Date: March 27, 2006
Byline: David Funkhouser
Puzzle Champ Wins Again
Simsbury Man Takes 2nd Crossword Title
STAMFORD — Tyler Hinman wore the same black T-shirt he did last year for luck and marched into the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament this weekend with something to prove — that his 2005 victory as the youngest ever to win the competition was not a fluke.
The red-haired 21-year-old from Simsbury made his point Sunday in a little over 10 minutes by solving the final puzzle first — and accurately — in a sudden death competition with two top competitors.
Nearly 500 people from across the country and as far away as Switzerland participated in the 29th annual tournament at the Marriott hotel, working on seven puzzles up to the final round.
Hinman said the waiting made him more nervous than figuring out the puzzle. "Once I get started, it's lock and load," said Hinman, who takes home a $4,000 prize. "You just get in the zone."
A senior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., Hinman majors in information technology. He is excited about the job he has lined up after graduation, as a bond futures trader in Chicago. His family now lives in Hebron.
Hinman's success will be amplified this summer: He appears in the movie "Wordplay," an acclaimed look inside the world of crossword creators and players that opens June 16. Contestants got a special preview Saturday evening, and the film was on many minds Sunday morning as contestants milled around the Marriott lobby talking and drinking coffee.
The competition is directed by Will Shortz, crossword editor of The New York Times, who plays a prominent role in "Wordplay." The movie features celebrity puzzle fanatics such as Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart and Mike Mussina.
The movie also looks back at last year's tournament and its dramatic, now-legendary ending. Veteran finalist Al Sanders, in a rush to finish first, declared he was done, then saw that he had forgotten to fill in two letters, handing the victory to Hinman.
For all the pressure, the puzzlers are a genial lot.
"These are the best people in the country," said David Quarfoot, 27, of Wallingford, a math teacher at Choate Rosemary Hall. Quarfoot designs puzzles, and has had seven published in the Times. He does it for fun, he said, "and to bring joy to other people."
The crowd warmed up Friday evening with informal competitions, including the First American Sudoku Smackdown and a trivia challenge with Ken Jennings, the man who won a record 74 games on "Jeopardy!" Jennings won the Division C competition Sunday, whipping through the puzzle in four minutes, nine seconds.
In the finals, nine people, grouped by threes into different levels of achievement, would tackle the eighth and last puzzle. Each group used the same puzzle, but with increasingly difficult clues.
Hinman, in the top division, had formidable competition: Ellen Ripstein, 53, is a freelance editor who test-solves puzzles for the Times. She has been to every tournament but one since 1978, and won in 2001. Kiran Kedlaya, 31, teaches math at MIT and has been in two lower level finals. He finished fourth last year.
The three took the stage, their backs to the buzzing crowd, and faced large crosswords mounted on easels. They put on headsets to blot out the noise and help them focus. At the signal, they turned over the sheet of puzzle clues and began.
They had 15 minutes.
After a minute and a half, Hinman had nothing written and started to worry. But then the words came. Given his age, he had a little trouble with "co-star of five Bogart films," but finally corrected "Loren" to "Lorre." He said 41 Down, "Pandora" ("Name associated with a bad opening") was a big breakthrough.
With four and a half minutes to go, he drew in his last letter, stepped back to check the board and declared himself done. In the end, time ran out on his two competitors.
Hinman said he wore the same black "Trogdor" T-shirt he won in last year for luck. (Trogdor is a dragon who figures into an online game.) As he stood alone on the platform, beaming after the competition as the crowd filtered out of the ballroom, he said, "I should sell it on eBay."