Date: May 2001
Byline: Jason Zasky
What's 13 Letters for the American Crossword Champion?Ellen Ripstein The Susan Lucci of Crosswords Finally Wins the Title
Who knew crossword puzzles could be a spectator sport? When play-by-play announcer Neal Conan of National Public Radio intoned, "It’s a beautiful day for crossword puzzles," at the start of the finals of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (A.C.P.T., March 15-17, 2001), the crowd inside Stamford, Connecticut’s Marriott Grand Ballroom was ready to blow the roof off. The assemblage of crossword addicts was primed to root on sentimental favorite, Ellen Ripstein, known to all attendees as the "Susan Lucci of crossword puzzles."
For contestants, the final was the climax of a tourney that featured eight progressively more difficult puzzles—a chance for crossword aficionados to measure themselves against the world’s puzzle elite. While there’s no barrier to entry—except for the $145 entry fee—many confident crossworders have been humbled by the competition. "It’s just hard to fathom how fast some people can fill in the grids," says Will Shortz, New York Times crossword editor and host of the tournament since its inception in 1978.
A Championship Is Born
According to Shortz, he was already contemplating a puzzle contest when the director of marketing for the then brand-new Marriott approached him about putting on a competition. For the hotel, the motivation was simply to fill rooms on a slow March weekend, but for the puzzle-loving Shortz it was a golden opportunity to create a new forum for crossworders. Shortz had previously obtained a one-of-a-kind college degree in enigmatology—the study of puzzles—from Indiana University. "They have a program where you can make up your own major, and I convinced them that puzzles were a serious field of academic study," says Shortz. "I devised an entire curriculum on puzzle courses."
"If Ellen wins she’s going to break down crying, I will probably cry myself and the crowd will blow the roof off the hotel."
A quarter-century after the inaugural tournament, the competition has not only become the World Series of crosswords, but the premier puzzle social event of the year. "It’s a crossword addict’s fantasy," says organizer Helene Hovanec. "You’ve got some of the very brightest people here solving difficult puzzles against each other, and there’s a great camaraderie among the attendees." As an added allure, the event attracts crossword constructors—the people who write and edit puzzles for the New York Times, Dell Crossword Puzzles and other prominent publications—who for one weekend a year, enjoy celebrity status.
The Susan Lucci of Crosswords
The most famous contestant at the A.C.P.T. has always been Ripstein, 48, long associated with actress and perennial Emmy nominee, Susan Lucci. Entering the 2001 competition, Ripstein had finished in the top five 18 years in a row without emerging victorious. Soap opera buffs will recall that Lucci was nominated for an Emmy 19 times before finally winning in 1999 for her work on "All My Children." Prior to this year’s competition, Shortz remarked, "If Ellen wins she’s going to break down crying, I will probably cry myself and the crowd will blow the roof off the hotel." When she arrived for the event, Marriott employees handed Ripstein a welcome letter, joking that roofers would be on stand-by in case the hotel needed repairs after her victory.
For Ripstein—who researches and proofreads puzzles and word games for a living—the tournament is no joking matter. In the weeks leading up to the event she does as many as ten to fifteen practice puzzles a day under ‘tournament conditions’—using a timer and pencil. While she prefers to complete newspaper crosswords using a pen, the tournament puzzles, on high-quality white paper, have to be done in pencil so mistakes can be erased. For a little perspective, Ripstein is capable of completing the Saturday New York Times puzzle in four-and-three-quarter to eight minutes; the Sunday version in ten to 15 minutes. During the competition she retains focus by working through a crossword book during breaks between tournament puzzles.
What to Expect
While the A.C.P.T. crosswords are specially commissioned, the constructors are bound by the same rules for creating a tournament crossword as they are for any other puzzle. "We try to downplay death, disease and unpleasant subjects, and obviously, profanity is out," says Shortz. "We wouldn’t want to have a whole puzzle on death; that’s just a downer. Crosswords should be uplifting." However, he maintains that no tournament puzzle can be about a single subject, no matter what that subject might be. "For example, I wouldn’t have a movie puzzle," says Shortz, "because someone who is very good at movies would have an unfair advantage."
"Some people think the people who come here are nerdy, but I think we’re all nerdy in some way."
According to Hovanec, there isn’t a stereotypal attendee — the contestants range from teenagers to the elderly and come from all walks of life. "Some people think the people who come here are nerdy," says Hovanec, "but I think we’re all nerdy in some way." Many self-deprecating crossword fanatics might agree with her assessment. At one point during the 2001 final, announcer and famed constructor Henry Rathvon referred to Conan as "a man you can’t have a normal conversation with." Conan’s quick-witted response—"unlike so many others in this room"—was punctuated by an outburst of laughter from the crowd.
