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NSSC 2009 Commentary: Final Round 1
In a salon beside the playing room the Convention Center staff created a viewing room with hundreds of chairs with a long center aisle down the middle. Atop each chair was a laminated event bookmark with 2-letter words, u-less Q words, etc., and a SCRABBLE chocolate bar. At the far end of the room was a giant screen at the back of a raised stage.
Students and coaches were offered bags of freshly popped popcorn as they milled into the room and filled out all but a few chairs.
Meanwhile, a few rooms away, the finals room had been set up from which the game would be played remotely and broadcast into our viewing room.
Using three cameras, the filming crew taped chairs to the carpet and racks to the table so that the cameras behind the players could record their racks and the camera at the very top could record the board.
The four players were interviewed just prior to the game and entered the finals room a few minutes apart, orienting themselves to the location of pencils, scoresheets, and other game forms. They were instructed to leave a little space between each other so that each side's camera could spy their racks before they lean in and block them.
New to the concept, all four boys were eager to experience the final game and handshakes of good luck were shared over the board.
Since committee member Sam Rosin is the coach of Glenfield/Collins Elementary Schools (NJ), the organizers decided to replace him as a game annotator (he would have had no trouble being objective, but having him emcee with Stefan Fatsis in the viewing room was an overall win-win!). In his place, John Chew, used to directing others as they've annotated, got to use his own software during a game! He asked Joey Krafchick of Atlanta- Pinckneyville Middle School (GA) to sit with him to annotate on paper so that in the event of a power failure or technical call, the game could progress and be entered in later if need be.
As the students waited for the call to begin, in the viewing room, Stefan Fatsis and Sam Rosin started their game commentary. Stefan mentioned the students' ages and grades. He mentioned that three of the four have NSA ratings: Paulo at 741, Nicky at 814, and Erik at 561. And then the game began!
Salem begins the final game with no possible plays on their first rack, GJRRSWX. They decide to keep JSX rather than just S or RS; reasonable strategy in a game where high-value tiles are often more important than in adult games.
Glenfield/Collins has heavy tiles of their own, with ABKLNQY. They quickly play BLANK for 32 points, the only blank they will see this game. BALKY would be an alternate possibility here.
Salem has EFJRSSX and plays FAX through the A in BLANK, which might leave their opponents in trouble if they have no vowels (unlikely after a five-letter play). Playing off one of their esses to hook BLANK-S is better for scoring and rack leave.
Glenfield/Collins makes an ideal 25-point QI play and leads 57-13; Salem replies with their own optimal play, JUS/BLANKS for 23 keeping ERRS.
Glenfield/Collins have ACFPRSY in a fairly closed position, miss some plays ending in the -N in BLANKS, making FA (FRYPAN, PYRAN) and try to shut down the board further by playing KAY to close the bottom side of the board. They are surprised when Salem bingos EARNERS/KAYS, challenge the play and lose their turn, thinking that 'KAY was a non-inflectable interjection. It's not, it's a name for the letter K.
Upon hearing about the challenge in process, the viewing room groaned. At around this point, a couple of NSA staff members started putting the game up onto the giant board. This helped Stefan and Sam envision possible plays because we sometimes only saw racks and not the board itself. Joe Edley helped with keeping track of the score. With no audio this year, we relied on John Chew to instant message some of the game details (clock times, tiles drawn if the racks were blocked, scores as the students announced them, etc.).
Salem draws DEITTUW and plays a conservative DEW. Better still with their 111-67 lead would have been DUE/DE/QUA/BIER. Glenfield/Collins responds by playing just a C and an L for 26 points, making CEL through the E in DEW and hooking L-EARNERS with the L on the double word score.
Salem draws a first blank: IOSTTU?. No bingos are available, so they open the bottom of the board with a play to the triple word, RIOTS. Glenfield/Collins play FIT to close down the most threatening lanes; Salem closes down another with MOT/MI through the O of RIOTS. They lead 157-107 on a very closed board, draw the second blank but garbage to go with it: NOUUV??.
Glenfield/Collins plays YIP to set up a bingo lane in a triple column, get another turn when Salem has to trade tiles, but are only able to play REGS/YIPS for 24. Still, they've closed the gap to 173-145 and just need a bit of luck.
Salem has AINYZ?? but the blanks aren't helping them on the closed board. They play YA for 10 points, and Glenfield/Collins play CARL/CELL for 18 points (they weren't sure about CARL, but Salem didn't blink at it) and trail by only 20 points now.
Salem plays NAZI (26) missing some obscure bingos and high-scoring non-bingo plays (ZECHIN (72), DEZINCED (90)); Glenfield/Collins is having no luck with their draw: AAADNRU. They play SAUNA (6) rather than trade; they could have scored a little more and opened up the board with ANURAN/FA.
Salem plays HE (20) from DEHTU??, keeping things closed and hoping that Glenfield/Collins will open the board up to allow a two-blank bingo and seal their fate. Glenfield/Collins go for the points instead with DAB/AHI/BE with the B on a triple-word for 36 points, and trail by 24.
Salem keeps the board closed with PUT (14) from DPUTW??; Glenfield/Collins comes right back with VIER/PUTE* for 39 points, regaining a one-point lead. Salem does not hold on the phoney PUTE*.
Salem runs out of ways to keep the board closed and puts the W out with WOOL (14). Glenfield/Collins has seven vowels and trades five of them.
Salem plays HOD to start closing the top of the baord back down; Glenfield/Collins GIE (10) and Salem DO (22) leaves Glenfield/Collins with another seven-vowel rack. This time they trade seven.
Sam Rosin and Stefan Fatsis make a great team in the viewing room. They take turns at the microphone, pointing out plays, clarifying what the players may be thinking, etc. Joel Sherman, Joe Edley, Jeremy Frank and others occasionally called out plays they saw in the racks, which kept the viewing room more interactive and engaged.
Salem plays LO (15) from LNOTU?? on a board that looks like it has room only for a seven-letter bingo ending in S (e.g., UNBOLTS) or an eight-letter bingo ending in IC (e.g. PLUTONIC), but actually has a beautiful potential four-word play (LINOCUT/O-H/C-OWED/U-DO). Salem was starting to run low on time at this point though, and thanks to the two exchanges they have a commanding 59-point lead with ten tiles in the bag, so they don't look for bingoes.
Glenfield/Collins hold GIMRTTV and should have exchanged but can't stomach doing so three times in four turns. They play GIRTH (18). Salem is down to their last few minutes and slap down TRUE (6). In quick succession Glenfield/Collins AIM(20), Salem GENE (10), Glenfield/Collins VETO (10) and Salem out with OIls/GENEs (11). After a pro forma challenge the players jump up to shake hands in each combination across the table, and exclaim what a wonderful time the had, calling it the funnest game ever.
Congratulations to 2009 National School SCRABBLE Champions Erik Salgado and Andy Hoang from Salem Elementary School in Apex, NC.
The students ended the game as if both teams had won and in essence, they had. Both had reached the finals and both had the chance to play in front of their peers. John D. Williams congratulated the teams and led them to the viewing room, to the waiting masses, and the prize ceremony. Like rock stars, as they walked down the Convention Center's back hallway, cameras followed them and flashes went off from all angles!
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