Date: March 14, 1999
Byline: Loretta Waldman
260 crossword puzzle aficionados compete for cashNot everyone was fixated on college basketball yesterday.
A quieter but no less intense group of fanatics gathered at the Marriott hotel on Stamford to indulge in a different sort of March Madness.
Hunched over tables in a ballroom at the hotel, 260 contestants in the 22nd Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament feverishly pondered clues and scribbled answers in a race to accurately complete the interlocking word grids.
The tournament, founded by New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, is the largest and oldest crossword puzzle tournament in the country. Yesterday was the second day of the event which culminates with a championship playoff and awards banquet today.
"People are very serious about this and they are very competitive," said tournament coordinator Helene Hovanec, who compared the contest to a marathon. When you do that, you can run with (marathon standout) Grete Waitz. Here you have an opportunity to compete against the best people."
Trip Payne was one such superstar. The 30-year-old Atlanta resident, who is a professional cruciverbalist, or crossword constructor, won the tournament last year. He finished the fourth puzzle yesterday -- a brain teaser with transposed letters in the clues -- in five minutes.
"This started out as a hobby, but I soon discovered that I couldn't do anything else," said Payne, who has been competing in crossword puzzle tournaments for about 10 years. "I discovered early that's where my talent was."
The majority of the contestants -- from throughout the country, as well as Canada and Northern Ireland -- were less illustrious, but came to the tournament to challenge themselves or mingle with other puzzlers. They were divided into 11 divisions based on age and skill.
It's not about winning, it's about meeting new and interesting people," said Jay Kasofsky, a retired teacher from Woodbridge, N.Y. He and Marilyn Munro, a Westport real estate lawyer, met at the first tournament in 1978 and have been friends since.
Kasofsky, 58, said he started doing crossword puzzles after a high school English teacher told him it would be a good way to build his vocabulary. He does the puzzle in the New York Times every day, as well as the two puzzles that appear weekly in New York magazine.
"It's a most enjoyable activity," he said. "Something to look forward to every day."
Jim Shelin, a 50-year-old printer from New York City, was a first-time contestant -- a rookie at the tournament. He got hooked on crossword puzzles during his daily commute to work on the Long Island Railroad, he said.
"What I enjoy most is discovering I already knew stuff I didn't know I knew," he said.
Contestants had 15 to 45 minutes to complete puzzles. They received 25 points for each minute ahead of time they completed a puzzle, plus 10 points for each correct word. A perfect puzzle earned 150 bonus points.
About 20 judges patrolled the room watching for raised hands -- the sign of a finished puzzle. Two large clocks perched on pedestals ticked away the minutes.
Barbara Bacevice, a 46-year-old medical assistant from Ohio compared the tension to a big college exam.
"I was very nervous," she said. "As a first-timer, I didn't know what to expect."
Her husband, Anthony, a physician, accompanied her to the tournament but didn't participate.
"He's a linear thinker. He has difficulty with obscure clues," she said. "That's not what puzzling is all about. It's about reaching into the crevices in your brain. It's lateral thinking."
Shortz, a former Stamford resident, said he began doing crossword puzzles as a child.
"I love the creativity," he said. "I love how it takes you into every area of human knowledge."
The Marriott was brand new when the tournament began, he said. The management was looking for ways to fill the hotel in the winter at about the same time he was thinking about organizing an event for fellow crossword puzzle fanatics.
"It was just an unbelievable coincidence that these two things would gel," he said.
The three highest-scoring players in the top three divisions will compete on an eighth and final puzzle today. First prize for the tournament is $l,000.