American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

 Crossword Tournament

In the News

Source: New Yorker
Date: May 11, 1987
Byline: E. J. Kahn

Our Local Correspondents

At a recent dinner party, I was taken aback to realize that I was one of the very few present who watched "Wheel of Fortune" not to gape at Vanna White's latest getup but to see how quickly the contestants could solve word problems. Not long ago, my interest in logomachy still unsatisfied, I went up to Connecticut for a weekend to witness a much more demanding competition — the tenth annual Stamford Marriott Crossword Puzzle Tournament, with a hundred and eighteen contestants from coast to coast vying for cash and glory. The Stamford affair is generally recognized in crossword-puzzledom as one of the nation's two major events of its kind, the other being the United States Open Crossword Tournament, usually held annually in New York. This year, because not enough sponsors had come forward to put up prize money for the Open, it closed, and the Connecticut tourney stands supreme in the field. Puzzle people sometimes compare it, if only because both events are held in the spring, to golfdom's Masters. But there are significant differences. The crossword annual, for one thing, is not much of a spectator event, and, for another, first place is worth only four hundred dollars. Also, it is scheduled for April, not to coincide with anything like the azaleas that bloom in the spring (as in Georgia for the Masters) but because the Marriott usually has rooms vacant at the time.

When I checked into the hotel, on Friday afternoon, people were sitting around its lobby just as in any hostelry, but there was something different about this crowd. Most of these folk were not idly watching the world go by but had their heads down. They were doing crossword puzzles. I did manage to make eye contact with one of them — a petite young woman I'd met some years back. She was Michelle Arnot, and she had then been the editor and publisher of two crossword magazines. I soon learned how far she has come. She now works for an outfit called Official Publications, which was a co-sponsor of the weekend's contest, and which spews forth twenty-nine crossword and word-game magazines every month. Ms. Arnot holds the reins of a half-dozen of these journals, including Puzzles Plus Crosswords, Find the Word, Crossword Treasury, and Favorite Crossword Puzzles. She told me she had just returned East from Las Vegas, where she'd been a delegate from her company to a convention of newsstand dignitaries. She has been professionally involved with puzzles since 1978, when her husband — he is now a Citibank assistant vice-president, and he prefers Scrabble — said that if she was going to devote as much time as she did to crosswords she might as well make them her vocation. In due course, she was teaching acrostics and diagramless puzzles to adult-education students at the New School and had written a history of the crossword puzzle, entitled "What's Gnu?"

Michelle was not going to compete at Stamford. Her best finish ever there, she confessed, was a middling fifty- second. I asked her why she thought so many people seemed to spend so many hours trying to solve crosswords, and she elected to paraphrase the late Margaret Farrar, the dowager empress of the pastime (she gave the Times its reputation, crosswordwise):

"It's one of the few instances in life where you're confronted with a problem that's totally solvable and the solving of which can provide instant gratification."

A young man had come up and joined us, and when I asked if he considered himself ridiculously addicted to crosswords and other word games he paused, scribbled something on the back of a magazine he was holding, looked at Michelle Arnot, smiled, and finally replied — puzzling me at the time — "Hell, not a crime."

The tournament — whose entrants had paid eighty dollars apiece for the pleasure, or pain, of trying to figure out, for example, that the correct solutions for "Short samurai?" and "Marlboro men in training?" were "Sawed off shoguns" and "Kool dudes" — would not get formally under way until Saturday morning. Friday evening was, for those who'd already arrived, set aside for fun and games — word games, naturally. I spotted an empty chair at one of a batch of long tables arrayed in the Marriott ballroom and asked if I could join two women sitting there. They welcomed me, and I was pleased to find out that the one I was sitting beside was a three-time U.S. Open champion and had been the runner-up at Stamford in 1986 — Rebecca Kornbluh. She is reputed, I heard later, to have earned more prize money than any other solver extant: five thousand dollars. Not quite as rewarding as professional golf, but after all there is not much TV coverage. Rebecca was not competing this time, but the other woman at the table — her mother, Renee 'Wenger — was. (She finished sixty-ninth.) Rebecca told me she had got mixed up with crosswords five years ago. "I went to the Open, and I was hooked, along with some two hundred and fifty like-minded maniacs," she said. "I'll tell you frankly, though — crosswords are not my favorite puzzle. I used to keep in competitive shape by doing about an hour's worth of them a day, but now I'm involved in cryptanalysis and verse puzzles, so there's really no point in my keeping up my crosswords training." She is by occupation a tapestry weaver, she said, and her husband is in electronics — "one of those jobs I don't understand." They live in Mundelein, Illinois — celebrated among football fans as the home town of the Chicago Bears' 'William Perry. "I was the town celebrity until the Refrigerator came along," Rebecca said.

