Date: April 2001
Byline: Renée Wright
One down: crossword puzzle competition leaves this rookie in the dust
I used to think I was pretty good at solving crossword puzzles.
I could almost always finish the big Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in the span of two cups of chai. On a particularly good day, I could get it down to one. Even if confronted with obscure clues like "Burmese orchid," I stubbornly resisted looking for answers anywhere other than among the dusty cobwebs of my cranial attic. Cracking the thesaurus or checking the Internet was a remedy of last resort, reserved for pathetic puzzle wimps.
This cocky self-assurance, however, wilted as quickly as any Burmese orchid in the noonday sun when I participated in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held March 16-18 in Stamford, Connecticut. This annual affair is the ne plus ultra for "word nerds" everywhere, attracting hundreds of solvers (322 this year) from all over the U.S. and a few from overseas. It’s run by Will Shortz, crossword editor of the New York Times, a man who seems to have been born with a pencil in his hand. In fact, Shortz’ lifelong passion led him to devise his own major in enigmatology at Indiana University. He went on to edit Games magazine before earning the coveted Times slot.
For many puzzle fanatics, the tournament is an annual event. The first night, joyful shrieks punctuated the lobby chatter every few minutes, as old friends reunited and crossword fans greeted their favorite puzzle constructors. Scanning the contestants in the hotel lobby and the roster sheet, I noted that the tournament attracts about as many women as men, as many tattooed solvers in micro-minis as grey-haired solvers in nylon jogging suits. Occupations ranged from massage therapist to music critic, with a passel of writer/editors and retired teachers in between.
Day #1: ego deflation
The first morning of the tournament started out well enough. In the hotel ballroom, long tables were positioned seminar-style, with about 4 solvers seated at each. Organizers bustled about, helping contestants set up simple cardboard dividers between themselves to prevent peeking at anyone else’s answers. Some solvers warmed up by working on puzzles they had brought, some nervously cracked their knuckles, and others chatted with their neighbors. Some lined up whole pencil arsenals, neatly sharpened, against the onslaught to come.
Amid the contestants’ nervous buzz, tournament officials passed out the first puzzle of the day, face down. Minutes later, Shortz gave the go-ahead, and 320 pieces of paper simultaneously rustled in the air as contestants flipped them over to face the first challenge of the day. In the front and middle of the room, oversize tournament clocks began to tick through the 15-minute time allotment for the puzzle.
Just as I’d heard from a veteran competitor the night before, the first puzzle was easiest.
Nonetheless, the sense of that second hand zooming around the dial caused my mind to rev uselessly like an engine knocked out of gear. It took me at least a full minute before I penciled in my first entry, but from that moment on I was golden. Writing quickly, I had about a quarter of the puzzle finished when I heard the door creak open and closed for the first time.
I heard that door open and close many more times before I finished my puzzle. At last, after 12 minutes, I took a deep breath, raised my hand and waited until the tournament official picked up my paper.
I hadn’t been sure of a few entries, but knew that I had done as well as I could. Sighing, I joined the throng milling outside the doors, bemoaning their perceived mistakes and the speed of others.
Puzzle #2 was markedly tougher, presumably to separate amateur solvers from the pros. I needed every minute of the 25 allotted, and even then I left some blank spaces. Since every blank subtracts 10 points from your final score, as do any wrong letters, I learned later that it would have been better strategy to at least guess.
We finished four additional puzzles, and by then I was definitely warmed up. I succeeded in getting most of the puzzles 95% completed, but it seemed there were always just a few clues that stumped me. For example, "halberd’s kin" had me in its evil grasp for several precious minutes before I thought of "poleax." Devious constructors often make you work for your answers: "coworkers’ activity" turned out to be "synergy."
With each puzzle, I spotted contestants finishing and leaving the room within minutes.
To work so quickly and complete the puzzle, you’d almost have to fill in solutions constantly, left to right, without stopping. No pausing, no head scratching, no glances heavenward for divine inspiration or hints. Only later did I discover that there are in fact solvers of this caliber at the tournament – all too many of them.
After dinner, contestants were treated to a game of "Hollywood Squares," with top puzzle constructors serving as celebrities. The highlight of the evening was a collection of video clips from news footage about crosswords or the tournament itself. In television interviews, Shortz explained the evolution of crosswords (the first one ran in the New York World newspaper in 1913) and the direction he has taken with New York Times puzzles: less "crossword-ese" (those odd terms like "anoa" and "ixia" often used in crossword puzzles, but almost never in modern usage), more wordplay and cleverness in the clues.
Day #2:the finals
In the morning, scores from the previous day were posted outside the ballroom, and contestants thronged the printouts, squinting at the tiny type to see how they had fared. Everyone checked their own scores, then settled into position for the last puzzle before the final rounds. I sported a brand new crossword puzzle print shirt, which I hoped was the luck-summoning charm that would propel me into the ranks of the top solvers.
The final puzzle, #7, was larger, and thus presented the opportunity for more points. As I neared the end, I felt confident of my solution, although I had taken longer to complete the puzzle than many others. Still, it was with a certain je ne sais quoi that I tossed my hair and headed out of the room amid the sounds of frantic scribbling from the remaining contestants. There were only a few left, but who can afford to waste a perfectly good moment of smugness?
I didn’t make the finals or win the tournament. Ellen Ripstein did. A researcher for a game show who competed 18 times before without winning – but often finishing in the top three (thus earning her the dubious title of "the Susan Lucci of crosswords") – she captured the heartfelt support of many contestants. Surrounded by camera crews from ABC and CBS, Ellen and two other finalists plowed through a difficult crossword set up on 3’ x 3’ whiteboards. Patrick Jordan, an advertising sales executive from Ponca City, Oklahoma, seemed to have won the day, until the announcers spotted an incorrect letter in his solution. Wearing earphones that prevent the finalists from hearing the commentary, Ellen plugged steadily away at the grid until finished, stepped back to check her work, and announced that she was done. A roof-blasting whoop exploded from the crowd, as her quest of nearly two decades for crossword puzzledom’s crowning achievement was realized.
In the end, I did pretty well – for a rookie. Of the 320+ solvers in attendance, I finished 207th. Remember, however, I was competing against superhumans – people who casually drop references to Burmese orchids all the time and probably have a poleax hanging in their garage.
Since I returned home, I’ve been doing at least one crossword puzzle every day. If repetition of activity works for those muscle-y sorts, why can’t it work for me? After all, next year’s tournament is coming up pretty fast.