A non-French speaker just won the French Scrabble championship

The face of stardom.
The face of stardom.
Image: Reuters/Kacper Pempel
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They call him the Bearded Wonder. Okay, no one actually calls him that (that we know of), but they should. He’s the greatest living Scrabble player in the world, and he’s at the height of his powers. Tennis has Serena Williams. Golf has Jordan Spieth. Soccer has Lionel Messi.

Scrabble has Nigel Richards, and he’s arguably more dominant at his game than any of these other athletes are at theirs.

On Monday, July 20, Richards—a native of New Zealand—won the French-language world Scrabble championship. He does not speak a word of French. It’s Nigel Richards’s world, and we’re all just Scrabbling in it.

“He doesn’t speak French at all, he just learnt the words,” Liz Fagerlund, a friend of Richards’s, 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 reportedly memorized an entire French dictionary in the two months leading up to the competition.

Richards, 48, is the #1 ranked Scrabble player in the world. According to the ratings (which are similar to Elo ratings for chess), the gap between him and #2—Paul Gallen of Northern Ireland—is larger than the difference between Gallen and the 12th ranked player in the world. The King’s Cup in Thailand is one of the biggest Scrabble tournaments in the world, and Richards has won the last three.

He has also won tournaments in the US, Malaysia, Singapore, Poland, and countless other locales. Wherever there is Scrabble, there is Richards. He is an unstoppable force—a cross-national, cross-cultural, and, apparently, a multi-lingual menace; the verb virtuoso, the genius of gerunds.

Here is an example of his wizardry, from a 2014 story on FiveThirtyEight:

In a game in 1998, then-newcomer Richards had a rack of CDHLRN? (“?” denotes a blank tile). There was an E available on the board; Richards could have played CHILDREN for a bingo and a 50-point bonus. Instead, Richards played through two disconnected Os and an E. The word? The 10-letter CHLORODYNE.

Richards is markedly reclusive, and little is known about him outside the Scrabble arena, apart from his love of cycling. Stefan Fatsis, an author who has written about the competitive Scrabble world, described Richards’s zen-like qualities to New Zealand’s Sunday Star Times in 2010. “He’s the best in the world at what he does, yet there’s no bravado, no ego, no aggression,” Fatsis said. “He just plays the game then rides his bike off.”

In an extremely rare interview (video) following his victory at the 2011 World Championships, Richards—soft-spoken, humble, concise—said it best: “I’m not sure there is a secret,” he said. “It’s just a matter of learning the words.”

If only it were that easy for the rest of us.