Date: March 26, 2006
Byline: Alexandra Fenwick
Crossword wizards gird for final grid
STAMFORD — Ask most players at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and they'll say they compete just for fun, not to beat the clock.
But several players at this weekend's tournament have something to prove.
In a dramatic conclusion to last year's championship round, veteran finalist Al Sanders motioned to the judges that he had finished his puzzle with more than eight minutes to spare in the 15-minute round.
Yet with his back to the crowd and a pair of soundproof headphones on his head, Sanders couldn't hear or see the audience behind him, yelling and gesturing wildly. He had missed filling in two spots on the grid.
Instead of winning it all, Sanders dropped to third place behind three-time winner Trip Payne, who took second place, and 20-year-old phenom Tyler Hinman, who won.
Yesterday, Sanders, 47, of Fort Collins, Colo., said he was fueling his drive for the championship round on last year's fateful mistake.
"It's motivating to get back up there," Sanders said before puzzle number four yesterday, though he added he wasn't confident he would make it to the final three.
Each player competes for points by completing puzzles accurately in as little time as possible. Players work on seven crossword puzzles in two days.
Eleanor Dantignac of Manhattan was at the tournament yesterday looking like a human crossword puzzle with a bold black-and-white print shirt and a crossword grid hat. Dantignac, 76, said that watching Sanders commit his game-losing error last year was a "smack on the head" sort of moment.
"He committed the cardinal sin of not checking his board before finishing," Dantignac said. "The audience was gasping."
Judie Berger of Miami said the entire room was shocked at Sanders' error.
"We thought for sure it was his year," she said. "You could have died."
Hinman, a senior at Renssalaer Polytechnic University in Troy, N.Y. — and the tournament's youngest winner ever — said yesterday he was competing to defend the legitimacy of his title.
"My only goal is to prove that last year wasn't a fluke and I'm in with the chance this year," said Hinman, now 21.
He said he faced some good-natured ribbing from his college friends about last year's win.
"The guys in my fraternity, in their usual joking way, said, 'Of course someone ahead of you had to make a mistake for you to win.' "
A professional crossword constructor, Payne, of Boca Raton, Fla., said he hadn't changed his strategy this year. He solves hundreds of puzzles in the months leading up to the tournament.
"I just happened to lose by a few points," Payne said of last year's performance. Less concerned with his own loss, he said he felt for Sanders.
"Everybody's made a few mistakes. It was just unfortunate that his mistake came on stage when it counted the most," Payne, 37, said. "Everybody is rooting for him this year."
While players labored over the black-and-white grids inside a banquet room at the Marriott Hotel, signs tacked on the doors read, "Quiet Please! Minds at Work!"
According to event organizer and New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, a record 500 players registered for this weekend's tournament, which will conclude today with a championship playoff between the top three contestants at 11 a.m. Included among the participants were every tournament winner since its inception in 1978, and the only player to have attended every tournament: Jay Kasofsky of Woodridge, N.Y.
Though he has never won, Kasofsky, 65, keeps coming back to do his personal best and see the friends he has made over the years.
"It's like a family," he said.
Wendy Elson of East Norwalk was one of a few Fairfield County players at the tournament yesterday. Whereas Elson's far-flung tournament friends must fly in for the event, she has to drive only 9 miles to get there.
"It's fantastic having it right here," Elson said. "I'm not sure if it were being held in Kansas if I would be attending."
And one celebrity player, $2.5 million record "Jeopardy!" winner Ken Jennings, got in on the crossword competition yesterday.
Jennings, who said the puzzles were tough, hosted a "Quiz Bowl" Friday night with trivia questions he wrote himself. He said he learned a lot from "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek during his winning streak on the show.
"To me, he's the ideal game show host," Jennings said Friday. "He has to read 61 questions flawlessly in 22 minutes and keep the game moving for five shows per day."