Date: April 6, 2003
Byline: Susannah Sears
WordstruckThe Citizen's crossword puzzler faces down America's best word warriors and draws a - - - - - (five-letter word for nonexistence)
How did it come to this? My self-esteem is hinging on my ability to conjure the first name of a woman who died 109 years ago. Somebody Bloomer, she popularized pants of the same name in the 1850's. The answer has six letters and begins with an "A". Amanda? Audrey? Agatha? Damn! I knew this yesterday. She's on my list.
The list I've compiled is 27 pages of small font, crammed to the margins with things I didn't know, and likely wouldn't need to were I not at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut. The brainchild of New York Times editor Will Shortz, it's where you'll find people who can finish the toughest crosswords as easily as signing their names.
Last year my first at this war of words I placed a dismal 391st of 401 competitors. Appropriately shamed, I vowed to return, and solve my way into the top 300. A few weeks before the battle, though, I get a reality check. Shortz sends me an e-mail advising registration has grown to nearly 500 solvers.
"It might be quite a challenge to crack the top 300," he warns politely. "A fairer goal for you would be to improve your percentile finish, whatever that was."
Having done little in 11 months to raise my ranking, I panic and buy online access to the Times' daily crossword. The Web site allows computer solving of every puzzle published since October, 1996. I start with a Monday crossword, typically the easiest of the week. I'm relieved to find I'm not terribly taxed by clues like "Pear-shaped instrument" (Answer: Lute) and "Dot follower" (Answer: Com), clicking all answers into place before the timer has ticked off 10 minutes. I'm rewarded with a CONGRATULATIONS! message and the image of an absurdly beaming pencil, with gloved hands proudly poised on would-be hips.
Emboldened, I try a Tuesday puzzle, and enter One Across's answer with ease. Recalling the countless Match Game reruns I've watched, I know the solution to "Funny Fannie" is Flagg. Sadly, my momentum ends with the very next clue: "Mordant Mort." After failing to form the answer by solving the Down clues that cross it, I give up and hit the handy REVEAL button. The letters S-A-H-L pop neatly into the squares, though each is marred by a red strike, mocking my inability to fill them myself. Mort Sahl, I discover through an Internet search, is a well-known wit well-known by everyone but me, it seems.
A little dejected but still determined, I work my way through the rest of the week.
The difficulty of Times' puzzles increases each day, peaking on Saturday, when solvers are tortured with purposely ambiguous clues like "Spencer, e.g." The answer? Carbine. Civil War buffs and expert cruciverbalists know the Spencer Carbine as an 1860's firearm, but for me, it's just another entry in the long list of facts I've somehow managed to miss. By the time I leave for Connecticut, this tome includes nearly 3,000 words, ranging from "Aalst" (a Belgian commune) to "Zuni" (a New Mexican people). Despite its size, I suspect what I still don't know could spawn centuries of Times' crosswords.
I have to leave this list behind, of course, as I enter the Stamford Marriott ballroom for the first of seven puzzles Saturday morning. Solving aids are forbidden not that most of these people need them. When I meet Burlington, Ont. computer specialist Tom Ratcliffe, it's clear he's never had to cram. Unlike me, he hasn't been in his hotel room forming desperate mnemonic rhymes like "A Japanese sash is an obi, Lake Victoria's west of Nairobi."
"I've been blessed with this steel trap of a mind, that I just remember everything," he tells me cheerfully.
The 33-year-old, who researches American president Millard Fillmore for fun, is a first-time competitor, but he's already got a game plan.
"The secret to solving these and doing well is sugar and caffeine. I've been hopped up on lattes, Dr. Pepper and Cherry Coke. As long as they don't do drug testing, I'm OK."
As I join the line at the pencil-sharpening table, I feel like a drink too, but not the kind Ratcliffe's been downing. My nerves are more frayed than they were last year. When I finally get my turn at the sharpener, it seems to be in its death throes, choking on my pencil with intermittent whirs. This is not a good omen.
I take my ragged pencil over to a table of friendly-looking competitors near the back of the room. One of them is attempting to erect the cardboard partition left on the table to prevent cheating, but he gives up after it collapses into his solving space for a third time. Shortz recites the rules as the judges place a puzzle face-down before each competitor. After an eerily tense pause, Shortz announces "On your mark ... Get set ... Go!" and the race is on.
