How does Nigel do it? Specifically, how did he master the official French scrabble dictionary (ODS) in the space of nine weeks, and then win their world championship without speaking any French beyond ‘bonjour’? Well, it’s hard to say. It’s like Roger Federer deciding to take up badminton, and then winning the BWF world title a couple of months later.
I can only compare it with my own attempts to learn new words – I tend to have a pretty retentive memory, and I’m usually motivated enough to put in the study hours when needed. But on my third pass through the CSW15 additions I can still find myself stumped by CEEMOOR, AAGHSSTU and others (that's EMOCORE and GASTHAUS if you're wondering), when it seems that Nigel would just need to read them once. Stefan Fatsis of Word Freak fame has reported online how Nigel recalls words:
"Basically, what he does is, he looks at word lists and looks at dictionary pages... he can conjure up the image of what he has seen. He told me that if he actually hears a word, it doesn't stick in his brain. But if he sees it once, that's enough for him to recall the image of it. I don't know if that's a photographic memory; I just think it's something that his brain chemistry allows him to do."
This is backed up by what the local organisers thought after his triumph. Antoine Rousseau commented "We were all incredibly surprised. It's hard enough just to win the championship, but then to consider that he learned the whole French dictionary in nine weeks... it's really incredible. Especially considering he can't speak French. To learn the words when you don't understand the meaning, to learn all the sequences of letters and their arrangements... it's almost impossible."
When asked if there was a secret to learning the entire Gallic vocabulary so quickly, Nigel simply responded "No. I just saw them and remembered them." His strategy is simply based on learning the words, but of course knowing them and finding them is a different matter.
Breaking it down, ODS6 contains 163,000 words of length 2-9, which is slightly more than CSW12’s 157,000 (we are now going up to 161,000 with CSW15). That may seem daunting, but in fact the entire lexicon up to 15 letters is derived from only 65,000 distinct root words; that’s because every adjective can have several forms including gender and number markers, and every verb can have a myriad of different endings depending on person, tense and mood. The average number of variants on a specific word is about six per root entry in ODS, compared to only two per root entry in CSW, so it is less daunting, but still an almighty effort.
Some in the community got to hear about Nigel’s plan when he took part in this year’s Kings Cup, which he won for the dozenth time(!) in June. Gerry Carter says “Nigel told me in Bangkok that he has studied all the sevens. When Nigel says all, he means all....there might be a problem if some eights become crucial. I think he will come close but he may not win. But from next year he will completely dominate French Scrabble, if he cares to.”
However, it’s pretty clear that Nigel went a lot further than the sevens once King’s Cup had finished. He played numerous nines in the course of the event, and not just verbal extensions like (FOEHN)EREZ or REM(IXAIT) – one example of a nine-letter noun was FOUGERAIE (a hedge thicket) which he made by E-hooking the existing play FOUGERAI.
He had to adjust his play to the nuances of the French lexicon, the different letter-scores, probabilities and strategic objectives, while also coping with his debut at an event conducted in a language he does not speak. Quite extraordinary.
Nigel took part in several events in Louvain-la-Neuve, the first being the Open Classique, a six-round last chance qualifier/warmup which he won on 5-1 (though he had already qualified for the main event as the sole representative of New Zealand). ‘Classique’ describes the one-on-one play we are familiar with in the anglophone sphere, while Duplicate is the popular French variety whereby each player seeks the highest possible score using the same rack and board position.
Then came the Classique world championship itself, a 17-round swiss-paired event with a twenty-minute time limit, followed by a final between the top two players. After eight rounds, Nigel was nicely poised in fourth position, but in the midst of the championship the organisers had scheduled a break for a four-game Blitz event (played to traditional Duplicate style, but with a restricted time limit).
Nigel also took part in the Blitz, dominating the field in the first game with a perfect score including EBOUTERAI and the low-prob NASONNAI. When the players found that his first ever Duplicate game had been played to perfection, they rose to their feet in acclamation. Sadly, he erred in the remaining games mainly due to recording errors (e.g. not making a note of the intersecting plays), finishing mid-pack but still impressing the field.
Back to the Classique, and Nigel kept on performing strongly. At the end he was leading, having secured 14 wins, and was thus set for the final where he would face Gabonese player Schélick Ilagou Rekawe (2014’s runner-up, notching 13 wins).
Game one of the final saw Nigel’s JALOUSEE secure an early lead, but Schélick pulled back to make it a tight endgame. Nigel blocked Schélick’s only outplay but then ran over time, and the penalty was sufficient to deliver an unfortunate defeat for the New Zealander.
