Date: July 2005
Byline: John Pekkanen
A ten-letter word for "humiliation"? Try "tournament." Here's an inside look at the nation's biggest crossword contest through the eyes of a local guy who'd thought he was pretty good.
I've been solving crossword puzzles for 20 years and thought I'd gotten pretty good at it, maybe even better than pretty good. I knock off the Sunday New York Times crossword with relative ease and usually handle the notoriously difficult Saturday New York Times puzzle, the one actor and crossword enthusiast Paul Sorvino called the "bitch mother" of all crosswords.
So in March I traveled to Stamford, Connecticut, to take part in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the nation's oldest and largest crossword tournament. I felt like the rookie pitcher who wants his shot at the majors to see if the big boys can hit his fastball. Well, I'm here to report that the big boys hit my fastball, curve, and changeup. Welcome to the big leagues.
I had never entered a crossword tournament before, nor did I ever think of crossword puzzles as anything other than a relaxing recreation, even the tough ones that drove me nuts. I admit to once having a three-puzzle-a- day habit, and I even started fooling around with double acrostics, but I weaned myself off them. Now I do the daily and Sunday New York Times and sometimes the Washington Post Sunday magazine puzzle.
The New York Times puzzle is to my mind — and that of many other contestants I talked to — the most consistently inventive crossword puzzle in any US newspaper. Like the more than 50 million Americans who regularly do crossword puzzles, I love the puns and wordplay of well-constructed puzzles. They provide those wonderful "aha" moments when I've ferreted out a puzzle answer that gave me fits because the clue was so clever.
This style of crossword puzzles has been championed by Will Shortz, crossword editor of the New York Times and the tournament's director and founder. Shortz moved away from traditional crosswords that relied on obscurity (like a Siberian river or Asian rodent) to make them difficult. One of my all-time favorites comes from a recent New York Times Sunday puzzle whose theme was a play on book titles. The clue: Kvetching about recipes. The answer: The oy of cooking. If you don't love that one, then crossword puzzles probably aren't for you.
I arrived at the Stamford Marriott lobby Friday evening to find it buzzing with contestants greeting one another like members of a class reunion. Nearly 500 of them ranging in age from 18 to 87 came from 30 states as well as Canada, France, and Switzerland. I overheard someone call this the "Olympics" of crossword tournaments.
I noticed a woman wearing a crossword dress and a few men wearing crossword ties. One guy wore a crash helmet adorned with something that made him look like Don King having a bad hair day. When I got closer I saw he had three-dimensional crossword puzzles on the antlerlike columns springing from his helmet. To complete the ensemble he wore Mickey Mouse slippers and a crossword T-shirt that read GIVE US THIS DAY OUR DAILY PUZZLE.
Later I met a young woman wearing crossword pajamas. She was a five-time contestant from New York. I casually asked how long she usually took to solve the Saturday New York Times puzzle. "Ten minutes," she answered. She must have read the look on my face because she didn't ask how long I took. On my best day I need an hour.
I asked some contestants for their secrets. One woman who'd finished high in last year's tournament confided: "All the constructors have their favorite quirks and patterns, so when I hit a difficult area in a puzzle I try to get inside the constructor's mind to solve it." Well, thanks, but I had never paid the slightest attention to the names of the puzzle constructors, much less deciphered their idiosyncrasies. I began to wonder if I'd stumbled into a Mensa gathering at a Trekkie convention.
I asked several contestants if they prepared for this tournament. When they got over their amusement at so naive a question, many told me they did 5, 10, 20, or more crosswords a day in the weeks leading up to the tournament, often timing themselves with stopwatches. I learned the crossword top guns could zip through the Saturday or Sunday New York Times puzzles in less than ten minutes. One contestant offered me this tip: "Use small e's. It's one motion, so it's faster than writing capital E's." I didn't think writing capital E's would be my biggest problem.
This was a lot different from sitting in the Barnes & Noble in Bethesda. These aren't people who leisurely work on crosswords over coffee. I had entered a subculture where solving crossword puzzles is blood sport. Before I left home a friend said I'd have the same chance of winning this tournament as making it in the NBA. I began to think I had a better shot in the NBA.
