Date: March 10, 2005
Byline: Kenneth Aaron
You can't cross up the crossword king
RPI junior who solves puzzles with speed vies to be the best of the best
TROY This is not a fair fight. Tyler Hinman, crossword-puzzle champion. Against me. We flip over the grids. It's a Wednesday puzzle in The New York Times, about medium difficulty.
Hinman, a 20-year-old RPI junior, starts scratching in answers. I'm still reading clues. Boy, he's writing fast. I fill in some squares.
Boy, he's still writing fast.
Which is no surprise. Hinman is upstate New York's reigning crossword champ, a designation he won at last year's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held annually in Stamford, Conn. The year before, he won the tournament's B division, a teenage whippersnapper who surprised the field.
He's going back this weekend, aiming at the A division title, the best of the best. "What other goal could I have?" he asked. "I want to win."
This could be his year. "If not this year, maybe soon," said Will Shortz, the tournament's director, the Times' crossword editor and the closest thing to a cruciverbalist celebrity there is.
Hinman not only solves puzzles, but writes them, too. It was Shortz who published Hinman's first puzzle, back when Hinman was 15. At the time, Hinman had labored over all of four puzzles before landing his first at the top of the heap. Hinman is the youngest person Shortz has printed; for a while, he was the youngest to have a Sunday puzzle in the Times, but that record has since fallen.
"That's the bad part about an age record," Hinman said. "You can never get it back."
Hinman has been solving crosswords since ninth grade, when a teacher supervising a boring study hall gave him a puzzle one Friday.
"I didn't do too well at that one," said Hinman, who was studying in England at the time.
The puzzles in the Times increase in difficulty from Monday to Saturday. Sunday's puzzle, while the week's longest, is about as hard as a Thursday puzzle. When he returned to the study hall on Monday, he got another puzzle. And he did much better, as it's the week's easiest.
At some point, he started doing puzzles for speed. He's not sure when. But as long as he was doing them, he figured, why not do them quickly?
A couple of weeks ago, he finished the Times' Sunday puzzle in 5 minutes. Of course, that was online, he said; it would have taken more time by hand.
He has his solving methods. Hinman said he always keeps his hand moving, even circling in midair when he's stumped. And all the top competitors look at other clues while filling in others.
And there's practice. "I do at least seven a day," he said.
Hinman's father, Lew, said his son is a natural competitor.
"It's hard to imagine a crossword-puzzle thing being exciting," the elder Hinman said of the tournament, which drew 478 competitors last year. But there were announcers, and a big crowd, and the finalists were on stage wearing headphones to block out audience noise and hints, and writing out answers on a big board.
"It was amazing," Lew Hinman said. "A bit of a nerd-fest, but a lot of nice people."
Hinman can give off a bit of that air the information technology major is wearing a Google T-shirt, but he's a pretty typical college student: lives in a fraternity house with the requisite video-game consoles and house dog and big-screen TV; eats store-brand fruit-loops for breakfast; he's a rabid RPI hockey fan.
His school-year job is a bit different than the norm; he tries to get crosswords published. The Times pays $100 for daily puzzles, and $350 for Sunday. He has one pending at the Los Angeles Times, and has appeared in the Wall Street Journal. He hasn't done one for Shortz since last March, though Hinman considers that puzzle the nation's best.
Like many puzzle solvers and creators, Hinman likes a quick pun and a clever trick (or a cruel one, depending on your point of view).
His favorite words? Cleave, because it means both to split and to join. And impromptu. "Not too many nine-letter words ending in u," he said.
"He's extremely bright, great with words, knows a little about everything," Shortz said of Hinman. "He's like one of those teenage wizards on "Jeopardy!" You just shake your head."
Back at the fraternity house, time is slipping away. Variant spelling of a five-letter movie set light. Klieg is the proper spelling. Would it be kleeg? Kleig?
And then Hinman stops writing. He picks up a stopwatch. Three minutes, nineteen seconds. Me? I'm one-quarter done.
Very fast, Hinman says, pleased with himself.
Doing one of these things collaboratively on a Sunday morning can't be much fun with Hinman around.
"I'm also no fun to watch 'Wheel of Fortune' with," he quipped.