Scrabble enthusiast Maurice DeCanio, 66, of Bergenfield
Saturday, June 21, 2008
BY JAY LEVIN
Bergen Record Staff Writer
Qat. Xu. Vug. Twa. Nidi. Khi. Qaid. Zebu. Oot. Zerk.
Photo caption: Maurice DeCanio of Bergenfield with his grandson Anthony Marco. A friend called him "one of the great gentlemen of Scrabble."
They look like typos, but they were things of beauty to Maurice DeCanio.
The Bergenfield wordsmith and retired automobile upholsterer, who died June 13, enjoyed Scrabble for much of his 66 years.
He played frequently and proficiently. He mastered the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. He knew that the anagrams for his first and last names are URAEMIC and CODEINA. And he shared his passion for the venerable crossword game with others in the National Scrabble Association's Club 251.
Maurice, known for his warm smile and neatly trimmed goatee, was "one of the great gentlemen of Scrabble," said club member Paul Mistrette of Little Falls.
As director of Club 251, which meets Thursday evenings at the Rodda Community Center in Teaneck, Maurice kept the matches moving, paired players according to skill level, adjudicated word challenges and patiently gave advice to novices, such as, "Don't squander that blank! Don't waste that S!"
And if there was an even number of people on a club night, Maurice would pull up a chair and play.
"Maurice was never less than gracious to everyone, from nervous newcomers to the old timers," said club veteran Marian Calabro of Hasbrouck Heights. "And Scrabble is a hobby that can attract - how can I put this? - some odd people."
Lynda Kraar of Teaneck joined Club 251 seven years ago. She learned the words and board strategy. And before venturing onto the tournament circuit, she asked Maurice to critique her play.
"I'd sit with him and play a game, and he'd tell me how I could've played it differently," Kraar said.
"Maurice was really happy to see how I progressed. All the ladies in the club are afraid to play me now."
No one was happier than Maurice when Kraar broke 500 for the first time.
It didn't matter to Maurice that he was Kraar's opponent that game.
But that was the great thing about Maurice: There was nothing cutthroat about him.
How does a person become a Scrabble maven?
Maurice DeCanio wasn't into book learning at Teaneck High School, said his wife, Joyce, but he did play Scrabble as a kid and was a lifelong reader.
Give him a novel, and he'd devour it in two days.
He just loved words.
A 40-year resident of Bergenfield, Maurice worked as a lithographer and then owned a couple of bars before settling into automobile upholstery.
A clue to his trade: His everyday Scrabble board is set in a turntable of blue imitation leather.
Maurice kicked his hobby up a few notches when the Teaneck Scrabble club was formed 20 years ago.
Like all serious players, he studied laminated lists of anagrams and bizarre two-, three- and four-letter words. He kept the lists "all over the house - the bedroom, the kitchen, the living room," said his daughter Lauren Marco, a special education teacher at Hackensack High School.
Marco said she used to play Scrabble with her dad - "until he got too good."
Maurice also squared off against unseen opponents.
"He played online every day," Joyce DeCanio said. "He got the program that allowed him to play people from all over the world - in Fiji, in Australia … "
Maurice's official Scrabble rating, based on his performance at sanctioned tournaments, was 1556, just below expert level. Putting 1556 into perspective, the world's top player is rated 1978; beginners clock in at, say, 600.
On June 12, a Scrabble night, Maurice ran the club as usual, got home at 11 o'clock and went to bed.
He died in his sleep of a heart attack.
"That was the last thing Maurice did - attend a Scrabble club meeting," said Joyce DeCanio, mourning a husband who appreciated good food, good wine, good company - and good tiles. "I hope he got to play."