Trip 33 -- TTTTTITD
Message 2: Baltimorean hospitality
Thursday, July 28, 2022
The Scrabble Players Championship was held in the Baltimore Marriott Inner Harbor at Camden Yards, a building whose pedestrian access is past five "Do not enter" signs and across the entrance to a parking garage and is so uninviting that even after ten entries I was still frowning in amazement that anyone had unveiled the design as a good idea.
Before the games started on Saturday, a dinner was held Friday night in one of the ballrooms, including filmed words of encouragement by United States Congressmen Chris Van Hollen and Jamie Raskin and by Baltimore's mayor, Brandon Scott. Maryland State Senator Cheryl Kagan offered words of welcome in person, as she was also participating in the tournament.
After rubbery eggplant parmigiana, unreplenished salad greens, and wine purchased and brought up from the bar downstairs (an addition unique to the table I chose to sit with), we listened to a fast-paced presentation by Peter Sokolowski, one of the higher-ups at Merriam-Webster. He took us on a journey through the battle of dictionaries in the 19th century.
Noah Webster was a friend of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin and influenced the trajectory of the English language singlehandedly in a way that no one person has done since or could do in the future. The British had been enjoying dictionaries since the mid-1700s, the most famous of which was Samuel Johnson's; Webster would create a dictionary that was uniquely American.
Webster hated silent or needlessly doubled letters and sought to remove them from the American orthography. It's because of him that we dropped the "U" in "honour" and use a plow instead of a plough. If he'd had his way, we'd also be writing "grotesk" and "tung," flinging away the extra letters from the original French, and eschewing the silent "S" in favor of a more logical "ieland."
His 1828 dictionary was a luxury item containing 70,000 words in two hefty volumes For the masses, an abridged version was needed. He engaged his son-in-law, Chauncey Goodrich, to do the abridgement, but to Webster's horror, Goodrich collaborated with Joseph Worcester, who had already worked on slimming down Samuel Johnson's tome. When Worcester published his own dictionary, Webster accused him of stealing his work.
When Webster died, his publishers, the Merriams, continued to battle Worcester. They compressed Webster's book into one volume and called it "unabridged" -- the first dictionary to be marketed as such. When Worcester planned to add illustrations to his dictionary, sprinkling them throughout alongside their respective words, the Merriams hastily slapped an addendum of engravings at the front of their book and distributed it first.
Webster was thorough with definitions, although he infused them with his religious preferences. But he was a lousy etymologist. He was steadfast in his belief that words with similar endings were necessarily related, such as "speak," "beak," and "peak," despite evidence to the contrary. He also removed words that he deemed unfit for society.
The upper echelons became divided between Webster and Worcester: Yale preferred Webster, Harvard Worcester and, by his association to England, Johnson. In a lingering microcosm of this divide, until recently a sign on the Massachusetts Turnpike pointed east toward Worcester and south toward Oxford and Webster, with drivers forced to choose which -- or whom -- they intended to follow.
As one of the primary people involved in updating Webster's dictionary, Peter Sokolowski shared some of the new words that will soon be added -- and therefore playable in Scrabble shortly thereafter. We'll soon be able to put down "spork," "bae," and "zonkey."
My first game in the tournament was against Sal, whom I've played numerous times at the Thursday-night meetings of the Scrabble club in Manhattan. I'd been on a winning streak against him, despite his being rated much higher than me.
"Don't think that's going to continue," he had said as we left the welcome dinner. He used to run events on Fire Island (or Ieland) and had amused us at the dinner with a short comedy routine describing his bad-luck games. His big annoyance was sore winners, such as people who run up a big lead and then complain about drawing poor tiles subsequently.
Sal was right: He beat me in game 1, though it was very close. I lost the next two games, all very close and all against higher-rated players. Ratings are computed based on the relative strength of the players and the difference in score. It's possible to win a game and still have your rating go down, if you beat a much lower-rated player by a small margin.
My first rating, when I won the lowest division at a one-day tournament in Philadelphia in April 2011, was 1177. I'd gone up and down and up, slowly, to a peak of 1423 in 2017. I hadn't played a tournament in five years, partly because they added a bunch of words to the allowable list around then and I never got around to studying them. My 1423 rating placed me near the top of division 3 for this week's championship, but I elected to "play up," joining division 2, for more challenging games against better-rated players despite less of a shot at money.
How do I study words? It's essential to know the two- and three-letter words, of course. And the short words using the J, Q, X, and Z. Those are all on a "cheat sheet" that first-timers to the New York club are allowed to consult during the games. The page also includes some of the most common "bingos" -- words that use all seven tiles, which earn a 50-point bonus.
