Date: April 3, 2009
Byline: Dan Margolies
War of the words: A crossword puzzle tournament rookie tests himself agains the best
Friday, Feb. 27
For a crossword puzzle addict, this is nirvana.
I'm in the lobby of the Brooklyn Marriott Hotel, which resembles nothing so much as a combined Star Trek/Mensa convention. Wandering the halls is a grizzled middle-aged man clad in crossword-themed regalia. Plunked down in lounge chairs are throngs of crossword aficionados, deep into today's brain-twisting New York Times puzzle.
Waiting to check in, I strike up a conversation with Ben Bass, who tells me he's a lawyer who works for his family investment firm in Chicago. He also lets drop that he's a four-time "Jeopardy!" champion ($56,000). "That's impressive," I say. "Nah," he says. "About half the people in this room have been on 'Jeopardy!'?"
Like me, Bass is a first-timer at this tournament, a "rookie."
The 32nd annual American Crossword Tournament has attracted almost 700 of us puzzlers from across the country (and a few from beyond). We're drawn by the challenge of cracking our craniums, by the satisfaction derived from solving puzzles that challenge our wits, force us to think in unconventional ways and require us to uncover hidden patterns.
In this small compartment of our lives, at least, we're allowed to exercise dominion over chaos, keep the forces of verbal entropy at bay and, in the instant gratification afforded by a puzzle solved, congratulate ourselves on a job well-done.
Like chess and Scrabble players, crossword puzzlers constitute a distinct subculture, seduced by the love of words and captivated by their ever-shifting, mutable meanings. Long before French intellectuals founded deconstructionism, crossword puzzles served to question assumptions about the meanings of words, subverting through word play the notion of language as fixed and stable.
And here, identifiable by their name tags, are some of the greatest deconstructionists of all, the compilers of the crosswords that so edify and bedevil us. The rock stars of crossword puzzledom, their names appear in small print at the top or the side of the puzzle, each with his or her own distinctively recognizable style.
There seated at a table hawking his puzzle collections is Merl Reagle, famed for his sly humor and excruciating puns. Strolling down the hall is Peter Gordon, known for his brilliant themes. And holding forth before a small knot of admirers is Richard Silvestri, whose rigorously logical clues betray his vocation as a math professor.
And then I spot the Great Man himself, Will Shortz, crossword editor of the New York Times since 1993, "puzzlemaster" of NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, and founder and presiding eminence of the tournament. Geeky, I know, but I can't stop gawking. I rush over to have my picture taken with him.
I started doing the Times crossword when I was about 15 years old and attending a private Jewish high school. (As it happens, the high school is in Brooklyn, just a few miles from the hotel.) Every day for 90 minutes we studied the Talmud, the vast compendium of Jewish lore and law that was redacted and reduced to writing about 15 centuries ago. The edition we used consisted of oversized volumes that we propped up on our desks. Each of us paired off with a classmate, our desks shoved together so we could share one tome between us.
My deskmate and I quickly discovered that the Talmud was perfect for concealing the newspaper. While the rabbi droned on in front, we furtively worked the crossword.
Back in those days, the Times puzzle placed less of a premium than it does now on word play, puns, anagrams and cerebral exertion. So it helped if you knew, say, the name of the island 150 miles southeast of Papua New Guinea.
Bruce and I amassed an immense vocabulary of archaic words and "crosswordese," becoming veritable masters of the obscure and esoteric. Our knowledge of the Talmud may have been scant, but our proficiency in solving the puzzle increased by the day.
Saturday, Feb. 28
The prospect of doing six puzzles under the gun — we have from 15 to 30 minutes to do each one, depending on their size and level of difficulty — in a room crammed with hundreds of contestants unnerves me. Crossword solving, a quintessentially solitary activity, is supposed to be relaxing. Only you need know how you've done. Now I'm about to be graded.
