Date: March 11, 2005
Byline: Kerry Wills
Puzzle lovers to cross paths, and words, this weekend
STAMFORD It's an eight-letter word for crossword mecca.
The answer is right in front of you it's Stamford. For 28 years, it has been home to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament the first and largest such competition in the world.
Founded and directed by New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, the event at the Stamford Marriott draws nearly 500 puzzlers from more than 30 states and several countries.
Some warm-up games begin at 8 tonight and are open to the public; tomorrow and Sunday's tournament will be for contestants only.
This is the Olympics of puzzling, as contestant Elena Abrahams of Old Greenwich described it. She can solve a Friday or Saturday New York Times puzzle, the week's hardest, in as little as 45 minutes. At the competition, though, "There are people who can complete it in eight minutes."
Puzzle solvers come from all walks of life. They are, shall we say, tough to put in a box.
"There are some of us who are geeky," said Norwalk resident Gail MacLean, 60. "People who participate are interesting individuals, and they're all different. I think that you have a common denominator, that they like puzzles, but that's about the only thing we all have in common."
Train commuting might be a common experience among some puzzlers. But puzzlers' interests spin off in all directions from Grand Central.
MacLean, 60, took up crosswords while commuting to her software development job in Manhattan. A commuter who sat behind her on the train each day would always do a puzzle, so MacLean decided to give it a try.
"I knew I had arrived when he finally asked me for an answer," MacLean said. Over time, she realized that she and her commuting friend brought different bodies of knowledge to their puzzles. "He knew all about plants and animals, everything in the natural world," she said. "He didn't know as much about books and music."
MacLean said she has competed in 16 or 17 tournaments in Stamford. In 2003, she constructed a puzzle, which she sold to the New York Times.
" 'Convertible sofa' popped into my head," she said. "It turned out to be 15 letters (the diameter of a classic square puzzle) so I said, 'Let me start from there.' "
Solving a clever clue, unraveling a riddle or deciphering a puzzle theme are a big draw for MacLean.
Donald Spencer of Darien also blames the train for his crossword addiction. Spencer said he's a word fan, like MacLean, but unlike her, he enjoys improving his speed at completion.
Spencer entered his first tournament in Stamford last year and scored among the top quarter of contestants. Since then, he bought books of puzzles so he can work on more than one puzzle a day and get faster.
"A lot of times I'll do a couple more puzzles in the evening," he said. "I haven't been clocking myself, but I think I've sped up."
Wherever they're coming from, puzzlers say they look forward to the social outlet they find at the tournament.
"I've met some friends I see every year," McLean said. "When you get a new interest you find there's a subculture."
Tonight's highlight will be the construction of a full 15-by-15 letter puzzle clues, theme, grid and all in one hour by Wall Street Journal puzzle editor Mike Shenk.