Doing Without Thinking
Doing Without Thinking
Nigel Richards is a New Zealand–Malaysian professional Scrabble player (yes, there are professional Scrabble players). His mother recalled that, “When he was learning to talk, he was not interested in words, just numbers. He related everything to numbers.” When he was 28, she challenged him to play Scrabble: “I know a game you’re not going to be very good at, because you can’t spell very well and you weren’t very good at English at school.” Four years later, Richards won the Thailand International (King’s Cup), the world’s largest Scrabble tournament. He went on to win the U.S., U.K., Singapore, and Thailand championships multiple times. He won the Scrabble World Championship in 2007, 2011, and 2013. (The tournament is held every two years and he was runner-up in 2009). In May 2015, Richards decided to memorize the 386,000 words that are allowed in French Scrabble. (There are 187,000 allowable words in North American Scrabble.) He doesn’t speak French beyond bonjour and the numbers he uses to record his score each turn. Beyond that, Richards paid no attention to what the French words mean. He simply memorized them. Nine weeks later, he won the French-language Scrabble World Championship with a resounding score of 565–434 in the championship match. If he had studied 16 hours a day for 9 weeks, he would have an average of 9 seconds per word to memorize all 386,000 words in the French Scrabble book. However, Richards reportedly doesn’t memorize words one by one; instead, he goes page by page, with the letters absorbed into his memory, ready to be recalled as needed when he plays Scrabble. Richards played as quickly and incisively in the French tournament as he does in English-language tournaments, giving no clue that he cannot actually communicate in French. For experts like Richards, Scrabble is essentially a mathematical game of combining tiles to accumulate points while limiting the opponent’s opportunities to do the same and holding on to letters that may be useful in the future. The important skills are an ability to recognize patterns and calculate probabilities. There is no need to know what any of the words mean.
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