Date: March 15, 1999
Byline: Anne M. Hamilton
Puzzle Lovers Square Off At Crossword TournamentSTAMFORD -- The kebab conundrum confounded contestants in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament finals Sunday.
Kebab? Kebob? Kabob?
How to spell it? Nine finalists competing for first prizes in three divisions knew that was the word they wanted, but many hesitated to commit to a vowel.
Jon Delfin had breezed through most of the clues, scribbling on the giant crossword puzzle grid in the Stamford Marriott ballroom as more than 250 other contestants watched.
Kebab bothered him, too.
"There are so many ways to spell it," he said later.
Next to Delfin, but out of view, two fellow competitors struggled but failed to fill in all the squares before their allotted 15 minutes expired.
Two commentators, Northeast magazine puzzle-maker Merl Reagle and Neal Conan, a National Public Radio contributor, kept up a running banter from the middle of the ballroom while the other competitors filled out their own puzzle forms at banquet tables.
Delfin, winner of four prior contests, put down his marker and took off his earphones to survey his work. He spotted three mistakes.
He'd written "Oreo" instead of "orca" for "black-and-white killer." He' choked on the name of a Russian-born biologist. And he'd spaced out on "leaning to the right."
"I got brain-lock," he said. "Sometimes, you just get stuck."
In the end, it didn't matter.
Scoring takes contestants' speed and accuracy into consideration, and Delfin was pronounced the champion by Will Shortz, New York Times puzzle editor and organizer of the 22nd annual contest.
The championship brought together puzzle solvers from as far as Houston and Seattle to spend the weekend playing word games and solving eight puzzles composed by nationally known puzzle-makers especially for the contest.
"Puzzles now have themes," said Maura Jacobson, who creates word games for New York magazine. The magazine provides hints to the clues, which are designed to be ambiguous and deceptive.
"Author of the weasel family" was the clue for "Ermine Melville" in one of Jacobson's puzzles that featured puns linking famous people to animals, including "Cheetah Rivera" and "Lioness Pauling."
No longer is a head filled with rare and arcane words the best qualification for a world-class puzzle-beater. "The trend in modern crossword puzzles is to avoid using words people have never heard of," said contestant Joe DeVincentis of Winthrop, Mass., who was attending his first national contest.
"They just make the clues hard."
Ron Osher of Stamford, winner of the intermediate category, was one of 24 state contestants.
He breezed through the final puzzle, called "Think Piece," in six minutes and 55 seconds.
Osher, a member of the U.S. World Puzzle Team that will compete in Budapest this year, said skills he uses as a financial consultant and planner carry over into puzzle solving.