Nigel Richards is very good at Scrabble. He’s thought of as possibly the best English-speaking Scrabble player in the world (he’s won the USA National Scrabble Championship five times and the World Championship three times), but he also recently won the French Scrabble Championship, which might compound his title.
Richards, who lives in Malaysia, did this without an active speaking command of French. He was unable to properly deliver a victory/acceptance speech without the aid of a translator, and yet he was able to correct his opponents when they attempted to play an incorrect word.
He was able to do this because he memorized a French dictionary in nine weeks.
Richards, bafflingly, didn’t pick up Scrabble until he was 28. He was encouraged by his mother, who was irritated that his ability to count cards made their weekly card games too one-sided. He won his first national championship in 1997 on his first attempt.
A vegetarian who does not drink or smoke, Richards has a reputation as something of a monk. According to a 2010 profile, he doesn’t keep up with pop culture or current events, and he disdains providing personal information to tournament organizers. His only other hobby is cycling; for his first New Zealand championship, he biked 14 miles overnight to get there, played over the weekend, and then biked home.
“He’s the best in the world at what he does, yet there’s no bravado, no ego, no aggression. He just plays the game then rides his bike off,” said Stefan Fatsis, Wall Street Journal reporter and author of Word Freak, a best seller about the cast of characters who make up the American Scrabble tour.
In that same profile, New Zealand national Scrabble representative Howard Warner declares that he believes Richards’ dominance comes from a natural gift. To wit, his phenomenal memory.
“He told me whenever he looked up a word in his memory banks, he would see its position,” he says. “That’s an extremely rare mathematical mind.”
“I’ve never been around a player who had such a facility with recall,” Fatsis said. “It’s one thing to be able to have a photographic image of a page of the dictionary inside your head. It’s altogether another task to look at the seven tiles on your rack and look at the letters already played on the board and decipher the riddle contained in them. Nigel has it all.”