Melissa Routzahn is a very good Scrabble player. But she’s so much more than that. She’s a cheese-loving, classy-book reading, trilingual teacher who’s a wonderful mother and probably a pretty darn good wife. She cheers for a team other than the White Sox. Or maybe no team at all. She’s friendly and funny. (She’s also my Scrabble Mama, but I don’t really need to get into that here, do I?)
1. You’re the highest ranked woman Scrabble player in Illinois. Tell us a little about your rise to the top. What obstacles have you had to overcome? How much do you study?
I’m not at the top yet! I enjoy being the top-rated woman in the state, but at the same time, I feel like that’s saying, “Well, I’m pretty good for a girl.” Scrabble doesn’t require heavy lifting or the ability to throw things really far. But considering the fact that World Champion Brian Cappelletto lives in this state, I’ll have to be content with either “top woman” or “top mere mortal” for a while.
I studied quite a lot when I first started playing tournaments, but I’ve been too busy with other things lately, like work and school and playing all my turns on Facebook Scrabble. I sometimes open up Zyzzyva to see how many hundreds of days it’s been since my last quiz. I also have Quackle on my computer, which must count for something. I keep thinking that one of these days I’m going to analyze all my games like the real experts do, but I always forget to write down my racks when I’m playing, and even if I did, I can’t even begin to read my own handwriting. My current strategy is to continue my lucky streak, then sit back and wait for everyone else’s ratings to fall.
2. What’s the most money you’ve won in Scrabble? What did you do with the money?
In 2005, I won Division 3 at the Arden Cup tournament, receiving $800 and an Arden Cup trophy. The money is long gone (spent on other tournaments, of course), but I continue to treasure that trophy, because it reminds me of tournament director Bob Denn, who passed away the following year. He was the one who encouraged me to play my first tournament, and I’ll always be grateful for his help in improving my game. In the weeks before he died, when he knew it wouldn’t be much longer, I visited him and we’d play as many games of Scrabble as he could handle before he was too tired for more. Scrabble might be “just a game” for most people, but for him, it was a way to escape the pain, use his mind, and connect with other people in a way that felt normal. I keep the trophy at school, and my students are very impressed with it. It makes for great inspiration at my school Scrabble club.
3. If you could play Scrabble with any person in the world, living or dead, who would be your choice and why?
I’d love to play with statistician Nate Silver. I don’t know if he plays Scrabble, but if he does, I bet he’s pretty good at it, since this game is all about probabilities. And if it turned out he wasn’t so good at it, we could sit and talk about charts. I love charts. Also, since Nate is gay, my husband wouldn’t have to be jealous about me gushing over him.
4. Rumor has it you’re multi-lingual. What languages do you speak? And do they ever interfere with your Scrabble playing?
I speak German and Spanish. I majored in both languages in college, and I studied in Germany for a year. My Spanish is much better these days, since I use it all the time in my job as an elementary school bilingual teacher. For some reason, German just isn’t in demand around here. I’ve dabbled in French, but never really got beyond the ability to order things off a menu. Of course, that’s the main reason to learn French, so I don’t feel too bad about it.
Knowing words in other languages has definitely helped my Scrabble game. I remember whether words are spelled with EI or IE by pronouncing them to myself in German. And I remember a lot of those vowel-heavy words by pronouncing them as if they were Spanish. I figure if I don’t even know what they mean to begin with and will never be using them in a conversation, it doesn’t matter if I say them wrong. I remember the acceptable foreign words pretty well. For example, I got to play the word TAQUERIA against a certain Lithuanian Scrabble blogger in a tournament several years ago.
5. You are of Latvian descent. Tell us about Latvians and Latvian-Americans. What are they known for other than their stunning good looks?
My mom was born in Latvia and came to the U.S. with her family to escape the Soviet invasion of their country. I never learned the Latvian language, but I do know Latvian cuisine. From my grandparents, I learned to love pierogi filled with lots of bacon, dark rye bread with lots of butter, black peas with lots of bacon, apple cake made with lots of butter, liver pâté made with lots of bacon. There’s more to Latvians than bacon and butter, of course, but you can see we have our priorities straight.
6. Tell us about your exceptional family.
My teenage children don’t play Scrabble, but they are very talented in other ways. I’m fairly sure that there was some mix-up in the hospital when my son Ethan was born, and somewhere out there a very athletic, physically gifted couple is wondering why they have a completely uncoordinated child who likes to sit in his room studying word lists. Ethan was recently one of 36 out of almost 900 of the top baseball players across the country to be chosen for Team U.S.A. tryouts next year. He’s an amazing pitcher, and he’ll be playing on the high school varsity team as a freshman this year. Elizabeth is a talented dancer who loves to be on stage. I’d wonder about her real parents, too, except that she looks just like me. There must be some recessive genes at work. My kids are also very talented at cleaning the kitchen in order to maintain their phone privileges.
7. Tell us about your exceptional pets.
I want to be a zookeeper when I grow up. Currently our menagerie includes a dog, a cat, a bearded dragon, an albino corn snake, two tarantulas, a fish and some snails. In the past ten years or so, we’ve also had a rabbit, two button quail, a couple of Madagascar hissing cockroaches, a hamster, two rats, a fiddler crab, a crimson corn snake, three other tarantulas, several more fish and a few toads. (I was actually kidding about that zookeeper thing. I really keep all these animals around to discourage unwanted house guests. I think I have every phobia and allergy covered.
8. What would I find in your refrigerator right now?
In order to uphold my reputation as an award-winning cheese Limerick writer (yes, really!), I always keep a nice assortment of the curded dairy products on hand. Right now the selection is Swiss Gruyere, Cypress Grove Purple Haze Chèvre, Roelli Dunbarton Blue, Eagle Cave Reserve Truckle, Parmesan, tomato-basil feta, cream cheese, sliced Swiss and Colby for sandwiches, some shredded “Mexican blend”, and Laughing Cow Babybel for kids’ snacks.
I also did a quick inventory of the remaining contents, and it’s a little embarrassing: nine containers of mustard; eight bottles of salad dressing; ten different kinds of hot sauce; and sixteen jars of random things in brine, such as pickles, capers, olives, peppers, beets, etc. There’s also a box of cheap white wine, a few expensive beers, and a couple of almost-empty bottles of Bloody Mary mix. I’ve got normal stuff to feed the family with, too, like milk, juice, meat, fruits, veggies, and mealworms. (That last one is for the lizard member of the family. Don’t even ask about the freezer.)
9. If you could be any character in fiction, who would you be?
This is a tough one. The works of fiction I like to read tend to have characters who live terribly unfulfilled lives, full of unresolved problems. My favorite author is Kazuo Ishiguro, and there’s not a single character of his I’d want to trade places with.
This is where being an elementary school teacher comes in handy. My favorite read-aloud book right now is “Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes” by Eric Litwin. Pete goes walking along in his new white shoes, and then he steps right into a big pile of strawberries! “Did Pete cry? Goodness, no! He kept walking along and singing his song: I love my red shoes, I love my red shoes!” I can only dream of being as cool as Pete.
10. If someone wrote a biography about you, what would you want the title to be?
Melissa, Queen of the World: How One Woman’s Life Changed After Being Interviewed by a Scrabble Blogger