Date: February 14, 2001
Byline: Edmund Conti
Gladly the cross I'd bearIt's too late to panic. I should have started panicking late last year. The 24th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is being held on March 16-18 in Stamford, Connecticut and I'm not ready. I'm promised myself after the last tournament that I would do at least five puzzles a day beginning in December. (This, incidently, is a promise that I've made for the last five years.) I was inspired by Ellen Ripstein, the Susan Lucci of the Tournament. Ellen has been one of the top finishers since forever but has never won. One year when asked how she would prepare for the next year's tournament, she announced she would start doing 20 puzzles a day.
Well, I can do that, I thought. Or should do that. Or some of that. I mean, give me a break. For someone like Ellen that would take only about two hours a day. For someone like Edmund Conti that would take at least 10 hours a day and more likely 20 hours. But still, I thought at the time, if sometime at the end of the year I could start doing five a day, that would have to help.
And why, you wonder, do I, the wordmeister, need help? I think I'm pretty good at crossword puzzles. I do them in ink. (For convenience, actually. It's hard to write in pencil on newsprint.) I can do the Sunday Times puzzle over breakfast. Granted it's a long breakfast with 10 cups of coffee. I would say I'm in the top 1% of crossword puzzle solvers. What does that mean? You know the joke, if you're one in a million in China, there's another 1000 just like you. So there's another 100,000 just like me in the U.S. What does that mean at the tournament? It means that I have no chance.
The tournament consists of seven puzzles, 6 on Saturday and one on Sunday. Depending on the size and difficulty of the puzzle you are given from 15 minutes to 45 minutes to finish. A puzzle is handed out face down to each competitor. Will Shortz, the editor of the New York Times puzzles, ascertains that everyone is ready and says something like "Go" or "OK, start." I know he doesn't shoot a gun off. Or does he? I'm too involved in turning over the puzzle and figuring out which side is up. I'm also trying to figure out why I'm doing this. The procedure is to raise your hand in case you're finished before the time limit. A monitor quickly takes your puzzle and you're free to stay or leave for the hallway where you can smoke and talk in loud bragging voices.
Anyway, I'm looking at 1 across, 6 letters, cross-eyed bear, and wondering if I should try 7 across or, perhaps, 1 down. That's when I hear them. Footsteps. Competitors have finished and are leaving. What is going on? No one can even write that fast. Every year I am once again surprised by this phenomenon. Who are these people and how can they be so good?
I have no answers except to say there are geniuses and then there are the rest of us. And if it makes us feel better we can call them idiots savants. Yeah, that's the ticket. I feel better already. But I'm in awe.
And how, you wonder, does this idiot ordinaire do every year? There are five skill divisions with prizes for each division. As well as prizes for regional winners, age group winners and rookies. I usually end up near the top of the "E" division. In fact last year, I finished third in the "E." (Yep, the third best of the worst.) Sadly, there was a mix-up and I wasn't awarded my trophy at the awards ceremonies. Last year's effort may have pushed me up into the "D" division, which means I have no chance of winning anything this year. But as the loser always says on Wheel of Fortune. "I had fun."
I expect to have more fun again this year. Stay tuned.