Mark his words: A Scrabble champion spells out his L-O-V-E for the game

When Marty Gabriel sees letters, he immediately rearranges them in his brain and spells out all the words possible. An anagram for M-A-R-T-Y: “tryma” (a nutlike fruit). Fittingly, Gabriel is a nut for Scrabble.

Marty Gabriel (11/17/17)
Marty Gabriel is a champion Scrabble player from Charleston. Image by Jarad Jarmon of Journal Gazette & Times-Courier

The 69-year-old from Charleston, Illinois, has played in hundreds of tournaments, including the national and world Scrabble championships. In 2016, he set a Guinness World Record for the highest two-person Scrabble score amassed in 24 hours. Gabriel and his counterpart Scott Garner collectively earned 216,439 points while playing at a 24-hour Whole Foods Market — shattering the previous record by 20,000 points. 

To prepare, Gabriel studies the official Scrabble dictionary, memorizing all the legal two-, three- and seven-letter word plays that could rake in high scores. (Clearing all seven tiles in one play, aka a “bingo” in Scrabble-speak, rewards players with 50 bonus points.) A police officer even pulled him over once for studying flashcards while driving.

Though word games may seem like a frivolous hobby, Gabriel sees Scrabble as a healthy distraction. “It’s a pastime,” he says. “The bottom line is it doesn’t really matter how you do — if you win a championship or you set a record. It just keeps you from thinking about other things.”

Gabriel took up Scrabble to woo his future wife, Daiva Markelis, who also plays competitively. Now retired from a career as a social worker, he has more time for spelling — and contemplating the source of his obsession.

Gabriel and his wife Daiva Markelis, a professor at Eastern Illinois University, often play Scrabble together. Image by Jarad Jarmon of Journal Gazette & Times-Courier

“Deep psychological trauma,” he quips. But seriously, Scrabble helps him simultaneously tune out and tap into a traumatic childhood memory.

In elementary school, his teacher required students to recite passages from a book held at arm’s length. “I couldn’t read because I couldn’t see the page,” he recalls, stifling back tears. “It turns out I was legally blind.”

Banished from the classroom and whisked away to his father, a teacher at the school, he read from up close and memorized the texts line by line. “Even if I couldn’t see it, I could kind of fake it,” he says.

These memorization skills translated to success in Scrabble, where rote recollection is essential to winning.

His ability to concentrate on such specific tasks may also come from his obsessive-compulsive disorder, which he describes as a mechanism in “obtaining mastery.”

“OCD tends to be all or nothing — either very distracted or focused so intently on one thing,” he says. “And that was the kind of thing I was able to do with Scrabble.”

Gabriel prepares for Scrabble games by reviewing past plays and studying anagram flashcards.

Playing him means business, says retiree Dan Terkell, a former opponent. “Marty tended to be very, very intense. One of the most intense opponents I’ve ever faced, as a matter of fact. He’s got this competitive streak and winning, to him, means a lot.”

As a jock turned word-nerd, Gabriel says he doesn’t fit the “stereotypical” mold of a Scrabble player. That made it difficult for him when he began playing at Scrabble club meetings in the ‘90s. “They’re more so the bright kids in school who were picked on by jocks and were envious of jocks,” Gabriel says. “I think if you look like an athlete, they’re not as inclined to think favorably of you.”

Before hanging up his cleats to play Scrabble competitively in his 40s, Gabriel played for a semi-professional touch football team. Known by teammates as the “Brainiac,” the “UNIVAC” (Universal Automatic Computer) and the “defensive mastermind,” he says he would scout opposing teams and analyze plays.

“The same kind of nuttiness I put into Scrabble — like studying all those flashcards — I was doing that with football,” he says. “I would take flak from my teammates for thinking too much. I actually took grief for being cerebral with it and trying to strategize.”

Strategy separates intermediate “living room” players from advanced word-game masters, Gabriel says. Much as he did as a middle linebacker for the Chicago Beercats, he dissects each Scrabble game after it ends, leaving no tile untouched. Instead of mapping out the X’s and O’s of a sport, he’ll formulate all the moves he can make with X and O tiles.

Gabriel is the NASPA record-holder for games with scores of 700 or more, also known as the “700 club” to Scrabble players.

“I like games where you have a lot of decisions to make,” Gabriel says. “Part of the reason I like to compete is that it’s also a way for me to let go if I have aggressive impulses.”

Despite his repressed anger from childhood, Gabriel vows to play with integrity. In football games, he says he’d never “take cheap shots.” In even his most important Scrabble games, he takes pride in refusing to use “phonies” (nonvalid words played by those attempting to trick their opponents).

Gabriel achieved his two-person world record, as well as three games with individual scores of 700 or more points — the most in the North American Scrabble Players Association — without any phonies. To break the NASPA record, he played the word “REDEFEATED” against a top-ranked opponent he had defeated twice in the past.

With in-person tournaments on pause during the pandemic, Gabriel virtually heads the Charleston Scrabble club, where members face off online. In a chat forum on Discord, they debate their favorite plays of the week and announce the winners of word prizes. Recently, Gabriel challenged members to play a word that describes his wife, an English professor at Eastern Illinois University, for her birthday. He won $3 with “NEOTERIC,” a word for a modern author, which he also pointed out is an anagram for “ERECTION.”

His dream word: V-A-C-C-I-N-E.

Illustration by Gabi Rodriguez