In addition to "high fives" -- five-letter words that start or end with a four- or five-point letter -- I've attempted, but not quite confidently succeeded, in learning all the four-letter words. For sevens and eights, I've adopted a strategy developed by Scrabble expert Mike Baron: Take a base word of six or seven common letters and find a phrase related to that word and comprising letters that, when added to that base word one at a time, make another word. Baron published a list of the top 100 sixes-to-make-sevens and sevens-to-make-eights, and I made up others. Some of my favorites are, for DENTAL, "We soap gums," and for GRADES, "Fun course? Beg for dope." GRADES plus an "F" anagrams to DEFRAGS, GRADES plus a "U" anagrams to DESUGAR and SUGARED, and so on, through the whole "Fun course..." mnemonic.
Tournament games are always one-on-one, with each player allotted 25 minutes, timed on clocks similar to those used in chess.
A player who suspects that the opponent has put down an unacceptable word or words may stop the clock and challenge the turn; if it's good, the challenger loses that turn, and if it's not, it comes off the board and the person who played it loses that turn. In the New York club, we yell "Challenge!" and usually the club director, a former national champion, comes over to adjudicate. He looks for the word or words in the word list or, if he knows the validity or lack thereof by heart, says a quick "No" or "That's good," with a tone indicating a level of judgment commensurate with the player's experience and the apparent absurdity of the word. In tournaments we go to one of the computers scattered around the room for adjudication.
I lost the first three games but came back to 3 and 4 after the first seven-game day, 7 and 7 after two days, 11 and 10 after three, and 15 and 13 after four. The final three games were Wednesday morning, and I won only one, but it was enough to earn me a barely winning record (16 and 15), 28th place out of 65 in my division, and an increase of 60 rating points.
My best play was REA(L)IZES (the parentheses indicate letters already on the board) with the Z on a triple letter score and the first E on a double word score, for 124 points. This contributed to a high score of 542 on the third afternoon, which earned me a prize copy of the most recent 629-page Scrabble word list. In another game I had ADGIMT? (the question mark is a blank tile) and the only place to bingo was through an E for MIGrAT(E)D, immediately under a triple word score. I was risking a comeback far outweighing my 63-point play, but my opponent missed the E- front hook and I played AZURE and E(MIGrATED) for 81 on my next turn.
My opponents were overwhelmingly friendly and calm. I'll claim to be friendly, but I don't have much of a poker face when I'm drawing poorly. I hate getting too many of the same letter, especially A's and I's In one game I was drawing to IMNS and picked up three E's. I groaned in exasperation until I realized I had the friendly ENEMIES.
I had the opportunity to play a young guy named Noah twice. In our first game I held CEENOT? and could play through a D or E; I tried COrENTE(D)* and (D)OCENTEd*, both challenged off; I missed the obvious aNEC(D)OTE (a lowercase letter is a blank-tile designation; an asterisk denotes an unacceptable word). The game was a 501-297 rout in his favor. In our second game, the last of the tournament, he had drawn EEGNNNO and put down NONGENE*, which I challenged, but he explained his reasoning. If only one in five of those less-than-likely words happens to be valid or goes unchallenged, isn't it worth it? It's a strategy worth considering. I lost that game by 18, which wasn't bad considering that I drew only one E in the entire game.
I ate well in Baltimore, but what happened to the Lexington Market? My memory from 2003 is of a vibrant space packed with food stalls and people. Now half the eateries are gone and there's nowhere to sit; hopefully the in-progress renovation will restore some of its life. Fortunately Faidley's Seafood still exists in the back, and I had one of their excellent crab cakes and too-salty crab dip.
I had Ethiopian raw ground beef (kitfo) at Tabor, a Nepali buffet at the Nepal House, and Haitian chili and sausage in the Cross Street Market, which did have seating. My cousin walked me through Pierce's Park, where we discovered the fun musical sculptures, to a family dinner in Little Italy.
For steamed blue crabs, I attempted to revisit Phillips Seafood on the waterfront, but their Byzantine rules about when and where crabs are served led me to Angie's Seafood instead. I walked east along Pratt Street, past the construction (perhaps the same construction that was there 19 years ago), and as I approached I realized I was headed into the building that used to house Obrycki's, where I'd dined in 1996. I had three extra-large male crabs and three medium females; the meat in the former seemed mushier, but apart from that I didn't notice much of a difference.
Keeping the frenzy going, on my last night in Baltimore I headed to Captain James, which has all-you-can-eat crabs for $41.95 Monday through Thursday. Seating was outside by the water, at communal picnic tables. I was joined by a Black hairdresser and his wife, who ordered the extra-jumbo crabs. We generally kept to ourselves but talked intermittently. They left before I did and, to my astonishment and gratitude, told me before they departed that they were covering my dinner bill. I was touched.