Friday night's entertainment began when a contestant strode to the front of the hotel ballroom where we'd gathered and strummed his guitar while singing a song you'd hear only at a crossword tournament. His lyrics gave clues to those strange little words known to crossword solvers but probably no one else. "A needle case," he sang. "Etui!" we shouted, and on and on we went.
The crossword puzzle editor of the Wall Street Journal and one of the tournament's judges, Mike Shenk, accepted a challenge to construct a puzzle in one hour. He asked for theme suggestions from the audience to prove he hadn't begun in advance. This wordplay-loving audience (Togo? The country that invented takeout food) offered many ideas, and Shenk settled on "celebrity vegetables" like Okra Winfrey and Beet Sampras. Shenk returned in little over an hour waving 500 copies of his freshly minted puzzle, which we solved as a warmup for the tournament that began Saturday morning.
I approached Shenk to ask about his background. "It's in mathematics," he said. "I think more puzzle constructors are math majors than English majors." Many of the contestants, an eclectic collection of teachers, doctors, lawyers, and architects, among others, have backgrounds in computers and math. Shenk explained that a math background helps in constructing crossword grids and patterns.
Late that night, after a wine-and-cheese reception, I talked with the puzzle-constructing odd couple of Bruce Venzke and Stella Daily. Bruce, 60, lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and works for an amusement- and video- game company. He says he didn't major in math but did well in the subject in school. Stella, then 26, is a medical copywriter from Brooklyn. They met via e-mail, and although they've constructed puzzles together for three years, they'd never met face-to-face until this tournament. After Bruce constructs the grid and fills in the answers — he has nearly 140,000 puzzle words and phrases saved in his computer — he e-mails it to Stella, who writes the clues. It's a highly successful partnership. They've published crosswords in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post Magazine, and many other publications.
I was surprised to learn how intense crossword-constructing competition is and how little the constructors get paid for their creations. Newspapers pay $50 to $100 for a daily crossword, $250 to $425 for the larger Sunday puzzles that can take 10 to 15 hours to make. "You don't construct crossword puzzles for the money," Bruce says. "You do it because you love to."
Around midnight I was ready for bed. As I headed for the elevator, I noticed contestants huddled in corners immersed in puzzles, and small gaggles of players competing at Jeopardy! and some spatial-relationship games. I rode up the elevator wondering if I might feign illness and withdraw before I was pulverized.
On Saturday morning, sharpened pencils at the ready, we waited at long tables in the hotel ballroom to tackle the first puzzle that counted. Will Shortz founded this tournament 28 years ago and acts as the host. He is the only person in the civilized world with a BA in enigmatology, the art and science of puzzles, a degree he earned from Indiana University. He later took a law degree from University of Virginia. Shortz said the first day's competition would consist of six puzzles, all made for the tournament. As he ticked off names of the different constructors, contestants erupted with cheers for Maura Jacobson, followed by a chorus of groans for the name of David Kahn, a constructor known for his fiendishly hard puzzles. "He's a nice guy, otherwise," the woman across from me said.
With the puzzles all handed out and lying face down at our stations, Shortz said: "Turn your puzzles over." The room fell silent. The tournament isn't about whether you can solve these puzzles. Everyone in the room can do that. It's how fast you can solve them without mistakes. Some time ago I'd stopped solving the Times Monday and Tuesday puzzles because I found them too easy. Now I'd learned that many of the contestants here work those puzzles to see how fast they can go. Many can finish them in a minute or two.
The big red numbers on the digital clock mercilessly ticking off the time did concentrate my mind, but they also thrust me into a pressured test situation I hadn't experienced since taking the SATs back in high school. And as best as I recall I didn't break any records then, either.
I got through the first puzzle without embarrassing myself and thought this might not be as hard as I'd imagined. Then puzzle number two arrived. After scanning it, I realized it was tougher than many Saturday Times puzzles, the kind I often need to go back to five or six times in the course of a day to finish. The clock began ticking off our 30-minute time limit. I strained to come up with an 11-letter word for "hot-dog connoisseur" and a six-letter word for "Nixon." Time kept slipping away, and the blank spaces in front of me stayed blank. Eager hands clutching completed puzzles kept popping up all around the room. How could anyone figure this one out so fast? "Time's up," Shortz announced. I put down my pencil and stared at my puzzle, about a third of it completed, including a couple of wild guesses.
