping – he is not the most graceful of men, and a few of us around him were worried for the safety of his brimming beer glass that was nestled against the leg of the table. Several tiles missed their target, and we picked up the board to check for escapees. Then John wondered if any had made their way into his shoes, which had quite large flaps, and he began to probe them with his fingers. Still unsatisfied, he said he was going to have to take his socks off and check in there as well. We were right by the lobby, so he retreated there to bare his feet and make sure there were no tiles lurking between his toes. After my rough day I was getting quite exasperated, and began to count out the tiles from the bag once again in tens (all were present and correct by the time he returned, reshod). As for the game, it was an uneventful bagging in which I tried to defend a small lead against better tiles, contending with threats from the Z and bingos at the same time. In the end I drew the final tile, which happened to be the Z and thereby inflated my losing spread by 20 while John promptly bingoed out. That evening I went with Alex and Rob to the free concert Opera in the Domain, which was great – Lorina Gore particularly good.
I steadied the ship slightly at the start of day 2, but by this stage I was playing contenders well down the field. After three wins I faced Esther Perrins, also suffering a nightmare tourney, and confess that I boobed badly with an S-hook to DINGO (thought it was good, and I’ve certainly seen it used), and then in the endgame in which I failed to consider the shape of the board after making my play, thus giving her an easier victory (turns out there was no win for me anyway). I concluded with further dispiriting losses to Paul Richards, Noel Barrett, and then Glenda Foster of NZ; the last game on day 1 had been unusual for the pregame tile-juggling foreplay, and there were also some shenanigans in this final game of day 2. Towards the end of a close game, I had to spend a few minutes rechecking my tracking repeatedly as things just didn’t add up – there seemed to be a tile missing. I asked Glenda if she had the same problem, and she was non-committal, but allowed me to search under the table and so forth for a couple of fruitless moments. So with a small deficit on my part, I couldn’t establish what subset of tiles was to come or make any effective openings as the pool diminished. She blocked up the board competently over the next two turns, and by the end of the game my tracking had mysteriously righted itself as she played out to win. Then Ryan Sutton, seated next to Glenda, pointed out that she had had eight tiles on her rack when I raised the question (but reasonably, he hadn’t wanted to intervene). It looks as though she kept on replenishing it up to eight until everything was used up – god knows why I didn’t think to check how many she had, but I just made the assumption it would be seven. And I’m not saying this was deliberate on her part, I’m pretty sure it was just a brain-dead mistake after nine gruelling games, but I wasn’t happy. Call the director? What’s the point, and how could you possibly fix it? I just took the loss and strode out quickly.
I had arranged to meet a few people at the Beresford, and after a train ride made my way there in a sweaty 15-minute walk through 35-degree sweltering streets. Before going through to the back I decided to get a drink, waiting at the insanely busy bar for…what, another fifteen minutes? Apparently I was invisible to the bar staff who kept going to either side of me, or maybe they were shunning my increasingly thunderous and blood-curdling scowl. And of course by the time I secured that much-needed drink my friends had just left, so I had to down it and catch up with them at a nearby restaurant. At least from then on the evening was very pleasant, relaxing, and a welcome respite from the repeated assaults over the board.
Somehow the tile synergy was a lot better on day three. I was well in the doldrums, facing players of modest ability but this time managing to beat them. I even got to 636 in one game with the five bingos OREIDES, ERMELIN, HOLYDAME, VETERAN, ICTERIC. A game with Pat Schuberg was notable for another reason. I was about 100 ahead, weighing up whether to burn a blank and S in V(ANA)D(O)uS for about 55 points or to save it to protect against the unseen Q; instead we each dinked a couple of tiles as the bag emptied, reaching our final rack (being ADVRRS? in my case). Once again my tracking was awry but I didn’t pay too much attention at this stage. Then Pat surprised me by playing a G in the only spot remaining for the Q – I had to comment, and she said she thought I was holding the Q. Well, we had a look around and the Q-tile was on the floor under her chair, seemingly another scrape-and-funnel victim. Luckily for me it would have been hers to draw anyway, and while the result wasn’t in doubt it was a strange outcome.
Finally I had racked up enough wins to play some of the top contenders. Got away with a win over Cameron, then an interesting game with Eldar. He was marginally behind and had to change after a bingo; I decided to burn a couple of S’s in LASSU for 28, leaving two easily blockable lanes which I subsequently picked off; his tiles never came good, and he had to try a desperation RETRACTILES* which didn’t work out.
However, Edward then vanquished me – I played through six I’s in three turns, leaving a T-hook to DAINTIES(T); a while later my catch-up SUNBATHE wasn’t enough to withstand his access to the remaining T’s and blank. And finally I suffered another unwinnable game with Alastair, who has beaten me in the final game of many a tournament – he quickly soared 100+ ahead on a thoroughly blocked board and went on to win. Looks like I lost over 100 ratings points and have plummeted to about 15th in Australia, which feels slightly wrong.
Totting up ‘premium tiles’ is a bit tedious, but it does illustrate the problems I was having with 20/56 blanks (36%, actually a distinct improvement over 3/20 in the first ten games) and 42/104 S’s (40%). Worse than all that was the lack of synergy – seemingly every time I tried to fish, I would draw a couple of I’s, or a W or some other clunky tile. And did I miss much? Not sure, but I’ve scanned quickly for missed bingos and admittedly there were a couple in 26 games (CERULEAN against Tony Hunt, probably a game-loser and a pretty poor miss, and the cute ICEFIELD against Pat). I made some other mistakes, including one careless transposition phony (RUNG/NEX instead of GURN/REX), so I am quite possibly just past it.
So what is my future in Scrabble? Perhaps I will just go slowly downhill, with highish expectations but increasingly fizzling results, and focus instead on creating more crosswords, learning Spanish or something. I still enjoy it when the distribution is reasonably fair, but a weekend like this may be too frustrating to bear.