Tough Scrabble players have soft hearts for kids with cancer

amoody@newsobserver.comJanuary 19, 2014 

— Wordsmiths of all ages had their eyes on leader boards at a weekend-long Scrabble tournament, but even the youngest competitors knew winning was beside the event’s main point.

Entry fees and donations helped raise more than $5,300 for the families in the Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation program at Duke Cancer Center. The Triangle Scrabble Club put on the tournament at Duke Medical Center’s North Pavilion building on Saturday and Sunday, with some optional early rounds Friday evening and a few late rounds slated for Monday morning.

“There are a lot of people who need this money so they can get better and live,” said 11-year-old Chloe Fatsis. “So I think it’s nice we’re donating this, instead of us getting the money.”

Fifteen-year-old Amalan Iyengar knows that need from experience. He has Wiskott-Aldrich Syndrome, which he said weakens his body’s ability to form blood clots. Iyengar has been a patient of the Duke program since he was 3 years old. He received a platelet transfusion when he was 5 and said he has been fortunate enough to not need a bone marrow transplant so far.

As a patient, Iyengar formed a great appreciation for the program and wanted to couple that gratitude with his love for Scrabble – a game he could play with few risks to his condition. He didn’t have to look far to make it happen. One of his former teachers at Seawell Elementary School in Chapel Hill was David Klionsky, the director of the Triangle Scrabble Club.

With Klionsky’s direction and Iyengar’s tie to the cause, the two united to start the charity Scrabble tournament in 2011.

“It’s grown a lot,” Iyengar said. “And more and more companies are giving donations. It’s great that people are so kind and so supportive of the cause that is helping hundreds of kids as they undergo their cancer treatments.

“It deserves all the support it can get.”

The tournament had 43 registered players for a professional session, where players could compete in as many as 26 matches if they attended the optional rounds Friday and Monday. An amateur session held Sunday afternoon consisted of 14 players who each competed in three games.

Klionsky said funds raised will provide activities and a place to stay for many families who travel long distances to receive services at the Duke center. He said the event wouldn’t be a success without those who donate the prizes and those willing to play for them, rather than cash.

“They’re playing for the glory and for the good cause,” Klionsky said. “They’re all really playing out of the goodness of their hearts, and it’s a win-win for the charity and for us.”

In the shadow of her altruistic views, Fatsis was taking care of business on the Scrabble board. Now in her third year playing competitively, she was one of a handful of young players competing in the professional division of the tournament. By midday on Sunday, she had amassed a 9-3 record.

“I just really like playing because I think it’s fun,” Fatsis said. “Even at the beginning, when I started playing, I didn’t do very well – but at least I had fun.”

Moody: 919-829-4806; Twitter: @easternwakenews

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