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New Zealander Wins French Scrabble Title, But Doesn't Speak French

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The new world champion of French language Scrabble ne parle pas francais. That is to say he doesn't speak French. The story goes that Nigel Richards, who's from New Zealand, pulled this off by taking eight or nine weeks to memorize the French dictionary. Stefan Fatsis wrote a book on the world of competitive Scrabble. And he's been following the career of Nigel Richards and joins us now. Hi, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS: Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: OK, Nigel Richards, Serena Williams, Jordan Spieth - same idea here?

FATSIS: Tiger Woods at his peak, and then Tiger saying, all right, I think I'll also take up tennis and then win Wimbledon the next year. Nigel Richards is the best Scrabble player of all time. He has won five North American Scrabble championships. He's won three world Scrabble championships. No one has approached those numbers. And to then decide to learn the French words and go win the world championship on his first try is not only audacious; it is remarkable.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) You've written about this in the past --the idea that there are great competitive Scrabble players who do not know the language they're competing in. And that can be English, too.

FATSIS: Absolutely. In Thailand, Scrabble has been popular for many, many years. We've actually had two Thai world champions, and they speak passably. They can ask where the bathroom is, but they can't do much more than that. Nigel was starting at pretty much scratch. I think he could count to 10 and say bonjour, but that was about it.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) So did he do this? How did he win the French language Scrabble championship in Belgium yesterday?

FATSIS: He memorized enough words in French to score the most points possible. And basically, what he does is he looks at word lists and looks at dictionary pages, and he can conjure up what the image of what he has seen. French Scrabble has 386,000 words. That's far more than North American Scrabble - 187,000. Scrabble players need to know all the words from two to nine letters long. Those are the most useful, but there are 167,000 of those in French. My hunch is that Nigel looked at all of those words and committed them to what we would call memory.

SIEGEL: What's he like personally?

FATSIS: He's, in the Scrabble world, considered sort of enigmatic. He's a quiet guy - very, very quiet. He's got a long beard that trails down to the middle of his chest. During games, he sort of sits placidly in front of the tiles. He doesn't really express much emotion. Unlike much Scrabble players, he doesn't sit around after the game trying to analyze what went right or what went wrong. And when the game is over, he really betrays no emotions, win or lose. He once told me that he wasn't in it for winning. He said why is there a reason to be disappointed? I'm just here for a bit of fun. Everything else is a bonus.

SIEGEL: Are there other language - worldwide language competitions in Spanish or...

FATSIS: Scrabble is manufactured in something like 25 or more languages, and it wouldn't shock me if Nigel, having conquered French, decides that Hebrew or Finnish or Dutch is his next quarry. We'll see.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) All right. Stefan, great to talk with you again.

FATSIS: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis is the author "Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius And Obsession In The World Of Competitive Scrabble Players." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.