Copyright (c) 2009 by Stefan Fatsis
With his second NSC title, Dave Wiegand gets a bust on Scrabble’s Mount Rushmore. His victory in Dayton was all the more amazing because he defeated Nigel Richards four times in five games—including the last two games of the tournament, both of which he had to win. With all due respect to Dave, Nigel remains one of the most fascinating figures in Scrabble. It’s not just seeing him play DECA(GO)n(AL) to beat Joey Mallick or extending FLESH to FLESHMENT. It’s how he became a Scrabble genius.
It’s a story few people know, and one that was in the original draft of Word Freak. But my editor wanted to keep the book under 400 pages—a reasonable goal given that this was a book about Scrabble, a dubious proposition from the outset — so my profile of Nigel wound up on the cutting-room floor.
I dug out the original manuscript from a box in my basement and offer the lost pages here. The setting is the 1999 World Scrabble Championship in Melbourne, Australia. I hope you enjoy.
After three rounds, eleven players are undefeated. After four rounds, the number is down to six. It falls to three after five rounds. And after six rounds, just one player is without a loss: Nigel Richards of New Zealand.
In the tight, little world of Scrabble, Nigel Richards stories are legendary. Nigel read the 1,953-page Chambers Dictionary five times and memorized all the words. Nigel bicycled fourteen hours overnight to a weekend tournament, won it, then biked home and straight to work on Monday morning. With a rack of CDHLNR?, Nigel played CHLORODyNE# through three disconnected tiles (the two O’s and the E). Nigel played SAPROZOIC through ZO#. Nigel played GOOSEFISH$. Nigel averaged 584 points per games in a tournament. Nigel’s word knowledge was so deep, his point-scoring ability so profound, his manner so unflappable, that a competitor once made a T-shirt reading: I BEAT NIGEL RICHARDS.
“It’s like playing a computer,” Jeff Grant, a twelve-time New Zealand champion, says when I ask about Nigel. “I’ve never seen anything like it. The word knowledge. The ability to pluck them out of nowhere.”
Grant is shaking his head in awe and bewilderment, as if he has just seen a painting of the Virgin Mary dripping tears of blood.
“I’d place him as the top player I’ve ever played. And I’ve played all the top players.”
If Scrabble was searching for a Bobby Fischer, Nigel Richards might qualify. Like Fischer, Nigel’s knowledge of the game, in this case word knowledge, is so complete as to put competitors at a usually insurmountable disadvantage. And like Fischer—though of course without the hatred, reclusiveness, and perversity that characterized Fischer’s life—Nigel the person is an enigma, Scrabble’s mystery man, arriving seemingly from nowhere, revealing little, asking nothing in return.
Nigel has a rock climber’s thin and sinewy body, with sandy brown hair combed straight forward in bangs and a long bushy beard that make him look like an Amish elder. He wears oversized aviator glasses, jeans and T-shirts, and mid-calf brown boots, and always carries a stuffed rucksack. During the tournament, he rents a bicycle and takes a forty-minute ride every morning before the start of play—and play starts at eight o’clock. I never see him join a friendly game or otherwise socialize with fellow players.
More compelling than his mountain-man appearance is his demeanor. Nigel is the first Scrabble player I’ve met who truly doesn’t seem bothered by the outcome of a game, who is interested only in the process, the intellectual challenge posed by the seven letters on a rack. He wears a blank expression that seldom changes. He rarely reacts to what people say to (or about) him, yet his silence isn’t rude or hostile, either. He betrays no emotion when he plays. Arms parallel to the edge of the board, left hand folded over right, Nigel stares unblinkingly at the tiles before making his play: still life with Scrabble player.
“When I see you I can never tell whether you won or lost,” Bob Felt says to Nigel between rounds.
“That’s because I don’t care,” Nigel replies.
Nigel is thirty-two years old and lives in Christchurch, where he works as a technician for the water company. He fixes pumps. He didn’t go to university; though he won a scholarship, he did poorly on entrance exams. His mother is a secretary. He is estranged from his father, who runs a shop — Nigel says he doesn’t know what kind. He bicycles eleven kilometers to and from work, and on weekends takes long, solo rides in the countryside. He doesn’t own a television, doesn’t listen to the radio, doesn’t read much.
