Date: February 21, 2008
Byline: Hallie Woods
7-letter word for puzzle master: Sanders
Local man to compete for crossword crown
It's been 2 minutes and 32 seconds, and Al Sanders has just breezed through the more than 70 mini-puzzles that make up the New York Times crossword puzzle.
"I had a slow start," Sanders said, referring to his mechanical pencil that just wouldn't click.
Sanders, a father of three and a champion crossword puzzler, ripped through the Monday Times crossword at his house Tuesday afternoon in preparation for the upcoming national tournament at the end of the month.
The American Crossword Tournament brings out the masters of word games, who come from across the country to compete in a two-day tournament with six puzzles — seven if you make it to the finals — of varying levels. This year's tournament is Feb. 29 to March 2 in Brooklyn, N.Y.
A pencil in hand with a big eraser, it's Sanders' way of simulating the competition in Brooklyn.
"I always write with a pencil," he said. "I know people think that doing it in pen is like crossword prowess, but I think it's showing off."
A national finalist eight times, Sanders is hoping to win the contest for the first time this year.
Sanders began doing crosswords in children's puzzle books when he was 7. By the time he was an undergraduate at MIT, he had moved onto the New York Times puzzles.
"Everyone would do the Boston Globe puzzles, which are the easier ones, so I had to graduate up to the New York Times," he said.
Sanders first competed in the U.S. Open Crossword, a short-lived tournament, before entering the American Crossword Puzzle tournament in 1992. He's since been on Jeopardy, filmed an episode of a new crossword game show and co-starred in a documentary about the national tournament called "WordPlay."
"We were going to Disney World and this guy on the train said, 'Is your name Al?'" Sanders said. "He said, 'I watched 'Wordplay' last night."
Being an omniscient crossword puzzler is about being on top of a variety of things, such as pop culture, clever phrases and history.
He listens to classical music, reads his daughter's People magazine and can tell you the five-letter word a banjo makes: twang.
"Having read a lot and remembering a lot of data helps," Sanders said. "But it's a very specialized subset of things."
Sanders said he has become familiar with certain crossword authors' clueing styles, as well as people and words that appear frequently.
"Your crossword fame has nothing to do with what you did, it's about how many vowels are in your name," Sanders said.
Sanders will do a lot of crossword puzzles in the coming weeks as he trains for the competition. Short puzzles train him to sprint, while longer, more-complex puzzles develop his stamina.
"I try to never stop writing," he said. "While I am writing one clue, I am looking at the next."
He logged a second-place finish at last year's competition when he tripped up over a clue — "a carpenter's tool" — and wrote "level" instead of "bevel."
"They set a trap, and I fell right into it," he said.
But Sanders doesn't let the competition get to him.
It's a fun competition that lets him see people who are "just like" him.
"For one weekend a year you are with people that have the same craze you do," he said.