Durham County

Tar Heel of the Week: Durham man uses Scrabble to raise money for cancer center

David Klionsky, an IT specialist at Seawell Elementary School in Chapel Hill judges the validity of a word score as Seawell Scrabble Club student Calvin Hinkle, right, and his classmates play Scrabble after their weekly club meeting in the school library.
David Klionsky, an IT specialist at Seawell Elementary School in Chapel Hill judges the validity of a word score as Seawell Scrabble Club student Calvin Hinkle, right, and his classmates play Scrabble after their weekly club meeting in the school library. hlynch@newsobserver.com

David Klionsky claims he’s not even all that good at Scrabble, and for most of his life never spent much time on the familiar word game that rewards strategic play of rarely used letters.

Yet over the past decade, Klionsky has been at the center of the Triangle's Scrabble scene.

He has coached hundreds of students in the game in a club he started at Seawell Elementary School, where he is an IT specialist. Some of his students went on to win at national competitions. The Chapel Hill school hosts a statewide student tournament for students in March.

As part of the Triangle Scrabble Club for adults, he started and organizes an annual charity tournament that has raised more than $20,000 for the Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program at the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Now in its fifth year, the tournament, held this weekend, drew more than 40 contestants from across the state and nation, and raised more than $4,000.

Parent Sumathi Iyengar says Klionsky, who is also an accomplished actor and a mentor to at-risk youth, spends countless hours preparing students for the games, boosting their vocabularies and their confidence.

Her son, Amalan, now 16, was the inspiration for the charity tournament. He has been a patient of the transplant clinic from the time he was a child, and joined the Scrabble club at Seawell because he couldn’t play sports.

“Mr. Klionsky is an asset to our children,” says Iyengar, whose son went on to win a national Scrabble championship for his skill level. “He has not only inspired children to play Scrabble. He is also teaching children the value of compassion and caring.”

Klionsky says his own talents are as an organizer and coach. Many of the students he taught how to play Scrabble can now beat him handily.

“To be a world-class Scrabble player, you have to devote a good portion of your life to studying the dictionary,” he says. “The rest of us just like words and like to play.”

Setting a path

Klionsky, 53, was born in upstate New York, into a family of Jewish immigrants from Poland. His great-grandfather sold pots and pans from the back of a horse and carriage, Klionsky says, and his grandfather opened a furniture store.

His father was the first to earn a business degree. But Klionsky says his family didn’t mind when he expressed interest in a theater career.

“I’m the first generation who’s allowed to be downwardly mobile,” he says.

He did a lot of theater in high school and college, then went on to New York City to try his hand at a professional acting career.

He met with some success, doing off-Broadway plays and touring nationally with a company that did adaptations of American literature. His first visit to the Triangle was to perform at Duke University’s Page Auditorium.

Eventually he decided to pursue a steadier career. He chose education after seeing a movie that tracked several boys’ development over decades.

“You could see how these kids were really influenced by their early education,” he says of the movie series, called “Seven Up!” “You see how it sets a path for them.”

He went to graduate school in the mid-1990s, when the Internet was becoming widely used, and found himself fascinated with its potential for transforming classrooms.

Now he helps maintain Seawell’s computers, and trains its teachers in the best ways to use them in class. He also teaches his own classes to students on a wide variety of technology topics such as digital plagiarism, making spreadsheets or writing code.

In his free time, he is frequently practicing for his next stage production. He’s worked with Burning Coal Theater Company and will star in the North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre Company’s production of “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” which opens Jan. 23.

He says he was drawn to the Triangle, where his sister was living, in part because of its many amateur acting groups.

“To be an actor in New York, you can’t dabble,” he says.

Building collaboration

He was drawn to Scrabble after reading “Word Freak,” a nonfiction book that brought to light the intense culture of competitive Scrabble, including controversy over which words should be allowed and the author’s own rise to a top player.

Until then, Scrabble was little more than another board game to Klionsky.

“I had played it like I played Stratego or chess,” he says. “But I was intrigued. I’m very competitive.”

He joined the only Scrabble group he could find, in Cary, and became a regular player.

Around the same time, national student Scrabble competitions were starting, and he began a club at Seawell, which competed in the first national school tournament in 2002.

For the school tournaments, students have to work in teams, helping them to build their collaborative skills. Soon Klionsky started a statewide competition that allows students to practice for the national one.

The state has had great success nationally, with student teams from both Cary and Chapel Hill taking the title two times each.

His adult group would occasionally travel to competitions in Atlantic City, N.J., and Klionsky thought there would be enough demand for a tournament in the Triangle.

He took the test to become an official Scrabble tournament director. Amalan Iyengar, 9 at the time, had the idea of making it a charity tournament for the bone marrow transplant program. He now helps organize it.

The tournament is a series of timed matches between two players, with winners of each game paired with other winners until the leaders emerge. It draws players from across the state and some from other states.

Klionsky says the games are typically dead silent, with only the rattling of plastic tiles as players reach into bags to draw new letters.

He likes that everyone keeps playing throughout the tournament, not just the winners.

“Sometimes maybe you lose the game but do something really cool, like made a word longer for a lot of points,” he says. “I think people can be excited about playing Scrabble even though they’re not the best in the world.”