“I’m not close to anyone,” Nigel says.
Nigel has been playing competitive Scrabble for just four years, having learned the game from his mother. He won the New Zealand national championships on his first try, in 1997, and has been racking up impressive performances in big tournaments throughout Asia. Nigel has won an astonishing 85 percent of his tournament games in New Zealand.
When he captured a tournament in Sydney, the director handed him the first-prize check and asked, “Would you like to say a few words?”
Said Nigel: “I don’t know any.”
Oh, but he does. Nigel might know more words than anyone who has ever played the game. He has compiled lists from the computer program LeXpert and read the OSW and a book called Redwoods that combines the British and American lists. He has indeed been through Chambers, though not five times. “I can look at things and remember,” he says. Nigel scans the pages of the dictionary looking at all the words listed in boldface. He doesn’t use tenses, plurals, or definitions to help him learn.
I ask him if he has a photographic memory. “I think there are about twenty-eight thousand definitions of a photographic memory. I can recall images very easily, but I can’t put the image in a context. I can remember a picture, but I can’t remember where I’ve seen it. I just have to view the word. As long as I’ve seen the word, I can bring it back. But if I’ve only heard it or spoken it, I can’t do it at all."
Nigel doesn’t know how or why he can do what he does. School was easy, because of his memory, but he was bored. Studying the words is boring, too. “The cycling helps. I can go through the lists in my mind.” Nigel just conjures a mental snapshot of a list, or the specific page of a dictionary. That’s why he can recall a word like CHLORODYNE, which isn’t on any Scrabble list because it is longer than nine letters and isn’t in Merriam-Webster’s Tenth, the American word source. It’s only in Chambers. “It may well be that no other Scrabble player knows that word,” Bob Felt says.
If Nigel has a weakness, it’s that his wide-open, high-scoring style often leaves him vulnerable to counterattack by opponents who also have prodigious word knowledge. And Nigel is regarded as having a less-than-proficient endgame, which is variously attributed to his lack of interest in strategic play or his reluctance to study board positions. Indeed, Nigel doesn’t record his racks, doesn’t review games, rarely kibitzes about particular plays. The other top experts, particularly the Americans, talk disdainfully about this gap in Nigel’s ability, how it makes him an incomplete player. Naturally, Nigel doesn’t care.
“Once it’s over, I think that’s it for that particular situation,” he says. “Because the next situation is going to be different. I don’t see the point in analyzing it to death.” When other players want to review one of his games, Nigel lets them—without him. “I just keep away. I’ve had some people come over and say, ‘You could have done that.’ I say, ‘Well, you can sit here and play with it. I’m going to go do my own thing.’ ”
Nigel has adopted a style and he sticks to it. “I try to score points,” he says. “The goal is to score more points than your opponent.” After defeating Nigel, G.I. Joel lectures him for playing WE for 29 points, leaving IIIIU on his rack. “You should have passed seven and gone for the blanks,” Joel says. Nigel replies: “Twenty-nine points is a lot of points.”
Nigel is amused by the legend that has grown up around him—even by the simple fact that other players have opinions about his style, his perceived weaknesses, and his word knowledge. “People say, ‘He knows all the words.’ It would be nice if I did. But I’m quite happy to have people think that.”
Nigel won’t say whether he likes the competition. Only that it lets him play against the best players and, anyway, is a new experience, and he does like new experiences.
“Competition was new to me. But it doesn’t bother me. It’s more of a challenge here, which is really what I’m after. I just enjoy trying to work out the possibilities and see what I can do, see what I can come up with. I can enjoy it if I win. I can enjoy it if I lose.”
“Are you ever disappointed?” I ask.
“Why is there a reason to be disappointed?” Nigel replies. “I’m just here for a bit of fun. Everything else is a bonus.”
Stefan Fatsis is the author of the New York Times bestseller Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players. His latest book, A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL, was just released in paperback. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.