The condescendence of Scrabble players

OK. Maybe not all of us are this way. But we’ve all seen it. You know what I mean. The person who just can’t allow you to somehow stumble to a big play or win against them. “I had a really good word for that spot but you messed it up.”

I am not a high-level player, not even close. I do enjoy playing the game, though, and that’s why this amused me. It’s an account in Slate about how one person scored a record 830 (!) points in a Scrabble game, including a record 365 points on one turn when he played QUIXOTRY between two triple-word spots. Here is how author (and self-proclaimed competitive Scrabble player) Stefan Fatsis described what Michael Cresta, along with his oppponent Wayne Yorra (who scored “only” 490 points) accomplished.:

I asked Jason Katz-Brown, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology junior ranked 10th in North America, to analyze the game. Unlike most players mid-level and higher, Cresta and Yorra didn’t keep track of the letters they drew on each turn, so it’s impossible to fully examine their possible moves. But we do know what letters they played on each turn. When Katz-Brown input those into a Scrabble-playing computer program he co-wrote called Quackle, he found that Cresta and Yorra had better moves on 14 of their 22 nonbingo turns. One example: Cresta scored just 30 points using the second blank when he could have held it and tried for another bingo.

Technically, Cresta’s strategy was unsound. Fishing for a once-in-a-lifetime play might be understandable in a casual game, where winning is less urgent. But in competitive play—even in a club setting, where there’s less on the line than in a rated tournament—exchanging letters three times, as Cresta did, to enhance some combination of Q, U, I, and X is unorthodox at best, suicidal at worst. (The strategically correct move was to dump the cumbersome Q and move on.) In Scrabble, the player who waits for the miracle word usually loses. The implication: Cresta wasn’t terribly worried about whether he won or lost.

(By the way, for those like me who don’t know, to “bingo” means to use all seven tiles in one turn)

So Cresta didn’t play the “sound” way and he was rewarded with an incredibly high score and a catty article by Mr. Fatsis. In the end, Fatsis proposes that Cresta’s score stand as the mark for club  play while the previous record (held by “Mr. 770” Mark Landsberg in a 1993 California tournament) stand as the mark for competitive play. Somebody call the waambulance!

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