January 18, 2012

Word play

Environmental Studies Chair Peter Schwartzman was within two letters of Scrabble immortality. All he had to do was hit the clock.
“I’d already made two blunders in the game and I wanted to win,” Schwartzman said, recalling a 2011 Scrabble tournament in Minnesota.
He had played “Denazify,” a word he believes would have been the highest scoring play in the history of organized Scrabble. But Schwartzman was unsure. He scanned his opponent’s face for a reaction — anything — but decided to pull the first two letters off the board.
“He was one of these guys with incredible word knowledge,” Schwartzman, a participant in four National Scrabble Championships, said. “If he knew the word was good, and I was about to score 360 points against him, he would have shown some kind of emotional response. Nothing.”
His opponent, a top-ranked player, then added a “D” and an “E” to the word for 70-some points. Schwartzman narrowly won the game, but was exposed to the tough decisions Scrabble players often have to make.
He carried the experience with him to a tournament in Albany, NY, earlier this month, where he played some of the best Scrabble of his 15-year career.
Schwartzman placed sixth in a field that included five players who have won or placed in the top 10 at National or World Scrabble Championships. He defeated three-time National Champion Joe Edley, the number five player in the U.S., Joey Mallick, as well as Will Anderson, the eventual winner of the tournament.
The organized Scrabble circuit hosts a variety of competitors, many of whom are often unemployed or on disability. Schwartzman, who studies Scrabble words two hours a day, attributes that to the amount of time required to compete at the highest level.
“Most kitchen table players aren’t even aware of all the two-letter words, much less how to properly employ them for scoring opportunities,” Co-President of the North American Scrabble Players Association Chris Cree said.
Cree identified board awareness and word knowledge as the two most important traits of a Scrabble player, skills Schwartzman sees in his daughters, who are six and eight years old.
For Schwartzman, 43, time seems to be the greatest opponent. When he is not teaching or playing Scrabble, Schwartzman is an author, coach, gardener, faculty advisor and as of last year, a Galesburg City Councilman.
“My competitive spirit wants to know how far this can take me,” Schwartzman said, looking toward his sabbatical next year. “What if I put a little bit more into this? Could I finish top-ten at the nationals?”
For Schwartzman, the reality is, he may never know the answer. And that is good enough for him.
“I’m extremely lucky,” Schwartzman said. “I tell [people] I’m the luckiest man in the world because of all the wonderful things I’ve been able to experience, and the people I’ve met and the things I get to do every day.”

Matt McKinney
Matt McKinney is a senior majoring in creative writing and minoring in journalism. His experience with journalism ranges from a year as co-sports editor for TKS to an internship with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he used his Spanish language skills to report a front-page story on changes to federal immigration policy. He has also written for The Galesburg Register-Mail and Knox’s Office of Communications. Matt is the recipient of the 2012 Knox College Kimble Prize for Feature Journalism and two awards from the Illinois College Press Association, including a first place award for sports game coverage. He is currently interning virtually with The Tampa Bay Times and will pursue his master's next year at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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