SAN ANTONIO, Texas — The words give the 12-year-old boy confidence. The tiled letters sharpen his focus like a sliver-thin laser. He excels at playing the game’s English and Spanish versions.

Scrabble is Ricky Rodriguez’s world.

“I don’t really have a favorite word,” Ricky said at his North Side home. “Just scoring points — that’s my favorite thing.”

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At 18 months, he was diagnosed with autism. As a toddler, Ricky would get anxious when he didn’t win a game. The community of Scrabble players calmed him. Interacting with competitors improved his social skills and enabled him to devise strategies he’ll use May 14-15 at the North American School Championship in Washington, D.C.

One of his parents, usually his mother, accompanies him on travels to competitions. Ricky has displayed his skills at tournaments across the nation and abroad.

Ricky won 7 of 19 games at the World English Language Scrabble Players Association youth cup in Malaysia. The San Antonio native was one of 190 children from more than a dozen countries who competed in the tournament more than 9,700 miles from the Alamo city. He won his last game with 77 points for an appropriate word — “retired.”

In 2019, Ricky became a national champion for youth Scrabble championship in Philadelphia with a third-place win playing with a boy named Dylan Robbin, who was the same age. He’s played at out-of-state tournaments in cities that include Chicago, Dallas and Philadelphia and states North Carolina, Connecticut and Illinois.

Ricky enjoys being a part of the Scrabble community. His mother, Erin Rodriguez, said sometimes her son wins and sometimes he loses. Either way, he’s concerned for the welfare of people across the board and beyond.

In April, Ricky was featured in People magazine for coming to the aid of his friend Bianca Mohr, whose brother Jackson, 13, had died April 22, 2021, of sudden cardiac death. He started a petition and collected almost 4,000 signatures requesting the city designate a day in Jackson’s honor. Ricky also wrote a letter to Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who issued a proclamation making April 22 Jackson Mohr Day.

While other 3-year-olds flipped through picture books, Ricky pored through hard-back dictionaries, from A to Z.

His parents had to bind the spine of one worn, well-loved dictionary with duct tape to keep the pages from sliding to the floor. As his oldest brother Tony studied for spelling bees, Ricky would peek over his shoulder, adding new words to his vocabulary.

When he learned the game “Boggle,” he won games he played with his siblings and parents. Then in kindergarten, a friend gave him a Scrabble Jr. game for his birthday.

“It gave him an arena to be successful and thrive,” said his mother, Erin Rodriguez, 45. “It’s a way for him to have fun. He’s like a sponge. It’s like his baseball. Finding things that make them happy and enjoy doing, that’s my dream for all of my kids.”

Family members respect Ricky’s Scrabble skills. His parents, Erin and Guillermo, will try their luck from time to time. The oldest sibling, Tony, 20, is focused on math. The second oldest, Frankie, 18, is interested in playing instruments, especially the tuba. His youngest sister Evie, 10, plays piano and has a passion for fashion.

“It’s always interesting to see how natural the process comes to him,” his father said. “He has a unique approach to words.”

The only close second to Ricky is his grandmother Isabella Mallants. Ricky challenges her to the online game “Words With Friends.” They play in five languages.

“It’s agonizing,” Mallants, 75, said of playing her grandson. “It’s really like a sport for him.”

Ricky belongs to a community of Scrabble players who speak the same language.

“He’s a prodigious talent,” one of his mentors, Matt Dewaelsche, wrote in a text. “He was already scary good a couple of years ago, and if he keeps working to improve his game, he could be something.”

One of his memorable practice partners was 86-year-old Pat Griffith. Two years ago, the youngster’s mother would drive him to meet the octogenarian at Brookdale Shavano Park for weekly matches. Inside the first-floor lobby of the assisted living home, they played friendly games on her oversized board. They didn’t dwell on points, triple-word scores or wins — their time was about socializing.

She wrote a note thanking him for being her friend; it’s pinned to his bulletin board. A photo of them together is displayed on his desk.

“It became this sweet friendship,” Erin Rodriguez said. “They had Scrabble in common and age didn’t matter.”

In July 2020, Griffith died. The loss hit Ricky hard. He expressed his grief by typing a reflection about her death titled, “My Friend Pat.” Ricky wrote of how she taught him that the game was “a great way to make friends and it was okay to lose. He ended the letter with: “I was really sad when I heard the news. She may be gone, but she still lives on in my heart.”

Family members said Ricky is always composed, cool and even-keeled. In Philadelphia, he was nominated for the sportsmanship award. At a tournament in Houston, he stopped an opponent after she called out her point total. She became flushed. He recounted her points, which increased, all for her benefit.

“That makes me so happy to see,” his mother said, “that honesty is much more important than winning.”

© 2022 San Antonio Express-News
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