Date: March 6, 2005
Byline: Karen Gardner
Scott Weiss can solve a New York Times crossword puzzle in less time than it takes most people to figure out a seven-letter-word for "literally: kitchen." Mr. Weiss finished 11th in last year's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and will return to the annual competition in Stamford, Conn., March 11-13. (The answer, by the way, is cuisine.)
"I've been doing puzzles all my life," said Mr. Weiss, an articulate, gregarious college professor. Not shy, he doesn't exactly fit the stereotype one might expect of a crossword puzzle champion.
Mr. Weiss, 34, is an assistant professor of computer science at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, and lives in Walkersville with his wife Susan, a linguistics professor at Goucher College in Towson, and their 18-month-old son Andrew. Every March the family travels to the tournament, where Mr. Weiss can catch up with his crossword puzzle friends.
Since childhood, he has loved to solve puzzles, whether they're word searches, logic puzzles, math puzzles or picture puzzles. "They were fun to play around with," he said. He really discovered his passion when he started subscribing to Games magazine, a subscription he still has.
He also had a little encouragement. "My grandparents did the New York Times crossword all the time, and I would do it with them," he said. "We'd fill in the whole grid together."
A native of Long Island, he moved to Maryland to go to graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. He learned about the crossword tournament while in grad school and decided to try his luck. This will be his 14th year at the tournament.
Each year he has done better than the last. His 11th-place finish last year, out of nearly 500, is his best to date. All year he does crossword puzzles, one or two a day.
It's become a morning ritual for him and his son, Andrew, to print the New York Times crossword puzzle off the computer. Whether he has time to do it right away depends on the day's schedule and the baby's schedule, but it'll be complete before he goes to sleep.
It rarely takes him more than five minutes to complete a puzzle, and it may take him 12 minutes to complete the Saturday puzzle, usually the week's most difficult, or the Sunday puzzle, which is the largest. "I don't look stuff up much any more," he said. "Crossword puzzles tend to have themes, and those are the things that draw me in. I look for the cleverness, the humor, the wordplay."
For easier puzzles, he'll set different challenges. One of his favorites is to see if he can solve the puzzle by looking at each clue only once.
This helps him prepare for the yearly tournament, which is three days of puzzle solving in the ballroom of the Stamford Marriott, hosted by Will Shortz, New York Times puzzle editor, and also the puzzler on National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition Sunday."
The competitors gather to solve puzzles, talk puzzles and catch up since the last time they've seen each other. When their son was born, Mr. Weiss called his family, and then he called his puzzle friends. "Scott said, 'They are my other family,'" his wife said.
"You normally think of crossword puzzles and puzzles in general as kind of a solitary thing, but the people are all very nice," he said. "The tournament is also a social thing."
He said his years of doing puzzles, like others at the tournament, give him an edge when he's completing a crossword puzzle. "Scott has the memory for that sort of thing," Ms. Weiss said. "You have to have a good memory for obscure words and pop culture, and he's very good with trivia."
Mr. Weiss credits Mr. Shortz, who took over as editor of the Times crossword puzzle in 1993, as making the crosswords more fun than in previous years. While contemporary puzzles contain historical, literary and classical music references, they also contain references to pop culture and current events.
"Who cares about obscure names of weapons or places?" Mr. Weiss said. "If I can get a pun, there's that 'aha' moment." He said puzzlers live for those 'aha' moments when they get a crossword constructor's pun or wordplay.
Because he knows many of the constructors through the tournament, that makes the 'aha' experience even more fun, he said.
One of the first conversations Mr. Weiss had with his wife was about word games. She solves word games, but not crossword puzzles. A couple of years later, he devised a word game which contained his marriage proposal.
Mr. Weiss is also a big "Jeopardy" fan, regularly watching the show that tests the knowledge of contestants in academic subjects and pop culture. "I used to be obsessive, and tape it if I'd miss it, but now I don't do that," he said.
He's not sure about trying out for the show. "I get stage fright," he said. At last year's crossword tournament, however, he had to get on stage for the final round, and the stage fright passed as soon as he began concentrating on the puzzle.
His puzzle hobby isn't limited to the New York Times crossword puzzle. He'll also print out the puzzle from the New York Sun, and solve it if he has time. He has an on-line puzzle partner with whom he does cryptics, puzzles which involve word play.
He is the coach of the Mount St. Mary's trivia team, which participates in College Bowl competitions. He serves as financial secretary for Kol Ami, Frederick's new Reformed Jewish congregation.
In the basement, he has a large collection of board games, including Yahtzee, Pictionary, Scrabble, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Scattergories.
"I like games that have a little wit to them," he said.