Date: March 17, 2003
Byline: Gabrielle Birkner
They're not at a loss for words at crossword tournamentSTAMFORD The eight-letter answer to the clue "world headquarters of crossword puzzles" is S-T-A-M-F-O-R-D, according to Will Shortz, founder of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held over the weekend at the Stamford Marriott.
The 26th annual tournament drew about 500 crossword enthusiasts from around the world. During the two-day competition, held yearly in Stamford, contestants solved seven puzzles and were judged individually on speed and accuracy.
"Only a small percentage of participants are winners," said Helene Hovanec, tournament coordinator. "Most people come for the friendship and the mental stimulation."
Eileen Berton of Port Jefferson, N.Y., a 79-year-old who has been attending the tournament since 1991, said puzzling keeps her mind sharp.
"I feel like I'm staving off Alzheimer's disease," said Berton, a longtime crossword puzzle devotee. "I come here for the camaraderie and to see if I can do as well as I did last time."
Then there are those who play to win.
As hundreds looked on yesterday, nine finalists competed on giant crossword puzzle grids in three championship rounds, representing different skill levels. Merl Reagle, a puzzle constructor, and Marge Stevens, news anchor for WSTC-AM and WNLK-AM, narrated as top solvers chipped away at the tricky puzzles. Finalists wore headsets to block out the commentary and audience chatter.
Generally a solitary activity, puzzling can succeed as a spectator sport, said Shortz, crossword editor for The New York Times.
"It should appear on television, maybe on ESPN," he said. "I'd love to host the show."
For the seventh time since 1989 and the second consecutive year, Jon Delfin, 48, a pianist from New York City, took home the Division A grand prize, worth $2,000. It took him seven minutes and three seconds to complete the 104-clue puzzle constructed by Reagle.
Delfin, who has taken part in the tournament since 1987, said he liked 32-down. The clue: "key player?" The answer: P-I-A-N-I-S-T.
Eighteen-year-old Tyler Hinman of Hebron took first prize in Division B, which is for top contestants who have not won a Division A or B prize in their past seven tournaments. Hinman said he was amazed by his showing.
"I've been doing crossword puzzles since ninth grade, when my history teacher shared with me his stockpile of old crosswords during a boring study hall," said Hinman, a freshman majoring in information technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. "Sometimes I get people looking over my shoulder when I'm solving crosswords, but I've never solved a puzzle in front of this many people."
He solves an average of six crossword puzzles per day and constructs his own, Hinman said. He sold one to The New York Times when he was 15 and dreams of becoming the newspaper's crossword editor one day.
"I don't think I could ever come up with themes like Will," he said of Shortz. "Every clue I've ever written has probably been written before."
In the Division C championship, which is for contestants who have not finished in the top 20 percent in their past three tournaments, Frank Colangelo, a physician from Murryville, Pa., took first prize.
This year's tournament was sponsored by Kappa Publishing Group Inc., St. Martin's Press, Franklin Electronic Publishers, New York Times Digital and Merriam-Webster.
The 495 participants, ages 17 to 85, hailed from 37 states and four foreign countries. Forty-nine competitors were Connecticut residents, according to organizers.
"It's a pretty broad group of people who solve puzzles," said Shortz, 50, a former Stamford resident who started the tournament in 1978. "Puzzling is an addiction, and it's a good one for you. It makes you better capable to tackle the ordinary challenges of life. People exercise to keep their bodies in shape. It's just as important to exercise ... to keep your mind in shape."