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Scrabble Club attracts a crowd

BY SAMANTHA BILHARZAssociated Press

CHARLESTON, Ill. - Marty Gabriel and his wife Daiva Markelis first got into playing Scrabble as a way to shake up their dating regimine, which later evolved into establishing the Charleston Scrabble Club in 2004.

"When we first started dating we were looking for something to do," Markelis said. "At first I thought I would be good at it because I'm a writer, but it takes mathematics strategies."

Markelis and Gabriel are originally from Chicago and moved to Charleston in 2001 when Markelis took a job at Eastern Illinois University as a professor of English. Gabriel is a retired school social worker.

"I thought playing Scrabble would be fun to learn new words and have more of a variety to the game," Gabriel said. "There were several clubs in the Chicago area and I wanted to have a club here. I knew people would like it once they got the swing of things."

Gabriel, a former athlete, said he was also looking for a way to stay competitive and meet new people, which was how the Charleston Scrabble Club was born.

Since the club was formed in 2004, it has expanded from the original six members to 20, who are mainly local players from Coles County, but Gabriel added that some players travel from Champaign, Danville, Tennessee, St. Louis, Springfield, Indiana and Ohio once a month for the club's meeting and to compete against other club members in Scrabble.

"A lot of people who play Scrabble are competitive in other areas," Gabriel said. "If you like games and you're the kind of person who likes tournaments then you can take it a step further by joining the Scrabble club - we always enjoy getting players no matter what skill level they are at."

Some of the Charleston Scrabble Club members compete in tournaments, while others enjoy the game as a more leisurely activity.

"I compare Scrabble to my sports - I like the positions where I was able to use my brain the most," Gabriel said. "I like games where you have to make a lot of decisions. It's a game that appealed to me and I knew I wouldn't get bored with it. Scrabble keeps my interest and it's a lot of fun."

Gabriel has played in more than 100 tournaments since he first started dabbling in the game of Scrabble in 1995. He is also ranked 45th in the world after competing in the World English-Language Scrabble Championship in December 2013 in Prague as a member of the United States team; this is the fourth time Gabriel qualified for the World English-Language Scrabble Championship.

"It's like the Olympics of Scrabble," Gabriel said with a laugh.

Samantha Bilharz writes for the (Charleston, Ill.) Journal Gazette & Times-Courier.

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