What it Takes
While crosswords are normally a solitary activity, the tournament presents unique solving conditions. Over seven rounds, contestants compete together—the only sound heard in the ballroom is more than 300 pencils scratching at the same time. Just the three highest scorers over those seven puzzles get to participate in the nerve-wracking final, which takes place on a large stage, contestants scribbling their answers on a 3’ x 3’ board using black erasable markers. To block out the crowd noise and clue-by-clue announcers—who call the action live over the P.A. system—the contestants wear headphones blaring white noise.
Noting that the tournament has been dominated by a handful of people for the past 13 years, Shortz says, "Crossword solving—particularly at the upper ranks—requires a mathematical mind." The event attracts a disproportionate number of computer programmers, teachers, writers, editors and lawyers, not to mention people in the crossword publishing business. Ripstein’s nemesis has always been Doug Hoylman, a retired actuary nicknamed "Ice Man." Hoylman got the name from his uncompromising, methodical approach to solving puzzles. He begins with "1 Across," moves to the second "Across" clue and continues without pause until he has answered the last "Down" clue. Hoylman has won the event an unprecedented six times, although he finished fourth in 2001.
According to Shortz, if you want to be successful in the tournament, "it helps to have a mind like a sponge. You have to know a little of everything—classical culture, literature, opera, classical music, art, history, geography, and modern subjects like TV, movies, rock and roll, sports and Broadway. A sense of humor helps, and flexibility of mind. To be able to look at a clue and see how it can be interpreted in three or four different ways. And, of course, you have to be fast."
Shortz has also noticed that the tournament attracts an unusually large percentage of left-handed people, who make up about 12% of the population as a whole. "Among competitors here it’s upwards of 25%," says Shortz, "and over a third of our champions have been left-handed." Theoretically, lefties should do worse in the tournament, owing to a built-in competitive disadvantage. As with most crossword grids, the tournament diagrams are laid out on the right side of the page for the convenience of right-handed people. Yet, lefties still outperform righties by far.
Gaining the slightest advantage is important when the margin of victory is often just a matter of seconds. Some contestants write the letter "E" as a lowercase "e,"—a capital "E" takes three pencil strokes to complete, while a little "e" can be written with a single flourish. And the contenders even jockey for seating position. The right-handed Ripstein sits in the center of the last row of the ballroom, because the lighting is brightest in that area.
A Champion Is Crowned
In the 2001 tourney, Ripstein squeaked into the final in third place, forcing her to start the championship puzzle—a 15-minute ditty entitled "War of Words"—nine seconds behind leader and first-time finalist Patrick Jordan. (The leader is allowed a head start, the length of which is determined by performance on the seven previous puzzles). All three contestants started cautiously, contemplating clues like "What sots don’t do?" and "Members of the Cat Nation."
Ripstein turned and removed her headphones, the crowd chanting "Ellen!! Ellen!! Ellen!!" A friend rushed the stage with a banner that read "RRRRRRipstein."
To the dismay of the partisan crowd, Jordan filled in the grid faster than Ripstein, who took a somewhat haphazard and unorthodox approach. To picture Conan and Reagles’ call of the action, imagine two subdued horse racing announcers: "Ellen is breaking out on the right-hand side. This is not a recipe for the easiest way to get all of these things solved. . . . Ellen is not being orthodox but she is getting it done," said Conan.
Jordan finished the puzzle in a remarkable twelve minutes and seven seconds, which would have guaranteed him the victory if not for a single mistake on his grid (any 100% correct puzzle completed inside of 15 minutes beats a puzzle with a mistake).
When the audience realized Jordan's error, the tension in the room became palpable—everyone pulling for the crowd favorite to finish in time. When she didin thirteen minutes and thirty-five secondsthe audience exploded. Ripstein turned and removed her headphones, the crowd chanting "Ellen!! Ellen!! Ellen!!" A friend rushed the stage with a banner that read "RRRRRRipstein."
At the awards luncheon that followed the event, a visibly relieved Ripstein savored the victory. "The final puzzle was not easy. I was having a hard time and I didn’t know if I would finish," she said. Asked what she would do with the $1,500 first prize, she replied, "Not much," making reference to the modest dollar value. "I’m going to combine it with my grandmother’s inheritance and get a laptop."
Where does one go from here now that Ripstein has reached the crossword pinnacle and garnered her fifteen minutes of fame (including an interview with Diane Sawyer on "Good Morning America")? "Try to do it again sometime," she said.