WSC analysis: Nigel vs. Brett pre endgame

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This is from a World Scrabble Championship game between Brett Smitheram and Nigel Richards. To be fair, Brett was fairly low on time so it’s understandable he didn’t play this correctly, but I think it’s very instructional and useful to illustrate how to play these types of games, so I created the following puzzle:

From the WSC stream: (CSW lexicon)
You’re down 4: the pool is AEEEINPS. You’re playing Nigel Richards, whose last play is TIFT. What’s your play? Why?
(Yes, there is an unequivocally best play here. It’s not close.)

Take some time to try to figure out what you’d do in the following position before reading the solution.

This is a classic one-in-the bag endgame, which for most players is very hard,. Normally, you’d have to analyze this position by playing all 8 endgames with every candidate play, such as ELF, ULTRA, TAV, VAT, etc. and this could be a total nightmare. However, this pool, provided with the last play makes this a bit easier.

Analyzing this position starts pretty easily: What do we do if we draw an E? Figuring out a win after an E draw is by far the most important priority, since we know at least one E is in the bag before TIFT (and likely 2 Es). So what can we play that wins with an E draw?

Before we answer that position, let’s look at what Nigel’s options are with this pool: in short, not a lot. PAEDO and SPEEDO are the highest scoring options, but they give back outplays against the blank, and PISHER just ruins Nigel’s racks. Nigel has some setup options if you burn the blank (PA, PIT, etc.) but the biggest threat is actually just endgame timing, with stuff such as SEEP o3 (which doubles as SPEEDO) or RESEEN.

The first play we can find that wins with an E draw is HAuLAGE. This leaves two outs with ERV, and really nothing good for Nigel: nothing he has can outrun VERA and he can’t block and score enough. since VERT still scores okay (and it’s very hard to block VERA: PAEAN just doesn’t work) Unfortunately, there’s really nothing else that wins after HAuLAGE, but this is at least a start.

The next play that wins is ULTRA, as you have VEEP next turn and the blank allows decent blocking options next turn. Unfortunately, while you can go through all of these endgames and they’re closer, they still don’t quite win either. RESEE(N) o1 and SEEP still plays parallel to ULTRA and eats you for breakfast, and even drawing the N doesn’t win you the game: in fact, the only tile that you additionally win other than the E is the S, and it’s difficult to see Nigel playing TIFT without an S.

This forces us to search for other plays with a secondary purpose: what if we can block RESEE/SEEP/etc. and also counter plays like PAEDO/SPEEDO? The first most obvious play that we can do is something like TAV, saving the blank to block the S setups. While this looks good, this just doesn’t score enough on future turns: it loses to stuff like PIT. However, there is another alternative: AXLE/AXEL 5k.

AXLE wins with the E, and in fact with all the vowels, preventing PAEDO/SPEEDO because of out plays such as AVERAGE or AGRAVIC and scoring threats such as GRAVES. Meanwhile, with any vowel you also prevent PIT/PA setups, since VASE/VISE scores too many points and allows multiple out plays. It wins with the A, E, I, and S: 6 endgames, which is even greater since it’s hard to imagine Nigel played TIFT without PNS in his rack, since playing TIFT for 7 leaving a vowel-heavy rack makes little sense. Because of this, AXLE will win overwhelmingly often in reality: over 90% of the time given Nigel’s previous play.