Our chat was interrupted by the appearance of a guest speaker, Mel Taub, who contributes puns-and- anagrams teasers to the Sunday Times. Most of his audience was casually dressed; Taub, as befitted his august journalistic affiliation, wore jacket and tie. He asked, right off, "Is there anybody here who doesn't know how to solve a 'Puns and Anagrams'?" and there were hoots of laughter. Did he think he was addressing a bunch of amateurs? He proceeded to challenge his auditors with a few anagrammatic phrases: "He doesn't have end seat" (the answer was "Standee," of course); "Sign of fleas or termites" ("For sale"); "Pete's no Astaire at this" ("One — step").

Rebecca sat silent and looked bored through most of this ("It's not my best thing," she told me), but when Taub requested a four-letter name from "Central America" her "Eric" came out like a shot, and her "Scow" nearly overlapped his "T'ain't bull." "That one's a cliché by now," she said.

Next on the evening's docket was a relay race. Teams of four were to solve a crossword as quickly as possible, with each member working at it for thirty seconds and then, at a command from Will Shortz — the senior editor of the magazine Games, who was the tournament director — passing it along to a teammate. Rebecca and Renee generously asked me to join their team, along with a man who had pulled up a chair during the Taub test. I demurred, but the mother and daughter talked me into it. What the hell, I reflected — if George Plimpton can play ice hockey with the Boston Bruins, maybe I won't embarrass these good people too badly. Just to be on a relay team with a national champ — wow! (Regarding the exclamation, Taub might have put it definitively:

"Do you double back twice around nothing? Fantastic!") By the time the race was over, each of us having had maybe half a dozen whacks at the puzzle, I was worn out, so I excused myself. Renee had given me, for bedtime reading, a copy of The Enigma, the journal of the National Puzzlers' League, and I already had a copy of Michelle's book, which she had flatteringly inscribed to a "fellow-puzzler," and from which I presently learned that a lipogrammatist is someone who drps a leter fro a wrd. As I was drifting off to sleep, I sat up with a start. It had suddenly occurred to me what that enigmatic "Hell, not a crime" was. It was an anagram of "Michelle Arnot."

WHEN I stopped by the hotel's newsstand after breakfast to pick up the Saturday Times, I noticed on one magazine rack copies of Superb Crosswords, NewCrosswords, Popular Word Games, Crossword Varieties, Popular crosswords, and Quickie Crosswords, and while I was admiring the breadth of this display Michelle wandered past, strikingly accoutred in a sweatshirt imprinted with a Times crossword. She congratulated me, to my astonishment; it seemed that our relay team had won the silver medal — well, had come in second anyway. My individual reward turned out to be a Scrabble-like board game called Option. Probably better for me, I mused, than mere cash, which I'd have spent, and the acceptance of which might have compromised my amateur standing.

In the lobby, I encountered another young woman in a crossword-puzzle shirt, who proved to be a walking advertisement for the North Jersey Puzzlers' League. She invited me to participate in a tournament that the League would be holding in Hackensack in June, and she was proud to be able to inform me that this event was going to be coordinated by none other than Stanley Newman, in person.

Stanley who?

I had never heard of Stanley Newman? Never heard of the man who on television, in 1982, with witnesses galore, had done the daily Times puzzle in two minutes and twenty-four seconds?

Oh, I had heard about somebody's doing that — a feat akin, in its way, to Gene Sarazen's double eagle in the 1935 Masters — but I didn't know the person's name. (Just inserting letters at random in all of the nearly two hundred squares of a daily Times offering, without even glancing at the definitions, once took me a minute and a half.)

"Well," Miss North Jersey said, pointing to a fellow in a run-of-the- mill shirt, "there he is."

I introduced myself to the phenom. He did not consider his televised stunt to amount to much, he said — why, he regularly knocked off the Times puzzle in less than three minutes. (I rarely get it in under five.) Like Michelle and Rebecca, Stanley said, he was not competing in the Marriott; he had come up from Massapequa Park to serve as a judge. "Most people don't compete here expecting to win," he told me. "It's like runners showing up year after year for a marathon. They want to beat their previous year's time, and they're happy just to finish." I was surprised to hear that he has a rather low opinion of the daily Times puzzles — a biting-the-hand-that-has-fed-him response, in a sense. "I resent some of the editors there who delve into dictionaries for the eighth meaning of a word," he said. "Good puzzles shouldn't require a trip to the library, and after you get the answer you should say 'Ah!' and not 'Huh?' I bemoan the fact that nowhere in this entire country is there a well-done daily crossword. There's no reason for the Times to use the obscure words that turn up in its puzzles. They wouldn't be allowed anywhere else in the paper. Your typical anonymous syndicated crossword puzzle in your small-town daily is better than the Times'. This is not opinion but analytical fact."

