Meet Forest Park's Scrabble savant

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By John Rice

Columnist / Staff reporter

It may be a new year, but for most of us staying home remains our daily routine.  Confinement has caused board games to increase in popularity. Chess is enjoying a resurgence, but I'm focusing on another intellectually-stimulating game — Scrabble. That's because I play monthly games against Forest Park's Scrabble savant, Tom Legge.

Tom discovered Scrabble when he was 8 years old. He started out playing his mom, who let him win at first, until Tom began beating her fair and square. He continued his Scrabble career, playing frequently at Knox College, then joined Scrabble clubs and competed in tournaments. He met a whole array of eccentrics and Mensa members. Not that all serious Scrabble players are dweebs. Barrett Jones, who played center for Alabama, was a top player.

Most of these Scrabble tournaments were held in Chicago but Tom also traveled to Michigan and Massachusetts to compete. Competitive Scrabble is like competitive chess. There is a clock each player punches and they are allowed 22½ minutes to complete a game. I've used up 22½ minutes to take one turn.

When he's not playing, Tom has studied a slew of Scrabble books and competes at a high level against his computer. He's not alone in his love for the game. One-third of American homes have a Scrabble set. There are over 4,000 Scrabble clubs in 121 countries.

Tom later became director of a Scrabble club on the North Side. He set up the boards and made rulings on disputes and challenges. In 2012, he moved to Forest Park and played Scrabble at the library, but it didn't give him the competitive fix he was seeking.

Tom and I happened to meet at Shanahan's, which became our "friendly confines" for Scrabble games. Most nights, I was obliterated by Tom's play. He once laid down four 7-letter words — known as "bingos" — in one game. I've scored four bingos lifetime.

He scored over 600 points in a game. I'm fortunate to get 300 points, but Tom swears I beat him twice one night. The secret to his success is his use of 2-letter words. There is a list of 107 such words that serious Scrabble players memorize. He's also very skillful at using the four "s" letters and two "blanks" to form plurals. Although he's an admitted "word freak," Tom sees Scrabble as primarily a mathematical game.

He targets the high-value squares, while blocking his opponent from using them. Like the rest of us mere mortals, he arranges letters in his tray to form words, or to find prefixes and suffixes. He looks for comparatives and superlatives to extend words. He recently played "ferniest" against me for 70 points.

Scrabble may be a cerebral game, but there's an element of luck in drawing letters. The "big four" are Z, Q, J and X. Getting the Q used to be like getting stuck with the Queen of Spades in Hearts. That was before the discovery of U-less "q" words like qi, the "life force" in traditional Chinese medicine.

Sorry, if I'm getting too "inside baseball" about Scrabble. But to paraphrase a certain baseball player, "Scrabble has been very, very good to me." A Scrabble victory at the library landed me a job as an ESL tutor for five years. That led to a three-year, full-time job teaching ESL students.

I'm looking forward to the return of game nights at the library. Tom said he would be available to help form a competitive Scrabble club. The only question is who wants to play a guy who once laid down "whodunit?"

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