Date: March 16, 2002
Byline: Tom Weber
Crosswords' appeal no real P-U-Z-Z-L-EWhen it comes to doing crossword puzzles, it appears that I'm ready for the big leagues.
At least that's what I was led to believe by a recent story in USA Today about the upcoming 25th Annual American Crossword Tournament. Accompanying the story, which featured a 17-year-old crossword ace who will cross swords with some 400 other solvers this weekend in Connecticut, was a sample puzzle that had been used in a previous competition. "If you complete it in less than 15 minutes," the story said, "consider yourself tournament-worthy."
I did it in eight.
I might have bettered my time by a minute or so, in fact, had I not run into that rascally "French satirist who created Gargantua." As it turns out, I didn't know Rabelais from Adam, who is otherwise referred to in crossword parlance as the four-letter "First man."
But I'd bet you the price of the Sunday New York Times that the teen- age word whiz and puzzle-maker, Michael Shteyman, would have no trouble coming up with the name of the French satirist who created Gargantua. You can be sure the young man also would know immediately that the 14-letter word for a crossword puzzle addict is a "cruciverbalist."
Which is precisely why I won't be entering a crossword competition anytime soon. Along with 50 million of my fellow Americans, who every day fill in 50 acres of crossword puzzles while sipping 17 million gallons of coffee, I am a cruciverbalist. Frankly, I can't think of a better way to fritter away my spare time than by sitting down with a pen and a fresh grid of alluring black- and-white squares. But being a crossword addict doesn't mean I'm foolish enough to think I'm "tournament- worthy." Not even close.
Will Shortz, the Times' crossword god, once interviewed President Clinton about his love of crosswords. As they spoke on the phone, Clinton managed to solve a moderately difficult puzzle in just six minutes, 54 seconds (11 Across: Scandalous Lewinsky?) That's pretty fast, all right, but nothing when compared to Ellen Ripstein of Manhattan. According to USA Today, Ripstein can finish the mammoth Sunday New York Times puzzle, the granddaddy of the crossword world, in (drumroll, please) less than 10 minutes.
My mother would be impressed.
"The Sunday Times puzzle in only 10 minutes?" I can hear her say. "I'm more than impressed. How about a four-letter word for intensely interested, excited?"
If I am a crossword junkie, my mother is the dealer who got me hooked. I can't think of a time in my life when she didn't do crosswords, always with an erasable pen, a crossword dictionary and a cup of tea. Crosswords and Bingo. In filling out little numbered squares, my mother found her temporary escape from the world. Still does.
I began my obsession by solving a few of the trickier clues that stumped her, that caused her to give up and set the puzzle aside. Then I started tackling puzzles on my own, and caught on to the clever and oh-so subtle deceptions strewn about the grid to trip me up. Solving was curiously satisfying. Soon, one puzzle in the morning was not enough. I began knocking off a second one at lunch, and then a third at night. Before long, I was scrounging around each day for the Times puzzle, sometimes even sneaking off with a copy that another solver in the office coveted. It was every cruciverbalist for himself.
Eventually, I had expanded my knowledge to include all of the major crossword rivers of the United Kingdom - CAM, DEE, EXE, URE, and WYE - and could differentiate them in my head from ORG, COM, EDU and NET, which are three-letter answers for abbreviations "after a dot." I amassed a biblical knowledge of ABEL, ENOS, ESAU and NOAH. I recognized a "Hilo hello" as ALOHA, "Woody's son" as ARLO, and "Man, e.g." as ISLE.
Cracking the clever code of my first themed Sunday Times puzzle was like discovering the Rosetta stone itself. I uttered the familiar three-letter "cry of surprise" - AHA!
In my kitchen there is now a bin filled with newspaper puzzles I never quite finished but plan to get back to. I'll grab one on my way out the door to my children's sporting events, to business gatherings that promise to be boring, to weekend visits at homes where the puzzle- less people dwell.
And if you consider it strange that I'll occasionally discuss unsolved Sunday Times crossword clues during phone conversations with my mother, who lives 500 miles away, then you are definitely not a cruciverbalist.
That's probably a good thing, come to think of it. If you need a diversion, it might be better to take up a pastime that produces something tangible in the end. Knit for a half-hour or so and you're well on your way to a serviceable product, such as a mitten or a sweater. Labor over a crossword for 30 minutes and you wind up with nothing more than a piece of coffee-stained newsprint scrawled with oddball words like EPEE, GEE, SNEE and SMEE.
Besides, if you let yourself become hooked, like the rest of us wordplay addicts, you might actually begin to think one day that you're pretty good. Maybe even "tournament-ready." You might feel cocky enough to try your hand at a sample puzzle once used in a national competition, and even nail the sucker in a respectable amount of time.
But before you pack your No. 2 pencils and attempt to match wits with the hotshots, try this. Get a copy of the Saturday Times puzzle, that vicious, snarling, junkyard dog of the crossword kingdom. Wrestle the nasty beast into submission and check your watch to see how long it took. If need be, check your calendar. Then consider this tidbit from the aforementioned USA Today story. The skillful Ms. Ripstein, who competed for 24 years before finally winning the national championship last year, can finish a typical Saturday puzzle in six to eight minutes.
Let me see, now, what's a six-letter word that means "to demean or shame"? I think HUMBLE fits.