Date: April 10, 2003
Byline: Stella Daily
Crossword Geeks of the World, Unite!The Pittsburgh contingent's report from the 26th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament
Where can you find a roomful of people who know an anoa from a moa, an ern from a tern and all the variant spellings of eerie? Nowhere else but the 26th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held March 14 to March 16 in Stamford, Connecticut. The tournament is considered the Olympics of crosswords three days of wordplay and trivia in which contestants vie for a top prize of $2,000 and bragging rights for a year.
The leisurely solver who spends a lazy Sunday afternoon puzzling through the New York Times Sunday crossword is not the typical contestant here. Take Ellen Ripstein, a researcher from New York City and a perennial top-five finisher at the tournament. Ripstein regularly finishes the Times Sunday puzzle, long considered one of the most difficult available, in just 15 minutes. Yet, despite this astonishingly fast time, Ripstein has won just once, in 2001, in 24 previous tournaments, earning her the nickname "the Susan Lucci of crosswords." The competition is not limited to such superhuman types; anyone with the $165 entrance fee is welcome.
Will Shortz, crossword editor of the New York Times, has presided over the tournament since its inception in 1978. The tournament has grown by leaps and bounds since then, drawing a record 495 contestants this year, plus a number of non-competing solvers, who register to participate in the tournament and are scored, but whose scores are not counted in the final rankings. Still others solve the tournament puzzles at home to see how they stack up.
"Someday," says Shortz, "I hope the finals will be broadcast on TV viewers at home could solve the playoff puzzle at the same time. In what other sport or competitive activity can viewers compete simultaneously with the champions on TV?"
Contestants all solve the same seven puzzles, striving for accuracy first, speed second. A certain amount of time is allotted for each crossword how long depends on the puzzle's difficulty and contestants receive a bonus for every minute they finish ahead of the time limit, but are penalized for mistakes. When the last of the seven puzzles is finished, the top three competitors from each of three divisions advance to the final round, a showdown on a giant crossword grid before an audience.
Even for Division C, the lowest of the three playoff groups, the competition for the final round is fierce. Pencils race across paper; hands shoot up in the air just three minutes after solving begins, indicating that the top competitors have already finished the first puzzle. Between rounds, the mood is just as intense, with contestants furiously solving their way through crossword anthologies to keep the momentum going and smoking. "I'm amazed at how many crossword geeks are cigarette smokers," says Fox Chapel native Martin Paul, commenting on the air quality in the lobby outside the competition room; it is as smoky as a dive bar.
Six of the seven regular tournament puzzles are solved on Saturday, one on Sunday. When Saturday's standings are posted, contestants instantly flock over to see who is in the lead; it's as though a rock star has just entered the room. Clearly, for these competitors, crosswords are more than just a hobby; they're an obsession.
Attendees often prepare for the tournament with extreme regimens. Stephen Joseph, an assistant dean at Butler County Community College, usually does three puzzles a week, but he upped his count to two per day as the tournament approached. First-time competitor Mike Molyneux, a New York Times editor, has solved more than 1,000 puzzles in the past year, but both his and Joseph's preparations pale in comparison to those of Tyler Hinman, an 18-year-old freshman at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and one of the youngest competitors in the tournament. Hinman, a self-described "puzzlehead" who has already had several crosswords published in the New York Times, solves at least six crosswords daily. "Most often more," he says, "as I often take a puzzle magazine to boring lectures."
Some might think the best preparation of all is to make crossword puzzles or "construct" them, in the lingo here. In fact, many of the country's top constructors and puzzle editors choose to attend the ACPT either as contestants, like Castle Shannon native and professional puzzlemaker Frank Longo, or as tournament officials. But constructing ability is not always related to solving speed. Sure, Longo is easily among the top five percent of solvers, but then there's Sherry Blackard, a frequent New York Times contributor who is nonetheless in the bottom fifth.
The puzzles are a mixed bag in terms of difficulty; while time constraints mean that the very hardest puzzles are usually left out, Shortz says, "The tournament shouldn't just be a speed contest; it should also test solvers' abilities to complete really difficult challenges." There are cakewalks, but there are grief-inducingly tough puzzles as well; many competitors do not finish in the time allotted.
