New World Champ of French Scrabble Doesn’t Speak Any French

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Nigel Richards, a New Zealand native based in Malaysia, is a Scrabble master to be reckoned with. He has won the U.S. National Scrabble Championship five times and the World English Scrabble Championship three times. He recently won the King’s Cup, an annual English Scrabble tournament held in Thailand, for the 11th time. Where does a winner turn next for a challenge? Another language.

To prepare for the French Scrabble world championship, recently held in Louvain, Belgium, Richards studied the French Scrabble dictionary for about eight weeks. So thoroughly did he internalize it that he could pull out words like anatrope (a plant biology term) and enouât (the third person of the imperfect subject of énouer, to untie knots) when he needed them. He even at one point challenged a word used by an opponent, ozonides (ozone derivatives), correctly noting that the proper French term was ozonures.

But his French skills begin and end within the game. His friend 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.” 

The ability to play Scrabble in a language one doesn’t speak isn’t as unusual as it might seem. In Thailand, where English Scrabble is very popular, many of the best players are much better at Scrabble than they are at speaking English. But being able to memorize a whole dictionary in a matter of weeks? And then being able to deploy that knowledge competently in a competitive situation? That is highly unusual. And that's what makes Richards, in the words of Yves Brenez, vice president of the Belgian Scrabble Federation, “a Scrabble war machine.” Or, as Scrabble expert Stefan Fatsis says, he’s like “Tiger Woods at his peak—and then Tiger saying, ‘I think I’ll also take up tennis,’ and then win Wimbledon the next year.”