In 3,602 Scrabble games on the competitive circuit, New Zealander Nigel Richards has won a staggering 2,758 times—in both English and French. As of Sunday (Oct. 28), he has yet another trophy to add to his mantlepiece: his fourth win at the World Scrabble Championship, held in London.
In the past 11 years, he’s taken the title more than anyone else in the history of the game. That’s on top of the French Scrabble title, which he’s won twice despite not speaking the language.
Richards, now 51, began playing Scrabble at the age of 28, with no expectation that he’d have any affinity for it. His mother introduced him to it as an alternative to the card game she consistently lost to him. “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’,” his mother, Adrienne Fischer, told New Zealand’s Sunday Star Times.
Quickly, however, he all but mastered the game. Within two years, he was playing professionally; a decade later, he had bagged multiple national and international titles. ”I can’t think of any other New Zealander who’s been so indisputably the best in the world at what they do, for so long,” fellow Scrabble player Howard Warner told the paper. “He’s like a computer with a big ginger beard.”
In his latest victory, against American Jesse Day, Richards’ winning word, with 68 points, was “groutier,” a word meaning more cross, sulky, or sullen. Haven’t heard it before? Don’t beat yourself up. It’s only appeared once in the New York Times, in their story about Richards’ win; it exists on Wikipedia only on the page for Sunday’s tournament; and it is nowhere in the Oxford English Dictionary, though “grouty” and “groutiness” both have listings there. (Competitive Scrabble uses the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.)
For someone with such a way with words, Richards is famously uncommunicative. He tends to refuse interview requests, and even his mother doesn’t know exactly what his job in Malaysia entails, beyond that it’s related to CCTV cameras and security. When he’s not memorizing words, he spends most of his time cycling. At his first appearance at a New Zealand championship, he reportedly cycled for 14 hours overnight through “atrocious conditions” from Christchurch to Dunedin, won his division, and then cycled straight back again, refusing offers of a lift.
Photographs of Richards from the tournament show him stoney-faced and indifferent. Much like his winning, this is par for the course. In the wake of his victory at a 2011 championship, when asked how he felt, he told the Last Word newsletter, “I feel the same way I did in the first round.” But though he may not be there for the high of the win, he said, “I enjoy the Scrabble.”