Newman, who is thirty-four and a bond analyst at E. F. Hutton, had his best competitive year in 1982, when he won three tournaments, among them the Open, and more than two thousand dollars in purses. "Games of the mind don't receive sponsorship like games of the body," he said. He added that if the prize money ever got attractive enough he might come out of retirement. At present, he puts out a bimonthly crosswords newsletter with a circulation of fifteen hundred, and writes its gossip column, "Crossword Confidential." After swearing me to secrecy, he confided that he had constructed a puzzle for the competition that was about to get under way, titled "Nightmares": "Automaker's nightmare" ("Total recall"); "Bodybuilder's" ("Soft shoulders"); "Toreador's" ("Sitting bull").

"That's my idea of a good puzzle," he said.

I must have been feeling unduly perky after nearly winning the relay race, for now I had the temerity to say, "How about: 'Mare's nightmare' ('Colt revolver')?"

I guess he thought I'd said "Mayor's nightmare," because he replied, before taking swift leave of me, "Koch has enough problems as it is."

The competition was about to start. The long tables, capable of accommodating six or eight people, were still in place, but now with only three chairs at each. Tabletop screens had been positioned to discourage peeking. The agenda called for three puzzles to be tackled on Saturday morning, three more after lunch, and a seventh on Sunday morning, which would be followed by a final for the three players with the highest cumulative point total. Points would be awarded, by some arcane system I never did entirely grasp, for speed and accuracy, and would be deducted for omissions and mistakes. On a dais at one end of the room was a clock, with a second hand. Tournament director Shortz stood at a lectern nearby. The judges passed out the first puzzle, which each contestant laid on the table, face down. At a "Go!" from Will, the puzzlers hopped to it. They had fifteen minutes for this one.

While they were digging in, I drew Will aside. He said he feared that a lot of first-timers on the scene were in for trouble. "They're champs at home, but here they'll have their egos crushed," he explained. He himself, he told me, had begun solving puzzles when he was ten, and he holds a degree in Enigmatology from Indiana University. In 1979, when he was twenty-six, he took part in a crossword marathon sponsored by a bookstore in a Cleveland suburb. There was a twenty-four-hour time limit. He finished in eight and a half hours — and won first prize. "Soon afterward, I retired from competition," he said. "Undefeated." Nowadays, he does a turn on National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition." I had never heard him on it, so I asked what that entailed. He said he put questions to people, like "What word starts with the letter 'y' and if you drop the 'y' you get a word of opposite meaning?"

By now, I had come to realize that speed counts. " 'Yearn' and 'earn'?" I tossed at him.

He seemed a touch peeved. "'Yours' and 'ours,' " he said, and he returned to his perch, where he began holding up cards to show the competitors how many minutes they still had coming to them. A couple of hands were soon raised, signifying that those contestants were through. Half a dozen judges were patrolling the premises, and at the sight of a raised hand one of them would rush over and grab the signaller's puzzle sheet and jot down the time.

All the puzzles for the tournament had, like Stanley Newman's "Nightmares," been specially constructed for the occasion. Maura Jacobson, of New York magazine, for instance, was represented by a puzzle that included "Premier who cooked on yachts?" ("Nikita Cruise Chef") and "Actress who did laundry?" ("Clorox Bleachman"). I decided to have a go at the second puzzle, and was pleased to find that I had completed it — except for one pesky word — before more than half the hands in the room were raised. What had stumped me — and it was a relief to learn that the eventual winner of the tournament had stubbed his pencil on that one, too — was No. 18 across: "Modern race." The answer was "Tenk." Huh? "Ten K," it developed, short for "Ten kilometres." Ah!

One of the first hands to go up during Puzzle No. 2 belonged to a member of the relay team that had nosed us out. The hand belonged to David Rosen — an odds-on favorite to succeed himself as singles champion, I'd been informed, unless he was dethroned, as a few long-shot bettors speculated he might be, by Ellen Rip- stein. (David had come in first and Ellen second in a Baltimore tournament earlier this year.) They both work for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, in Manhattan, David told me out in a corridor while some hands inside were not yet lifted — he as an electronic-system standards-and — procedures analyst, and she as a statistical consultant in charge of reimbursement rates for doctors and dentists. His best performance with the daily Times offering is a full twenty- one seconds off Stanley Newman's mark. David said that didn't worry him, but "if I can't finish one of them under five minutes I feel crestfallen."

