The French Scrabble champion who speaks no French

New Zealand's Nigel Richards, 48, competes in the Francophone Scrabble World Championships in Louvain-La-Neuve on July 21, 2015. Richards, already three time world champion in English Scrabble, won the Francophone Scrabble Championship on July 20 despite not speaking a word of French.

Story highlights

  • Nigel Richards won the French Scrabble World Championship without speaking any French
  • Richards is the highest ranked Scrabble player in the world

(CNN)He's been called the LeBron of Scrabble, and for good reason.

Nigel Richards is the world's best Scrabble player, and he proved it again on Monday by winning the World Champion for the Francophone Classic Scrabble of 2015, in Louvain-La Neuve, Belgium on Monday.
In the final round of the championship, Richards was tied one-to-one in a best of three series against his French-speaking opponent, Schelick Ilagou Rekawe. Richards won the final match with a word played on two 'triple-word score' boxes, ending the game with 565 points to his opponent's 434.
    The catch is, Richards doesn't speak a lick of French.
    "He can say 'Bonjour' and count from one to ten, so he can give the score to his opponents" said Liz Fagerlund, a friend, Scrabble aficionado, and longtime supporter. "I believe it took him about nine weeks to memorize all the French words for the tournament."
    The trick to his success is learning the words without taking up the brain-space to remember their definitions.
    "For Scrabble, there is a dictionary of words without their meanings," says Fagerlund. "It's most likely that he's wired differently; he doesn't even study the pages word by word. He can look at a page full of words and absorb them all."

    A career in Scrabble

    Fagerlund met Richards when he joined the Christchurch Scrabble club in 1996 in New Zealand.
    "He started playing Scrabble with his mom because she got sick of him beating her at cards. She thought she might be able to win, since he was no good at English in school," Fagerlund says. "He came to the club, and was very soon beating everyone there."
    It turns out you don't need to be good at language to be the best at the crossword game.
    "The best Scrabble players have math-core brains," says Fagerlund, referring to people good at patterning and organizing.
    "Making combinations does not necessarily have to do with knowing English, but basically the patterning of letters to make words. Nigel was definitely good at math."
    Richards soon began competing internationally and gained a reputation for his uncanny skill at the game.
    "Ever since the Scrabble world ranking system started, he's been on top for most of the time," says Fagerlund. "It doesn't look like he's going to lose it anytime soon, because no one has had such a high rating ever."

    Unparalleled success

    Richards had won five North American Scrabble Championships, and three World Scrabble Championships -- all in English, his native tongue -- which is more than any other competitor, before his victory on Monday, and has been ranked as the best Scrabble player of all time.
    "He's very calm and emotionless, has no agitation and when he plays you can't tell what he's got," says Fagerlund. "When he finishes he's not really interested in analyzing the game the way other players are, once he's finished he wants to just move on to the next."
    Despite his unmatched skill in the international competitive Scrabble scene, Richards has a humble demeanor and doesn't like the attentions he receives.
    Now 48, Richards has been classified by the media as an ascetic, who likes to bike, doesn't smoke, drink, or watch TV or the radio. It's hard to know much about his personal life because he rarely gives an interview.
    "He's very well respected because of his nature," says Fagerlund. "He's so humble. He doesn't show off. If anything he always plays it down and never shows his emotion no matter if he's won or lost."
    "I know the people at the (Scrabble) clubs here in New Zealand, especially in Christchurch, are extremely proud of him."