Date: March 31, 1996
Byline: Stacy Shelton
Crossword tournament attracts people serious about their hobbyOne benefit of yesterday's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is solvers had a chance to go to the source of their frustrations.
"There's a lot of Metro-North riders who don't like you," a participant told Will Shortz, the crossword editor for The New York Times, during a break in the action at the Stamford Marriott Hotel.
Shortz, who in 1993 succeeded a longtime Times editor, the late Eugene T. Maleska, just nodded and smiled.
Later, Shortz said the 19th annual tournament is a good opportunity for people on both sides of the crossword puzzle to meet face to face.
"That's part of the pleasure," he said. "It's nice to watch people and see what they stumble over, and what they get quickly."
Shortz started the tournament in 1978 in Stamford, because he was a resident at the time. Although he now lives in Pleasantville, N.Y., the tournament has remained here. It's grown each year, to 240 entrants this year from all over the country, Shortz said.
The tournament, which costs $80 to enter or $125 for the full weekend's events, started with warmup games and a reception on Friday night. It continued yesterday with six puzzles, timed between 15 and 30 minutes. The seventh and final puzzle starts at 9 a.m. today, followed by a championship playoff at 11.
The top prize is $1,000. Both accuracy and speed count.
Yesterday, some of the quickest solvers put their pencils down in less than half the time allotted, while many others continued working until the last moment.
Ron Osher of Stamford was in the former group. A fourth-place finisher last year, Osher won the 1994 World Puzzle Championship in Cologne, Germany, another event founded by Shortz.
Osher, who owns Kaleidoscope, a multi-media store for children on High Ridge Road, said he started solving crossword puzzles while growing up in Stamford because his boyhood friends were doing it.
"I had to keep up with the Joneses," Osher said. By the time he was 12, he was doing the Sunday Times crossword in pen.
Now 36, Osher has edited a book of puzzles and brain teasers with Shortz and competed on the national team.
Yesterday, he explained how the topflight solvers do it: "Leave out time to think, and they're just writing in answers," he said. "It helps to be well-rounded and versed in popular culture."
One of the yesterday's clues referred to "ER," the popular television show, he said.
John Sammis of Norwalk is a more typical solver at the tournament. Competing in the "D" division for contestants who have not finished in the top 40 percent, as well as the age 50 to 59 group, Sammis called the top solvers, "idiot savants."
That's from someone who says he can finish an easier puzzle in the Times in about seven minutes, and a hard one in less than half an hour.
"You get the hang of it," he said. "I like the fun of it."
Sammis was the participant who took jab at Shortz during the afternoon break, but he said he'd gotten used to and even enjoyed the looser style Shortz brought to the puzzles.
Sammis said his parents first got him interested in puzzle solving while he was growing up in Darien but it wasn't a daily habit until after college, when he started commuting by train to his publishing job in New York City.
Now a self-employed book packager, Sammis said his "eclectic interests" include the card game bridge, piano, and sports. And, of course, crosswords.
Eclectic is also a good description for the solvers at the tournament. The list of the entrants' professions included lawyer, teacher, book publisher, banker, musician, engineer and "gadfly." They ranged from Generation-Xers to octogenarians.
What they share is a passion for solving crossword puzzles.
"Puzzle people are very serious about their hobby," said Fran Doron [Danon --Webmaster] a Stamford resident and the editor-in-chief of Penny Press Inc. in Norwalk who is one of the tournament's judges.
For frustrated solvers, puzzle-maker Cathy Millhauser had some refreshing words, shortly after contestants finished tangling with her tough crossword yesterday.
"I'm a terrible solver," she said.
The trick answer to one of the clues in her puzzle titled, "Small Change," was "The KO Corral."