While casual solvers rarely look at the byline on a crossword, most people here know the big names and what they mean. When Shortz announces that Puzzle No. 3 is by Bob Klahn, a computer scientist from Newark, Delaware, an audible groan fills the room. Everyone knows that Klahn is associated with devilishly difficult, groan-inducing clues like "Dead giveaway" for estate. Klahn, for his part, when asked what he thinks about the fact that so many crossword cognoscenti consider him their personal nemesis, says, "Those are words of love."
The in-jokes fly; one tournament judge is introduced as being "allergic to aloe," a description that draws laughter from the crowd. It's not that having an aloe allergy is funny; it's that aloe, due to its combination of vowels, is one of the most frequently used words in crossword puzzles.
When the leaders in each of the top three divisions are announced, the mood lightens at least for everybody else. Now all but nine of the contestants are spectators; they can relax. But for the favored nine, including Longo and Hinman, both Division B finalists, the pressure is on. For each of the three divisions, the top three solvers are given a puzzle on an enlarged, dry-erase board grid, about three feet square so that everyone can see; the audience is free to solve along with the contestants for fun. Division C begins first, then B, then A; in each case, contestants are solving the same grid, but the clues get successively harder between divisions, beginning with medium difficulty and progressing to insanely hard. Yet even the A contestants typically solve their puzzles in well under the 15 minutes allotted. Pun-laced commentary by Philadelphia Inquirer and San Francisco Chronicle puzzlemaker Merl Reagle adds color to the Division A and B finals as well.
New York City pianist Jon Delfin is the eventual winner, defending his 2002 title and becoming the only seven-time tournament champion. Delfin's win hardly came as a shock, but the tournament has been full of surprises, especially the performance of younger solvers. Crosswording, after all, is not exactly a young man's sport; of the 495 contestants, just 17 are 25 years old or younger. Yet Tyler Hinman, the 18-year-old dynamo, has finished on top of the extremely competitive Division B and 19th overall. Hinman hopes one day to break professional puzzlemaker Trip Payne's record as youngest tournament champion ever. Payne, this year's second-place finisher overall, was 24 when he won his first tournament. Roger Barkan, a 23-year-old mathematician, also finishes strongly, taking third place in Division B, as does 27-year-old Dave Tuller. Says Will Shortz, "A whole new generation of puzzle whizzes is coming up."
Most of the people who come year after year have no chance of winning, and they know they have no chance of winning. As Mike Molyneux said before the tournament, "It's like signing up for the U.S. Open and playing alongside Tiger Woods; I'm only hoping not to embarrass myself." Similarly, Chuck Menning of Highland Park didn't come here to win. "All I want to do is have a clean [mistake-free] run," he says. Dan Shabasson, a lawyer from New York City, had even lower expectations: "I just didn't want to finish last," he says. So why do they come back? And why do so many of the country's top puzzlemakers return again and again to serve as officials, when the job consists mainly of handing out papers, collecting and sorting them "doggone tedious" work, as judge Bob Klahn puts it?
The answer lies in considering the tournament not just as a competition, but as a convention. Everyone here is a puzzle geek to some degree, and while other, smaller gatherings exist, this is the big-time hangout for those who like nothing better than obscure trivia, funky anagrams did you know that "Clinton, president of the USA" is an anagram of "To copulate he finds interns"? and well-crafted puns. If there's anything the folks here like as much as a good crossword puzzle, it's meeting others who share their love of all things cruciverbal. Shoptalk abounds on breaks, contestants can be heard discussing the nuances of "wide-open grids" (crosswords with very few black squares), partial phrases (answers that can only be clued as parts of larger phrases, like "A ___ time" for stitch in) and pangrammatics (puzzles that use every letter of the alphabet). And if some competitors don't outdo the others as solvers, they'll outdo them in clothing; solvers are seen sporting crossword-themed ties, watches and even bandannas. T-shirts are the most common form of expression, with slogans like "Real Women Use Pen," in disdain of mere mortals who use pencil, and "Give us this day our daily puzzle."
"It's a genuinely fun event, so that contestants who attend once tend to return," says Will Shortz. This is the place for those who salivate over stacks of 15-letter words, for people who spend nights thinking of cheesy puns. As long as there are crossword geeks, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament will be there to bring them together.
..............................................Stella Daily is a freelance writer and crossword constructor living in Shadyside; her puzzles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Sun, Games World of Crosswords and Games World of Puzzles. She placed 49th at the 2003 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, making her the competition's top-ranked Pittsburgh resident.