Date: March 4, 2007
Byline: Gary Kirkland
Area puzzlers put their crossword skills to the test
There was tension in the air, along with a lot of laughter as what is typically a solo challenge is about to become a group effort.
In the living room, 14 adults are squeezed onto chairs, a couch and the floor in a tight horseshoe around a computer, where Ann Daunic is sitting at the ready at the keyboard as if she's prepared for battle.
In the hallway behind them, Daunic's husband Joel hands a folded Saturday edition of the New York Times to Paul Sindelar, and the crossword competition begins. Sindelar will test his knowledge of words, history, current events and trivia against the group, but it's not as unfair as it might seem, in fact Sindelar is confident, bordering on cocky.
He says the group will occasionally test him these days, they have gotten better, but he still wins more than he loses.
"They were so disorganized anybody could beat them," he says as he prepares to move to a small desk in a back bedroom of the Daunic home. "I've got my lucky pen, I'm ready."
As Ann Daunic fires up the computer, that's loaded with a digital version of the same puzzle Sindelar will be facing in the paper, her husband Joel, who is serving as team captain, offers a few final words of encouragement as a projector beams the image from the puzzle in the computer onto a screen at the end of the room.
"Put your food down and focus," he says, then adding almost apologetically, "we don't have our best line-up today."
"That's the kind of pep talk we get," says Alyson Adams with a groan.
It's a twice-a-year tradition in the Daunic home (in ten letters that's semiannual), and all those gathered share a love for crossword puzzles.
Some are hard-core vets of the up and down challenge, others are admitted novices who share an addiction with nearly 50 million other Americans. Sindelar and Joel Daunic are hoping to tap into that well of crossword puzzle lovers in North Florida when they'll host a one-day tournament where teams and individuals can compete.
Visit the newspaper website above to listen to audio interviews with Will Shortz –webmaster
In the Daunic living room the group is soon shouting out answers, as Anne Daunic attempts to keep up. The action goes in spurts, as 14 pairs of eyes dance between the clues running down one side of the screen and the empty boxes that tease them on the other.
"Indication to look down," is clue 33 down.
"Yourflyisopen," is one shouted answer that produces laughter, but is five letters too long. Several minutes later "asterisk" turns out to both fit and be correct.
"Krypton" is a suggestion, for "Gas in fluorescent lamps," again, correct, but garners the comment, "I thought that was just in Superman."
The Saturday New York Times puzzle is notorious for being the toughest challenge each week, and this one is borderline maddening. As the group struggles, slowly filling in answers, there are frequent glances to the hall to see if Sindelar will emerge triumphant.
Joel Daunic says, typically, it will take about 20 or 30 minutes, but the clock continues to tick. Finally, nearly an hour after retiring to the bedroom, Sindelar walks in waving the folded paper over his head like a flag of surrender. He admits to being bested by the puzzle, but still has more correct answers than the living room team that grudgingly admits defeat.
And while he wasn't totally successful, Sindelar says the tough puzzle demonstrated an important trait he thinks is necessary in a great puzzle.
"I like clues that get you thinking one way, and then to solve it you have to completely abandon your original thought and kind of feed through the word play of the (New York Times Puzzle) editor Will Shortz," he says, as heads in the room nod agreement.
Harry Daniels, who was part of the living room team, has his own idea of what makes a good puzzle. He says it's "one where there's at least one clue you can answer."
While the living room crew came up short in the competition, there was general agreement that collectively they learned a few tricks in the process.
Teaming up offered the chance to see how other puzzle solvers approached the clues. It was also an opportunity to hear people think aloud as they reasoned their way around stumbling blocks. The camaraderie of puzzle bonding made it enjoyable.
Before getting down to puzzling, the group had watched the film "Wordplay" that featured Shortz in the documentary on crosswords, puzzlers and the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
The film was a surprise hit in 2006 and it featured interviews with such celebrity crossword addicts as former President Bill Clinton, "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart, Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina and the musical duo the Indigo Girls, Emily Saliers and Amy Ray, who are crossword fans who've also been featured as a puzzle answer.
The heart of "Wordplay" is the focus on the top contestants competing for the $5,000 first prize. More than 500 people made the pilgrimage to Stamford, Conn. It's noted that musicians and those with math-based careers, not writers and editors, seem to gravitate to the top of the crossword hierarchy.
Helene Hovanec coordinates the event, which this year will mark its 30th anniversary. She says since the earliest days of the tournament one factor continues to impress her.
"The variety of people, it's not categorizable," says Hovanec, who lives in Brooklyn, where she writes puzzle books for children and operates the Web site, www.puzzles4kids.com.
And this year, following the success and exposure from "Wordplay," she's expecting a serious bump in attendance for the tournament that will run March 23-25. She describes crossword puzzles as a "positive addiction."
"I think the crossword beacons to you, it calls out and says 'solve me,' " she says..
She says crosswords are a challenge with a beginning, middle and end, unlike the challenges many of us face day to day, and they can be completed in a short amount of time.
"People like routine and stability, and I think most people do the puzzle the same time every day," she says, listing another appeal.
And there's been medical research that says crossword puzzling may be good for you, because the mental exercise of puzzle solving keeps the brain active and lessens the chance of developing Alzheimer's.
