Ricky Rodriguez plays a bingo against opponent Norma DeJesus during a match at the Lion's Field Senior Center Scrabble Club.
Ricky Rodriguez plays a word against Scrabble opponent Norma DeJesus during a game at the Lions Field Senior Center. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Ricky Rodriguez studied the Scrabble board in front of him. He had only a few tiles left; the bag was empty.

“Let’s just try to get ahead and abandon our ‘q,’” Ricky said decisively. “It’s a matter of winning.” He laid down a “t,” making “it.” He won the game a few turns later.

On Thursday evenings, 9-year-old Ricky joins the San Antonio Scrabble club at Lions Field Senior Center to square off against other aficionados of the classic word-building game. He’s the youngest player by several decades but just as serious a Scrabble competitor as his elders, studying word lists and saving Scrabble score sheets to review later at home. He heads to Philadelphia to compete in North American School Scrabble Championships this weekend, teaming up with a boy from Connecticut in the division for newer Scrabble players.

Ricky started playing Scrabble seriously about a year ago, said his mom, Erin Rodriguez. He started paying attention to words when he was in kindergarten, reading the spelling bee list that his older brother used.

“When he was 3, if you walked into a room and saw a dictionary on the floor, you saw multiple – like he was cross referencing [between dictionaries],” Rodriguez said, laughing. “He’ll remember where he left off. The dictionary has always been his favorite book and he has different versions – the Scholastic, the Webster one.”

Rodriguez has two other sons and one daughter. All three of her sons have been diagnosed with autism, but she describes Ricky, her third child, as more “headstrong” than the others. She said she continues to see behavioral improvements from him year after year. And participating in Scrabble tournaments has taught him how to interact with strangers – and with competitive adults, no less.

“It’s a little more challenging to get him to go with the flow sometimes,” she said. “But from one year to the next, I notice a big difference in his behavior. It seems to be a lot better.”

Ricky and his siblings love music, Rodriguez said. She and her husband juggle different schedules, as each child has individual activities outside of school. Ricky used to play the cello but recently asked to take a break from that to work on his word game skills, Rodriguez said. Focusing on Scrabble was 100 percent Ricky’s idea; he thrives in the game that requires him to use his memory skills and quick arithmetic.

“With Ricky doing tournaments and everything, I would never force him,” she explained. “I think it’s fun to take him [to tournaments] because he wants to go, and others say he’s totally ready [to compete] and can hold his own.”

Rodriguez drives Ricky to Scrabble club each Thursday from their home in North San Antonio, a trip that takes about an hour during rush hour. The San Antonio Scrabble club members banter with Ricky and offer him nuggets of wisdom. One evening, Ricky is distressed because he can’t find a place to put down the word he wants to play.

“My whole bingo is going to get ruined,” he said through tears. In Scrabble, bingos are valuable; player who play all seven letters at once get a 50-point bonus.

“Well, if you can’t put it down, it’s not worth anything,” Sonja Mullerin pointed out.

“I’ve had to give up bingos before,” Norma DeJesus said, attempting to console him.

The Scrabble club members quickly embraced Ricky when he joined their ranks. They taught him the rules for competitive Scrabble – determining who puts the first word down, the proper etiquette for selecting new tiles from the bag (by holding it above eye level, so you can’t accidentally peek), and reminding him to press the clock after a turn.

And Ricky has been doing just fine on his own at tournaments, his mom said. He has competed in a dozen since last summer, always wearing his favorite green Crocs. She was especially proud of him for starting a tradition of high-fiving his opponents after a game.

“At a tournament, I’m a good 30 feet away from Ricky,” she said. “I think he has learned to have a little more respect for people, learning some social norms like how to introduce yourself to somebody without mom prompting you.”

Rodriguez gently chides Ricky when he engages in trash talk but laughs about his honesty. When he played San Antonio Scrabble club President Matt DeWaelsche at one Thursday meeting, he declared halfway through the game, “I’m going to beat Matt.” Rodriguez admonished him to check his ego with a smile, while DeWaelsche laughed at his confidence.

Ricky has beaten DeWaelsche only twice in the many times they’ve played each other, DeWaelsche said. He said Ricky is “super smart” and picks up on the game easily. He added that the Scrabble community has historically welcomed players with autism.

“Some of the best players are autistic,” DeWaelsche said. “They just can’t relate to other people that well.”

Ricky spells his name with Scrabble pieces on the floor at Lion's Field Senior Center.
Ricky spells his name with Scrabble tiles on the floor of the Lions Field Senior Center. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

DeWaelsche acts as a mentor to Ricky. At one point, staff from the Parks & Recreation Department barred Ricky from playing at the senior center because of his age, DeWaelsche said.

“They said, ‘He can sit outside and play,’” DeWaelsche said.

After DeWaelsche objected, Ricky eventually was allowed back inside the building to play Scrabble again.

The 59-year-old librarian started playing Scrabble when he was 25 and has been to 20 or so national championships. DeWaelsche loves to offer advice, often asking Ricky if he wants to rethink a word or tile placement.

Ricky, for the most part, has his Scrabble strategy laid out.

“There’s only one eight-letter word you need to win,” Ricky said. “It starts with a ‘p’ and ends with an ‘e’: P-R-A-C-T-I-C-E.”

Ricky and his mom are in Philadelphia for the North American School Scrabble Championships, where he will compete Saturday and Sunday for the national title.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.