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Guy Wins French-Language Scrabble Championship, Doesn’t Even Speak French

Nigel Richards is a beast when it comes to the game of Scrabble. He’s so good that he recently won the French Language Scrabble Championship without even speaking the language. ‘

“He doesn’t speak any French at all – he just learned the words,” Nigel’s friend Liz Fagerlund told the media. “He won’t know what they mean, wouldn’t be able to carry out a conversation in French, I wouldn’t think.” No wonder they call him the ‘Tiger Woods of Scrabble’.

French journalist and self-confessed Scrabble lover Jean-Baptiste Morel wrote: “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 were 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 added that Richard had managed to win in spite of a “pretty rotten” draw of letters.

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48-year-old Richards is a champion in the English version of the game as well – he’s won the English world Scrabble championships three times so far, along with the US national championships five times, and the UK Open six times. He’s amassed 1,927 victories out of 2,549 games, with a winning percentage of 75.59. This year, he managed to beat a native French speaker, winning the match by two games to nil. After the last game, he received a standing ovation.

Although Richards seems to be doing great with words, his mother says that his first preoccupation was with numbers. “When he was learning to talk, he was not interested in words, just numbers,” Adirenne Fischer said. “He related everything to numbers. We just thought it was normal. We’ve always just treated Nigel as Nigel.”

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It was only at age 28 that Richards began playing Scrabble, after Adrienne persuaded him to try it. She was frustrated that his photographic memory was ruining their card games. “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,’” Adrienne recalled. But she couldn’t have been more wrong. Richards displayed an immediate talent for the board game, winning the New Zealand national championships.

Richards moved to Malaysia in 2000 and now represents the country in international competitions. Howard Warner, New Zealand’s national Scrabble representative, thinks Richard’s exceptional performance in the game is a result of his photographic memory, and also his love of numbers. At a very advanced level, Scrabble players actually rely more on their mathematical prowess than on their linguistic talents.

That explains how he can play Scrabble in French without being able to string a single sentence in the language. “He’s not a francophone, I can confirm that,” said Yves Brenez, vice president of the Belgian Scrabble federation. “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,” Brenez added. “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 with more than seven letters) that others take 10 years to know.”

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According to Shirley Hol, president of the Christchurch Scrabble club where Richard played his first game, all other players were simply “gobsmacked” by his victory. “I think one of the comments was, ‘Are you extraterrestrial or something?’ Because it was so amazing.”

“Nigel’s a word freak,” said John Baird, secretary of Christchurch. “He is already recognised as the best Scrabble player in the world and this win certainly cements that position. My understanding is that Nigel can look at a page and retain the whole thing, it sticks like a photograph. On top of that, he’s obviously got a very good ability to mix up letters and see the word possibilities.”

 

In spite of knowing so many, Richards is actually a man of few words. “He’s a very elusive character,” Baird revealed. “I think the American press get very frustrated with him because he only comes out with one or two-word answers, which is completely ironic.”

Sources: The Guardian, ABC News

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