Date: May 1, 2005
Byline: Chris Mcnamara
Puzzles Are More Than a Pastime for Competitors at This Cerebral Contest
"QUIET PLEASE! (MINDS AT WORK!)" say the signs taped to the ballroom doors. They are meant for tomorrow, but the minds have already punched the clock.
It's the night before the 28th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and the ballroom of the Stamford, Conn., Marriott is buzzing with clumps of crossword experts — they call themselves "solvers" — huddled around tablecloth-sized puzzles and improvised board games. Two guitarists harmonize on a song about Scrabble.
Out in the lobby, others peck letters into laptops or scribble answers into books. In the nearby lounge is the cocktail reception and social hour for devotees of a mostly non-social activity.
As they share wine and small talk it's clear that this is a smart group. Calculator watches are a common accessory. The cinematographer of "My Dinner with Andre" is a celebrity. Indeed, being cerebral is hip at this tournament, where some of the nation's quickest and most encyclopedic minds quietly compete to see who has the last word.
6-LETTER WORD FOR ANXIETY
Amy Reynaldo, 38, a medical editor from Chicago whose husband is back in their Lakeview condo with their son, admits to feeling queasy as she settles into her seat on this Saturday morning in March, a few minutes before the tournament begins. A rookie solver, she places a photo of 4-year-old Ben on her table and works a few practice puzzles, like a batter taking cuts in the on-deck circle.
On the other side of the massive ballroom, Carol Stream's Bob Petitto neatly arranges five sharpened pencils on his table, a ritual he has performed in most of his previous 18 tournaments. "Sometimes I get excited and press too hard," explains the 57-year-old owner of a manufacturing firm. "One year I broke four on a single puzzle."
And a few tables back, a Highland Park couple, Sam DeFrank, 52, and Anne Simpson, 48, find adjoining seats. DeFrank jokes that he comes to the tournament each year to "see people even nerdier than I am."
The rest of the 466 solvers take their seats at the banquet tables that fill the room. They range in age from 18 to 87 and their careers run the gamut from soldier to psychotherapist. About half are neophytes. A handful have competed in all 28 tournaments.
More than a few are wearing apparel with a crossword motif — black-and-white-squared vests, hats, T-shirts and ties. One young woman wears a crossword jumpsuit.
When everyone is settled, Will Shortz takes the stage to thunderous applause. Shortz, the New York Times crossword puzzle editor, founded the weekend festival and, making allowances for the rather arcane world he inhabits, has no small degree of charisma. If this is puzzling's Woodstock, he's its Jimi Hendrix.
To the solvers, Shortz's background borders on legend. He graduated from Indiana University in 1974 with a degree that he created — enigmatology, the study of puzzles. He founded the tournament in 1978, became the Times crossword editor in 1993, and the rest, as they say, is a seven-letter word for "the past."
As Shortz explains the rules — there are seven timed puzzles, with the speediest and most accurate solvers advancing to the finals — some contestants pay rapt attention while others arrange good-luck charms. One woman scribbles answers on a practice puzzle with her right hand while breast-feeding a baby with her left.
"On your mark," shouts Shortz. "Get set. Go!" It occurs to you that a language master could find a more original way to start the proceedings.
The whirr from 470 flipping sheets of paper fills the air. Then, silence. Total silence. Brains don't make noise. Even the arena-style clock, ticking down from 15 minutes, is soundless.
Reynaldo is plowing through her puzzle, scribbling inside the blank squares as if writing a grocery list. Petitto, too, is gliding along, his left index finger sliding down the clues as his right hand writes answers. DeFrank and Simpson are cool and detached. Both are CPAs with the Allstate Insurance Co., and they approach their crosswords like 1040 forms.
Only three minutes into the round, Reynaldo shoots her hand into the air excitedly, like a brainy student in danger of bursting if she isn't called on. A judge races over, collects her sheet and writes her time on the back of the page. Then Reynaldo hustles out the back of the ballroom along with the other early finishers.
As the minutes tick away, the ballroom empties and the lobby fills. "I'm not as fast as I used to be," says Petitto ruefully. His time for completing this puzzle: 5 minutes, 10 seconds.
Shortz announces that this will be a puzzle by Merl Reagle, which elicits gasps from the crowd. Solvers are well-acquainted with the authors — constructors — of high-level puzzles. They know, for example, that Byron Walden's creations mirror the content of Entertainment Weekly. He'll pepper puzzles with P. Diddy-style celebrities and plenty of pop tunes. Reagle, on the other hand, is a traditional, tricky constructor. (Example: Old-style revolutionaries=anarchs.)
