Chances are that, at some point in your life, you’ll have enjoyed a game of Scrabble—the tricky word-connecting board game developed in the 1930s, in which players build words from differently-valued lettered tiles in an attempt to outscore and outplay one another. If you’re something of a word nerd, you might even be fairly proficient at playing it, and making the most of all of its high-scoring Q’s, Z’s, and J’s, and playing your words across triple-word and double-letter squares to score as big a total as possible. Of course, if you’re not much of a word nerd, you might instead find yourself staring hopelessly at a rack of 7 E’s, or struggling to play anything of more than three letters, or score more than double figures…
To its fans and players around the world, Scrabble is a big deal. Games are sold in more than two dozen different languages and in over 120 different countries around the world. Scrabble clubs and competitions attract tens of thousands of players each year, and an annual Scrabble Champions Tournament (formerly the bi-annual World Scrabble Championship) attracts the very best players from the very best contests from all around the globe. With Scrabble such a global phenomenon, of course, different contests are held for speakers of different languages—each of which has different rules, sets of lettered tiles, and lists of permissible words. In 2015, however, the lines between these different competitions were blurred by a truly remarkable player.
New Zealand native Nigel Richards already had a handful of English-language Scrabble titles to his name when he entered himself into the French-language Scrabble World Championships in Louvain-la-Neuve, in Belgium, in July 2015. As a truly talented player, Richards quickly swept his way to the final, and despite some truly unlucky and challenging racks of letters, was eventually crowned World Champion—becoming the first person in competitive Scrabble history to hold a world title in two different languages.
What makes Richards’ 2015 victory all the more remarkable, however, is that he doesn’t actually speak French. “He just learned the words,” one of Richards’ friends confessed to the New Zealand Herald at the time. “He won’t know what they mean [and] wouldn’t be able to carry out a conversation in French.”
So how do you win a French Scrabble competition—against some of the best French-speaking Scrabble players in the world—if you don’t actually speak the language?
The answer, it seems, is simply to memorize as many of the 386,000 words that are permissible in French Scrabble play as possible. The words’ meanings, their grammar, and their uses in French writing and conversation are all unnecessary complications, none of which needs to be known. All that matters, simply, is the string of letters from which they are comprised.
Nine weeks before the competition date, Richards did precisely that and set about memorizing as much French vocabulary as possible. In that way, the game became more a challenge of mathematical strategy and gameplay than vocabulary or language. As French journalist and Scrabble fan JeanBaptiste Morel wrote of Richards’ victory at the time, he “learned no language logic” in preparing for his victory, but rather, “just a succession of letter sequences giving rise to words. In his head it’s binary: what draw of letters can make a Scrabble, and what draw can’t.”
So next time you’re struggling to get rid of a Q, K, Z, and V all in one go— or find yourself stuck playing words like dog and man—you can at least be grateful that you’re playing in your own native tongue.