On Monday, July 20, New Zealand native Nigel Richards took home the Francophone world Scrabble championships, in spite of the fact that he has absolutely zero command of the French language (unless you count the ability to say, “Bonjour” and call out French numbers). The cunning Kiwi, who’s long been considered the Michael Jordan of linguistic sports, claimed the prize after besting a native French speaker two games to none in the tournament’s final match.
How, you ask, could a man who doesn’t speak French win the ultimate French-language competition (as far as board games are concerned, at least)? The 48-year-old Richards managed the improbable feat after a mere 9 weeks studying the French Scrabble dictionary. Apparently, he absorbed the knowledge so quickly that, according to the Guardian, he was able to, “successfully [challenge] his rival Schelick Ilagou Rekawe’s use of a form of the verb ‘fureter’ (to snoop).”
As French journalist Jean-Baptiste Morel explained, “He has learned no language logic, just a succession of letter sequences giving rise to words. In his head it’s binary: what draw (of letters) can make a scrabble, what draw can’t.”
While it may be tempting to attribute Richards’ win to a photographic memory (lots of people do), that’s not actually the case. Photographic memory doesn’t really exist, at least not according to science. In truth, Richards most likely has an eidetic memory, a rare talent which manifests in around 2 and 15 percent of children. Eidetic memory “is essentially a vivid afterimage that lingers in the mind’s eye for up to a few minutes before fading away.” Even still, it’s impossible to overstate the insanity of being able to memorize and then recall an entire dictionary’s worth of words, and that’s not even considering that French isn’t Richards’ native tongue.
Of course, most Scrabble fans aren’t surprised by Richards’ accomplishment. He’s long been considered the dominant force in world Scrabble (yeah, that’s a thing). Richards cuts an unsuspecting image in person. The slight man rocks an asymmetrical haircut (there’s debate on whether it’s intentionally asymmetrical or not) and an impossibly bushy beard. At a glance, he looks like an anti-government militant. His brilliance, however, is undeniable. Richards is a three-time winner of the English world Scrabble championships, a five-time winner of the US national championships and a six-time winner of the UK Open. New Zealand Scrabble player Howard Warner once called him, “a computer with a big ginger beard.” His following is so strong that there’s even a space online where fans can go back and relive the glory of his past Scrabble victories.
Hey, it’s no weirder than people who obsess over Candy Crush Saga (and it’s actually less off-putting).