"On your mark. Get set. Go!"
Before 10 minutes have gone by on the illuminated clock, Reynaldo's hand is among the first to pierce the air. "That was supposed to be a hard one?" she asks as she leaves the ballroom. Her confidence is growing; she recognizes she can compete here.
Petitto joins her a few minutes later. "I'm slow. I'm dumb. Somebody shoot me," he says.
Shortz announces that Cathy Milhauser was the constructor of this puzzle. This prompts a warm response from the solvers.
"Oh, now you're clapping," Shortz jokes before launching the round.
Like students with a secret crush, DeFrank and Simpson huddle next to each other as they work. A C-ranked player, DeFrank finishes before his E-ranked companion.
"Exhibiting must!" he exclaims as he paces the lobby. "Exhibiting must!" It's a clue that he answered correctly but will not understand until he enters the bathroom after completing the puzzle. The answer is "moldy."
Reynaldo again is one of the first to finish. As a rookie she automatically receives a C ranking, though her strong performance is pushing her upward toward the B Division.
Petitto completes Round 3 in 17 minutes and heads to his room for a nap. "Amy is posting national times," he says. "She's doing great. But rookies tend to make mistakes."
He will prove correct on both counts.
12-LETTER WORD FOR PAUSE
For many, the afternoon intermission is just another opportunity to do puzzles. But others, like Petitto, socialize with friends. This is a tight culture, and most solvers know one another from past tournaments or online crossword groups.
While her face is new, Reynaldo's name is well known by those she beats in daily competitions in the online New York Times crossword forum. "I've wasted an awful lot of time this past year," she says.
When the solvers reconvene in the ballroom, Shortz introduces his judges. Some are past champions, others are constructors. One, a writer for the quiz show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," has solid cred with this crowd, as does another who hosts crossword-themed cruises.
Unlike computer-generated puzzles, which are criticized by this community for being soulless, Shortz and fellow constructors write puzzles by hand, cramming wit, wordplay and wisecracks into their creations.
"Crossword puzzles turn accumulated knowledge into play," Shortz says in a break from signing autographs. "They give your mind a workout."
Out in the lobby, Michael Tuffiash, a Ph.D. candidate in cognitive psychology, is surveying solvers to collect data for his thesis on problem-solving strategies. "It's not that they have better minds, but they have ready access to esoteric knowledge," says Tuffiash.
The intermission didn't slow Reynaldo. She finishes this puzzle in just over five minutes.
Across the room Petitto's head repeatedly pops up and checks the clock to his right, like a swimmer snatching breaths, before plunging back into his work. He exits muttering, "Too slow. Too slow."
A few minutes later, DeFrank finishes, followed closely by Simpson. "There's no competition between us," she says, noting that he works 20 puzzles each week compared to her two. "I'm just excited to finish."
"This is the puzzle that will rip your heart out," warns Shortz, naming David Kahn as the constructor. A loud moan erupts.
"That noise is a compliment," whispers Kahn, as the solvers go to work. The Times and Wall Street Journal publish his puzzles, and he is well known, if not well loved, in the crossword community. "My clues may have more than one meaning. And the answers are not always obvious. They're hard but fair."
Tell that to the solvers. Many rub their foreheads, as if massaging sore brains. Reynaldo bites her nails as she works. The first solver shoots his hand skyward after 12 minutes. Four minutes later Reynaldo finishes and leaves the room looking dazed.
It takes Petitto 22 minutes to finish. "Extremely difficult," he says as he paces the lobby. "I couldn't grasp anything to build on."
As the 40-minute deadline approaches, Shortz announces, "One minute!" The remaining solvers — about 90 percent of the competitors — laugh in defeat. When the clock expires, Shortz says, "We are now selling David Kahn dartboards."
Simpson admits she didn't even understand the puzzle's theme, "Difficult Week Ahead." Her partner also failed to finish. A traumatized crowd of smokers gathers outside, trying to calm their nerves.
The final puzzle of the day is an easy one. Most solvers finish well before the deadline. Petitto completes his in just over seven minutes and heads to his room, walking through a lobby littered with pencils and crossword puzzles. The place looks as though it had been ransacked by a gang of angry intellectuals.
5-LETTER WORD FOR REVELRY
The rumor about a party in Room 216 is confirmed as soon as the elevator doors open. A low roar rumbles down the hallway, generated by 40-plus solvers packed into a single room. People are crammed into corners, behind the television, atop the bed. And they're all talking crosswords. The host is a wine distributor, and the conversation is animated. "What do you say we put a keg in the corner?" jokes Reynaldo.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the building, 40 judges are frantically grading puzzles. Bolstered by caffeine, these volunteers will each spend 10 hours checking letters and times. "I'm cross-eyed, tired and sore," says one.
