Date: March 27, 1996
Byline: Korky Vann
For solvers, it's down (and across) to StamfordParticipants, sharpen your pencils.
What's a 10-letter word meaning contest of skill?
Answer: t-o-u-r-n-a-m-e-n-t. In this case, the l9th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament at the Stamford Marriott Hotel.
About 250 contestants from more than 20 states will be packing lead and converging on Stamford this weekend to decide the national title in one of America's most popular indoor pastimes, crossword-puzzle solving.
Founded and run by Will Shortz, New York Times crossword puzzle editor and -- and as far as anyone knows -- holder of the world's only college degree in "enigmatology," the event is the oldest continuously run crossword puzzle competition in the world.
"This competition had been a dream of mine since I was a kid," says Shortz, who sold his first puzzle to a national magazine when he was 14. "So when I was contacted in '77 by the Marriott's marketing director, who had noticed how many passengers on commuter trains did crosswords to pass the time and thought there might be interest in an event, I jumped at the chance to organize it."
Although the basic concept of a scoring system based on speed, accuracy and skill has remained, the tournament has come a long way from the first year, when Shortz and four other judges ended up checking puzzles from 10 at night until 8:30 the next morning. And back then, they had 100 fewer players.
"Because I thought everyone who came would be a genius, I had chosen incredibly hard puzzles and decided we would score letter by letter," says Shortz. "Big mistake. It just about killed us."
Now scoring is done by word rather than letter, and Shortz has a panel of 20 judges instead of five. Once entries have been verified, a computer tallies scores and determines rankings.
In the world of crossword puzzle enthusiasts, there is a special lingo: The doers of puzzles are solvers, the creators are constructors. Both doers and solvers are members of the species known as cruciverbalists "cruci" the Latin word for "cross" and "verbalis," Latin for "word." As a matter of pride, serious solvers find the pen mightier than the pencil.
Solvers this weekend will take on eight crosswords specially created by leading puzzle makers for the event. Sunday morning, participants will gather in the ballroom to watch the top three winners compete in a dramatic public puzzle-off on giant black-and-white grids at the front of the room.
Prizes will be awarded in 20 categories, including five skill divisions four age divisions and a special rookie event. The grand prize is $1,000 and an unabridged Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Besides the competition, the weekend is also a national crossword convention, with word games speakers and events. One highlight this year will be a special appearance and lecture by Brian Greer crossword puzzle editor of The Times of London.
Although participants are kindred word fanatics, they are by no means geniuses.
"We get a full gamut of people, all ages, a range of professions, some nerdy, some brainy, some regular folk," says Shortz. "What they all have in common is a unique way of thinking, a good vocabulary, flexible minds and a good sense of humor. Many are pop-culture fans as well."
Sense of humor? Pop culture? Those non-puzzlers who think of crosswords as dry mind exercises may be in for a surprise, Shortz says.
"Modern puzzles have a lot of puns and wordplays, and a mind that can see through the tricks has a distinct advantage," he says. "Older puzzles depended more on obscure words. The new generation of puzzle constructors is changing that."
Merl Reagle, creator of Northeast magazine's weekly puzzle and a prime force in the new school of puzzling, concedes that not all crossword aficionados approve of the direction crossword puzzling has taken. In fact, says Reagle, constructor of one of this year's competition puzzles and a tournament judge, the disagreement caused a split of sorts a few years back in the world of cruciverbalists.
"There were a bunch of us who felt puzzles like The New York Times' were too hard, too obscure. We thought crossword puzzles needed more entertainment value, so we started including contemporary culture references, governed by fairness, of course," says Reagle, who has since published four books of crossword puzzles, all bearing the slogan "Twisted but Fair." "Some constructors disagreed, and some solvers felt a little left behind."
But Shortz says the rift is healing, and crossword puzzles are more popular than ever. He says surveys show that one in four newspaper readers is a crossword-puzzle solver. Sales of crossword puzzle books, magazines, dictionaries, computer software and calls to 900-number answer lines amount to a $50 million business annually Shortz says.
Jane Blanshard of Storrs, an English teacher and an avid puzzle enthusiast who is making her 10th trip to the tournament, is a prime example of the market. She subscribes to a number of puzzle magazines, does puzzles every day, the Sunday New York Times and Hartford Courant puzzles every week -- and, in case you were wondering, always in pen.
"I'm addicted to crossword puzzles," she admits. "The first time I went to the tournament, I just loved it. Along with competition, there is puzzling going on in smaller groups all over the place -- anagrams, double-crostics, cryptics, jigsaw puzzles, diagramless, you name it. We just puzzle our brains out all weekend. It's great."
"For us this is fun; for others, it's migraine," he says. "It's what separates puzzle people from the rest of the world."
The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament begins Friday at 8 p.m. and runs through Sunday. The entrance fee is $80. For $115, participants get a Friday evening wine-and-cheese reception, a Sunday awards banquet and all the evening activities. Participants can register in advance or at the door.
For registration information, call (212) 628 2087. For room reservation information, call the Stamford Marriott at (203) 357-9555.