Date: March 10, 2002
Byline: Will Shortz
How to Be the Fastest Puzzler in TownSeveral years ago, shortly before an American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was scheduled to be held, a group of officials met to test the puzzles. Among the testers were David Rosen, one of the country's best solvers, who had won the tournament four times before retiring, and Peter Gordon, a crossword editor and constructor who had made one of the puzzles himself. When Mr. Gordon's puzzle was tested, he raced to fill it in, too -- and finished well behind Mr. Rosen, despite knowing all the answers from the start.
The next year Mr. Rosen and Mr. Gordon were officials again, and Mr. Gordon had another puzzle in the contest. This time on the night before the testing Mr. Gordon carefully reviewed his puzzle to refresh his memory. The next day when it was solved by the testers, Mr. Rosen again, to everyone's astonishment, finished first.
The third year everything was the same, except this time, in addition to reviewing his puzzle on the previous night, Mr. Gordon filled it in once more just before the officials convened. Finally during the official testing, Mr. Gordon did beat Mr. Rosen -- but only barely. Mr. Rosen was still able to solve the puzzle from scratch almost as fast as Mr. Gordon could fill in the letters that he'd just committed to memory.
How can someone be so fast? How do the top solvers complete a Sunday crossword in The New York Times in an impossible-sounding time of 12 minutes?
Next weekend in Stamford, Conn., a few of the 350-plus crossword enthusiasts in attendance will be demonstrating such super-skills at the 25th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
Not all the contestants are whizzes. In fact, only a handful expect to be in contention for the top prize of $1,500 and a Merriam-Webster dictionary. Most contestants attend simply to test themselves, enjoy the games, and rub shoulders with the greats of the puzzle world.
The experts, though, have some tips for increasing solving speed, no matter what your skill level. Some of these are basic.
For example, start with an answer that you're sure of and build from there. A fill-in-the-blank clue, like "__ es Salaam," is a good place to begin, because the blank is easy to spot and there's no ambiguity about the answer.
Ellen Ripstein, the 2001 tournament champion, says, "If you have time to worry about where you are in the puzzle, it's best to work from the beginning of the word rather than the end." This is because English words have their greatest variation in spelling at the front. The letters WO- beginning a word, for instance, are much more helpful than -ED at the end.
The experts say don't be afraid to take guesses, but also don't get too attached to answers that don't seem to be working out. Neil Fitzpatrick, of Tarrytown, N.Y., suggests penciling in answers "in different shades of darkness for degree of certitude."
Be wary of unlikely letter combinations that show up in a grid. An answer beginning PTB-, for example, indicates that something is probably wrong. Of course, as Michael Goodman of Westport, Conn., points out, PTB- just might start P.T. BARNUM, so you have to be alert.
Gail Maclean of Norwalk, Conn., advises, "Think of all the different meanings the clue words could have, because the constructor is probably not using the most obvious meanings." At last year's tournament, the clue "Fast thinker" led to the answer DIETER, and "One with lots of bills" was a TELLER.
Learning the frequent repeater words used in crosswords can be a big help. ESTE is the name of an Italian Renaissance family, an ANOA is a Celebes ox, etc.
Modern crosswords have less old-fashioned esoterica like this than older puzzles did. Now, though, there is a large vocabulary of new crosswordese based on popular culture, including ANI DiFranco, EDA LeShan, Brian ENO, and Nickelodeon's REN and Stimpy.
If you're ever asked for the name of a rock band in three letters, you can be almost certain the answer is either R.E.M. or E.L.O.
If you get stuck on a single square in a crossword, it helps to go through the alphabet testing each letter in turn.
For sections where you have some but not all the letters, try to guess the vowel-consonant pattern of the missing words. The second letter of an answer that also starts another answer is often an R, L, H or vowel. Getting a feel for what the answers look like may be enough to break the logjam. For plural answers or third-person singular verbs, try S at the end. Past-tense verbs may end in -ED.
Comparative and superlative answers almost always end in -ER and -EST.
If you're still stuck, you can check a dictionary (it's not cheating unless you consider it cheating) or do an online search. Of course, such help isn't allowed during a tournament.
Now the tournament has arrived. You've taken the plunge and entered. What do you do now? For you pen-wielding solvers, Ellen Ripstein advises, "Use pencil! You must be able to erase."
Ms. Ripstein's most important tip: "Read every clue, across and down. It is easy to miswrite a word, and reading the crossing clue is a sanity check."
She knows this from personal experience, as writing the word SENSELESENESS with an E in the ninth square cost her the championship in 1988.
Trip Payne, who has won the tournament twice, uses a so-called "zone approach" to solving.
"The best way to solve a puzzle quickly is never to look at any clue more than once. I try to work one section of a puzzle at a time, and only that section. If my eye glances at a clue for another area that I know the answer to, I don't fill it in immediately, because that would break the solving rhythm. I just tuck that answer away in my mind for later."
Another expert method, described by Rich Norris of Mahopac, N.Y.: "Read the clues in blocks. That is, read 1- through 4-Down, then write in the answers all at once. This saves looking-back-and-forth time."
For solvers who can't do that, here's another expert technique: Begin to read the next clue while you're filling in the previous answer. Ideally, your pencil should never stop writing.
The best advice, though, for any crossword contestant -- superseding all the tips and techniques above -- is to relax and solve at your own pace. Don't do anything different from your usual, and you'll probably work faster and make fewer mistakes.
Rich Norris says, "In my seven years at Stamford, my only goal has been to get all the puzzles right. For what it's worth, the only year in which I made no mistakes, I finished 29th. In all the other years I never finished higher than 68th."