Date: March 25, 2005
Byline: Eugene McCormack
Notebook: Tyler Hinman
Tyler Hinman, a 20-year-old junior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was crowned this month as the youngest winner ever in the crossword equivalent of the Super Bowl.
The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held annually since 1978, brings together the nation's best crossword solvers, who are scored on both accuracy and speed. Mr. Hinman fended off more than 450 pencil-wielding enthusiasts to claim the contest's $4,000 top prize.
Mr. Hinman, who had competed in the tournament three times before, knew a victory would earn him a spot in crossword history as the first champion below the legal drinking age. "It was a lot of the reason behind my desire to win," he says.
The information-technology major says he has always had an interest in puzzles in general, though he did not start doing crosswords in earnest until the ninth grade, when a teacher gave him one in study hall. He became obsessed with them, solving every one he could lay his hands on.
Will Shortz, the crossword editor of The New York Times and the tournament's founder, says the competition requires two skills: speed, which favors younger people, and knowledge, which favors older people.
He is amazed that, at 20, Mr. Hinman had already crammed enough facts into his brain to win it all. "The previous youngest champion was 24, and I didn't think that record would ever be broken," Mr. Shortz says.
Mr. Hinman chalks up his success to one thing: practice.
Doing countless crosswords as a teenager allowed him to spot things that often show up in puzzles (clue: "Parenting author LeShan." Answer: Eda), and taught him how to interpret clues that can be read in a number of ways (clue from the final round: "Heat setting?" Answer: Miami).
He says he is okay at trivia, but that one does not need to study word lists or reference books to master crosswords.
Mr. Hinman describes his tournament competitors as a close-knit community and insists that the event is more about camaraderie than bloodlust. "There are no fistfights in the ballroom after a puzzle," he says.
Unfortunately for Mr. Hinman, Rensselaer lacks a large contingent of crossword enthusiasts. Occasionally he sees people doing the college newspaper's puzzle, but he does not find it challenging. "I can't remember the last time it took me more than three minutes," says the champion.
Mr. Hinman has no plans to make a career out of crosswords. He is more interested in pursuing his concentration at Rensselaer: artificial intelligence. "To get some kind of job in that and keep crosswords as a hobby would be cool," he says. "I think I could live with that."
But first, Mr. Hinman plans to defend his title in next year's tournament.