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Unscrambling Strings of Letters: The Beautiful Mind of Nigel Richards

Annually since 1998, a uniquely talented group of people from around the country gather in New York City for the USA Memory Championship. The event consists of four qualifying tests of memorization.
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Annually since 1998, a uniquely talented group of people from around the country gather in New York City for the USA Memory Championship. The event consists of four qualifying tests of memorization: Names and Faces, in which each competitor is tasked with learning 117 names and faces in just fifteen minutes, Speed Numbers where the goal is to retain as many random digits as possible within the span of five minutes, Speed Cards which is the art of memorizing the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards as quickly as possible, and Poetry, where unpublished pieces need to be learned within fifteen minutes. After the preliminary rounds, eight individuals referred to as mental athletes are given three final categories: Spoken Words, the task of learning a long list of words verbally recited to them, Three Strikes You're Out, where they have to memorize facts about strangers, and Double Deck O'Cards, learning two separate decks of shuffled cards.

Since its conception there have been eight unique champions. Tatiana Cooley-Marquardt won in each of the first three years, Scott Hagwood followed up with four consecutive titles, and Nelson Dellis has won four out of the past championships. In 2006, Joshua Foer, the brother of famous novelist, Jonathan Safran Foer, took home the top prize, declaring his claim as a man with a truly remarkable mind.

Luckily, writing runs in the family, and Foer, a freelance journalist, chronicled his rise in memory athletics in Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. As a man very much interested in the hard sciences, Foer broke down the scientific components of cognitive function by discussing ideas as common as mnemonic devices to the "method of loci," which simply states that data is located in a sequence of memories that are capable of being translated back to their original form. An eidetic memory, known as a photographic memory, is a concept that has been debated, dismissed, and often times misunderstood, but people like Foer and past memory champions have shown that eidetic memories are possible when taking a scientific approach and breaking it down into easier to manage pieces of information.

Nigel Richards, the man who recently won the French Scrabble Championship, does not even know how to speak the language at a proficient level as his acceptance speech was aided by a translator. A New Zealander who did not play Scrabble until the age of twenty-eight, Richards has won thirty-seven high level Scrabble tournaments across the globe, including five U.S. National titles and three worldwide titles, all of which were English language tournaments until his most recent victory.

Richards sat down with a French dictionary for nine weeks before the competition and studied with a level of precision that is almost unbelievable, that is, if he did not prove his mastery, and of course, he more than showed his abilities. Perhaps the greatest mental athlete of all time, Richards took what Foer described in his book to much broader heights. He memorized 400,000 words in that French dictionary in a little of two months. Skeptics may think that there is no way that he could have possibly retained that much information, especially in a foreign language that has different letter patterns and idiosyncrasies than the English language that Nigel has known his whole life.

The methods of how he accomplished his career-defining moment are different than one might think. Richards does not so much care that the words have meanings, or even that they follow specific patterns based on rules of a particular lexicon. Instead, Richards does exactly what every exceptional mental athlete does, admittedly, at a more impressive degree and grander scale. By following the principles described in the "method of loci," Richards sees words as strings of letters, and once his eyes recognize a unique string, that word is able to be recalled based on the Scrabble tiles he possesses and the ones already placed on the board and proceeds to unscramble the mixture of letters by keying in on one of the many strings of letters that he has seen in his studies, then he plays his word. Eliminating the idea that each word has a meaning, and that different languages have diverse ways of organizing letters to create those words, the grandmaster of Scrabble breaks down his method to a bare bones level.

He quite obviously has a mind that functions differently in some capacities given that his memory retention can be compared to entering a house but then taking the door away creating no possible way to escape. The concept of an eidetic memory relating to levels of intelligence is debatable, because memorizing and decoding previously seen material like Richards does, is markedly comparative to possessing above average intelligence. By no means does this make Nigel Richards more of genius than say, Stephen Hawking, the late Steve Jobs, or legendary scientist Albert Einstein, but it does show that brilliant minds often operate in manners that cannot be uniformly defined when examining the brains of several different exceptional individuals. However, Richards does maintain a superb, if not the best, eidetic memory that is unfathomably sound in its ability to summon previous things seen. Nigel Richards is a champion of not only Scrabble, but of the possibilities and beauty of the human mind.