The second round featured Nigel’s ANATROPE and FLINGUAI against Schélick’s RIGUEURS, ENVOYATES and FURETEES…but wait, Nigel was smart enough to challenge the last one, knowing the only bingo available with those letters was FEUTREES. After the phony was removed Nigel capitalised by blocking the spot and then opening up to his own advantage, securing a vital win.
The decider saw Nigel play MIAULER, REGNANTS, IDEEILES (here the commentator noted “Nigel’s vocabulary continues to amaze”) and IMBRULEE against his opponent’s CULOTTEE, DILUONS and PISSEREZ. Not sufficient, and Schélick was forced into a ‘Hail Mary’ play at the end which proved no good – leaving Nigel as the champion at his first attempt. Amusingly, Nigel had played three successive CSW words in this game (JIVE, FREAK and OGHAMS), but it was clear how good his ODS ability had become.
The website http://www.ffsc.fr describes the aftermath with the audience standing in acclamation, and the brief interview (conducted in English, of course) as follows:
“Nigel, are we really that bad, or are you just the best?”
“No, all these players are excellent”
“How long have you been studying the French wordlist?”
“Since the end of May”
“Do you have a particular technique for learning vocabulary?”
Next up was the fearsome Défi Mondial, a knockout Duplicate event for 36 top players with ever-diminishing time controls in each round.
After a reasonably straightforward start, the fourth round draw scythed through the field, demanding an extremely difficult top find – using the rack EGHMTU?, players had to spend the blank and declare MUpHT(I) onto a floating I for 39 points. Nigel sailed through the test along with just six others.
Three rounds later was a super-blitz (20 seconds available), and the draw was CFLNOUV. From this unpromising rack Nigel found the astounding CHNOUF round an H for 28, the best possible play which nobody else had seen. However, it seems he made a mistake in recording it, and the arbiter was forced to eliminate him. This led to a crowd uproar and a suspension of play, with many of the audience demanding he be reinstated; two of the remaining contenders had found VULGO for 27 and were declared eligible to continue, but one of them quit in protest, thus terminating the contest prematurely and leaving the other as the technical winner.
Finally, Nigel participated in the seven-game Elite Duplicate, the flagship event of their championship played to normal time controls with the best players in the French-speaking world. Here is a brief overview of the games:
1 – TALONNA, MOULUREE, BARLONGS, LAETARE. Nigel top with 16 others, having found the highest possible play at every turn
2 – INDEXONS. Nigel top with 5 others, still 100% correct
3 – LICORNES, MORCELAS, ENLOGENT, ADULTERE. Nigel top with 3 others
4 – NIAISEE, DEVORENT, TROUBLEE (whoops – Nigel misrecords the coordinates, taking a penalty of five points), ESSOREE, TOPLESS, CULMINE. Nigel in joint second at minus five, the leader David Bovet on minus one. Nigel still with no word-finding errors thus far.
5 – ERGOTES, RESINEE, VOLUMEN, SALADIER. Here Nigel makes his sole vocab error of the tournament, spotting EX for 44 instead of AXE for 47. Nigel now in joint second at minus 8, David minus 3.
6 – ASSORTI, AMORALE, SURLOUEE, LOURDENT, PUNAISER, TROTTAT. Nigel in sole second at minus 8, David still minus 3 after both register perfect rounds.
7 – PIORNES, HARANGUE. Another perfect round for Nigel, but Bovet drops a further four points by declaring PROVIENS instead of PIORNES. The game’s last few racks are played out amid high tension and excitement, but there are no further changes. The final outcome is a win for David Bovet on minus seven, with Nigel a mere point behind on minus eight.
To put this into perspective, the maximal number of points over 161 moves in seven games was 6,415, meaning Nigel found 99.95% of them. If it hadn’t been for the technical penalty, he would have won the world duplicate event along with the classic at his first attempt. Now, in the world of Collins we train and play Scrabble differently, but how many ‘tops’ do you think you would find in the average game? And then, how many would you find in a foreign language after a few weeks of study? His achievement is breathtaking and quite historic.
Looking back at my own career, I’ve had many clashes with Nigel since the late 1990’s when he first came to prominence. I remember some beautiful finds on his part such as LADYLOVE in King’s Cup 2003 which I would have missed at the time – his ease and certainty made me think I needed to brush up on my lower-probability bingos, and I think it indirectly inspired me to crack on with studying. So his consummate brilliance has undoubtedly helped to raise the standard of international Scrabble play, while at the same time ironically meaning that he still dominates (which is perhaps less of a good thing).