The answer to the Nixon clue, I learned, was "Quaker," and the hot-dog connoisseur turned out to be "frankophile." Scores are based on the exact time contestants turn in their puzzles — those who finish before the allotted time, that is — and a team of judges checks every puzzle for accuracy and completeness. You get big point deductions for mistakes or incomplete puzzles.
The woman sitting next to me, Alice Dutton, a business consultant from Canton, Connecticut, seemed pleasant enough even though she finished the crosswords so fast that I thought maybe we'd been given different ones. After she turned in her puzzle to the judges, she would pull out a crossword-puzzle book and knock out one or two to pass the time. She told me she hoped to win the trophy for the highest-scoring Connecticut resident. She did just that and placed 32nd overall.
The contestant who really caught my attention was the big guy with the thatch of white hair one row in front of me. When I saw his hand shoot up in what seemed like only a couple of minutes after we'd begun puzzle two, I figured he needed a bathroom break, except he was waving his finished puzzle. I think he solved it faster than I could have written in the answers even if I'd had them beforehand.
I learned he was Doug Hoylman, called "the ice man" because of his coolness under pressure as a six-time tournament winner. When I spoke to him, I found him to be a shy, modest man with a passion for all kinds of games. He has a PhD in mathematics and the key attributes to solving crossword puzzles fast: a gift for pattern recognition, a wide range of interests, an extraordinary memory, and synapses that fire at warp speed to call up a dazzling array of facts and trivia from history, arts and sciences, even areas in which he has little interest such as sports and pop culture. Although he listed his occupation as "idler," he's a retired actuary for Geico who, I discovered, lives less than a mile from me in Bethesda.
Now 61, Hoylman told me he began solving crosswords as a youngster growing up in Montana and, despite the ease with which he zips through them, he says he stills enjoys the challenge. He last won this tournament in 2000 and at the end of this one ranked tenth overall.
We finished our sixth and final puzzle of the day by late afternoon. I'd completed two before the allotted time, nearly finished two more, but got hammered by puzzles two and five, acknowledged as the toughest. I hadn't solved even half of either one.
Our scores were tallied overnight, and I came down early Sunday morning to find a flock of contestants clustered around a series of score sheets posted in the lobby. I edged toward them, deeming it a small act of courage even to peek at the standings. I began at the bottom and worked up until I saw my name in 375th place out of 455 contestants. At least I'm not last, I thought.
Our final puzzle would be like the big ones that appear in Sunday papers, the kind of puzzle I most enjoy. We had 45 minutes to solve it. The competitive bug had bit me, and I saw there wasn't a huge difference between my score and that of contestants 20 or 30 places above me. I thought if I could ace this final puzzle I could make a jump in the standings.
The theme for the final crossword was a play on magazines, and for once the answers came pretty easily to me, even the long ones. I felt my adrenaline pumping as I closed in for the kill. I glanced up at the clock. More than ten minutes left and one final hurdle to conquer. Holy moly, I thought, I could be maybe not a contender but at least less of an also- ran. So I zoned in on 66 across, a stretch of mostly empty squares in the middle of the puzzle I felt certain I'd fill quickly. The clue read: "Who's knocking on your door in Manhattan?" Back and forth I went, trying different variations and combinations, but nothing clicked. Zilch. Nada. Nil. I began to seethe quietly with frustration. Why had the rest of the puzzle come so quickly but this stubborn section not at all? Then I heard Shortz utter those three dreaded words: "One minute left!" Where had those minutes gone? Time's up! Pencils down! I kept staring at the same blank spaces.
I turned to Patrick Carr, a 30-year-old geologist from Reston sitting to my right, and asked what he'd gotten for 66 across. When he showed me his puzzle I wanted to bang my head on the table. In my haste, I had miswritten a down answer, "round," as "roudd." The answer I'd failed to solve was "The New Yorker outside," but because I'd written "roudd" and not detected my error, I had "d" in place of the "n" that began "new." Oh well, I thought, I should get over this in a year or so.
