Date: March 31, 2002
Byline: Stephanie Shapiro Sun Staff
Paths crossingIn the 'word-electrified' world of crossword puzzles, friendship was the answer for Michael Shteyman and Ethan Cooper.
Stamford, Conn. - Why should Michael Shteyman have any clue as to the meaning of 14 down: "Epitaph for the Jolly Green Giant?" Why should he care?
Five years ago, Shteyman, a Russian immigrant, didn't know English, let alone the finer points of American trivia. As a young teen in a new country, he had enough to worry about. Familiarity with another culture's hoary pop allusions wouldn't necessarily top the list.
But here, at the 25th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the answer to 14 down (RESTING IN PEAS) matters as much as anything. One muffed clue, particularly a relatively easy one, not only causes gridlock, but can also dog a serious contender's reputation for life. As he often does, Shteyman, at 17 the tournament's youngest participant, looks to Ethan Cooper, his former Park School classmate, who explains the reference.
Shteyman, a slender young man with wire-rimmed glasses and a bemused smile, tucks this tidbit into his prodigious mind. He didn't know the answer in time to complete the contest's sixth puzzle, "Epitaphs," a punny masterpiece subtitled " ... or not-so-famous last words." But he'll surely know the Jolly Green Giant when the big guy next surfaces on a puzzle grid.
Remarkably, at this, his first tournament, Shteyman is holding his own, in spite of the culture gap. But that's not why he's considered a celebrity even among the legendary solvers and word shakers who mingle noisily in the Stamford Marriott Hotel's lobby between tournament play. Or why Richard Atkinson, a competitor from Washington state, greets him with: "Let me shake the hand of a future hall of famer." Nor does Shteyman's so-so standing explain why Kelly Clark, a well-regarded puzzle constructor from Boston, wraps him in a motherly hug upon their first non-online encounter.
For, even more remarkably, Shteyman has quickly earned a reputation among seasoned cruciverbalists as an ingenious puzzle constructor who to date has sold six daily puzzles to the New York Times.
The Times' puzzle editor and tournament founder Will Shortz speaks proudly of protege Shteyman, a freshman at the Johns Hopkins University, where he studies neuroscience and music composition. Shortz is particularly impressed by a puzzle Shteyman built upon several double-word answers that appeared last December. For example, the solution to one clue - "Jump rope game" - was "DUTCH DUTCH." The answer to "Molecular structure," naturally, was "HELIX HELIX."
Doubling isn't new, Shortz says. But "What no one has ever done is put eight [double answers] in a single 15-by-15 square grid. The puzzle had a beautiful construction; it wasn't junky. That's the puzzle that stands out." Of Shteyman, himself, Shortz says: "He has an incredible brain."
A puzzler's history
For all the publicity he's received, Shteyman is just half of the story. At Park, he forged a friendship with Cooper, now a University of Chicago freshman, after watching him demolish the daily Times puzzle during slow moments in calculus class. Shteyman would peer over Cooper's shoulder and ask questions. The first query concerned an answer in the generally easy Monday puzzle. He didn't know the basketball term "lay up," so he couldn't fill in the square.
"We started from there," Shteyman says. "I would always ask him; he was a good teacher."
As a child in St. Petersburg, Shteyman was an avid puzzle solver and constructor. But Russian crosswords are straightforward and tend to draw strictly from dictionary definitions. Cooper introduced his friend to the acrobatics of American crosswords, where puns, pop culture, diabolical tricks and disorienting clues are employed in ever-more-clever high-wire acts.
When Cooper, now 19, sold the first of four puzzles to the New York Times three years ago, Shteyman quickly determined to do the same. Since then, he has dazzled solvers with low word-count, themed puzzles, as well as a preference for high Scrabble point words. He "gets off on Qs, Js and Xs," says Manny Nosowsky, a dead-pan puzzle constructor from San Francisco.
Cooper and Shteyman are two of just three teen-agers known to have sold puzzles to Shortz. (Like all constructors, they receive $75 for each purchased effort.) Cooper holds his own as a cunning cruciverbalist, with themed offerings including a puzzle built around words rhyming with "haul." The answer to "Ones carrying an apostle?" for example, is "PAUL BEARERS."
When many of their contemporaries were planning spring breaks in Cancun, Cooper and Shteyman registered for the tournament. Leaving Baltimore at 5 a.m. on a Saturday, they arrive minutes before the contest starts. It is Shteyman's first visit to Connecticut. During his introductory remarks, Shortz asks both young men to stand. The crowd applauds enthusiastically.
The two appear at home among the twitchy brains, including a poet, bar owner, rock musician, househusband and an actuary or two. They are all people for whom words shimmer and swagger and do-si-do. The ability to see words as living things "only goes too far if you can't shut that part of the brain off and go to the bank," says Merl Reagle, a mad puzzle scientist whose "Near-Miss Palindromes" offering is the tourney's third test. There are people, though, who are "word-electrified 24 hours a day."
Many of them are here. When not competing, they're rehashing puzzles past, or doing more of them. During tournament play, the hotel ballroom crackles with the same kind of silence felt during SAT exams. When contenders complete a puzzle, often with blinding speed, their hands shoot up and referees mark the time. A crackling wrapper or a buzzing pencil sharpener occasionally sends a competitor into an angry tailspin.
Cooper finishes the first puzzle in six minutes, while Shteyman lags behind. But both dive into the between-puzzle buzz, taking the participants' pronounced eccentricities in stride. Overall, the crowd isn't as peculiar as he had anticipated, Cooper says.
Fellowship of the grid
Low-key and modest, Cooper is unfazed by Shteyman's warm reception in Stamford or his lightning verbal abilities. It's "kind of like with my dad," he says. "I would also do as much as I could, and he would fill in the rest for me. ... Now I can do them faster than my dad, and I'm sure one day [Michael will] do them faster than me."
In Chicago, Cooper is also building upon his gifts and interests in exciting ways. Last fall, he had his own moment of singular renown as the star in a school play. He auditioned for David Mamet's Edmond, and to his astonishment clinched the lead as an embittered racist, a difficult and controversial role.
Cooper isn't as immediately outgoing as his friend. He never even bothered to hook up voice mail in his dorm room, and he hasn't ventured far into the online puzzle world. In the same spirit, Cooper prefers creating and solving puzzles in a more private realm. "I like to solve them while watching a ball game. And I like the pleasure of putting it down and coming back to it."
Shteyman, on the other hand, is a gregarious puzzle person, with the cheek to gently critique his elders' creations. He once wrote admiringly to Kelly Clark of one of her Times puzzles, but took issue with her use of a particular clue. Then, he graciously admitted to "picking nits."
Clark is charmed by Shteyman's guileless manner, regarding both puzzles and life. "We all went through his first exam. He doesn't hesitate to clue into the rest of the world what his pressures are." Nor does he hesitate to ask advice, she says.
At the end of the tournament, Shteyman's final ranking is 381, proof that his protean puzzle constructing skills still outpace his ability to complete them - but probably not for long. Cooper's ranking is an impressive 144 among 401. He finishes fifth among 13 junior contenders who are 25 and younger, and 20th among 145 rookies.
Before the tournament awards luncheon, the two young men return to Baltimore. Cooper will hang around for spring break, and keep track of the NCAA basketball pool he's running. Shteyman will work at his cashier's job at Gage's World Class Menswear and build puzzles during slow spells. They may or may not get together again. As they come of age, the two friends appear to be traveling in disparate directions. Their paths will always cross, though, on the limitless grid where they first met in calculus class.