Date: March 4, 2009
Byline: Caitlin McNamara
Will Shortz’ Puzzle Mania Returns to Brooklyn For Its Thirty-Third Year
'Oldest, Largest' Crossword Tournament Keeps Its King, For Now
DOWNTOWN — Reigning crossword puzzle champ Tyler Hinman held a slim first place lead as he entered the packed Brooklyn Marriott ballroom for Sunday's A-division championship round. Even with his lucky shirt, worn to all four previous wins, Hinman needed to out-puzzle the two challengers he had just three-way tied to keep his title.
Off to a slow start, Hinman would appear to struggle before suddenly filling in a quadrant of the board at once.
"This is why he's won four times," says one commentator. "There is almost no one who thinks as fast as Tyler when backed into a corner...
"With great word power comes great responsibility!"
Outsiders, suspicious of the entertainment value of Will Shortz American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, are likely to find a thrill here at the weekend's final event. On stage, three finalists in each of the C, B and A divisions (separated by clue difficulty) race to be top in their level by completing a large puzzle board against the clock. Some only needed five minutes.
Behind them, cheers and groans ensued from the audience as Neal Conan, host of NPR's "Talk of the Nation," and crossword constructor Merl Reagle delivered play-by-play commentary. Excited and nervous, the crowd was quick to laugh, but the competitors were isolated by white noise piped in from iPods (2008 was the last year for the Walkman at ACPT).
First to finish in the A division was Trip Payne, last year's second place winner, but an official pointed to where he spelled "allege" as "aleege," (causing "peayacts" instead of "playacts") disqualifying him from first place. Twelve minutes in, Windsor Terrace puzzler Francis Heaney spun around, finished, only to discover he too had made a mistake.
Sensing he was alone on stage, unaware of Payne and Heaney's mistakes, Hinman signaled his frustration over two elusive letters, shaking his head and shifting his weight. When, several tense minutes later, he dashed to fill them in (30-down, clue: "they're tied at the top," answer: "coleaders," and 48-across, clue: "actor on original Star Trek," answer: "Doohan") Hinman was visibly startled to see the audience rise in standing ovation.
Payne held up a hand to the still head-phoned champion — five — signaling another win to his friend. For good measure, Shortz announced that it was Hinman's 40th perfect puzzle in a row — eight tournament puzzles for each of the years he has competed.
"What were you thinking at the end there?" asked Shortz.
"I'm screwed!" said the champ, who certainly wasn't.
Since 1977, A History
Several hundred people converge at ACPT each year to compete and catch up with like-minded friends. New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz founded the tournament in 1977 and many of the same aficionados have been returning for decades.
One of those is Ellen Ripstein, but this wasn't her year.
"It was not good at all," she says. "That happens sometimes."
In 2001, Brooklyn-born Ripstein took the championship after 13 years of placing in the top three. Ripstein, along with Hinman and Payne, appeared in Wordplay, the 2005 documentary about Shortz and fellow puzzlers including Jon Stewart and Bill Clinton.
"I've always been doing puzzles," she says. "One of the nice things about this is it's like a family reunion."
Event coordinator Helene Hovanec, of Brooklyn Heights, has been helping with the event since its debut, when she escorted the first Times puzzle editor, Margaret Farrar, to the events.
"The puzzle world is small. One thing led to another. It was natural for me to do this."
Hovanec adds that after Wordplay, tournament attendance saw a "tremendous spike," and was the reason they moved the event from Stamford, Conn., to Brooklyn in 2008.
"People come from 37 states, and Paris and Copenhagen this year. This is the oldest, largest crossword tournament in the world."
Borough President Marty Markowitz spoke to the crowd at Sunday's celebration luncheon, saying what a "positive addiction" crosswords are. Hovanec says that Markowitz told her he met his wife, Jamie, when she was working on a crossword puzzle, and that she "love, love, loves them."
Ken Stern of Cobble Hill is following in the footsteps of his father, who competed in the '80s.
"These people are all kind of growing up together. [The tournament] is only solving for well under an hour, for most of us. It's a social event too."
He adds, "We were kinda rooting for Francis to win, to represent the borough. But those guys will both be back."