Date: January 24, 1998
Byline: Julie Bonnin
Don't Cross HimTrivia floats in John McNeill's head as he gears up to regain crossword puzzle championship
Puzzlers flex mental agility at tournament
Will Shortz, who staged the first American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn., in 1978, has been "crazy about puzzles and crosswords since I was a kid."
"I like to connect people through puzzles, and the tournament is a way to bring [like-minded] people together," says Shortz, the New York Times crossword puzzle editor.
So who comes?
Teen-agers, people in their 80s, and others in-between. A fairly even split between males and females. A wide range of professions dominated by writers, teachers, editors, and people who work with computers.
"The [contestants] have more in common than a love for crosswords," Shortz says. "They tend to be intelligent, well-read people with a good sense of humor and mental flexibility."
You, too, can join this charming group of puzzlers at the annual tournament, April 3-5, which draws a number of spectators as well.
There are no entry requirements, and competitors [vie for prizes in 21 categories, based on skill level, age, geographical region, and rookie status].
At last year's tournament, it was the GIB/GHAZI corner that threw him.
Another year, his concentration slipped, and he wrote ASMARA (capital of a province in northern Ethiopia) instead of ANKARA (the capital of Turkey).
But John McNeill, 53, once the nation's top crossword puzzle solver and currently among the top 10, isn't losing sleep over those missteps, he says.
Competition is spirited at the nation's preeminent crossword puzzle tournament, put on in Stamford, Conn., each spring by The New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz. But McNeill, who lives in Oak Hill, insists it isn't cutthroat -- that he isn't secretly swallowing brain food concoctions or plotting how to regain his title as he prepares for this year's contest in April.
Instead he's doing what he has done since he was able to read: playing word games with pen and paper (pencil in competition) like the more than 50 million Americans who do crosswords.
Unlike most of them, McNeill completes the puzzles very quickly, and very accurately. The Sunday puzzle you labored an hour over and still didn't finish? He can do it in 15 minutes.
"We are, most of us, accurate to the final letter," McNeill says of his top 10 cohorts, "all the way through."
McNeill began completing crosswords, like most people do, as a solitary sport. He grew up in New York City in a family where The Times crossword was everybody's pastime, and when he came in the summers to visit his grandmother in Texas, he continued the habit.
In the early 1980s, he saw a notice about something called the U.S. Open Crossword Championship.
"I was an idle solver," he says. "I thought I was pretty good." The first year, after qualifying, he came in fifth. The next year, 1983, he won the top prize.
After that tournament was discontinued, Shortz's competition, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, became the preeminent place for nationally ranked solvers. McNeill took first place there in 1984. Then came a third, then a drop to ninth place. For a decade he didn't go back, until last year, when he surfaced again and took 10th.
McNeill, bearded and affable, is matter-of-fact about his puzzle prowess.
"I could get in the top three, no doubt, on a good day," he says. "In my heyday I could do it any day."
This is a man, who, trapped in the house without a more challenging puzzle to crack, will think up ways to make this newspaper's daily crossword puzzle more challenging.
He'll look at the Across clues only and figure out the puzzle from there. Or he'll do the entire puzzle in his head, without writing the words in the grid.
McNeill, a software consultant, says problem solving has become both his profession and avocation. But it is more than that that propels the speedy scrawl of his pen. (He's not a fan of crosswords on computer, because typing slows him down.)
"I'm someone who has a real love of words for their own sake, for their shape and their sound," says McNeill, who has spent time on stage spouting Shakespeare.
"I have developed an ability to recall and make leaps of intuition -- grabbing long words from just a couple of letters, intuiting what certain letter combinations could be."
And on the flip side?
All that crossword puzzle esoterica floating around in his head.
"I know more junk. I don't know what I know."
In April, a hotel ballroom full of kindred spirits will sit down for a weekend of puzzling.
It's there, clearly, that McNeill is in his element.
Of his fellow contestants, he says, "People are bright. People are curious. People are filled with random and unexpected information. You have the opportunity to make allusions and not have to explain them."
Among those he can count on seeing is the house favorite, [Ellen Ripstein,] a woman who calls herself the Susan Lucci of crossword puzzles. A contestant for [19 years], she's never won the tournament, but has been [in the top five 14 times].
There are the judges, usually crossword puzzle constructors for The Times and other publications.
And increasingly, there are young competitors who are relatively new to the contest and make it interesting for stalwarts like McNeill.
There's a certain amount of stamina required of tournament play, he says, with players completing several puzzles in a row. On that last puzzle before lunch, even the sharpest minds can turn to mush, McNeill says.
"I'm older and less in shape," he laments. "I've lost my edge."
Still, McNeill has no intention of giving up easily, or walking away from the tournament.
"As long as I keep showing up in the top 10, I figure I better give people a chance to come and get me."