The hospitality of Baltimoreans was consistent. For four nights I stayed at the Kimpton Monaco hotel, which happens to be in the same Beaux-Arts building as the old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad headquarters, built in 1906. The lobby is up a grand marble staircase with chandeliers and stained glass. When I checked in using the seasonal Kimpton not-so-secret pass phrase ("Stay cool"), I got to choose a random prize. I finally got the little ball open and extracted the slip of paper. I showed it to the receptionist: "Free movie."
"I don't like that one! Pick another one!" she said. "Unless you like it."
"I didn't come here to watch movies," I said. I drew another ball. "Much better. Free bottle of red or white wine."
I picked white under the assumption that I'd put it in my refrigerator and refresh myself after the games each day, but the hotel provided free wine in the lobby at that time anyway. My room turned out not to have a fridge, but it did have a hot tub, a wide view of downtown from the shower, high ceilings, and Mario Lopez welcoming me to Baltimore every time I turned on the television set. Why can't hotel TVs default to whatever channel was most recently watched?
The city's friendliness continued onto the street. About five blocks east was a stretch known simply as "the block"; it was lined with strip clubs, and there were always women outside who seemed exceptionally happy to see me. And by the convention center a woman displayed the biggest smile when she said, "I'd like to castrate your penis if you don't give me five dollars." I didn't oblige, but as far as I can tell, she has not followed through with that plan.
The games ended around noon on Wednesday, which gave me time to explore the B&O Railroad Museum, which had been closed during my 2003 visit due to a roof collapse. Of particular interest were the early railcars, which were open-air and resembled the rickety stagecoaches they replaced, and mail cars, into which sacks of letters were hoisted into the train while it was moving.
Another job done aboard a moving train was that of the brakeman, and it's hard to imagine many tasks more dangerous. To stop a train, he would climb up on top of a car, rotate the hand brake, and then jump from car to car as the cars were swaying and do the same.
Out back was a refrigeration car. Milk cars existed until 1972, and food transport by rail is even making a comeback now, as truckers' rights have (thankfully) risen enough to make long weeks away from home a thing of the past. Another room contained clocks and pocketwatches. Before the railways, each town maintained its own timekeeping based on the sun; the creation of time zones and Railroad Standard Time ensured that trains ran safely without temporal confusion. There was, however, confusion over the abominable Jim Crow laws, which were applied inconsistently across states. "Separate but equal" facilities were never comparable in quality, with the car designated for Black people typically behind the soot-spewing locomotive.
I picked up some fried chicken, mac and cheese, and cornbread and made my way to Baltimore Penn Station. Two friends from the Manhattan Scrabble club boarded the northbound train just before I got on the Northeast Regional going south to resume The Train to That Thing in the Desert in earnest. Just before sunset, we pulled into Charlottesville.
I walked along Main Street near the station and found many dinner options worth considering. My hotel, the Fairfield Inn, was a ten-minute walk away. Its main entrance, facing Cherry Avenue, was locked, inaccessible to those without a key card. To reach the lobby I had to walk through the parking garage and enter via the back.
A particularly appealing dinner option was Maya. Its Web site said it was open until midnight, but I knew better than to trust that for food. I called and the recording said dinner orders were taken until 8:30 -- that was in ten minutes. I rushed over.
The recording was wrong, too; meals were to be had until nine. I sat at the bar and had sensational modern Southern food: crispy pork belly with apricot-pepper jam and lemon ricotta followed by pan-seared rockfish with fennel, blackberry, and basil. The ingredients were simple but added up to more than the sum of their parts, with hints of sweetness and whimsy.
"Something about a peanut-butter pie?" I asked when it was time to consider dessert.
"Ah, yes, the peanut-butter fluff pie,“ the bartender said. "The chef makes all these sophisticated dishes, and then he turns into a kid and adds marshmallow fluff."
The server delivered the pie and then went to retrieve a fork. By the time she returned, the bartender had already brought me one.
"I'll do a taste test," I said. "I'll try the pie with both forks and see which is better."
The bartender laughed. "The snobbiest thing I've ever seen," he said, "was a wine tasting. Who's the glass blower who makes the famous shaped glasses?"
"Chihuly?" I offered. He was the only glass blower I could think of.
"I don't know. But they were tasting the same wine from different glasses and noting how the shape of the glass affected the experience."
Now, that sounds like exactly the kind of thing my companions will be doing at Burning Man, only with unbridled mockery. But we'll get there.
Go on to message 3