My Toughest Scrabble Loss. In this blog post, I will write about a thrilling win recorded by Ian Weinstein in round 16 of the 2016 North American Scrabble Championship. Why? Because I was his opponent, and it was the toughest loss of my career. It’s easy to recall your greatest game, best word, or best comeback. But in Scrabble, one player’s amazing comeback might be the other player’s crushing loss. It’s important to remember that your opponents are just as entitled to experience these moments as you are and to do your best to celebrate their achievements as you would your own. But in the moment, this is much easier said than done.

Let’s set the stage.

Going into the 2016 Nationals, I was the second seed out of 72 players in Division 1, consisting primarily of the country’s strongest players. The top seed was the legendary David Gibson, former National Champion and widely regarded as the greatest American player of all time. I had been highly seeded in other years, but I remember feeling like I was at the top of my game and that I really had a chance to win it all for the first time. After 15 rounds, the event was just about halfway over. I was in fourth place overall at 10 wins and 5 losses, and my next opponent was Ian Weinstein, a top expert from Florida who was cruising thus far with a 14-1 record. David was in second place at 11-4. This was my chance to slow Ian down and fight my way back into one of the top spots. Moreover, my game with Ian would be played on “Board 1”, where the highest-ranked player in the standings always competes against their opponent. These games are always live-streamed online. Ian got the first bingo with TELERAN (an air traffic control system), but I responded with FOMENTs to take a solid lead.

I then immediately drew a second bingo out of the bag, CHATEAUS. A very lucky break. I was now firmly in command, up by 84 points.



As the game progressed, my lead dwindled somewhat, but the board position still strongly favored me.



At this score, Ian needs to bingo. But there’s almost no space on the board at all to do so. The only realistic spot where Ian can play all seven of his letters is through the S in CHATEAUS. I had considered playing in that spot on my previous turn when I had played LIER underneath BOY, but leaving that spot open meant I would be vulnerable to 50+ point J plays by Ian there. I couldn’t find a play that both blocked the S and scored enough to withstand a big J play.  Ian then made a great play of LOXED (to supply with liquid oxygen).



Now, in addition to the S of CHATEAUS, Ian had created a second bingo line. Any seven-letter word ending in A or E would play on top of the L of LOXED. Ian had forced me into a very tricky situation.



From my point of view, the unseen tiles looked terrible, but keep in mind that Ian just played off just his L and O to play LOXED. If he had had any of the J, W, or Y, he very likely would have attempted to play those tiles off as well, since those three tiles are very difficult to play bingos with, and he needs to bingo to win this game. I did my best to determine which of the two bingo lanes was most dangerous and eventually decided that the lane on top of LOXED felt more dangerous since the S of CHATEAUS required a very specific fit, with the S as the fifth letter of an eight-letter word. So I played VOLE, placing the V out in space to prevent Ian from making any overlapping plays.  Shockingly, Ian then used his letters of AAAIRU? to bingo through the S of CHATEAUS with an incredible move: MAIASAUR (a species of herbivorous dinosaur). This was his only playable bingo.

I remember staring at MAIASAUR for a while in disbelief. I can’t remember whether or not I told Ian what a beautiful play he had made. I suspect I was too shell-shocked to remember my manners, so I’d like to add, five years later: beautiful play, Ian. I briefly retook the lead by playing the J and Y I had suspected were still lurking in the bag for me to draw, but Ian was able to score just enough on his final move to defeat me by a final score of 398 to 394.



For my toughest Scrabble loss, I was in the lead nearly the entire way in a game I desperately needed to win, only to lose by single digits after a shocking late-game bingo, all while being live-streamed to a wide audience of Scrabble fans. The funny thing is, even if I had successfully blocked MAIASAUR, his rack of AAAIRU? Would still have given him AQUARIA on top of the L of LOXED. And I could have improved upon my play of VOLE with a play that blocked just as well and scored better. At the time, these realizations brought me no comfort. I thought I was ready to win the national championship, but my reaction to this loss proved that while I knew enough words and strategy to do it, I still had a lot of work to do as a competitor and person. I wasn’t able to shake off my loss to Ian. I went on to lose 7 out of my next 8 games, including my very next game to David Gibson. My 10-5 record turned into a woeful 11-13 in a flash. While I did rebound by winning my final 7 games, the damage was done. Learning how to rebound from a tough loss is a skill every bit as important as learning the Scrabble dictionary or mastering Scrabble strategy. For me, and maybe for most of you as well, this is something that can only be learned the hard way.  

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