Date: March 4, 2003
Byline: Arline Bleecker
Clueless in ConnecticutAs a lifelong lingua-phile, I couldn't resist the urge to test my skills at last year's annual war-with-words the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Held at the Marriott in Stamford, Conn., it's the largest event of its kind. Spawned by enigmatologist Will Shortz, puzzle editor of the New York Times, the joust gives new meaning to the notion of working the weekend puzzle.
Nearly 500 high-wattage minds match wits for title of fastest, cleverest puzzle dude around, and the congregants are as quirky as the clues.
THE PLAYING FIELD
The drama unfolds in the hotel ballroom, where the mood falls somewhere between the gravitas of a chess tournament and the lunacy of a bingo game. The pencil is mightier than the sword here, and entrants crowd electric sharpeners to hone them, a sound not unlike that of 100 dentists drilling.
READY, SET, BEGIN
I start puzzle No. 1. Its grid of black and white squares, which seems so tidy and beckoning at home, sneers at me here and amnesia sets in. I finish with seconds to spare.
It goes downhill from here. I don't complete puzzle No. 2, titled "Go Figure." By the time I figure out that Roman numerals are the key —i.e. "CD burners" answers the clue "What 100 stovetops would likely have" — time's up.
I watch the big clock on the wall like it's a taxi meter: 10 minutes remain and only a dozen of us are still working puzzle No. 3. The puzzle, titled "Near-Miss Palindromes," requires such near-miss answers as "madam, I'm that naked guy" instead of "madam, I'm Adam."
A certain peacefulness overtakes me, the kind a drowning man must feel as he yields calmly to a watery grave.
CLASH OF THE TITANS
By mid-morning Sunday, three mental giants are culled from 400 to compete in the finals.
Anxious hopefuls jam the lobby to scrutinize the posted results. I didn't expect to win, but I sure didn't expect to be this far behind, either. I place a pathetic 344th.
For the tourney's climax, the three top scorers take to the stage to work giant 4-by-4-foot puzzle grids in full view of the also-rans. They wear headsets to block out the merest whisper.
GAME. SET. MATCH
Immediately, the finalists feverishly start filling in the blanks. The only sound from the stage is the squeak of their thick felt pens on white erasable board. The players' collective mental heat could launch a rocket.
For Jon Delfin, a chipmunk-cheeked Manhattanite, it's a piece of cake. He scores a perfect board in eight minutes, 10 seconds — and declares "Done!"
The place goes wild.
The 26th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament will be held March 14-16 at the Stamford Marriott; $35-$165 (crosswordtournament.com). Rooms at the Stamford Marriott are $89 for all tournament entrants (marriott.com).