Date: March 19, 2006
Byline: Michael Molyneux
Down(town) and across, she hones crossword skills
Katherine Bryant can do a crossword puzzle faster than you can read this article about her.
A 35-year-old textbook editor who lives in Cambridge, she is as far from the casual solver as Tiger Woods is from a weekend duffer. Though crosswords are often a solitary pursuit, she's usually in the thick of it at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn., and next weekend Bryant will be there for the eighth time. Last year, she finished fifth, the highest showing by a woman in the competition whose top tiers tend to be filled, for whatever reason, by men.
She will sit with close to 500 like-minded people in the ballroom, at the Marriott, that is well supplied with pencil sharpeners. (While Bryant likes to use pen, and sometimes does crosswords online, in recent weeks she has been training the tournament way, with pencil on paper.) Contestants tackle six artfully constructed puzzles on Saturday and face an extra-challenging one Sunday morning. They sit at long tables and Bryant, who is nothing if not polite, takes a spot near the end because she is one of the first to finish and can make her way to the lobby without disturbing slower solvers.
Bryant and some colleagues last year were filmed in the documentary "Wordplay," which was recently shown at the Sundance Film Festival and will get a tournament screening next Saturday. Could the film be the new "Murderball"? Or "Spellbound"?
For cruciverbalists, the fancy term for crossword people, there's nothing remotely close to the March 25 tournament. The director, Will Shortz, expects to draw entrants from at least 35 states and several countries.
Last year, Bryant fell just short of reaching the championship playoff, in which the three finalists who did the best in the first seven puzzles go onstage and do one last crossword on a giant whiteboard grid. TV cameras are rolling, a $4,000 prize is at stake, and announcers provide the color commentary as if it were a major sports event.
Earlier this month, Bryant demonstrated her technique after finishing a BLT at the Parish Cafe on Boylston Street, down the street from her office at Prentice Hall. The light was dim and the table was still crowded with lunch plates. Bryant was fighting a cold and her computer had been down all morning. But with an unfilled grid before her, she was in control. The task was a Thursday Boston Globe puzzle, typical newspaper fare. She got 1 Across immediately, filled the top left corner, and her mechanical pencil hardly stopped. A juggernaut. It slashed diagonally down to the right, sector by sector. She erased only a couple of squares, merely for legibility, and took a last few seconds to scan her paper. (At the top level, one wrong or blank square can drop you in the standings.) Her time: 3 minutes, 35 seconds.
Then it was back to the office, for another afternoon of editing junior high school textbooks.
Doing crossword puzzles doesn't necessarily make you better at that, or other things in life, Bryant says. But she readily acknowledged that, "There are a particular set of skills that are good for puzzles but also help me recognize patterns or understand something quickly."
Bryant is modest about her ability, which she does not find it easy to explain. Of course a good vocabulary is crucial, and she knows she has somehow developed a skill at pattern recognition. And a certain flexibility of mind, because in today's less-straightforward style of cluing, which requires you to think of the many meanings of a word, "makeup person" could be liar. One thing is certain to her: "To do well in crosswords you have to be interested in a lot of things."
That she is.
Bryant grew up in Boulder, Colo., where a local paper carried The New York Times Sunday puzzle. Her mother would photocopy the page so they could both do it. Bryant came East to Harvard, where she majored in the history of science and later got a master's in it. All the reading must have helped, she says.
Before she ventured into crossword tournaments, Bryant joined the National Puzzlers' League, a sort of Green Berets of puzzledom. When its magazine, The Enigma, needed an editor three years ago, Bryant stepped forward. "She was the savior of the organization," said Shortz, who is the group's historian and also puzzle editor of The New York Times. "The magazine is what holds it together."
At a league convention, Helene Hovanec, the crossword tournament coordinator, talked Bryant into trying the event. "She didn't realize how good she was," Hovanec said.
In Stamford, competitors are rated A through E, based on past performance. In that first year, 1999, Bryant finished 26th overall, and won a trip to the stage where she won the C final (all rookies are C). She did even better onstage than she did on paper. The next year, she won the B final. But Bryant is now an A, probably forever, and she is trying to crack the top 3, to get back to the stage.
Stella Daily, a 27-year-old medical copywriter from Brooklyn who also constructs crossword puzzles, finished one spot behind Bryant last year and was the only other woman in the top 10. She would love to pass Bryant and has been working 20 or more puzzles a day.
Bryant's preparation has been more limited: After doing her full-time job, she edits The Enigma's 60 or so brain-benders each month and she now spends evenings as vocal director for the MIT Gilbert & Sullivan Players' coming production of "Patience." So crosswords are something she does on her bus and T rides from Cambridge to Boylston Street, sometimes standing up. But at her speed, 10- to 15-minute stretches are good for several puzzles. "I really don't sit in my house and do puzzles," she says, calling them "what I do to fill in time between things."
Moving up two spots and getting into the A final may seem a long shot, but falling short wouldn't be a tragedy.
"Sure I'm competitive," she says, "but spending that time with people who love doing this is really the great attraction for me."
Bryant has made many friends in the puzzle world, and she will see them outside of the annual solve-fests. But she also cherishes her other sorts of friends. For one thing, she says, "You never know what random conversation you're having with somebody that's completely unrelated may help you someday in a puzzle."
One bonus for the competitors in Stamford is seeing the constructors, those who create the puzzles, often with an artist's touch. Two of her favorites are Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon, the wife-husband team who are authors of The Globe's Sunday puzzle every other week. A few tournaments back, they contributed a puzzle entirely of spoonerisms, familiar phrases that are mangled by making the words swap sounds. So the clue "Home is near" is supposed to make you think, "Nome is here," or "Alaska." "It was beautiful," Bryant recalled.
But usually she doesn't recall the details of a puzzle once it is done, she says, somewhat wistfully. Speed solving doesn't allow the opportunity to savor the cleverness of a clue or the elegance of a construction.
Could she turn it down a gear to achieve that? Probably not.
"It's the way I solve now."
Michael Molyneux is a three-time competitor at the crossword tournament himself. When not solving puzzles at the kitchen table, he can be reached at email@example.com.