Date: March 18, 2007
Byline: Mark Hughes Cobb
Puzzle fans battle for top prize in national crossword tournament
Unlike carefully proscribed grids, numbered and working across and down, there's no limit to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
"I would like it to reach as many people as would like to come," said Will Shortz, New York Times puzzle editor and founder of the ACPT, the 30th edition of which begins Friday in Stamford, Conn.
At press time, registration for this year's ACPT was up 50 percent from last year's event, which drew a record 498 contestants. Also, the Stamford Marriott, where the competition is held, is fully booked for the weekend.
It would seem that cruciverbalists — a mock-Latin word coined to refer to solvers of crosswords — are on the rise. But how can one tell, with such a solitary pursuit? Puzzle solvers, even in public, tend to be found heads down; not a good stance for socialization.
That sense of isolation pushed Shortz to create the ACPT three decades ago.
"I wanted to meet other crossword people," Shortz said.
He was living in Stamford at the time, seeing others working crosswords on commuter trains. The 1978 inaugural contest drew 149 people, more than he'd expected.
"It's a peculiar event," he said. "Crosswords are something you do by yourself, so why would you go to a hotel with a bunch of strangers to fill one in?"
Last year's popular documentary film "Wordplay" no doubt drew some of the newcomers. Nominated for the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, "Wordplay" revolved around the ACPT but also stretched wider to include enthusiasts such as Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, President Bill Clinton, comedian Jon Stewart and musicians Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls.
Stewart added a comic dimension, assaulting the New York Times puzzles — considered the cream of the crop — shouting, "Come on, Shortz! Bring it!," while Mussina, not at all kidding, notes that he sometimes waves in a relief pitcher when stuck on a clue.
Aside from the celebrity faces, most of whom work the Times puzzles, rapidly, in pen, "Wordplay" spends the bulk of its time with the all-walks-of-life group at the ACPT.
Personalities emerge, like Ellen Ripstein, who despite being a middle-aged 2001 contest champion, seems an awkward, precociously bright child as she practices spinning a baton for the talent show at the 2005 event.
"Wordplay" director Patrick Creadon, himself a fan, followed nine contestants, narrowing focus as rounds eliminated early hopefuls. At the ACPT, puzzles are judged for time and accuracy; minutes under the time limit gain bonus points, but blank spaces or incorrect answers sting.
There's poignancy, with one elderly woman recounts how she keeps coming back despite the fact that her husband died after an event, right outside the hotel.
And there's drama, as finalists Tyler Hinman, a 20-year-old who looks ready for a frat party; Trip Payne, an Atlanta puzzle-maker and the expected man to beat; and Al Sanders, a white-haired family man and perennial runner-up; step up to the front of the crowd to solve puzzles on whiteboards.
Sanders seems to miraculously come from behind, racing ahead of his own perceived inadequacies to finish far in advance of the other two. But in his haste, he'd left two spaces unsolved. The agony is palpable.
Some viewers of "Wordplay" noted similarities of the ACPT to a science-fiction convention, where people share an interest considered outside the norm.
"I think this is like anything where you get a bunch of very smart people focused on a single, intellectual topic," Shortz said. "Crossworders have a reputation for being nerds, and I don't buy that myself.
"These are well-rounded people, well-read, well-traveled."
The ages range from 18 to about 84, with a near-even divide between men and women, and many races represented. What they share is mental flexibility and the desire for challenge, Shortz said, "the ability to look at a clue and see the multiple ways it can be interpreted, and taking pleasure in the multiple ways it can be interpreted."
It's ingenious clues that set the Times apart, said Tuscaloosa puzzle fan Hank Holman, 70, who operates Alabama Map and Data Service.
On Election Day 1996, the Times puzzle included a middle answer for which the clue was "lead story in tomorrow's newspaper." The answer could be either BOB DOLE ELECTED or CLINTON ELECTED. Ambiguous clues such as "Black Halloween animal" could have indicated either "BAT" or "CAT;" B for Bob or C for Clinton.
"That kind of thing just absolutely delights me," Holman said.
He said that he dabbled in puzzles as a youngster, but got addicted back in his 20s and 30s.
"I got fascinated with the lore that surrounds it. I know who Margaret Farrar is, I know the history of the Times," Holman said.
Farrar was the first crossword editor of the Times from 1942 to 1969. She set many standards, such as symmetrical grids and puzzle difficulty increasing through the week, with Monday the easiest.
Holman's children gave him puzzle dictionaries. For years, he worked with those, learning those four-letter European river names that only appear in crossword puzzles.
Puzzle makers dive deep into dictionaries, especially for words with two or more vowels and commonly used letters such as T and N. Probably nowhere outside the crossword or crossword dictionary will you see usages such as esculent (edible), ret (saturate), éclat (striking effect), peri (a Persian fairy), adit (a mine entrance), otic (of the ear) or etui (needle case).
But Holman grew dissatisfied with books and began 15 or so years ago to solve simply with pencil and memory.
"I got to where, if I couldn't solve it on my own without any outside source, it wasn't sufficiently satisfying," he said.
About a dozen times a year, he'll finish the Sunday Times crossword.
"I recently did three consecutive Sundays in a row. I called it a hat trick, and that was maybe my greatest accomplishment," Holman said.
So far, he's resisted the temptation to attend the ACPT.
"I could not compete at that level. Speed doesn't mean anything to me," he said.
The speed at which the champions work is almost frightening. The most difficult puzzles at the ACPT might have a 24-minute time, but a champion will fill it in — in ink — in about 8 or 9 minutes.
Perhaps even more intimidating is that the Times' puzzle makers — Shortz publishes about 110 different people each year — can create an entire grid with themes and clues in four to six hours.
"But that's once you've gotten good," he said. "If you create a tough challenge for yourself, it can go a lot longer."
In "Wordplay," designer Merl Reagle is shown creating a puzzle with a "world play" theme from scratch. He begins by crafting the larger, puzzle-spanning answers, then colors in black squares to make them fit, filling the rest in with obscure words that seem to pop into his head without thinking. Finally, he crafts the clues, which Shortz considers the most amusing, creative part.
Last year's ACPT featured the debut of the film; this year's entertainment highlight will be outtakes from "Wordplay," with footage of the contestants who didn't make the finals and some features like the extras on the DVD.
"I get excited every year, building up to this. And this year is going to be especially interesting because of the large number of people coming," Shortz said.
At least one contestant is coming for the 30th time, and numerous others have been 20 or 25 years in a row.
"If you come once, there's a good chance you're going to come back," he said. "It doesn't matter where you finish or if you win.
"Someone said it was like finding the lost tribe: These are your people, and you finally found them."