Date: March 9, 2003
Byline: Arline Bleecker
It's F-U-N for crossword competitors at annual tournamentSTAMFORD, Conn. Q: Where do crossword-puzzle enthusiasts end up when they die?
A: 8-across and 6-down.
OK, it's an insider's joke.
But in the meantime, any keen cruciverbalist that's a 14-letter word for someone who loves crosswords can check out the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, this year planned March 14-16. The event the largest of its kind in the world gives new meaning to the notion of doing the weekend puzzle.
The annual war with words was spawned a quarter-century ago by enigmatologist Will Shortz, current puzzle editor of The New York Times. The contest delivers a quirky couple of days in the company of convivial and clever crossword constructors determined to find out who's the fastest, sharpest puzzler around.
Nearly 500 contestants bring their love of locutions. Pencils are provided.
A lifelong crossword-puzzle addict, I join the competition at the Stamford Marriott and find the experience has its ups (well, acrosses) and downs.
Participants include a best-selling mystery writer, an appeals court judge, a patent attorney, a shark trainer and a guy who used to guess people's age and weight at Coney Island. Not to mention a bevy of musicians, financial planners, software designers, teens and housewives.
In the hotel lobby Friday night even before the tournament begins competitors warm up like skaters on the ice rinks at the Olympics. Some practice their puzzling solo, several against stopwatches.
Fancy duds are immaterial, but style is everything. One entrant wears a 2-foot-tall Seuss-like hat in emerald green. But black and white puzzle colors dominate. Contestants sport T-shirts with legends such as "Give us this day, our daily puzzle" and strut around wearing sweaters, earrings and hats with crossword motifs.
Crossword puzzles have been an American pastime since 1913, when the first one appeared in the old New York World newspaper. Today more than 50 million Americans solve them at least occasionally.
Many of the folks at Stamford are masters of that universe. Hotel bar chatter centers on the finer points of "wiccan." ("Is the eight-letter answer 'paganist' or 'satanist'?"). Or the virtues of shortcuts to scrawl faster in the competition. (Rounded e's use fewer strokes than capital E's.)
Crowded playing field
A sign posted outside the hotel ballroom door reads "Quiet Please: Minds at Work."
Inside, long tables, three across, stretch nearly 40 rows to the back wall. Five players to a table are separated by royal-blue cardboard partitions. I choose a seat 18 rows back ... near the exit.
The mood falls somewhere between the gravitas of a chess tournament and the lunacy of a bingo game. Players clutch good-luck totems and decorate their cubicles. One woman grips a small jade amulet. A grandmother hangs digital pictures of her newborn grandson.
A rookie behind me mumbles, "The only way I'd win is if everybody else here came down with bubonic plague."
Here, the pencil is mightier than the sword, and entrants crowd the electric sharpeners to hone them. I spot a clock the size of Big Ben on the front wall and already sense time is running out.
Battle of wits begins
From the podium, Mr. Shortz instructs us: Time to work varies from 15 to 45 minutes, depending on the puzzle's difficulty. Contestants who finish early should raise their hands to signal a referee to pick up their answers.
Then he announces, "Ready, set ... begin."
Five hundred pages turn over. Then all is silence.
I begin puzzle No. 1. Its grid of black and white squares, which seems so tidy and unthreatening at home on a lazy Sunday, sneers at me here, and I struggle against amnesia. Like a proctor at a college exam, Mr. Shortz silently holds up a sign to indicate time remaining. When I finish within seconds of the puzzle's 15-minute time limit, I stifle the urge to blurt "Yesssss!"
But it goes downhill from here. I don't complete puzzle No. 2. Roman numerals are the key, but I don't figure that out until it's too late.
The morning's third puzzle is subtitled "There's no turning back now!" How apt, I muse.
Now I watch the clock like it's a taxi meter. Big Ben tells me 10 minutes remain, and only a dozen of us are still working this puzzle. Who are those folks who are finishing in the first five minutes? I comfort myself with Mr. Shortz' palliative: "Remember, crosswords are not an intelligence test. They're simply a game, which some people are able to perform faster than others."
After a lunch break, Mr. Shortz readies the crowd for the toughies. Puzzle No. 4, titled "All Hopped Up," contains such gigglers as "outlaw duo" (answer: Bunny and Clyde). The next-to-last puzzle on Saturday, "Animal Crackers" is a first of its kind: a crossword in the form of a narrative story. One clue reads: "Well, your 4D there'd be days like this." To most puzzlers, "Momma said" jumps to mind as the logical substitution for "4D" but only the illuminati correctly guess it slyly elides to "marmoset."
When time is up, everyone applauds as much for the end of the agony as for the cleverness of this puzzle's constructors.
Clash of titans
For the tournament, Mr. Shortz recruits some of the world's most skillful and devious puzzle constructors, who double as judges. Scoring involves a complex calculus that makes Olympic judging seem like kindergarten arithmetic.
Early Sunday morning, anxious hopefuls jam the lobby to check the posted results and learn the nine mental giants who are advancing to the finals in each of three skill levels. I don't have to push. I don't expect to win, but I'm dismayed to see I've placed a pathetic 344th.
For the tournament's climax, finalists take to the stage to work giant 4-by-4-foot puzzle grids in full view of the also-rans. Contenders don headsets to block even the merest whisper from the audience or the play-by-play commentary by veteran puzzle-makers Neal Conan of National Public Radio and Merl Reagle of the Los Angeles Times.
Thus begin the longest 15 minutes of the weekend.
Game. Set. Match.
Three contestants at a time, they begin feverishly filling in the blanks. The only sound from the stage is the squeak of felt pens on easels. The players' collective mental energy could launch a rocket.
The chipmunk-cheeked favorite in one grouping is moving fast. "He's got the r, g, o from Key Largo; the z, n, r, y for citizenry," intones Mr. Conan. "That leaves only 7,000 options." But in just eight minutes, 10 seconds, the puzzler scores a perfect board and steps back. "Done!" he declares.
Meanwhile, the second contestant is "running in circles. ... He's not tackling the clues as well," says the commentator. One minute, 20 seconds to go, and his competitor desperately erases "merest" and scribbles in "modest" for the clue "minimal." Less than a minute left, and he's back to square one and scratching his head. He loses his concentration and peeks at the clock.
"Why is it so anguishing when we do it ourselves but so amusing when we see others do it?" commentator Reagle whispers.
Then, with 35 seconds remaining, the stalled puzzler breaks the block and snatches second place.
The place goes wild.
The nametag that dangles from a white ribbon around each finalist's neck is no gold medal. But it may as well be.
Arline Bleecker is a free-lance writer in New Jersey.