Date: April 24, 2013
Byline: Mark F. Bernstein ’83
WILL SHORTZ, the Times’ legendary crossword editor, organized the first American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 1987 and has run it ever since. Contestants this year ranged in age from 17 to 86 and came from as far away as Hawaii and Great Britain. They were divided evenly between men and women. About 40 percent said this was their first tournament, but another 20 percent had competed there at least 10 times. Tom Weisswange ’94, a high school math teacher, is a 19-year veteran, while Jenni Levy ’82, a hospice medical director, had attended only once before.
Zawistowski, back for her 13th tournament, had her game face on. “If I don’t make any mistakes, I have a chance to finish in the top 10,” she reasoned before the first puzzle. “If I hurry, I’ll make mistakes and I’ll have no chance.” Not everyone, however, was gunning for the top. Kelly Ann Smith *95, a software engineer, said that her goal was just to finish all seven puzzles. “I’m really good compared to most people,” she said. “Here, I’m a ‘C.’”
Competitive pressures do not keep the tournament from being a social event. David Hodes ’63 attended with his daughter, Laura Hodes Dove ’92. Mike Molyneux ’76 took the train down from Boston with four friends and caught up with others he sees once a year. The tournament, he says, “is a reunion.” Levy, who recalls doing puzzles as a little girl with her mother and grandmother, echoes that sentiment. “It’s wonderful to find a community,” she says. “And they have the best puzzles!” Speaking of communities, Juli Robbins Greenwald ’83, a B-level contestant who also has competed in several amateur bodybuilding tournaments, sees odd similarities between the two: Both provide “a peek into a weird, bizarre subculture.”
Subculture, indeed. The Marriott ballroom was filled with people attired in puzzle hats, scarves, shirts, jackets, and umbrellas. One woman was dressed in crosswords print from head to foot: cap, pajamas, and slippers. A man wore a replica Mel Ott baseball jersey (Ott’s name — three letters, starting with a vowel — is a favorite among puzzle constructors). Out in the lobby, vendors hawked crossword mugs, books, pens, pencil sharpeners, and websites — even a novel about crosswords.
Regardless of experience or skill level, all contestants did the same seven puzzles, six on Saturday and one on Sunday morning. Scores were based on the time it took to finish, with deductions for wrong answers and unanswered clues. Puzzle creators are rock stars to this crowd. When Shortz announced that a puzzle had been designed by Patrick Blindauer, a self-described “crossword fiend,” the contestants let out a collective groan. One woman got up, turned in her blank answer sheet, and announced that she was going upstairs to take a shower.
That puzzle also stumped Smith, who started but could not finish. It did not faze Feyer, whose pencil never seemed to leave his sheet and who finished in about as long as it took him to write down all the letters. During breaks, while other competitors relaxed or socialized in the lobby, Feyer sat in his back-row seat and did ... more puzzles, to keep himself in the groove. He estimates that he did a dozen extra puzzles on Saturday alone.
The top three finishers in the A, B, and C divisions advanced to the Sunday afternoon finals. They competed on stage, writing in marker on a large whiteboard while wearing noise-canceling headphones in case anyone in the audience shouted out an answer. (There were no finals for the less competitive D, E, and rookie tiers.) Everyone answered the same puzzle, but the clues were harder at each level. The answer to 1-across in all three final rounds, for example, was “Snapbrim.” C-division finalists got the clue “Adjustable fedora feature.” For the B division, it was “Cap part,” and for the A division, the devilishly ambiguous “Tipping point?”
When Shortz called, “Begin,” to kick off the A-division final, Feyer did something entirely out of character. For nearly 30 seconds he simply stared at the board without answering. With so much on the line, he wanted to read the clues carefully and think them through.
The tournament is a place for fanatics, so it is fitting that “fanatics” proved to be a hurdle on his way to title number four. It was the answer to 27-across (an eight-letter word for “Ones bearing high interest”) and it stumped him for a moment, he admits — both “high” and “interest” have multiple meanings. One of the other finalists, Tyler Hinman, who won five consecutive titles before Feyer unseated him in 2010, appeared to take an early lead, filling in most of the right side of his board while Feyer still was working on the lower-right quadrant. But once Feyer cracked the difficult clue, the rest of his board fell into place. He finished in 10:41, not as fast as his other winning times, but it was a harder puzzle. As he wrote on his blog later, “The playoff puzzle put up a bigger fight than it ever had before.”
Tempting as it is to call these whizzes “machines,” they aren’t. They’re better. Although many easy puzzles are designed by computers, computers still have trouble solving them. Puns and other linguistic tricks trip them up. The top computer puzzle-solving program, called Dr. Fill (get it?), finished the tournament in 92nd place and could not solve the final puzzle using the A-level clues.
Schedules permitting, all the Princeton participants hope to return next year. As for Feyer, he was planning to use some of the $5,000 prize money to pay for a post-tournament vacation to Puerto Rico, but he returned immediately to his daily ritual of puzzle solving. He expects to defend his title next year. There are still mountains to climb, particularly the tournament record of seven championships, he says: “I don’t think I would want to retire before that.”
Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.