Nigel Richards doesn’t speak a word of French.
The native New Zealander is a powerhouse in the competitive Scrabble world, having repeatedly won North American and world competitions. But he set his sights on something even more challenging: Winning a competition in a language he doesn’t know.
Richards began training in May to win the Francophone world title, according to the French Scrabble Federation. His regimen consisted of memorizing the French Scrabble world list, a task that took him about nine weeks, the BBC reported following his victory on Monday.
“I’m not sure there is a secret,” Richards said in 2011 after winning the world title (in English). “It’s just a matter of learning the words.”
Richards is an engineer by trade and lives in Malaysia. His friend and former New Zealand Scrabble Association President Liz Fagerlund told the New Zealand Herald that “he doesn’t speak French at all, he just learnt the words. He won’t know what they mean, wouldn’t be able to carry out a conversation in French I wouldn’t think.”
To prepare for a Scrabble competition, most players will try to memorize a word list or the dictionary correlating to the game.
While playing a word game in a language we can’t even speak seems like an impossible task for us laypeople, high-level competitive Scrabble playing is more about memorization and strategy, Scrabble expert and “Word Freak” author Stefan Fatsis told The Post.
“This is a game in which the meanings of words are meaningless,” Fatsis said. “All that matters is the order in which the letters appear in words.”
Knowing a language isn’t necessary to excel at Scrabble; Thai Scrabble players who speak rudimentary English have captured world titles before. Still, Richards is an exceptional player, with a remarkable record and rate of winning. Fatsis described him as “the greatest player who ever played.”
“Nigel, by virtue of this alien brain of his that allows him to consume words and remember them and recall them at the right moment — Nigel was able to take this foreign language and reduce it to these string of letters,” Fatsis said. “His recall is so prodigious that in the course of a few weeks he was able to memorize enough of this word list to become a world champion. That is astounding.”
Richards is somewhat of an elusive figure, and maybe a bit eccentric, but he’s also “a congenial guy” with “a lovely personality and a wonderful sense of humor,” Fatsis said.
Now in his 40s, he learned the game from his mother, a secretary, and began playing at the age of 28, as noted in this FiveThirtyEight profile from last year:
He rarely gives interviews, and even in person lurks behind an enormous beard. Still, journalists and bloggers have uncovered a few facts. Richards is a serious bicyclist. He’s been reported to have worked for a water company in New Zealand, repairing pumps, and for a security company in Malaysia, monitoring CCTV. He moved to Kuala Lumpur, and represents Malaysia in international events. He’s reportedly an ascetic — doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, has no TV or radio. Chris Cree, the president of the North American Scrabble Players Association, recently related on NASPA’s Facebook page an exchange he had with Richards last month. After a tournament in Las Vegas, Richards told Cree that he’d stick around the city for a while. To do what? Cree asked.
Richards responded, “There is a very good library here.”
Richards also doesn’t appear to be bothered by a game’s outcome, Fatsis noted in his 2009 profile of Richards. He scans dictionary pages and looks at the boldface words, ignoring the tenses and definitions, which don’t help in competitive Scrabble.
When Fatsis asked Richards whether his memory was photographic, this is how Richards responded:
“I think there are about 28,000 definitions of a photographic memory. I can recall images very easily, but I can’t put the image in a context. I can remember a picture, but I can’t remember where I’ve seen it. I just have to view the word. As long as I’ve seen the word, I can bring it back. But if I’ve only heard it or spoken it, I can’t do it at all.”
Richards only needed to see the French words in order to memorize them; speaking French wouldn’t have done much good.
“He’s in it for the challenge,” Fatsis said. “I think his brain must have said to him, ‘Oh, I’ve mastered the English words. Maybe I’ll try something different.’ Who knows what Nigel could do next, now that this world has opened to him.”