Downstairs in the dining room, Petitto joins friends for salmon and pasta. A debate erupts over the spelling of a disease that people get from farm animals (U-N-D-U-L-A-N-T fever).
Then it's back to the ballroom for the highly anticipated talent show. For a group so precise with language, the word "talent" is used rather loosely. There are baton twirlers and comedians and folk singers. Some in the crowd lose interest and crack open their crossword books.
Others are getting with it, though. One contestant leads a sing-along with his ditty, "If You Don't Come Across I'm Gonna Be Down." And another belts out a torch song about Will Shortz that has everyone howling.
The Sunday morning sun is shining, but no one notices. Coffee cups in hand, the solvers huddle around a sheet of paper listing their rankings as they enter the seventh and final round. Simpson and DeFrank are respectable, but far out of contention. Petitto is 86th overall and only a superhuman time this round can propel him into the finals of his B Division.
Reynaldo, the rookie, ranks an amazing 22nd overall. It takes her only 11 minutes to complete the last crossword. "I was halfway through that puzzle before I read the title," she beams.
Petitto finishes five minutes later. His competition is over. "It's Sunday morning," he cracks. "I feel like relaxing and doing a puzzle."
Back inside, DeFrank and Simpson plow through the last puzzle, side by side, checking numbers against letters. They are relieved to finish and put the ordeal behind them. "It's a good thing to have a bad memory," she jokes.
When the final points are tallied, it's discovered that Reynaldo made a first-round mistake — a wrong letter in one box — but her lightning times compensate. Not only is she at the top of the C Division, she qualifies for the B Division finals. Shortz calls her performance "astonishing."
The ballroom buzzes as the first trio of finalists — the C Division — take the stage. All three divisions solve the same puzzle, but the clues grow more obscure as the skill level rises (see puzzle on page 30).
The finalists wear sound-muffling headphones, and they must stand while solving poster-sized crosswords, enabling the crowd to see their moves and mistakes.
When the three B Division finalists enter the room, the loudest cheers are reserved for Reynaldo, the Cinderella story of this tournament. Based on point totals, she is allowed to start her puzzle 38 seconds after the division leader and five seconds before the third-place finalist.
The moment she gets the go sign, she's on fire. She completes the bottom-right corner first, then darts around the puzzle, pausing only a few seconds between frantic writing.
With the headphones on, the finalists can't hear the wisecracks of the two commentators broadcasting the action. "That answer is Togo," says National Public Radio's Neal Conan, "the country that invented the takeout dinner."
As the clock ticks down from 15 minutes, the tension in the crowd builds. Crossword is their sport, and this is their Super Bowl. With 6:18 remaining, Reynaldo completes the last word, turns to the judges and shyly shrugs. Done.
She sees that her two rivals are still writing and does her best to stifle a smile. As the judges scan her work, Conan says: "Let me get this straight. She's the rookie?"
After a tense minute of grading, one judge mouths the words, "It's right," and Reynaldo's smile temporarily outmatches her willpower. The two others finish a few minutes later, and it's official: Reynaldo is named B Division winner. When the crowd cheers, Petitto's voice is loudest — "Way to go, Chicago!"
Unsure what to do next, the champion curtsies as cameras flash.
In the A Division finals two veterans in pressed slacks and oxfords flank a 20-year-old college student in jeans and black T-shirt who would look more at home at a Blink 182 concert.
Frequent finalist Al Sanders finishes his puzzle first and faces the crowd. Which gasps. He spins back to his board and sees that he has left two blank squares — a rookie mistake. The 46-year old races behind the stage and collapses, his sobbing face clutched in his hands, as his opponents continue to scribble, unaware of the drama.
A few minutes later, Tyler Hinman, the student from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., completes his puzzle. He casually dons the baseball cap he had kept in a back pocket and waits for the judges' decision.
His performance earns $4,000 and, more importantly, hero status among solvers.
When Hinman, the youngest winner in the tournament's history, is asked a question by the throng of media surrounding him, he stammers for a few seconds. then says, "That's the first time this weekend that words have failed me."
6-LETTER WORD FOR ADDICTED
On their planes back to Chicago, Reynaldo, Petitto, DeFrank and Simpson can't resist working a few crosswords. They're hooked. Three days of puzzling have failed to sate them.
And when the B Division champion returns to her North Side home with her $200 prize, husband Rene and son Ben present her with a handmade card: The words "WE LOVE YOU" are spelled out in a crossword puzzle.