Date: March 15, 2002
Byline: Marc Lee
Tournament pits crossword contestants against puzzle creatorsEvery morning, around the world, a silent battle is waged. A small, fiendish coven of masterminds plots against a decentralized, determined clan armed only with the most primitive of weapons. And this weekend, in Stamford, Conn., each side makes its grandest stand.
This is no Tolkien fantasy, or even a Stephen King gorefest. For crossword puzzle creators and puzzle solvers, this war of words is serious.
In Stamford, more than 350 crossword-puzzle aficionados will test their minds and No. 2 pencils against the greatest makers in the game at the 25th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
The contestants come from as far away as England and Switzerland, but most live on the East Coast. This year's tally of participants from 35 states and the District of Columbia is a tournament record. The Texas representatives include at least one rookie and a past champion.
For first-timer Warren Johnson of Plano, the tournament is a chance to see what he's made of. As a puzzle solver of 20 years, he's curious to see how he ranks among the puzzler elite. "I'm not really competitive," says the 64-year-old marketing representative, "but I want to see how I stack up.
"I come from a family where words are a big deal. They used to debate the meaning and pronunciation of words. It made for some really interesting dinner conversation."
The competition is a kind of mental quest for Mr. Johnson, who sells gardening products. It's a break during one of the busiest times of year for him â€" the days before spring.
It's as much a vacation as a competition for many of the puzzlers, says Will Shortz, tournament founder and New York Times crossword editor. Most gather to see old friends and to make new ones.
"It's not just the common interest in crosswords that attracts people. It's the personality. Crossword people tend to be well-read, interesting, funny. Conversation at the tournament is very little about crosswords themselves," Mr. Shortz says.
Still, it's the drive to solve clues, such as "Smashes but good" (six letters) and "To solve this puzzle you'll need ___ " (six letters), that draws these intelligent people to Stamford in March, when the average low temperature still hovers below freezing.
The tournament has categories for all age groups, skill levels and regional divisions. Prize money is minimal â€" the grand champ gets $1,500 â€" but there are lots of trophies for category winners. Scoring is simple: 10 points for each correct word across and down; 25 points for each minute a puzzler finishes ahead of the game clock; minus 25 points for each wrong letter; and 150 bonus points for a correct solution.
As the games grind on, tournament organizers have scheduled game nights, a wine-and-cheese reception and other activities to ease the tension. On Sunday, the final playoffs begin with the top contestants playing sudden-death rounds on giant grids. National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan and puzzle constructor Merl Reagle provide the play-by-play.
John McNeill of Austin knows the pressure facing the final contestants: He won the whole shebang in the mid-'80s. A bright, rapidly rising star, he started playing tournaments in 1982 and quickly won a few. Compelled to be the best, he showed up at Stamford and snagged the tournament's top prize in '84.
"That was my glory moment, and it was all downhill from there," he says jovially.
Though he hasn't reached the top spot again, he continually finishes in the Top 10. And he has attended the tournament off and on over the years because the event offers more than mere prizes.
"There's not a lot of money in it," he says. "I joke that if I win it, I break even. ... My real goal is to get back together with the folks I know."
Over the years, he's seen some changes with crosswords, as younger people become interested in the puzzles.
"The new generation has a slightly different view of what a puzzle should be. It's not so much the arcane knowledge. ... Suddenly you don't have to know what all the rivers in Europe are."
From his work at the tournament and at the Times, puzzle master Mr. Shortz confirms Mr. McNeill's observation.
"Every year at the tournament, we get more juniors than before. And I have three teenagers who have gotten puzzles accepted by The New York Times. I mean, it's hard enough just to get a puzzle in the Times." And that means there are fresh soldiers on the front line in the never-ending battle against the puzzle masters.
Puzzlers, make your marks.
Armchair puzzlers Those who can't go to the tournament can participate in an ongoing tourney of their own at home. Contestants may download a registration form at www.crosswordtournament.com and mail it in, along with a $20 fee. Registrants will be sent all the tournament puzzles, which they can solve and mail back.
The puzzles will be scored and participants will be told how they ranked among this year's contestants in any category for which they may have qualified.