Chances are good the word “hryvnia” would elicit a challenge, or at least raised eyebrows, in a typical living-room Scrabble game.
When the word is played against you at the National Scrabble Championship, however, and you are facing an opponent who has a North American Scrabble Players Association rating that exceeds yours by several hundred points, you tend to give both him, and the word, the benefit of the doubt.
The word is good – the name of the basic monetary unit of Ukraine – and it is one of many words played against me that looked made up but were in fact acceptable bingos (when all seven letters are played, achieving a bonus of 50 points).
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Almost all the players I faced at this year’s National Scrabble Championship this month flummoxed me with their word knowledge.
I was ranked 126 out of the 135 players in Division 2. I was obligated to play in this division, higher than my comfort zone, because of a peak rating over the past year that placed me out of the lower division.
It wasn’t a total blowout.
I won more games than expected, which means my rating again went up – a higher division awaits me at future tournaments – and I was able to beat higher-ranked players with some good strategy, time management and lucky tile draws.
My two favorite plays, both of which cemented a win in a game I seemed destined to lose, involved the kind of synchronicity of luck, ingenuity and tiles that epitomizes why I love this game so much and travel the country playing it.
The first play occurred during the game against the hryvnia opponent. He also played two other bingos: “ameboid,” a unicellular microscopic organism; and “roentgens,” units of radiation dosage.
My play was a triple-triple through an open N. I played “enamored” for 176 points. Hitting two triple-word-score squares allows you to multiply the score of your play by nine, and I was awarded an extra 50 points because my word was a bingo.
I beat my opponent 471 to 435. He was the better player, no question, but I had luck and skill at the right time.
The other play was one I diagrammed for my daughter at lunch, when we would debrief our games and enjoy the fact that the tournament provided an excuse to take an 11-hour road trip to Buffalo, N.Y.
The trip was our last hurrah before she starts college.
The play was a bingo that was hard to find. My tiles were P, V, H, I, S, E and a blank. The board was pretty closed, but my opponent played “ole.” That provided me the E as a hook for the word “pe” – a Hebrew letter – and allowing me to play “peevish,” which is just what my opponent was when the play secured my win.
There were plenty of games that reminded me I was playing up and that I’d better do some studying. In fact, one of my final games had me suggesting a special prize for those of us whose score was surpassed by the spread: My opponent beat me by a margin greater than the total number of points I scored.
But what most stands out for me, after five days and 31 games at my eighth nationals, is the camaraderie of being with more than 500 other Scrabble enthusiasts from around the world. They have become family friends, and I now have all sorts of new words to teach the kids at the Scrabble Club I coach at Randolph Middle School.