Date: March 12, 2002
Byline: Dave Haskell
Crossword Puzzle World SeriesBOSTON, Mar 12, 2002 (United Press International via COMTEX) Little did Will Shortz dream that the gathering of language lovers he convened 25 years ago would evolve into the World Series of crossword puzzles.
Shortz, the crossword puzzle editor of The New York Times, this weekend hosts the 25th American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn.
For Shortz, it's a "very satisfying feeling" that more than 350 of the best solvers in the country will again compete over three days for prizes and prestige.
"I felt amazement when we reached five years, and astonishment when we reached 10 years," Shortz told United Press International in a telephone interview from his home in Pleasantville, N.Y. "And now I'm just beyond astonishment."
It has also become a major social event.
"It's the high point of my year," Shortz said. "It's not just the competition, it's a convention, a chance for people to get together and share their love of words and their joy in playing."
The tournament begins Friday night and winds up with finals on Sunday at the Marriott Hotel in Stamford. While a clock ticks away onstage, the players sit along cafeteria-style tables in the ballroom, filling in grids.
The three top finalists in each of three divisions, from rookie to expert, face off Sunday morning. Their progress will be visible to all on giant display boards on the stage.
The grand prize is $1,500 and an unabridged dictionary, with prizes also awarded in 21 categories.
Eight puzzles 15 spaces across and 15 down were specifically designed for this tournament. Players get from 15 to 45 minutes depending on the difficulty of the puzzle. While speed counts players get bonus points for each minute under the time limit that they finish accuracy is paramount, Shortz said.
The solvers this year range in age from 17 to 81, about evenly divided between men and women who come from 35 states, Canada and Switzerland.
There's no generation gap in this competition.
"It's an amazing group," Shortz said. "The champions in previous years have ranged in age from 24 to 56. I can't think of any other competitive activity in which such diverse people could be champions," and because the champions are both men and women, "there are very few competitive activities where that's the case as well."
He said it's the people who make the tournament so special for him.
"It's not just the fact that the people who come share an interest in crosswords, a love for crosswords," Shortz said. "It's a common feeling, a flexibility of mind, a sense of humor. The people who come tend to be well read, interesting, funny, creative people."
Shortz has a theory about what draws people to crossword puzzles, besides a love of language.
"It's a way of testing yourself," Shortz said. "Once we've been out of school for a number of years, we like to polish our brains and also like to get a sense, a confirmation that we can still think as clearly as we used to. When you're in college or high school you're tested all the time. Once you get out of school you don't have that way to see if your gray matter is still working. Crosswords are a way to do that."
Crossword puzzles are said to be one of the country's most popular indoor pastimes, attracting millions who love joining cleverly worded clues and the English language.
According to the tournament's Web site, (crosswordtournament.com), the first elementary crosswords appeared in children's puzzle books in England during the 19th century, but really developed into a serious pastime for adults in the United States in the early 1900s.
The man generally credited with inventing the word game, a journalist named Arthur Wynne, created what is considered the first known published crossword puzzle on Dec. 21, 1913, in the New York World newspaper.
Within two decades, nearly all American newspapers were publishing such puzzles, including the Times.
As crossword editor at the Times, Shortz gets 60 to 75 puzzle contributions a week, from which he chooses seven for the daily and Sunday editions.
What he likes most about his job at the Times is that crossword puzzles "lead you into every field of human knowledge classical subjects, like literature, history, geography, classical music, art, technology, up to modern subjects like television, movies, sports, rock 'n' roll, current events."
Since Shortz took over in 1993, his crossword puzzles have helped broaden the paper's readership, likely a factor in the diversity of tournament players. He has also hosted a Sunday puzzle show for National Public Radio's Weekend Edition since 1987.
Top tournament players usually can solve a Monday Times' puzzle the paper's easiest in three to four minutes. Those in the Sunday Times are more difficult, and take 10 to 12 minutes.
Among the elite players are four who have claimed 36 of the tournament' s 42 spots for finalists during the past 15 years Trip Payne of Atlanta, a two-time winner who at 24 in 1993 was the youngest-ever champion; Jon Delfin, 46, a five-time winner and pianist from New York; Douglas Hoylman, 57, a retired insurance actuary from Chevy Chase, Md., who has won six times since 1986, the record; and last year's winner Ellen Ripstein of New York City.
Ripstein, 48, a game show researcher, was known as the "Susan Lucci of crosswords," after the TV soap opera actress who finally won an Emmy in 1999 on her 19th nomination.
Ripstein had a similar streak, finishing in the top five for 18 years. Ripstein finally won last year, but almost didn't.
Patrick Jordan finished the championship puzzle in 12 minutes, 7 seconds, compared to Ripstein's 13 minutes, 35 seconds. Jordan, however, had one letter wrong a P should have been an M while Ripstein had no errors. In puzzles, accuracy trumps speed.
Shortz said Ripstein will be back defending her crown.
"You couldn't keep her away," Shortz said. "She's been training for months."