I recently saw a nice documentary, “Word Wars”, on an odd subject, professional Scrabble players. It followed four of them as they made their way around the circuit, aiming for the national tournament in 2002. The first prize there was $25,000, which may not sound like much in the context of other sports, but was something these guys could really use. The four were engaging characters, and it was hard to pick who to root for. The sane family man? The manic former screenwriter? The black guy up from the projects? The ultra-nerd with constant stomach problems who turns out to have a sweet and clear singing voice?
Yet there was another, much more mysterious figure who appeared briefly in the movie, the New Zealander Nigel Richards. This was his first appearance in a US tournament, which meant he had to abide by the official US Scrabble word list. This differs significantly from the British list used everywhere else in the world. While flicking through the thousands of possibilities for each play, he had to remember which were valid and invalid words.
He came in second that time, behind Joel Sherman, but he has since won the US title 5 times and the world title 3 times. He has utterly dominated the game for the last ten years. When you look at his tournament games you can see why. He plays ZIBELINE (the fur of the sable) across two triple-word squares for 230 points on one play. With a rack of CDHLNR<blank> he played CHLORODyNE (a 19th century patent medicine) across three disconnected letters: the two Os and the E, and using the blank for y. Notice that this has 10 letters, which means it’s not in any Scrabble word list. They only go up to 9, for the 7 letters on a rack plus two on the board.
I submit that this is superhuman. He has in fact memorized the Chambers dictionary, and can bring it to mind in the roughly three minutes one gets per turn. He says he can visualize the page for each word. Mere eidetic memory, though, doesn’t allow one to manipulate letters this way.
He’s not an idiot savant. Nor is he an effortless super-genius like the ludicrous Matt Damon character in “Good Will Hunting”. He has studied systematically and hard to absorb the 140,000 or so words of Scrabble. By all accounts he’s a calm, articulate guy who holds a day job (as a CCTV installer in Kuala Lumpur) and loves to bicycle. He never gets flustered (he does occasionally lose), and never gets excited – he just sits motionless in front of the board for 50 minutes in total concentration. He didn’t even come to Scrabble until his later 20s. He wasn’t exceptional at school in Christchurch, and won a scholarship to college but never went. He just found something that clicked with his extraordinary mental abilities.
While people in the small world of Scrabble are completely in awe of him, his powers seem to me to be wasted. Surely there is something better that he could do with this. If he can match the 7 letters in front of him to the 140,000 valid words, he could visualize the protein folding that will block cancer receptors. Or find the orbital path that takes one from Earth to Jupiter in a dozen slingshot manuevers. Or distinguish the fakes from the masters in oil paintings. Or trace the tenuous chain of evidence of the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden or Whitey Bulger.
Maybe he was never exposed to real problems. He seems to have grown up in a lower class household. He didn’t have a G. H. Hardy to pull him from obscurity like Hardy did with the Indian math prodigy Ramanujan. His mother noticed his abilities, but no else probably spared two minutes for this quiet boy.
Or maybe he was overwhelmed by his abilities, as Funes the Memorius was in Borges’ famous story. Every single thing that Funes ever saw was as vivid to him as what was in front of his eyes at the moment. He could not generalize anything; all was individually distinct. There’s no need for abstraction when all can be recalled. Even time changes meaning when you can cycle through a day of memory in a day of real time.
Richards can’t be that extreme, of course, but I wonder if his odd occupation and demeanour is a sign of how different his mental world really is from yours or mine. All the top Scrabble players have powers of memory and concentration far beyond those of ordinary people, but he seems to be in another class altogether. How sad that a guy with such superpowers uses them to make $25,000 a year playing an obscure game.