"I think it's baby boomers trying to keep their minds sharp," says Jennifer Lindquist, part of the living room crew, explaining part of the popularity.
The finalists in "Wordplay" fill in the puzzles as fast as they can write. Sindelar is fast, but not quite that fast. He got hooked on puzzles as a kid, following in the footsteps of his puzzle-solving parents. He has a two-puzzle-day habit, tackling the daily puzzle in the paper and on his puzzle-a-day calendar. He says a typical Monday puzzle, the easiest, will take him six or seven minutes. A Saturday brain buster will go 20 to 25,"if I'm lucky."
His wife, Alyson Adams, offers some insight into the depths of her husband's puzzle addiction. She says she know when he starts the puzzle, because she hears the chime of his digital stop watch. Later comes the beep when he's finished. He then plugs those times into an Excel spreadsheet so he can graph his successes and failures.
She says he's even brought puzzles to bed and fallen asleep in mid puzzle. She knows this because she's found the ink stains the next morning left by his leaky dropped pen.
At 60, Sindelar also has a perspective of time when it comes to crosswords. He says Shortz has put his own stamp on the puzzles. He says Eugene Maleska, the previous puzzle editor, tended to rely on obscure words, while Shortz' puzzles are sprinkled with pop culture and spiced with wit and puns. He recalled one Shortz' clue "a common number," that nearly had him stumped. The answer was "novocaine," a drug frequently used to numb.
"Once we figured it out, it was so funny, it was one of the best clues of all times," he says.
His mother-in-law, 68-year-old Lois Adams, also a long-time puzzle addict, says the puzzles have gotten harder. She points to one example on the puzzle on the screen. The clue is "Really?!" And the answer is "isthatso" (is that so). She says in the past that clue would be followed by the hint "three words," but not today.
And Lois Adams thinks one change has gone too far. She doesn't like the puzzles based on a theme, where more than one letter may go in a single box. She says, for example, a recent puzzle had the theme "ins and outs." The clue was "Yell" and the answer had to fit in three spaces. The answer was "shout" with the theme word "out" squeezed into a single box.
A recent puzzle did that one better, incorporating punctuation into the answers, so the answer for "president" in 12 boxes was ",(comma)nderinchief" while the 12-block solution to the clue "sprint" was "hundredyard-(dash)".
And for those times when answers just won't come, those in the room were in agreement that taking a break may be the solution.
"Let your brain think while you're off doing something else," says Diane Daniels. And if that doesn't work, wait a bit longer, the answers are in the next day's paper.
"Maybe I'll need one hint, maybe two, maybe three, but I'll always complete it the next day," says Lois Adams.
- More than 50 million Americans solve crossword puzzles.
- A Gallup poll showed 26 percent of newspaper readers work crossword puzzles occasionally.
- 3 million Americans name crosswords as their favorite leisure time activity.
- The first crossword puzzle appeared in the Sunday New York World on December 21, 1913. It was the work of Arthur Wynne, who called it a "Word-Cross." Three weeks later a typographical error turned it into Cross-word, and the mistake has been the standard ever since.
- Studies show that crossword solving improves mental abilities and, among older solvers, slows down or even prevents the spread of Alzheimer's disease.
(Source: Will Shortz, puzzle editor for The New York Times)
These dozen words appear frequently in the New York Times Crossword Puzzle, but not often in everyday speech:
- Aria — A solo vocal piece with instrumental accompaniment, as in an opera
- Aorta — The main trunk of the systemic arteries, carrying blood from the left side of the heart to the arteries of all limbs and organs except the lungs.
- Ebb — 1: a gradual decline, 2: the outward flow of the tide.
- Edam — A mild yellow Dutch cheese, pressed into balls and usually covered with red wax.
- Eider — Any of several large sea ducks, especially of the genus Somateria of northern regions, having soft, commercially valuable down and predominantly black and white plumage in the male.
- Eon — An indefinitely long period of time; an age.
- Epee — A fencing sword with a bowl-shaped guard and a long, narrow, fluted blade that has no cutting edge and tapers to a blunted point.
- Ewe — A female sheep, especially when full grown.
- Ewer — A pitcher, especially a decorative one with a base, an oval body and flaring spout.
- Iota — A very small amount; a bit.
- Jai-alai — A handball-like game of Spanish Basque origin. It is played as either singles or doubles on a three-walled court (fronton) with a hard rubber ball (pelota) that is hurled with a wicker basket (cesta) attached to the player's arm.
- Yen — 1: A strong desire or inclination, a yearning or craving, 2: unit of Japanese currency
(Source: the Web site www.wordplaythemovie.com)
Are crossword puzzles good for you?
Dr. Kenneth Heilman, Director of the Memory and Cognitive Disorder Clinic at the University of Florida and the Alzheimer's Disease Center gives a thumbs-up to crosswords.
"They're actually healthy to do," says Heilman.
He says while doing specific research is difficult, he says there seems to be more and more evidence to the idea of "use or lose" when it comes to keeping the brain healthy.
Heilman, who studies Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia and memory disorders, says keeping physically fit and mentally fit may slow down the progress of these health problems and may even be preventative. He says puzzle solving certainly won't hurt.