David told me that one of his favorite constructors was Merl Reagle, who had thought up the fiendish "Tenk." Reagle, a Californian, supplies the San Francisco Examiner with its Sunday puzzle. Weekdays, that paper carries the Times daily puzzle — of which, Men disclosed when I got a chance to beard him between sets, he has an opinion no higher than Newman's. Merl, who is thirty-seven, has been a crosswords buff practically forever. When he was six, he thought he had invented crosswords. "I was putting letters together like Lincoln logs and Erector sets," he said. "I was surprised to discover that newspapers were doing it, too."

During the Saturday-afternoon session, I simply watched. I could tell by the order in which hands were shooting up who was doing well — notably, to almost no one's surprise, David Rosen and Ellen Ripstein. And, indeed, when interim standings were posted on a lobby bulletin board early Sunday morning, he ranked first and she second, with, in third place, a Manhattan social worker, Ed Bethea, who had come in fourth last year. That evening was once more consecrated to extracurricular word games, but I skipped them in favor of yet another erudite tome, "The Compleat Cruciverbalist," which had been graciously pressed upon me by Stan Kurzban, a senior programmer with I.B.M., who was its co-author, with Mel Rosen.

Kurzban complained to me that it was hard for daily jobholders like him to be able to solve crossword-puzzle references to characters in daytime television soaps. Kurzban himself specializes in the construction of diagramless puzzles, and believes that he may have been one of the earliest such craftsmen, if not indeed the very first of them, to design a puzzle for Valentine Day's consumption in the shape of a heart. In addition to his work on "The Compleat Cruciverbalist," Kurzban is co-author of a science textbook called "Operating Systems Principles." When a high-school-senior son of his was visiting college campuses not long ago, Kurzban pert tagged along and inspected campus- library card catalogues. M.I.T. had his scientific book, Yale his cruciverbalistic one.

Sunday's Stamford Advocate had a banner headline on page 1: "IT'S MARATHON DAY!" That alluded to a footrace; the crossword ordeal was relegated to page 3, and although it was fittingly enough illustrated with a photograph of the redoubtable Stanley Newman, the text dwelt heavily on a home-town entrant, a seventy-two- year-old woman. (If the paper had followed up in the next day's edition, it would have had to report that she finished one-hundred-and-fifteenth, with only three contestants behind her.) Unlike many golf pros, crossword-puzzle mavens are not, by and large, spiffy dressers, but on Sunday morning David Rosen was clad in jacket and tie, and Ellen Ripstein in a demure blue-and-white frock that would have been suitable for tea at the Plaza. David told me that he was nervous, but Ellen did not seem to be. "The tension is mounting, that's for sure," Michelle Arnot cried on her way to a telephone. She was railing a radio station that had promised to send over a reportorial crew. (In the end, it didn't.)

The seventh puzzle was a dilly, conceived by Henry Hook, a frequent tormentor of readers of the Boston Sunday Globe. He called his opus "Colorization," which was supposed to help one arrive at "Dorian Beige" from "Literary libertine," at "Orange's Anatomy" from "Med school textbook," and at "Redhound bus" from "Passenger vehicle." I got stuck in the upper-right-hand corner, having forgotten that the first name of Anwar's successor is Hosni, and never before nor since having heard of a North Sea fishing boat called a "coble." Rosen, Ripstein, and Bethea maintained their leading positions, and presently the three were standing, backs to our admiring eyes, in front of three easels with big plastic puzzle blanks mounted on them. Ed, wearing a Giants baseball cap, was on the left, David and Ellen next to him. Will Shortz passed out grease pencils for them to fill in their squares with. The puzzle confronting them, titled "For the Money," had been designed by Mike Shenk, another Games editor. It wasn't terribly tough (the answer to No. 11 down — "See puzzle caption" — was, obviously, "You"), but it was, of course, a test of nerves as much as of vocabulary or skill. The outcome followed form: Rosen, Ripstein, and Bethea, in that order. They'd been allotted fifteen minutes. David finished in five minutes and forty-five seconds, Ellen in eight minutes and fifty-five seconds, Ed in thirteen minutes and fifty seconds. (Had it been closer, he might have been penalized for having inadvertently neglected to fill in one "e," but, as it turned out, it didn't matter.) "I think they ought to rename this event, and call it 'The Dave and Ellen Show,' " one also-ran muttered, not unkindly.

It was not quite time to acclaim the winners at the awards banquet, so I picked up a Sunday Times at the newsstand. I had one waiting for me back home in New York, but I hadn't been so involved with words that I wasn't still mildly curious to see what William Safire had to say about them. My suitcase was already bulging with my trophy and my newly acquired crossword books and magazines, so after gleaning the obits, the headlines, and the baseball scores I pulled out the magazine, in which Safire holds forth, and left the rest of the paper on a lobby table, thinking someone might want it. Not three minutes later, a woman came by and said, "You know what? Somebody left an entire Times over there except the section with the puzzles in it. Typical of these people."

Return to In the News Index