I flip my paper and take a few seconds to ponder the puzzle's title an important step I neglected last year. This one's called "Cool Warm-Up: Some opposites, for starters." I keep an eye out for clues that indicate humorous contrasts, and hit the jackpot early on. 37 Across spans the width of the puzzle and reads: "One making a big splash at the pool at night?" I lightly pencil in "fat skinny dipper," and am thrilled when it fits. The remaining answers fall easily into place, and I finish with several minutes to spare. After failing to complete a single crossword at the 2002 tournament, I'm euphoric at leaving the stragglers behind and joining the pros in the lobby.
My elation fizzles when I realize I've skipped the most important step in tournament solving double-checking my work. Recalling a few iffy answers, I picture the 150-point perfect puzzle bonus popping like a balloon. I'm comforted to find I'm not the only Canadian who's made this mistake.
"It's worth six minutes just to look over the answers," says Torontonian Philip Siller, ruefully.
The fifty-something man, who lists his occupation as philosopher, has been solving Times' crosswords since childhood, but feeling the pressure to finish early, gave his work only a cursory glance.
"I thought I'd done it perfectly and I didn't, so I didn't have the right tactics."
My confidence is shaken as I sit down for the second puzzle 10 minutes later. Particularly vexing is 67 Across. Four letters, it's "One of Jupiter's smallest moons." Several four-letter words spring to mind as I stare at the page, but I'm sure none would be appreciated by the judges. If I had my list, I'd find the answer, Leda on page 15. When the allotted 25 minutes end I still haven't decoded the puzzle's title: "Got A Second?" Later, I'll learn this means squeezing an "A" into familiar phrases. "Swing votes" becomes "Sawing votes," the solution to "Concerns for the timber lobby?" A judge collects my puzzle and eyes the half-filled grid.
"Don't feel bad," he says. "You're in good company."
One of the many solvers still seated is fellow Ottawan Sonja McKay. Here with her father, the tournament rookie's enjoying the camaraderie more than the crosswords.
"I expected to have a good time and to meet some other interesting people," says the 36-year-old social worker. "What I don't like is all the unusual words you have to know which don't really mean anything, and you don't use in your regular life. I'm a little discouraged about that."
I'm discouraged too, that my list has availed me next to nothing. It's not until the sixth puzzle that it pays off, with the clue "Kimono cummerbunds." I write the word "obis" with nearly enough force to snap my pencil. As for Mrs. Bloomer, I finally remember her name was Amelia, but the time I've wasted on her costs me an entire corner of the seventh crossword.
Preliminary scores are posted in the lobby Sunday morning. I've placed a disappointing 455th of 495 contestants. Remembering Shortz's words, I try to take consolation in my improved percentile. I'm starting to cheer up, when a contestant in his seventies approaches, asking if I've had a good time. I nod and smile, and we compare scores.
"I'm always amazed people who rank so low can enjoy this," he says, and wanders off.
Shortz is more charitable.
"I'm very proud of the fact that so many people who come once return because they have such a great time," he tells me. "The thing that brings me the most pleasure is how much fun people have."
Perhaps the person having the most fun is Manhattan musician and returning champion Jon Delfin. In third place after the seventh puzzle, he snatches the top trophy from the first two finishers by beating their speed in the final showdown. The master of crosswords is also the model of modesty.
"I consider my ability to solve crosswords quickly on a par with my ability to wiggle my ears," he tells me. "I can do it. A lot of people can't. It's OK."
The 48-year-old makes tournament history by becoming its sole seven-time winner. The only other contestant with six titles is a man in his late fifties. He finishes in sixth place, and Shortz says age may be a factor in his runner-up ranking.
"When you get that old, you may know more than you did before but your reflexes slow down."
I log onto the Internet the minute I'm back in Ottawa, to check the final scores. I've climbed a single spot to number 454. I'm second to last in the foreign division, ahead of McKay, who finishes 483rd. The caffeine-swilling Ratcliffe ranks an impressive 91st, and Siller, who stumbled on the first puzzle, has made up for lost points to finish in 183rd place.
Despite my poor showing, I renew my membership on the New York Times' puzzle site the next morning, and start practising. At my rate of improvement, I figure I'll be a contender in 25 years. Of course, I'll be in my late fifties just about the time Shortz says my reflexes will start to slow.
Ottawa writer Susannah Sears is the creator of the Weekly's Cryptic Crossword.