I'm on edge. A poor sleeper to begin with, I'm hopped up on adrenaline and juiced on caffeine. Looking over the 10 or so rows of tables stretching across the vast banquet hall, I take a seat not too near the front and not too near the back. I want to blend in. Things feel much like they did when I took the bar exam three decades ago.
Ugh. Why am I doing this?
Turning to chat with the contestant on my right, I learn his name is Larry Okrent, and he's a zoning consultant from Chicago who advised on a project in Kansas City many years ago. I ask him if he's related by any chance to the former ombudsman of the New York Times, Daniel Okrent. "He's my brother," he says. "He's sitting right behind us." (Daniel Okrent, I later found out, is a perennial contender, usually finishing in the top 10 percent of the tournament. I wonder if it helps to work at the Times.)
Standing at the front of the room, Will Shortz outlines some of the ground rules. Ten points are awarded for every correct word entered across and down. Twenty-five bonus points are awarded for each full minute we finish early, but 25 points are deducted — up to the amount of the bonus points — for each letter that's omitted or entered incorrectly. And 150 bonus points are awarded for a complete and correct solution.
Volunteers distribute the first puzzle. Will announces the name of the constructor, Byron Walden, and the room erupts in lusty applause, as if Bono or Madonna had just taken the stage. Will gives us the signal to begin. We turn the sheets face up, and it's off to the races.
As intended, the first puzzle is a breeze, an ice breaker. I finish in just over eight minutes, with six-plus minutes left on the large digital clocks at the front of the room. I'm feeling pretty good, even beginning to entertain delusions of grandeur. Hey, maybe I can take this thing.
Puzzle No. 2, devised by a famed constructor with the Monty Python-esque name of Brendan Emmett Quigley, is difficult. All the puzzles have themes, and this one's is "ALLOW ME TO INTRODUCE MYSELF — And if you didn't hear me the first time..." The theme eludes me, so I dart around the grid, filling in answers where I can. I make the rookie mistake of looking at the clock and note with a growing sense of panic that 10 of the 25 allotted minutes have gone by. My head throbs and my hands shake so badly from all the coffee I've consumed that I can barely keep my answers within the confines of the grid.
Finally it dawns on me. The themed answers require the solver to add two I's to well-known phrases.
28 Across: Monk's wine?
58 Across: What the Arctic Circle is, population-wise?
And so on.
But too much time has elapsed. The clock runs out with maybe 60 percent of my puzzle completed. I feel defeated. I don't remember the last time I didn't solve a crossword puzzle.
Puzzle No. 3 bucks me back up. It's by Merl Reagle, one of puzzledom's all-time greats, whom I'd met in the hall earlier after recognizing him from "Wordplay," the popular documentary film about the 2005 tournament. We have 30 minutes to solve this one, "LIPSTICK ON A PIG — Seven puns that will make you snort."
This time the penny drops right away. Thus:
21 Across: Skin softeners for pigs?
51 Across: Convenient type of swinoplasty?
Feeling redeemed, I convince myself I'm back in contention. I realize later that in my haste to finish early I have committed another rookie mistake: not taking an extra minute or two to review my answers. Instead, I thrust my hand up like a third-grader as soon as I'm done to get the bonus points awarded for finishing before the clock runs out.
But out in the hall I find out — because, naturally, everyone's comparing their answers — that I've gotten 21 Across only partially right. I got the "grunt" part of the clue but not the "oink," writing "ointment" instead. Had I paid more attention to the theme — seven puns — I would have realized that my themed answers contained only six, probably found the error and claimed the 150-point bonus for successfully completing the puzzle.
Dismayed though I am, I'm pretty sure the rest of the puzzle is correct. And when puzzle No. 4 proves to be easy, I loosen up. Okrent warns me that puzzle No. 5 is traditionally the hardest of the tournament, but I'm feeling up to the task.
Bring it on, Shortz!
One quick look at the puzzle by the redoubtable Patrick Merrell and my heart sinks. It's a cranium crusher. Unlike puzzle No. 2, where figuring out the theme took some doing, here the theme spells out what the solver has to do: "SUB-MERGING — In which 'sub' can precede each half of the answer to each asterisked clue." The puzzle is a killer, and with 10 minutes left on the clock, my pencil has barely left a mark on the grid.
