Date: May 6, 2004
Byline: Linda Blaser
Stay-at-home dad wins at crosswordsAs a bit of a lark, John Old of Gurnee, who has done crossword puzzles since the age of 5, recently flew across five states to land a surprising third-place finish in his category in the 27th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn. Old's wife, Karin, and 2-year-old daughter, Madeline, were there for support.
Overall, Old scored 10,990 points, finishing 60th out of 478 contestants. In eight puzzles created especially for the competition held in mid-March, Old finished one puzzle in seven minutes and only missed one square in three days of competition.
"Of 141 first-time contestants at this year's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, John finished third, which is an extremely impressive performance," said Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle and director of the tournament, the nation's oldest and largest crossword competition.
Because he finished in the top three in his category, which is based on past performance in the competition, Old got to compete in the final round on stage.
"There were three white boards on stage angled away from each other with a puzzle diagrammed on each," Old said. "You had headphones on so you couldn't hear the crowd, but I could still hear my daughter through the headphones yelling, 'I want to help Daddy.'"
Old finished the puzzle in time without any mistakes, but didn't finish before his two rivals. The on-stage finals followed two days of competing in a hotel ballroom on rows of banquet tables zig-zagged with cardboard dividers so contestants could not view each other's papers.
To prepare for the competition, Old's wife, Karin, bought him a book of 1,001 New York Times crosswords, of which he did about 300 between November and March.
"I really encouraged him to go" and enter the competition, said his wife.
"When I first met John, I was so amazed that he did crossword puzzles so fast," she said. "I never saw anyone just sit down and fill out each square. It takes some people all day to do a crossword puzzle. He can do it in 10 to 15 minutes, and the amazing thing about this is he doesn't ever have to look up any fact."
Old attributes his success to being "overly educated, I went to law school, and having a good memory for obscure words," he said.
His method: He works down the column of clues and fills in the answer as quickly as he can, moving onto the next clue. "If I get stumped, I just keep going," he said. He usually finishes a New York Times crossword in 10 minutes. "Sometimes I get stuck and it takes me 20," he said.
Old said he'll return next year. "I'd like to improve on my speed to catch up with the top-level people," he said. Old thinks altering his method and working on one quadrant of a puzzle at a time may shave time off his score and decrease the likelihood of errors.
"I need to train harder," he said. "I got one square wrong."
The one that stumped him?
"The clue across was 'prefix meaning 10' which I thought was 'deca' and the clue down was 'saves' which I thought was 'scrimps' but it didn't fit," Old said. "I figured out later it was 'deka' with a 'k' and 'skimps.'"
That one mistake cost him 195 points 150 all-correct bonus plus 25 points for one wrong letter plus another 20 points off for two incorrect words.
"The rest of the difference I need to make up by getting faster," Old added. "The time bonus is 25 points for each minute remaining on the clock."
Karin Old said she's glad her husband entered the competition and hopes he continues competing.
"As a stay-at-home parent, you don't really get a lot of reward," Karin Old said, referring to her husband, who takes care of Madeline while she works.
"A neighbor doesn't come over and say, 'Great job on giving your daughter breakfast on time every morning this week'," she said. "Everyone has some kind of talent, no matter how quirky. It's really good to be able to use that talent once in a while and get recognized for it."
Old's mother, who started him on crossword puzzles at such a young age, still does the TV Guide crossword herself, he said.
Who knows? Daughter Madeline might inherit the family trait.
"I had to take her out of the room during the final competition," said Karin Old. "She got a pile of extra puzzles and started filling them out with crayon saying, 'Daddy needs my help.'"
If she's anything like her father, she'll be great.