Nigel Richards – Scrabble legend with few words to say, but a lot to play


I set off in search of a giant mop with red beards, neat tiles of obscure words, and a star-struck opponent.

I found the last two.

Quadruple English Scrabble World Champion Nigel Richards, hunched motionless over the board and shouting his notes in a voice slightly louder than a whisper, sported cropped gray hair and a three-day-old beard. The giant mad scientist beard that Google search results threw at him was gone, and he was wearing a lightweight figure and an ink-blue t-shirt with a travel pouch attached to his waist. The shelf in front of him cradled the letters: SIGHDIE and the 18-year-old who sat across from him pressed his glasses to the bridge of his nose, leaned his elbows on the table, and waited in wonder.

Although one could imagine his mind rummaging through the bingo options (using all of your tiles in turn), Richards softly spelled out “IF” (the Scrabble word finder assures us that it is a valid word. which can mean a metalloid, the metric system or the syllable naming the seventh note of a musical scale).

At the end of the next four strokes, Richards’ Indian-born teenager, Melbourne Indian-born opponent Anand Bharadwaj, smiled, reached out on the table and gushed: “It’s such an honor. . Thank you.” The 2011 Scrabble Junior World Champion had just lost 365-456. Richards responded to the winning result and the compliment with a smile and a gentle nod. To be notoriously poker-faced, the joke says it’s hard to tell if Richards lost a round or won a world title treble.

But let’s take a moment to understand why Richards is a topic worthy of admiration among gamers who snuggle up to words and throw anagrams.

He is the first English Scrabble player to win the world title multiple times and also owns two titles in French, a language he does not speak. He would have mastered the French scrabble dictionary, or about 400,000 words in nine weeks. He also holds a record maximum score (similar to Elo scores in chess) of 2298. Richards’ peers will tell you that he is second to none in terms of word knowledge and quick calculation of mathematical probabilities on the chess board. But for a person with such magnificent mastery of words, Richards uses little to communicate. He refuses the interview requests with a sparkling smile and walks away. It’s no different this time in Bengaluru, the Indian city he has visited every year for more than a decade now for the unmissable international tournament on the calendar organized by the French multinational Capgemini.

The 51-year-old New Zealander who lives in Malaysia and keeps the details of his day-to-day work (we’re told he watches CCTV cameras) as obscure as his choice of words were introduced to scrabble by his mother when he had 28 years old. In two years, he practiced the sport professionally and in December 2018, he had 2,811 victories in 3,673 games. He spends most of his day cycling and is known to have cycled 14 hours from Dunedin to Christchurch in appalling weather conditions for his first national championship in 1998, which he won and did again. biking. During this tournament, Richards, then a newcomer to the sport, was confronted with the letters CDHLNR-? (“?” Indicates a blank tile) and popular wisdom has suggested that he play “Children” for a bingo. Instead, he woven two O’s, a floating E, and used his blank tile for “y” to spell “Chlorodyne” (a patented drug from the 19th century). It’s the kind of inspired scrabble that only a photographic memory can not earn you.

Believed to be the creation of unemployed architect Alfred Mosher Butts of Poughkeepsie, New York, during the Great Depression, Scrabble has, in its 70 years of existence, sold over 150 million games in 29 languages ​​and is played from kitchen tables. at the Queen’s garden parties. For some like Bharadwaj, who won a 14-point victory over Richards a day after his loss, the love for the game has its roots in a strange talent for spelling and framing words. Growing up, however, Richards would not have shown such an affinity. “It’s just amazing how calm he is,” says Bharadwaj, “His control of the board is exceptional. Whether he wins or loses, he plays the same unperturbed game every time.” Richards finished the four-day tournament in India with 25 wins, nine losses and his ninth consecutive title.

Longtime friend Charles Carneiro, an Indian scrabble player who lives in Singapore, vouches for Richards’ “fantastic sense of humor” and the distinction of being one of the sport’s fastest thinkers . “In the first few seconds he’s spotted and decided which word he wants to play, he’s just using the rest of the time to look for better options.” Most of the time, he finds them. In October of last year, Richards spelled out “Groutier,” which means crusader or brooding, for 68 points, a check for $ 8,000 and his fourth world title.

“In Scrabble your game has to have some fairness,” Carneiro explains, “It’s not just the score you get on the current word, but your potential score on the next two moves. Much like chess. So, in a sense, you are managing the risks of your position. Richards is great at it. “

Carneiro, who is on the organizing committee of the World English Language Scrabble Players Association (WESPA), which plans to host its third championship in Goa in October this year, has an idea in the works: to challenge the top five. players of the world to go head-on against computer technology. “Something about Garry Kasparov’s lines against Deep Blue in chess.”

Without doubt the best scrabble player on the planet For some time now, Richards has been known to be somewhat ascetic – he lives alone and neither smokes nor drinks. His last wish has nothing to do with Scrabble. “He wants to cross India on a bike,” Carneiro says, “He’s the kind of guy he is – to play and win and ride his bike like nothing has happened.”

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