Then, belatedly, I get it. Each half of the themed answers must consist of a word that, when preceded by "sub," constitutes a word of its own. Thus:
17 Across: Line on a bill
19 Across: Askance
24 Across: Fighting force
Some contestants complete the puzzle within the allotted 30 minutes and leave the room. But most of us are slaving away when Shortz tells us our time is up. I'm embarrassed when the volunteers come around to collect our sheets. So poorly have I done that I feel like I'm about to retch.
Of Saturday's six puzzles, I complete four — although, as noted, not all of them perfectly. But the two I fail to finish cost me dearly in the standings. On Saturday night, when the results of that day's efforts are posted, I'm ranked No. 488.
Sunday March 1
This morning, a single, Sunday-style puzzle with a 21 x 21 grid closes out the regular competition. Even though I'm sure I have completed it correctly, giving me hope I've gained ground, the final totals show that I haven't budged. I'm still stuck at No. 488. It's one thing, I realize, to do a puzzle in the privacy of your home, at leisure and without anyone looking over your shoulder. It's another to do it under the tyranny of the clock — and with almost 700 people vying to best you.
Which is why I can't imagine what it must be like to do it on a giant dry-erase board with all those people watching.
Yet that's what the top three scorers in each of three divisions in the regular competition do. Up there on the stage, wearing headphones that pipe in white noise to shut out extraneous sounds, the workings of their brains are exposed, their minds in effect on display. Talk about pressure!
The grid is the same for all three divisions. The answers are identical, but the clues are different. The clues for the C contestants are easiest, akin to those in the Tuesday or Wednesday puzzles in the Times. (The Times puzzles get progressively difficult over the course of the week.) Those for the B contestants are harder, akin to Thursday's Times puzzle, and those for the A contestants are brain busters, at least as difficult as Friday's or Saturday's puzzles.
With copies of the puzzles in hand, most of us in the audience have done the puzzle along with the C and B finalists. So we already know the correct answers when the A finalists take the stage.
Perennial contenders, all three come into the finals with identical overall scores. Tyler Hinman, the prodigy who first won when he was a college student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 2005, is gunning for his fifth consecutive win, unprecedented in the annals of the tournament. Trip Payne, a well-known constructor, has won three previous times, and Francis Heaney, another well-known constructor, is looking for his first championship.
They have all of 20 minutes to complete the puzzle. The clues are diabolical. Payne finishes first, in just over nine minutes. But when he flings off his headphones, signifying he's done, the audience lets out with a collective groan. He has two incorrect letters, costing him a big point deduction. Heaney finishes next, nearly three minutes later.
Incredibly, he has made the same two mistakes.
Hinman, unaware of what's happening, has completed nearly all the puzzle but is stuck somewhere near the bottom of the grid. Two squares are eluding him. He's all nervous energy, folding his arms over his head and dancing a little jig as if trying to jostle his brain. Everyone's eyes are upon him.
The minutes go by, and he starts muttering imprecations under his breath. Then, with just three minutes or so to go, it hits him. He fills in the two remaining blanks, tosses off his headphones and the audience erupts. The standing ovation goes on for a good five minutes.
I went to New York with dreams of glory dancing in my head. I left somewhat bowed, but avoiding (or so I tell myself) utter humiliation. Much of the time I think of myself (rightly or wrongly) as the smartest guy in the room. In New York, I felt like the dumbest. (In fact, I can't even lay claim to having done best among the Kansas City-area conte? stants, of which there were six, according to the list of pre-registered contestants. Dave White of Leawood finished among the top rookie contestants.)
But hey, that's what happens when you meet up with cruciverbalists who take their passion as seriously as you do. You're bound to get your head (noggin, bean, crown, dome, pate) handed to you.
No doubt about it. I'll be back.