I went looking for a giant mop of ginger beard, neat tiles of obscure words and a star-struck opponent.
I found the last two.
Hunched motionless over the board and calling out his word scores in a voice slightly louder than a whisper was four-time World English Scrabble champion Nigel Richards, in closely-cropped grey hair and a stubble. The giant, crazy-scientist beard Google search results throw up of him was gone and he wore a slight build and an ink blue t-shirt with a travel pouch strapped to his waist. The rack before him cradled the letters: S-I-G-H-D-I-E and the 18-year-old who sat across him pressed his glasses against the bridge of his nose, rested his elbows on the table and waited with wonderment.
While one may have imagined his mind to rummage through bingo (using all your tiles in a turn) options, Richards quietly spelled out 'SI' (Scrabble word finder assures us it's a valid word which could either mean a metalloid, the metric system or the syllable naming the seventh note of a musical scale).
By the end of the next four moves, Richards' teenage, Indian-origin opponent from Melbourne, Anand Bharadwaj, smiled, stretched his hand across the table and gushed, "It's such an honour. Thank you." The 2011 World Youth Scrabble champion had just lost 365-456. Richards responded to the winning result and the compliment with a smile and a gentle nod. For being notoriously poker-faced, the joke goes that it's hard to tell if Richards has lost a round or won a hat-trick of world titles.
But let's take a moment here to wrap our heads around just why Richards is a worthy subject of admiration among players who snuggle up to words and bang out anagrams.
He is the first-ever English Scrabble player to win the world title more than once and also has two titles in French, a language he doesn't speak. He is understood to have mastered the French scrabble dictionary or roughly 400,000 words in nine weeks' time. He also holds a record peak rating (akin to Elo ratings in Chess) of 2298. Richards' peers will tell you that he's unrivaled in word knowledge and quick calculation of mathematical probabilities on the board. But for a person with such magnificent mastery over words, Richards famously uses few to communicate. He turns down interview requests with a crack of a smile and walks away. It's no different this time in Bengaluru, the Indian city he's been visiting every year for over a decade now for the calendar staple international tournament hosted by the French multinational, Capgemini.
The 51-year-old New Zealander who lives in Malaysia and keeps details of his day job (we're told he monitors CCTV cameras) as obscure as his choice of words was introduced to scrabble by his mother when he was 28. In two years, he was playing the sport professionally and as of December 2018, has 2811 wins from 3673 games. He spends the better part of his day cycling and is known to have cycled 14 hours from Dunedin to Christchurch in terrible weather conditions for his first national championship in 1998, won and again cycled back. At that tournament, Richards, then a newcomer to the sport, was faced with the letters C-D-H-L-N-R-? ('?' denotes a blank tile) and common wisdom suggested he play 'Children' for a bingo. Instead, he weaved through two O's, a floating E and used his blank tile for 'y' to spell out 'Chlorodyne' (a 19th century patent medicine). It's the kind of inspired scrabble only a photographic memory can't fetch you.
Believed to be the creation of an out-of-work architect, Alfred Mosher Butts of Poughkeepsie, New York, during the Great Depression, Scrabble has in its 70-year existence sold over 150 million sets in 29 languages and is played from kitchen tables to the Queen's garden parties. For some like Bharadwaj, who pulled off a 14-point win over Richards a day after his defeat, love for the game has its roots in an uncanny knack to spell and frame words. Growing up, though, Richards is understood to have shown no such affinity. "It's just amazing to watch how calm he is," says Bharadwaj, "His board control is outstanding. Whether he's winning or losing, he plays the same unflappable game every time." Richards finished the four-day tournament in India with 25 wins, nine losses and his ninth consecutive title.
Long-time friend Charles Carneiro, an Indian scrabble player who lives in Singapore, vouches for Richards' "fantastic sense of humour" and the distinction of being one of the sport's quickest thinkers. "Within the first few seconds he's spotted and decided the word he wants to play, he just uses the rest of the time to just look for better options." On most occasions, he does find them. In October last year, Richards spelled out 'Groutier', which means cross or sullen, for 68 points, an $8000 prize check and his fourth world title.
"In Scrabble, your play needs to have certain equity," says Carneiro, "It's not just the score you are getting on the current word but your potential score from the next couple of moves. A lot like chess. So in a sense, you're risk-managing your position. Richards is tremendous at that."
Carneiro, who's part of the World English Language Scrabble Players Association (WESPA) organizing committee, which plans to hold its third Championship in Goa in October this year, has an idea brewing - to issue a challenge to the top five players in the world to go head-on against computer technology. "Something on the lines of Garry Kasparov versus Deep Blue in chess."
Arguably the greatest scrabble player on the planet for a while now, Richards is known to be a bit of an ascetic - he lives alone and doesn't smoke or drink. His latest wish has nothing to do with Scrabble. "He wants to cycle across India," says Carneiro, "That's the kind of guy he is - play, win and ride off on his cycle like nothing ever happened."