Stamford AdvocateStamford Advocate tournament article 3/12/00
HUNDREDS COMPETE IN CONTESTBy Agnes Diggs
At least the folks who signed up for the 23rd annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament at the Stamford Marriott thought so, as they challenged and amused themselves, racing the clock to do puzzle after puzzle.
These were people who filled the little white boxes -- in pen -- in 30 minutes or less. These were people who make jokes using words like faineant. People such as Stamford resident Ron Osher, the 1999 Connecticut state champion.
Osher, a 40-year-old businessman, has been attending the event for about eight years, but this year, because his 1999 win in the B Division pushed him up a level, he is facing his toughest pool of competition.
"The puzzles have been interesting and challenging," Osher said. "As far as Connecticut goes, I don't think anyone has been faster than I have, so far, but you never know. You get bonus points for a perfect round, but a mistake makes you lose points."
Last year Osher breezed through the final puzzle in 6 minutes and 55 seconds.
Osher compares the competition to taking SATs, working hard to finish quickly and accurately and then waiting and hoping for the best.
Puzzle love runs in Osher's family, though his wife, Stephanie, doesn't like to compete.
"She said it takes the fun out of it," Osher said. "She's good at it, and as long as no one's holding a stopwatch over her, she enjoys it."
The Osher children, Libby, 10, Aaron, 8, and Jennifer, 6, love to compete in sports, he said. And they like to do puzzles.
"I think they will follow in my footsteps one day -- if my wife allows it," Osher said.
Last year, Osher was one of 24 state contestants among 260. This year, 325 people are registered, the largest turnout in the event's history.
The three-day tournament drew participants from 30 states and Canada, England and Brazil. A married couple that had met at a previous tournament were back solving together, and a writer from Time magazine brought his brother this year. Among the participants, 73 were there for the first time, 73 others competed 10 or more times, nine competed in 20 of the event's 23 years, and two have a perfect attendance record.
For entertainment, the group indulged in other types of puzzles, including a fascinating computer game called 3DCrossword.com. The game was played with a mouse and a laptop computer, with the 3-D image of the puzzle projected on a large screen. The game can be accessed for free on the Internet, said Jeremy Douglass, crossword coordinator.
The tournament is the creation of former Stamford resident Will Shortz, puzzle editor of The New York Times. Shortz is the world's only enigmatologist -- a person who has a degree in creating and solving puzzles. He designed his major himself at Indiana University, combining courses such as Crossword Puzzles, The History of Word Puzzles of the Late 19th Century, and logic and math puzzles.
Puzzles have fascinated him since his childhood, and he sold his first one at age 14. He came to Stamford in the 1970s to work for Penny Press, now one of the top two puzzle publishers.
Shortz shared a few puzzle secrets yesterday after the final round of competition. For instance, puzzles in the Times increase in difficulty as the week progresses, with Saturday being the hardest. He said fill-in-the-blank clues usually are easier to solve, and in every puzzle, the long answers have some relationship or theme.
Asked why people do crossword puzzles, Shortz said, "Most problems we face in real life don't have clear-cut solutions. We just do the best we can and move on. What's great about a crossword is that it has a clear-cut solution and when you get that solution, it's a very satisfying feeling."
People come to the tournament in such large numbers because "crossword puzzling is a solitary sport," he said. "You do it by yourself in your bed, over the morning coffee or on the train or the bus." The tournament is a time and place each year where puzzle people can get together, he said.
The final round of competition will be held today.
One competitor, Ellen Ripstein, of Manhattan, is sort of the Susan Lucci of the event. She has been one of the three finalists 11 times and never won. She has been one of the top five 17 times.
"If Ellen wins, this place is going to erupt," Shortz said. "They're going to blow the roof off the hotel."
Registration for the event is closed, but there are online opportunities to compete at the tournament's Web site, www.crosswordtournament.com.