Date: March 28, 1996
Byline: Ray Weiss
Area residents puzzle over country's oldest and largest crossword tournamentMiriam Raphael was the American champion back in 1979. No one moved with more speed or confidence. She downright out-puzzled her competitors.
Raphael, 70, of Rye Brook, no longer competes with the best.
"I'm just not that fast," she says. "I've slowed down over the years."
But Raphael still competes for the love of the game.
"I like words," she says, "and I enjoy being around other people who like words."
Raphael has been a crossword-puzzle fanatic most of her life.
She's entered in the seniors division of the l9th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament at the Stamford Marriott Hotel this weekend. She has missed only one tournament, the very first in 1978.
"I've been back 18 straight years," she says. "I see a lot of the same people every year. It's a lot of fun."
This year's event starts tomorrow night with warm-up games and entertainment. The puzzle solving that counts takes place Saturday and Sunday.
More than 250 players from about 20 states are expected to play in the country's oldest and largest crossword tournament. Four age and five skill divisions cover everyone from juniors to seniors, rookies to experts. Winners from 10 geographical regions will also be named.
Raphael was the tournament's overall champion in 1979. Back then, she says she completed a daily newspaper puzzle in three minutes and a Sunday puzzle in nine.
Now, she says, it takes her about five minutes to finish a daily puzzle and 15 to complete a Sunday puzzle.
"I learned how to do puzzles fast out of guilt," she says, laughing. "I had three little girls, so I had to do them fast."
Arthur Wynne would have been amazed at how far his game has come. He's credited with creating the first newspaper cross- word puzzle. Actually he called it a word-cross puzzle in the New York World on Dec. 21, 1913, but a typesetter reversed the words after a couple of weeks. And crossword puzzle stuck.
The puzzles are no longer simply a leisure activity. Speed is as critical as accuracy in the world of competitive crossword-puzzle solving. So is a knowledge of current trivia. All puzzles in the tournament are created especially for the competition.
Contestants receive 15 minutes to solve a daily newspaper-style puzzle and 45 minutes to work on a Sunday-style puzzle. Ten points are given for each correct word and 25 bonus points are awarded for every minute a contestant beats the time limit.
Each player solves seven puzzles. Total points are compiled. The top three contestants in each of the three top divisions then compete in a sudden-death playoff. Grand prize is $1,000.
Will Shortz of Pleasantville is the 43-year-old founder and director of the tournament. He also is the crossword puzzle editor at The New York Times.
He says tournament puzzle players are of all ages and back- grounds. Among the occupations of those competing this year are teachers, lawyers, computer programmers, a judge, disc jockey, auto worker and nanny.
"It's a very diverse group," he says. "What they have in common are a love of words, flexible minds and knowledge on all sorts of subjects. A good crossword player has a grab-bag mind."
Shortz estimates 50 million Americans do crossword puzzles.
"Crossword puzzling is a solitary activity," he says. "The tournament is a means for solvers to get together and see how good they are. Some people come and take it seriously, wanting to win the top prize. But most come to meet other players."
Rick Norris, 49, a corporate executive from Mahopac, enjoys the challenge of solving cross- word puzzles. Last year, he entered his first tournament. He finished 10th among rookies and 97th overall in a field of 230.
"My biggest surprise was how easy It was to talk to anyone on any level," he says. "There were no attitudes."
Joining Norris at this year's competition will be John Chervokas, executive director of the Greater Ossining Chamber of Commerce. He has missed only a couple of tournaments in 19 years. Last year, he won the Westchester/Upstate division.
Chervokas says he usually solves one puzzle a day. But around tournament time, he starts doing about 10 a day.
"Hand-eye coordination is critical for speed. You're talking about split seconds," he says of the times between the top finishers. "You don't want to stop and found herself battling her parents, Melvin and Philippa Perry, for the daily newspaper.
"Pretty soon, we were fighting to get the puzzle," Perry says with a laugh. "Now, my mother makes copies every day."
Perry rarely goes anywhere without a puzzle stuffed in a bag.
"I just love the challenge," she says. "The harder the better."
Her ultimate challenge comes this weekend. The good thing is she and her parents won't have to fight for the puzzle. All three are entered in the tournament.