An internet devotee has collected a number of Nigel’s Collins games on a website, and it is rewarding and instructive to dip into them:
A featured game from the Causeway Challenge 2010 is one of mine. I recall it as one of the most humbling drubbings I have received, featuring Nigel’s five-tile overlap MA(L)AXAGE, his beautiful EARWITNESS front-hook onto WITNESS, and to top it all, the nine-timer OILINESS. I didn’t play that badly, but was royally outclassed as on many other occasions.
On the other hand, I had a bit of a purple patch during the course of the 2011 WSC in Warsaw. We played twice prior to the finals, and I won both games – in the first, just outrunning him after he made a beautifully cunning setup for a 46-point play that I had to address, and in the other bingoing out with PELORIA for a handsome margin.
Rather to my surprise, I made the final that year and faced off against the inevitable Nigel. It would have been nice to have a few more resources at my disposal (drawing only one blank in the five games), but somehow I grabbed a couple more wins before succumbing 2-3.
The extraordinary word knowledge is a given in Collins (or US wordlist) events, and it seems that dictionary confusion is not an issue for Nigel. He has a computer-like facility at finding the top play, and can look ahead with cool calculation, making bold openings where merited. He is famous for spotting long words, often through disconnected letters. Another strength is his great ability to extract as much as he can from a given rack, making subtle setups that will help him out – and sometimes not-so-subtle, e.g. the JEU play flagging an X in hand during the WSC final against Komol.
Taking that into account can be a double-edged sword – in one of our WSC finals games, Nigel played QINTAR at 3F for 17, turning down QI for 27 elsewhere. QINTAR left the A sitting right underneath a juicy TLS that could have yielded a five-letter parallel J word for over 80. I opted to block that fearsome possibility, choosing POTAE for 38 – but instead of holding the J, Nigel was merely waiting to pounce on my floating E in his follow-up of REGRANTS. Sometimes a Q dump is just a Q dump.
A Times reporter was only able to elicit a “taciturn response” from him after that final: “Richards, who sports a pudding-bowl fringe and an accomplished beard, told The Times that his record-breaking achievement was “nice”, that he “played “OK” and that he had no plans to celebrate.”” Evidently the reporter didn’t quite know what to make of him.
Brett Smitheram is on record as saying that the words are just a means to an end. “This game is not about words. It is about the probability that a set of symbols will come together to form a sequence you’re allowed to play”. So there is a distinct mathematical component to high-level expertise. In fairness, Brett is one of the players who cares about definitions and language, but the accusation can be levelled that Scrabble is too reliant on rote memorisation, that top Scrabble players are merely drones regurgitating the dictionary. Nigel has proven this by dominating the French championship without ever reading the poetry of Baudelaire or understanding the immortal words of Molière, and Duplicate is particularly vulnerable to that sort of eidetic ability (a fact which may even now be giving the French Scrabble community pause for thought).
That argument was taken up online by David Eldar, who wrote “I agree that memorisation is by far the worst part of the game – I think that is inarguable. As well, any articles that emphasise memorisation (such as the ones focusing on Nigel’s victory) are indeed negative, because not only is memorisation unenjoyable but it is also perceived that way, leading to further negative connotations - what kind of person does something unenjoyable in order to play a board game?”. He went on to comment that “just because the game has been debased (by critics) into a numbers game, that does not make it so. Your success is reliant on your understanding of maths, but that does not make it any less a game about words than was originally advertised!”
It is a delusion that competitive Scrabble could operate using (somebody’s idea of) everyday vocabulary, or that players should necessarily be getting aesthetic enjoyment from word meanings. You have to play those ‘weird words’ to do well, and you don’t have to know what they mean – and I’m afraid all top players have had to memorise bingos through study rather than trying to unravel PLAASES and the like from their working idiolects. But that assumption makes it pretty easy for a lazy journalist to mock someone like Nigel, who may not be the world’s best communicator when confronted with a microphone, but who clearly gains pleasure from the game. Maybe he actually enjoys memorising lots of words.
We also know that he doesn’t keep a record of his moves or replay his games, has no social media presence, and is inscrutable about his motivation for playing (it is clearly not an ego thing, so it must be about the fun and intellectual challenge). He is a one-off. For my part, as a novel-reader and crossword buff, I have a love affair with language and words, and I relish the combinations that can arise. But this kind of debate about the nature of Scrabble expertise comes about mainly because of Nigel’s superhuman ability. Our Mozart of the Scrabble board is not only the world’s best player, but is so much on a different plane that you have to wonder how he does it – he hasn’t so much raised the bar, as kicked it over the rooftop. And the answer remains an enigma.