At the end of day 2 I was 7-7 and very barely in contention, with a low cumulative point spread. To make the brackets I would need to win all 7 games the next day, or maybe even 6, but they would have to be by a huge amount on average. I calculated the chances of doing so; assuming I’m about 55% to win each game (reasonable since I was a high seed), I have about a 1.5% chance of making it to the brackets. So I was about as good as done, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t going to try as hard as possible.
Unfortunately my dream was dead after just the second game, in which I played Steve Bush, a nice guy from Kentucky. He opened with a bingo, and a few turns later plays another one, FROWNIER through an O, to go up about 80 points. I held him on this play for a long time, trying to remember whether this was a word or not, but the problem is that for some reason it looked very familiar, and I thought there was a very good chance it was good. If I had thought harder, I would have realized that I’ve never seen the word FROWNY before, and I’ve studied the high point 6s… so I let it go, and he bingoed 3 more times and killed me.
At the end of the game I checked and sure enough it was phony. Turns out I was thinking of the word BROWNIER. Oops. Too bad I’m not Nigel Richards. In prior years I would have been upset and probably played badly the rest of the day, but I took it very stoically, got over it super quickly, and moved on to the rest of the day. I think part of my success in this tournament was due to my successfully conquering the ability to quickly move on from mistakes. The difficulty of long tournaments is a culmination of many factors. Playing against incredibly skilled opponents, luck, lack of sleep, and increasing frustration contribute to a potentially lethal potion that in past years chipped away at my focus. This year I let things slide and kept my emotions in check.
I won 3 out of 4 games in the morning, and had a great lunch at a super good tortas place (if you ever happen to be in Reno you must go – it’s across the street from the Reno Ballroom). In the afternoon, I won 2 out of 3, for a total of 5 games for the day, a good average. My sole loss came to Joel Sherman, and I made a very serious word mistake, playing a phony bingo when I had a 50-point play that also blocked the board and put me up by a bunch. Joel, being a former National and World champion, challenged very quickly and controlled the board afterwards. When I finally bingoed, he was able to triple-triple through it and I was done after this.
I had avoided looking at how close I came, but it turns out that if I had just won one more game by enough, that I could possibly have made it to the Elite Eight. If only one more of those games had gone my way, especially early on when I was facing lower seeds! Why did I have to start 1-4? Still, I wasn’t too upset and I filled out my bracket that night, guessing that my good friend Jesse Day would win it all over Thai wonder Panupol Sujjayakorn.
My stomach hurt a bit, mostly from nerves, so I didn’t have dinner until late, and it was just half of a deli sandwich. We had a NASPA town hall meeting that night and I attended; most of the questions ranged around the controversy of the bracket format. More to come on that in a later post.
While the Elite Eight in each division started their bracket playoff games, the rest of us were forced to play another 10 meaningless games. Just kidding, but that’s what some people thought! In order to give us something to play for, there were prizes for 9th through 12th place, and since I had missed the bracket by a game and change I was playing all the other players who had also just barely missed. As a result, I had what has possibly been my toughest Nationals day to date, in terms of my matchups – and it was a great challenge. Scrabble players take the game very seriously, and certainly no one seemed discouraged by not having made the playoffs; we were all playing super tough.
In order, my lineup was: Trey Wright, Ian Weinstein, Chris Cree, Charles Reinke, Joey Krafchick, Rafi Stern, and Doug Brockmeier. That field includes a former Nationals champion, the number 2 seed, and several other top-notch players who have all won far more events than I have. I was lucky to finish day 4 with a 4-3 record, losing to Ian, Chris, and Rafi. More annotations on these games will come soon.
At the end of the day, since it was our last Reno dinner together, I went with a group of 6 good friends to an Italian restaurant called Johnny’s Ristorante. I had a classic spaghetti and meatballs, recommended by my friend, food aficionado, and local Reno resident Kenji Matsumoto. It was a wonderful yet bittersweet last night in Reno. It’s the one time of the year so many of my friends are all together in one place, and it’s great seeing everyone, but it’s always a little sad when it’s over.
The final day.
My field on day 4 was so tough that even though I tried my best I could not win more than 4 games.. which meant that I would have to win all 3 games on the final day to cash. Again, this was possible, but unlikely, yet I gave it my best.
The day 5 field consisted of Jason Li, Charles Reinke (for the second time), and Conrad Bassett-Bouchard. That is the same Jason and Conrad who played for the title in last year’s Nationals in Buffalo, and Charles, an excellent player who was looking for revenge for the previous day’s loss.
Charles got me this time after I tried a ridiculous phony of PALEWEED*. Why would I try that? No idea, but it seemed a little familiar. In North American rules Scrabble, challenging a valid word costs a player their turn, and maybe I felt bravado from winning our previous match on a challenge, that I thought I could get away with it. Unfortunately for me, Charles smacked it off the board pretty quickly and then got his own massive bingo a few turns later, which I had to challenge out of desperation. So a completely deserved loss and good play by him.
I did beat both Conrad and Jason, though, getting admittedly pretty lucky in both games – although at a high level, a lot of games do come down to luck. It is playing consistently well over the 31 rounds that cause good players to rise to the top, and I came up short again by one game and didn’t cash.
I was still very happy with my final result; 16th is the best I’ve ever done at a Nationals and I feel like next year I can actually cash. I am planning on studying all the words now. During this whole tournament I was very focused and I think if I can channel this focus again but with good word knowledge, I can finally prevail.
At the end of our three games, we took a quick break for lunch then headed to the awards ceremony room, where they live-streamed games 4 and 5 of the finals games between Matthew Tunnicliffe and Jesse Day. Matthew ended up prevailing in the very exciting game 5. You can see the videos on Youtube, starting with https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IU9z6CvM1kI.
It was an amazing tournament and I was so glad to see so many friends again and partake in all sorts of fun activities after-hours. Reno is a pretty cool city and there was always something to do. There was a big car show the final day we were there so I got to wander around a bit at lunch and check out the endless rows of candy-colored roasters.
My next big event will probably be the California Open in San Francisco, sometime in late October. I’m feeling good about my game, and I actually had the highest average score at nationals (437). I just have to keep my head in the game and stay focused.
Until next year.
-Cesar Del Solar, Aerolith.org