Date: March 15, 1999
Byline: Meg Barone
To err is rewarding in tourneySTAMFORD, Monday, March 15, 1999 — The clock was ticking down the last four minutes in the final competition of the 22nd annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament Sunday at the Stamford Marriott.
Only Jon Delfin, 44, of Manhattan, had completed the giant puzzle board before him from the list of clues the three contestants had received. But as Al Sanders of Colorado and Doug Hoylman of Maryland raced to fill in the squares, the crowd let out a groan of disbelief. Delfin's puzzle contained three errors.
Time was called at the 15 minute mark and the judges tabulated the scores. In Division A — the toughest level of competition — Sanders placed third with 50 boxes left empty, Hoylman took second place with 12 letters either incorrect or not filled in, and a stunned Delfin was named champion, despite his errors. It was the first time in the event's history someone had won with mistakes, organizers said.
"I was certain Doug had won," Delfin said as he made his way to the grand piano, where he celebrated in song. Delfin, a professional musician, played and sang "Crossword Puzzle Blues" to the appreciative crowd of about 400 people.
"I'm feeling awfully down, and cross. … I spend all day solving, but I still don't have a clue," sang Delfin, who has won in Division A five times since 1989.
The Division B crown went to Stamford's own Ron Osher, 39, who completed the same puzzle — with a different set of clues — in just under seven minutes.
"I was following the curves in the road. You align yourself with the thinking of the [puzzle] constructor," said Osher, a financial consultant. "I got stuck in one spot, but I didn't go too far down any wrong path that I couldn't recover."
It was Osher's sixth time competing in the annual event. His highest overall finish had been fifth place until Sunday. His performance this year will push him into Division A, where he started several years ago.
Katherine Bryant, 28, of Massachusetts, finished first in Division C. Bryant, an editor of elementary school textbooks, said she does puzzles for fun on her daily train commute to work. Bryant was the only woman to make the final round of competition.
Nationally renowned puzzle creator Merl Reagle and National Public Radio personality Neal Conan provided color commentary for the finals in Divisions A and B. The contestants wore headphones that prevented them from hearing the helpful hints and the insulting remarks — all in good fun.
"It's as if his feet were mired in words," Reagle said of one finalist who struggled with the lower left corner of the puzzle.
Conan: "They're out of the box with mistakes already. … Bold move."
Reagle: "I'll say. Back to you, Neal."
Conan: "As a [puzzle] constructor would you put in the ee [combination] as a trap?
Reagle: "Of course."
Will Shortz, crossword puzzle editor for the New York Times and the tournament founder, said the number of competitors has doubled since the event began. This year's tournament attracted about 300 competitors from across the country, 24 from Connecticut, ranging in age from 19 to 80.
Shortz attributes the increased attendance to the broader appeal of crossword puzzles. Reagle agrees. Today's puzzles, which often have themes and a sense of humor, are drawing in more solvers and younger solvers, he said. They're "more accessible, more mainstream," said Reagle, a self-professed "man of letters."
"It's like taking a test that's fun, and it's a way to use all the useless stuff people have accumulated," he said.
Osher offered a more serious spin on the growing interest of crosswords. "If a puzzle is well made, there's only one right answer. It's always black and white, no gray, no ambiguities that you deal with in life everyday," he said. Used with permission