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Vagabond bag holds home court advantage
Schwartzman wins Scrabble tournament
Word Nerd Workbook I author among top 100 players in USA
September 14, 2006

GALESBURG – When Knox College professor Peter Schwartzman won first place at a recent Scrabble tournament, it was not a defiant flip of a 10-point "Z" Scrabble tile scoring three-digit points for zilches that clinched a spot in the top-100 Scrabble players in the country. No. "It wasn't remarkable. I probably just racked up a few points to get rid of my remaining letters," he said.

But, seeded ninth out of 20 scrabblites in Atlantic City, competing in Division I, Schwartzman was on-his-game and finished first with a 14-4 record over the three day event. With this win, Schwartzman's rating moves to 1796 closing in on the elite 2000 rating, where only two players rate more than 2000 and only 97 players nationally rate more than 1800. He is now ranked 98 among all active rated Scrabble players, 80 among those in the United States and third in Illinois.

Aside from the game board and tiles, Schwartzman has composed a book about the game of Scrabble. Word Nerd Workbook I provides the Scrabble-enthusiast the opportunity to hone spelling and anagram skills. It is available both in the Knox College bookstore and online. Offering the book as an e-book allows one to pay on line and go to a Web site, download, then print the book. "This allows the customer the opportunity to write in the book, complete quizzes, and later print another clean copy for further study and practice," Schwartzman said.

According to Schwartzman, the book is the result of hours of study that seemed to benefit more if he wrote things down along the way. Something Schwartzman is used to doing. "I track all my tiles and the moves in a game. I am fairly competitive. I can review that information later as a sort of post-mortem," he says. Schwartzman not only credits his competitiveness, but his ability to stay calm, not get flustered and manage the 25-minute game clock.

Schwartzman is currently working on a second book that will include 110 quizzes and offer tile-flipping-amateurs tips on when to exchange tiles, when to challenge a word, what to think about when making their first move and offers other resources they can find to help study the game.

With a rating of 1796, Schwartzman is perched in Division I. It is considered the most competitive of the divisions, where the best-of-the-best play. "Five years ago I won the second division out of five. I was intimidated and thought I didn't have what it takes," Schwartzman said.

With competitors unfolding personally designed game-boards for their own home court advantage, and no-Braille-code-allowed tiles, the game is getting a lot of exposure. ESPN has broadcast the national Scrabble championship for the past three years. Schwartzman admits that tallies and results of the last tournament were available on the Internet and results could readily be seen scrolling across computer screens.  "Now, I want to be in the big show," he says.

Dhurries. Caique. Epeeist. These are legitimate words. Scrabble words, and they are some of Schwartzman's favorites. Not that everyone knows what they mean. In Scrabble, there are no points for using the word in a sentence. "Scrabble isn't about expanding your vocabulary; it's about exercising your memory," Schwartzman says. "At Scrabble tournaments, I take every move seriously. I'm a fairly competitive player. Knowing the definitions can help, but precise definitions are not something players quibble about."

An avid player for more than 10 years, Schwartzman first began playing Scrabble, as a child, with his mother. "She beat me at the game, and as a kid, I lost interest," he said. However, when his wife, Huong Hua, had an assignment in Japan before they were married, she played Scrabble with her friends. Upon her return, Hua and Schwartzman have played Scrabble with each other for almost 15 years. Since then, and for four out of the last five years, they have maintained a Scrabble club at Silas Willard grade school. "We are both equal partners in its production," Schwartzman said. "We have also had Knox students attend to help."

Scrabble was created by Alfred Butts, in the 1930s during the Great Depression, and is now the world's most popular game. Fans of the tile-based board-game meet for tournaments, toting their vagabond-like bag, large enough to carry a Scrabble set and the prerequisite official Scrabble word list.

The board is set on the table and the small wooden racks set up with the grab bag of lettered tiles within reach. Players spell out words with the tiles on the board – and the letters on the rack. Each letter has a numeric value with vowels having a trifle value while difficult letters like the Q and Z; carry a 10-point value. The board's surface is dotted with different colored squares – a light blue square achieves a double-letter score, the dark blues promising triple letter points, and the pink doubles your whole score. The red squares on the board are the Scrabble jackpot worth triple word-points.

The difference between a good day and a bad day in a Scrabble tournament can be a couple of racks entirely of consonants or entirely of vowels. "Having a vision for the board, strumming the letter tiles, knowing how to play the letters - to improvise and combine letters, and taking advantage of the bonus squares all weigh-in on each player's performance," Schwartzman said.

During tournaments, tiles are shuffled along each rack. Competitor's eyes narrow. "I don't pick my favorite words because they have a high point value, but because they are words I am happy I found. Maybe it is a word I learned or recalled. That's part of the excitement … the unknown. Every time you reach in the bag, you don't know what you are going to get. It's when you can solve the riddle and say 'Wow, I'm glad I found that'" Schwartzman said.

For now, Schwartzman is working on two other scrabble books. One is for serious scrabble players, and the other is a concise guide to the strategies employed in the game. Schwartzman hopes to have the strategy book finished soon with two versions accessible to players at all levels, one for adults and one for children ages 10-14.

With his accomplishments, both on and off the game board, Schwartzman is among the noteworthy men and women named to Who's Who in America 2007. In a game of Scrabble, Who's Who would only garnish a point value of 14, but being included is worth something to Schwartzman. "I'm excited about it. While Scrabble is my hobby, and an addictive one at that, teaching is my life," Schwartzman said.

Founded in 1837, Knox College is a national liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, with students from 46 states and 46 nations. Knox's 'Old Main' is a National Historic Landmark and the only building remaining from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.

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