New Zealander Nigel Richards racks up remarkable victory after reportedly memorising francophone Scrabble dictionary in nine weeks
Nigel Richards’ command of the language of Molière, as the French like to call it, stretches to “bonjour” and being able to count. However, the New Zealander who has been called “the Tiger Woods of Scrabble” certainly has a way with words – even French ones. Despite his linguistic handicap, Richards has just won the francophone world Scrabble championships after reportedly memorising the entire French Scrabble dictionary in just nine weeks.
“He doesn’t speak French at all – he just learned the words,” his close friend Liz Fagerlund told the New Zealand Herald. “He won’t know what they mean, wouldn’t be able to carry out a conversation in French, I wouldn’t think.”
Richards, 48, who has won the English world Scrabble championships three times, the US national championships five times and the UK Open six times, beat a rival from French-speaking Gabon in the final held at Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium on Monday. During the match, which he won by two games to nil, he even successfully challenged his rival Schelick Ilagou Rekawe’s use of a form of the verb “fureter” (to snoop). He was given a standing ovation by the mainly French-speaking crowd.
His name may be unfamiliar to many, but to Scrabble aficionados, he is the greatest ever player of the board game, with archives of his previous games available to search online. But it was not immediately obvious that the Christchurch-born Richards would excel at word-based games. “When he was learning to talk, he was not interested in words, just numbers,” his mother, Adrienne Fischer, has said. “He related everything to numbers. We just thought it was normal. We’ve always just treated Nigel as Nigel.”
Richards, whose other great passion is cycling, wasn’t introduced to the game until he was 28, persuaded by his mother. “I said, ‘I know a game you’re not going to be very good at, because you can’t spell very well and you weren’t very good at English at school’,” she said. He showed an immediate talent, however, winning the New Zealand national championships. In 2000, he moved to Malaysia, and now represents the country in international competition.
With his long beard, spectacles and intense gaze, the reclusive competitor cuts an enigmatic figure hunched over his letter tiles. “Without a doubt he’s the greatest player in our sport, ever,” New Zealand’s national Scrabble representative Howard Warner has said. “He’s like a computer with a big ginger beard.”
Warner believes Richards’s exceptional abilities stem from a photographic memory and rare mathematical skill. At the very elite level, Scrabble skills rely more on an ability to calculate mathematical probabilities than on linguistic facility.
Certainly his success this week was not thanks to a secret fluency in French. “He’s not a francophone, I can confirm that,” Yves Brenez, the vice president of the Belgian Scrabble federation and organiser of the Francophone championships, told FranceTV. “Nigel will say ‘bonjour’ with an accent and he can also give the score in French, which is obligatory, but that’s all.
“The challenge was a bit crazy, but he learned French vocabulary in only nine weeks. He’s a fighting machine. To him words are just combinations of letters. I’m perhaps exaggerating a bit, but he comes up with scrabbled (words of seven or more letters) that others take 10 years to know.”
Fagerlund, a former president of the New Zealand Scrabble Association, said the other players at the contest would have been aware of Richards’s ability before the tournament. “He does have a reputation for being the best Scrabble player ever and they know about him already, but they probably didn’t necessarily expect him to go in for the first time and beat them at their own game.”
Shirley Hol, president of the Christchurch Scrabble club where Richards first played the game, told the New Zealand Herald the other players had been “gobsmacked” at his victory. “I think one of the comments was ‘Are you extraterrestrial or something?’ Because it was so amazing.”
The French Scrabble federation described Richards’ victory as a first in a tweet after the final. And French journalist Jean-Baptiste Morel, a self-confessed Scrabble fan, writing in the NouvelObs, said Richards’ qualification for the competition had seemed “an amusing attraction on paper”. “He doesn’t speak French, but he learned to play in our language by reading the words of the ODS (Official Scrabble book) as if it was just a sequence of letters to learn. The man, as well as having a perfect command of the vocabulary, possesses an impressive game tactic that allows him to leapfrog the competition, “ Morel wrote.
Morel said in the final, Richards had a “pretty rotten” draw of letters. However, he overwhelmed the opposition with “ridiculous ease”. “He has learned no language logic, just a succession of letter sequences giving rise to words. In his head it’s binary: what draw (of letters) can make a scrabble, what draw can’t”.
Morel says Richards will take part in another championship on Wednesday in which the players compete against a computer. “He is an outsider – it’s the first time he’s played using this method – but something tells us that he’s hasn’t finished with the surprises,” he wrote.
This article was written by Kim Willsher in Paris, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 21st July 2015 16.53 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010