Interview with Melissa Routzahn

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











The Champion: A Short Story by M.M. DeVoe

The following short story about Scrabble appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review in 2010: The Champion is a fantastic story about a game played between a dying father and his daughter.  It includes many of the elements that make up Scrabble: bingos, extensions (how about JUXTA next to POSE?), and unusual two and three letter words. According to M.M. Devoe, the story’s author, the game played in The Champion can actually be played out in real life.

I’ve known M. M. DeVoe ever since she was a student of mine at the Vasario 16th gymnasium in Germany twenty-five years ago. She was feisty, funny and very smart. And a great writer even then. She went on to finish her MFA from Columbia University in New York. Her work has appeared in New Millenium Writings, Literal Latte, Fickle Muse, The Oklahoma Review, among many others.

Go to M.M’s site for more information about her marvelous writing.

DeVoe is also co-founder and executive director of Pen Parentis, a literary salon out of Manhattan where every month select authors read from their work and discuss finding balance when it comes to writing and family. Here’s the site:


I’m learning to become a better sport. Saturday at Scrabble club I didn’t pout, whine, or complain. Maybe it’s because I only lost two out of five games: one to my husband, who cheated, and one to Scott Garner, who also cheated.

Okay. They didn’t cheat. The truth is, I let them win. They’re both manly men and need their egos stroked.

Yeah, yeah. I know. They’re better players than I am and they got better tiles than I did. Happy now?

I sometimes ponder the nature of my bad sportsmanship in club Scrabble. (I behave better at tournaments, unless I’m losing to two or three people who shall remain nameless, though one is a retired magician and the other is Melissa Routzahn, whom I no longer play because she’s rated a million points higher than I am.) I’m gracious in other areas of my life: I’m not a jealous person—I feel there’s enough love, fame, attention, money to go around for everyone. I don’t feel as if others have to fail in order for me to succeed. This is true in all areas of my life except for board games.

The roots of my need to win at every board game go back to my childhood.  Play was a controversial word in my Lithuanian household.  My parents had endured the Soviet occupation of their country followed by the Nazi invasion.  They fled Lithuania before the communists could reinvade, spent years in Displaced Persons camps in Germany and Austria, eventually immigrated to the United States to build new lives from scratch. They counted every penny and waited anxiously for news from relatives in the homeland. That’s not to say they never had fun. They drank at rowdy immigrant parties and took vacations to neighboring Indiana and Michigan. But when it came to priorities, making sure their two daughters were having a good American time was at the very bottom of the list. My parents expected A’s in school, 5’s in Lithuanian Saturday School, reading of what they termed “good literature,” and completion of household chores in a timely manner. Television was so restricted as to be practically nonexistent.

“We need time to play,” my sister and I would nag my mother when she’d present us with a list of afterschool obligations.

“Okay, you can play the piano,” she’d chuckle, pleased with her American cleverness.

“Nooo! We want to play board games.”

“You become bored playing games,” she’d say, and laugh again.

“Nooo. Like Mouse Trap. Everyone in the neighborhood owns Mouse Trap. Except for us.”

It was at this point of the conversation that my father would pipe in: “You want catch mouses? Okay, go to hardware store. I give you money buy traps.”

My parents were suspicious of games involving plastic pieces and/or instructions written in English.  Since this included almost every game on the market, our house was almost completely bereft of those diversions inundating the basements and closets of my American friends.

(Years later, my mother’s unfamiliarity with American popular culture caused her to confuse Scrabble with much simpler games. I’d tell her how much fun Marty and I had playing Scrabble, how challenging it was, etc.

“I hope you have fun playing Candy Land this weekend,” she said once.

“Mom, we’re not playing Candy Land.”

“How did you do at the Candy Land competition?” she asked after we’d come back from a particularly grueling tournament.)

The only game my parents accepted wholeheartedly was chess—sakmatai—as ubiquitous in our Lithuanian neighborhood as cold beet soup in the summer, the pieces made of wood or stone or sometimes even amber, the board sturdy and well-crafted. My father taught me to play when I was eight. I suspect he wanted someone to clobber on a regular basis. In the beginning I enjoyed the game, loved the fact that the nimble knight could prance around the board, that the queen was the most powerful piece of all—much more commanding than the sickly king. I quickly grew tired of losing to my father and decided to teach my sister, Rita, to play. After she revealed some talent for the game, I told her about additional rules I had forgotten to include with my initial instructions.

“Under special circumstances the rook can move both horizontally and vertically in the course of a single play,” I opined.  “We call this the Rule of the L.”

Rita eventually grew suspicious of the Rule of the L, which never worked in her favor, and quit playing.

The prohibition against games extended to sports as well, at least American sports: football and baseball. My parents scoffed at these pastimes. They derided the way Americans looked upon athletes—as superior to opera singers and poets and sculptors.  They also scorned what they saw as the American need to win—all the time, at all costs. That’s not to say my parents didn’t believe in competition. The nature of the contest was often confusing, the rules for winning, especially as set forth by my mother, never clearly stated: you should be the smartest girl in class, but be careful about being smarter than the smartest boy, unless he’s the type of boy who doesn’t mind girls who are smarter than he is. You may go beyond a mere four-year college degree, but if you could marry someone with a doctorate, well, that would be even better. Don’t be afraid of girls more attractive than you. You can “win” the affection of men by making them feel important and wearing revealing clothing.

“And always laugh at their jokes,” my mother would say.

“What if they’re not funny?”

“Laugh anyway. Be polite.”

I’ve worked through the looks and intelligence issues. And I’m getting there with the board games.  In fact, my goal is to become not only a good loser, but a great loser. The best Scrabble loser in the world. I want there to be a Good Sportsmanship award at every tournament, and I want to win that award. Every time. And I want prize money to go with the statuette. And ratings points. And maybe a newspaper headline or two.