Wannabet He Knows His Alphabet?

updated 10/14/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/14/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WHEN TORONTO SOCIAL-WORK Administrator Ruth Morris listened to her answering machine last Monday, the message thereon was brief and to the point: "Hi, this is Peter. I just won the World Scrabble Championship. Call you later."

In his low-key fashion, Ruth's son, Peter, a 29-year-old Michigan State University doctoral candidate in English, whose bearish looks seem better suited to a Cheers extra than a word warrior, was passing the good news. In London last week, wearing his lucky MSU sweatshirt, Morris put a spell on 48 other competitors from 20 countries to bring home the crystal trophy for the first-ever world championship.

Fond of making up nonexistent words (a competition no-no at which he's often caught) and with a reputation for a weak vocabulary at championship level, he was hardly the favorite. His two-games-to-one victory in the final round against Arizona State University business major Brian Cappelletto was even more amazing, given his preparation. "Two weeks before," he says, "I had to get ready to teach a course and move into a house. And I broke my toe before I left."

Born in Birmingham, England, Morris was raised in Canada. Mother Ruth taught Scrabble to young Peter to improve his vocabulary. It worked. "When he was 7," recalls Ruth, "he told a teacher after some misdemeanor, 'Well, sir, I think I was a little obstreperous.' "

Morris, who is single, plans to use his $10,000 prize money to help pay off the mortgage on a house he recently bought in Lansing, Mich. Says father Ray, a York University sociology professor back in Toronto, of his son's achievement: "It's the one thing he's wanted since he was a teenager."

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