Date: April 11, 2005
Byline: Kenneth Aaron
Word perfect: Student is atop crossword heap
TROY, N.Y. — This is not a fair fight. Tyler Hinman, crossword-puzzle champion. Against me. We flip over the grids. It's a Wednesday puzzle in the New York Times, about medium difficulty.
Hinman, a 20-year-old Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute junior, starts scratching in answers. I'm still reading clues. Boy, he's writing fast. I fill in some squares.
Boy, he's still writing fast.
Hinman is the region's reigning crossword champ, a designation he won at last year's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held annually in Stamford, Conn. The year before, he won the tournament's B division, a teenage whippersnapper who surprised the field.
This could be his year. "If not this year, maybe soon," said Will Shortz, crossword puzzle editor of the New York Times, the closest thing to a crossword celebrity there is.
Hinman not only solves puzzles, but writes them, too. It was Shortz who published Hinman's first puzzle, when Hinman was 15. At the time, Hinman had labored over all of four puzzles before landing his first at the top of the heap. Hinman is the youngest person Shortz has printed; for a while, he was the youngest to have a Sunday puzzle in the Times, but that record has since fallen.
Hinman has been solving crosswords since ninth grade, when a teacher supervising a boring study hall gave him a puzzle one Friday.
The puzzles in the Times increase in difficulty from Monday to Saturday. Sunday's puzzle, while the week's longest, is about as hard as a Thursday puzzle. When he returned to the study hall on Monday, he got another puzzle. And he did much better, as it's the week's easiest.
At some point, he started doing puzzles for speed. As long as he was doing them, he figured, why not do them quickly?
A natural competitor
He has his solving methods. Hinman said he always keeps his hand moving, even circling in midair when he's stumped. And all the top competitors look at clues while filling in others.
And there's practice. "I do at least seven a day," he said.
Hinman's father, Lew, said his son is a natural competitor.
"It's hard to imagine a crossword-puzzle thing being exciting," the elder Hinman said of the tournament, which drew 478 competitors last year. But there were announcers, and a big crowd, and the finalists were on stage wearing headphones to block out audience noise and hints, and writing out answers on a big board.
"It was amazing," Lew Hinman said. "A bit of a nerd-fest, but a lot of nice people."
Hinman can give off a bit of that air — the information technology major is wearing a Google T-shirt, but he's a pretty typical college student: lives in a fraternity house with the requisite video-game consoles and house dog and big-screen TV; eats store-brand fruit-loops for breakfast. His school-year job is a bit different than the norm; he tries to get crosswords published. The Times pays $100 for daily puzzles, and $350 for Sunday. He has one pending at the Los Angeles Times, and another has appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
Like many puzzle solvers and creators, Hinman likes a quick pun and a clever trick. His favorite words? Cleave, because it means both to split and to join. And impromptu. "Not too many nine-letter words ending in u," he said.
"He's extremely bright, great with words, knows a little about everything," Shortz said of Hinman. "He's like one of those teenage wizards on 'Jeopardy!' You just shake your head."
Back at the fraternity house, time is slipping away. Variant spelling of a five-letter movie set light. Klieg is the proper spelling. Would it be kleeg? Kleig?
And then Hinman stops writing. He picks up a stopwatch. Three minutes, nineteen seconds. Me? I'm one-quarter done.
Doing one of these things collaboratively on a Sunday morning can't be much fun with Hinman around.
"I'm also no fun to watch 'Wheel of Fortune' with," he quipped.