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Scrabble tournament benefits cancer patients

A player surveys the Scrabble board in the North Pavilion of Duke Hospital.
A player surveys the Scrabble board in the North Pavilion of Duke Hospital.

In a world with Words with Friends, some still play Scrabble in person.

Thirty-two people gathered to do just that at the North Pavilion of Duke Hospital for the second annual Triangle Scrabble Club Charity Tournament, supporting the Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program. Participants in the tournament were all members of the North American Scrabble Player’s Association and played a total of 20 games throughout the three-day weekend. This year’s event generated $5,565 after last year’s produced more than $3,600 for the charity, tournament director David Klionsky said.

Klionsky, a technology specialist at Seawell Elementary School in Chapel Hill, organized the tournament with the help of Scott Mofield, program director at Duke Medicine, and couple Sridhar and Dr. Sumanthi Iyengar, whose son Amalan learned Scrabble with Klionsky at Seawell. In 1999, Amalan was diagnosed with Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome—a rare, genetic disease that kills most as infants and requires extensive bone marrow transplants for those affected.

“[Amalan’s] mom gave me the idea of doing a benefit combining his love for Scrabble with support for the charity that saved his life,” Klionsky said.

Whereas most tournaments have an entry fee and redistribute the funds as prize money to the winners, funds generated from the $80 entry fee for this tournament were donated to PBMT. Klionsky, Mofield and the Iyengar family consequently had to solicit donations to be given out to the winners as prizes. A total of 10 volunteers worked over the course of the three days to ensure that the event ran smoothly.

The money from the tournament went to the PBMT Family Support Program, which funds activities for the patients, support services for caregivers and financial support for families who need help with the financial burden the treatment imposes, said Mofield, who has been working with the program since 2008.

In lieu of typical cash prizes, donated items were given to the winners. These included custom Scrabble sets, timers and balls signed by Duke men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s men’s basketball head coach Roy Williams.

Players also received prizes if they had particularly high-scoring moves or game totals. In the spirit of having fun with the event, Klionsky also awarded prizes to the players who used three of the four letters from PBMT in the same word for a high-scoring play.

“Scrabble players never play for big money,” Klionsky said. “The money they win is just to finance their love of the game.”

The tournament itself, which was divided into three divisions of players based on their NASPA rating, consisted of eight games that took place Saturday and Sunday and the final four Monday morning. Erickson Smith, who was ranked seventh among the 10 players in the top division, won with a 15-5 record and a +1562 margin. He scored a remarkable 510 points in the final game, using all seven of his letters­—or as Scrabble players refer to it, “bingo-ing”—twice, playing the words “equalizes” and “vintner,” the latter of which was on a triple-word score.

Susan Bertoni won in the middle division, defeating Marilyn Pomeroy in the final game while John Price won all 20 of his games in the bottom division. Amalan Iyengar competed in the bottom division as well, with a 9-11 record.

Amalan, now in the seventh grade at Smith Middle School in Chapel Hill, is just one of many students who Klionsky has taught to play Scrabble at Seawell. Klionsky quizzes his fourth and fifth grade students on the two and three letter words, which are critical to success for a tournament Scrabble player, he said.

“We’ve gone to the [National School Scrabble Championship] for the last eight years,” Klionsky said. “I also run the State School Scrabble Championships, [where] we invite schools from all over the state.”

Beyond the main competition, 21 different people competed in an unrated, three-game event Sunday for tournament novices. The organizers, who plan on hosting the event again next year, tried to involve more people with the cause, which brings together charity and an enjoyable weekend.

“That’s the good part—having fun and raising funds,” Iyengar said.

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