New Zealander Nigel Richards can’t speak much French beyond “bonjour,” but that didn’t stop the Scrabble mastermind from winning the word game’s French-language world championship on Monday.
Richards, 48, defeated a French-speaking competitor from Gabon during the final round of the tournament in Louvain, Belgium, the Guardian reported. He’d memorized the entire French Scrabble dictionary in only nine weeks though the words mean nothing to him.
In a tweet, the French Scrabble federation hailed Richards’ win under such unusual circumstances as unprecedented .
“He won’t know what [the words] mean, wouldn’t be able to carry out a conversation in French I wouldn’t think,” Liz Fagerlund, former president of the New Zealand Scrabble Association and a friend of Richards, told the New Zealand Herald.
The dictionary Richards memorized includes all French words made up of two to 10 letters.
“To him words are just combinations of letters,” Yves Brenez, the competition’s organizer, told FranceTV. “I’m perhaps exaggerating a bit, but he comes up with scrabbled (words of seven or more letters) that others take 10 years to know.”
Richards has dominated the game in his native tongue too, winning world titles for English Scrabble in 2007 and 2011. He’s also captured five U.S. national titles.
He received a standing ovation for his French win and required a translator to express his gratitude to the crowd, CBC News reported.
Among Scrabble aficionados, Richards is famously reclusive and remains a mysterious figure, according to a profile in New Zealand's Sunday Star Times from 2010.
"He's like a computer with a big ginger beard," Howard Warner, a Scrabble representative who's faced off against Richards, told the Star Times. "You go to international tournaments and everyone's sitting around at the end of the day telling Nigel-stories. Of course, he's never there, so the legend grows."
His success is owed to his highly mathematical brain, experts in the game have said. He never showed much interest in language growing up and only picked up the game at 28 when his mother, Adrienne Fischer, introduced him to it.
"When he was learning to talk, he was not interested in words, just numbers," she told the Star Times. "He used to point to the calendars. He related everything to numbers. We just thought it was normal. We've always just treated Nigel as Nigel."