South Charlotte

Scrabble players at Charlotte tournament give game a high score

Sal Piro, left, beat former National Champion David Gibson, right, in the final game to win the top division of the Southern Comfort Scrabble Tournament.
Sal Piro, left, beat former National Champion David Gibson, right, in the final game to win the top division of the Southern Comfort Scrabble Tournament. KATYA LEZIN

Clay Daniels visited Charlotte over Presidents Day weekend with his son, Knox.

The 39-year-old father and 10-year-old son traveled from their home in Charlottesville, Va., to the Queen City to compete in the second annual Southern Comfort Scrabble Tournament.

The tournament, held at the Hyatt Place Charlotte Airport/Lake Point, attracted 39 players from across the country, ranging in age from 10 to 74. Knox, the youngest, played in Division C (the third of four divisions) came in third place, winning 15 of 24 games over a four-day stretch.

“My favorite play was aloetic (of the aloe plant) for 91 points,” he says.

The best part for his father, who was playing in the top division, “was seeing him walk by and give me a thumbs up,” Daniels says.

Most of the players in the bottom division were new to competitive Scrabble. For John Dalida, who came from Lehigh Acres, Fla., to play in his second tournament, the draw is the mental stimulation that Scrabble provides.

“I have friends with Alzheimer’s and dementia,” Dalida, 66, says. “This keeps your mind sharp.”

Bruce Shuman, 73, agrees. Shuman has been playing competitive Scrabble since 1975 and has competed in over 180 tournaments.

“It wards off Alzheimer’s,” he says. His favorite play in all of the games he has under his belt is quetzals (a tropical bird), a triple triple (when both triple word score squares are hit) for a whopping 211 points.

In the top division, Sal Piro, 64, traveled from New York City to compete against David Gibson, 64. Gibson, the third highest rated player in North America, has won more than $150,000 in prize money from Scrabble, including the top prize at Nationals and the All Stars and Superstars tournaments.

Gibson, a math professor from South Carolina, says he is “made for this game.”

“I love words and probabilities and odds,” he says. His strategy is to play defensively, cutting down his opponent’s options.

Eileen Johnson, 66, directed the tournament.

“It’s a lot of work,” she says, “but I love the camaraderie of the players and how they are all so diverse but come together over this game.”

Johnson moved to Charlotte a few years ago and missed the active club and tournament Scrabble scene in New York, where she had played Scrabble since 1976. She took over the Charlotte tournament after the previous director stepped down and is hoping to make it an annual event. She also directs a weekly Scrabble club that meets Tuesday nights at the Panera Bread in the Arboretum.

Cynthia Seales, 66, who runs a Scrabble club and runs tournaments in Atlanta, says she likes “being with other people who love this game as much as I do.”

“And,” she adds, “I like winning.”

Katya Lezin is a freelance writer. Do you have a story idea for Katya? Email her at

Learn more:

For information about the Scrabble Club that meets 6-10 p.m. Tuesdays at Panera Bread at the Arboretum. Call Eileen Johnson at 516-316-3985 or email her at