Depending on how well they score, contestants are placed into one of five categories — A through E. However, only the top contestants in the A, B, and C levels can compete in the tournament's sudden-death finals. Soon after finishing our last puzzle, the top three contestants from each of the three groups competed in the finals for their division championship. The top prize of $4,000 and title of American Crossword Champion goes to the winner of the A finals.
Three identical puzzle grids large enough for the overflow audience to see were placed on easels on the stage at the front of the room. Every finalist had to solve the same crossword, a creation of Byron Walden, a young math professor at Santa Clara University in California.
The only difference would be the clues. The same crossword can be made easy, hard, or nearly impossible, depending on the subtlety and ambiguity of the clues. For example, one of Walden's answers was the word "nineball." For A finalists, the clue read: "It has a yellow stripe." For B finalists: "Pool option." For C finalists: "Billiards game."
Each of the three finalists stood before his or her board wearing headphones that blocked out sound. None could see a competitor's grid. The C and B finals went off smoothly as the contestants attacked the puzzle in different ways. Susan Hoffman, a lawyer from Merion Station, Pennsylvania, won the C title, more than a minute ahead of the other two finalists. Amy Reynaldo, an editor from Chicago, moved flawlessly through the B final crossword to finish comfortably ahead of her two competitors.
The A final held the anticipatory excitement of a boxing match. Tyler Hinman, an information-technology student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, was competing in his fourth tournament and occupied the center. He was flanked by Trip Payne, a puzzle maker from Florida who had competed 14 times and had won twice, and by nine-time contestant Al Sanders, an R&D project manager from Fort Collins, Colorado, who had been in the finals several times but had never won. Well liked by his fellow contestants, Sanders was the sentimental favorite.
I thought the crossword for the A finals was tougher than a Saturday Times puzzle. The 1-across clue for the A finalists came close to being cruel: "Stark and richly detailed, as writing."
Once they started, all three contestants moved with remarkable speed. Sanders, who looked to be in his early fifties, quickly wrote in answers from the top of the left side down, deciphering one tough clue after another. Clue: "Possible result of a gunshot." Answer: "Exit wound." Clue: "Expo '70 hosts." Answer: "Osakans." Wow.
With mounting excitement, the audience kept glancing back and forth as the competitors raced to fill in their grids. Sanders had churned through the left side and climbed up the right side into his final stretch — the upper right corner. He filled it in far ahead of his competitors and put his pencil down. He had finished in eight minutes flat.
As he reached up to remove his headphones the audience let out a gasp. They saw what Sanders, in his race to finish first, had failed to see. He'd neglected to return to his starting point in the upper left-hand corner to fill in two letters he'd skipped. The answer to that diabolical 1 across was "Zolaesque" as in French novelist Emile Zola. Sanders had failed to put in the "z" and the "a," both of which he now knew.
When Sanders heard the audience reaction he looked up and realized his mistake. His body sagged. He threw his earphones to the floor and walked to the back of the stage, where he sat down and buried his head in his hands. For his all-too-human lapse, Sanders had lost the $4,000 first prize, and more importantly, the chance to be called tournament champion and the top crossword solver in America.
The tournament champion turned out to be the red-haired and affable Tyler Hinman, who finished more than two minutes behind Sanders but had a perfect puzzle. At 20, Hinman is the youngest contestant to win in the 28- year history of the tournament. Hinman said he'd put the $4,000 toward his college education and said he regretted being too young to go out and celebrate with a few beers. At the awards luncheon following the finals, the audience gave Sanders a standing ovation when he accepted his third- place trophy.
Doug Hoylman won the trophy as top finisher among the 60-year-olds, and Roger Barkan, a young mathematician from Columbia, Maryland, came in ninth overall, one ahead of Hoylman. Ellen Harland, a retired architect from Falls Church and four-time contestant, finished 197th overall and was the only other winner from the Washington area. The judges awarded her the trophy for the best handwriting. I was awarded nothing; however, I was offered a second dessert at the luncheon.
After the final standings were calculated, I went up two places to 373. Not a total humiliation for one who makes a living as a writer, but close. Even though 372 contestants beat me, I'm thinking of returning next year to see if I can reclaim a shred of honor. Or maybe I'll just take solace in this wisdom from Will Shortz: "You have to be intelligent to solve crossword puzzles, but crossword solving is not a measure of intelligence."