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Is this the greatest sportsman of our time?


It's the subject of constant debate, but after his long, consistent years of almost faultless genius, it's probably fair to say that Lionel Messi is probably the greatest footballer who has ever lived. But imagine if he then decided to pick up his football, start bouncing it around, and then won the NBA Finals as the MVP in his first season. Impossible, you might say - but there's a sportsman out there who has done almost the equivalent of such a feat.

That man is Nigel Richards, a 48-year-old New Zealand-born Scrabble champion from Christchurch who now resides in Malaysia. He is regarded as a legend of the sport - the greatest Scrabble player to have ever lived, having racked up a string of victories across the world including three World Scrabble Championships, five USA National titles, six UK Opens and twelve King's Cups in Bangkok - the largest Scrabble competition in the world.

But so far, so Messi. What elevates him above the Argentine genius is that he has just won the French-language Scrabble World Championships, despite not speaking a word of French. He reportedly learnt the entire French dictionary in just nine weeks, before entering the competition, winning 14 of the 17 preliminary games, then defeated the 2014 vice-champion Schélick Ilagou Rekawe in the final, by two games to one.

Scrabble Board

Nigel's battleground: the Scrabble board

To give an indication of his talent, he holds the record for the highest Scrabble rating ever achieved while, in 2014, the difference in rating between himself and the second placed player was the same as between second and 20th. And that peak rating of 2298 is higher even than that of Quackle, a powerful artificial intelligence Scrabble player created by two other champions. In one tournament he averaged a staggering 584 points per game.

A physicist I knew once described Einstein as being so far ahead of the other geniuses of the science - Newton, Maxwell and the rest - that it was like he was Manchester United, and they were all playing in League One. Surely, Richards is the Einstein of Scrabble.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein: the Nigel Richards of Physics

What makes him so good?

The website FiveThirtyEight has a comprehensive study of the man, which includes the following astonishing example of his prowess on the tiles.

"In a game in 1998, then-newcomer Richards had a rack of CDHLRN? (“?” denotes a blank tile). There was an E available on the board; Richards could have played CHILDREN for a bingo [using all your tiles at once] and a 50-point bonus. Instead, Richards played through two disconnected Os and an E. The word? The 10-letter CHLORODYNE."

He is, by all accounts, a quiet man, rarely giving interviews, being very calm at the board during games and is believed to summon up images of entire pages of the dictionary when thinking of words to play - he apparently read the 1,953-page Chambers Dictionary five times and memorised all of the words. He has previously rejected the idea of having a photographic memory, saying, "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."

His other passion is cycling: for one tournament, Nigel bicycled fourteen hours overnight to get there, won it, then biked home and went straight in to work on Monday morning.

Fellow competitors describe the level of the man: “It’s like playing a computer” said Jeff Grant, a twelve-time New Zealand champion. 

“I’ve never seen anything like it. The word knowledge. The ability to pluck them out of nowhere.”

While comparisons with Messi are completely justified, there's another athlete which Nigel reminds me of: Usain Bolt, in his ability not to feel a pressure to perform.

When asked if he was ever disappointed when he lost, he once said, “Why is there a reason to be disappointed? I’m just here for a bit of fun. Everything else is a bonus.”

So who is the greatest: Mayweather? Messi? McIlroy? For us, there can be only one, and that's the terror of the tiles: Richards.

(Images: Rex)



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