Date: March 2, 2010
Byline: Pamela Sroka-Holzmann
Hillsborough crossword solver comes within a few syllables of winning national tournament
HILLSBOROUGH — When most people are enjoying a glass of wine or hot shower to wind down after a long day, 35-year-old Howard Barkin opens his newspaper to the crossword puzzle.
Barkin, a Hillsborough resident, about five years ago began working on crossword puzzles to pass time during his lunch break while working a 9-to-5 desk job. Now, he says it's a way to relax.
"I tried to read books, magazines and then, found my way into doing crossword puzzles," Barkin said. "I found it broke up the day nicely and it was a nice mix of everything. It's sort of like playing Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune and Trivia Pursuit all at once."
The hobby-turned-passion earned Barkin $600 and a trophy last month when he finished in second place during the 33rd annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Brooklyn, N.Y. There, Barkin competed against about 650 participants and completed a total of seven puzzles before advancing as one of the top-three competitors.
Founded in 1978 by Will Shortz, who still directs the tournament, it is the oldest and largest crossword tournament held in the United States. In 2008, Barkin finished in third place.
He said the main part of the tournament includes seven rounds, each featuring a puzzle that all competitors must solve. Tournament judges score the solved puzzles based on accuracy and speed, then the puzzles are scanned, scored and ranked, he said.
Following the seven rounds, the top three solvers in the top three divisions then progress to a final round, which involves solving a complex crossword on a large grid, on stage in front of hundreds. The winner of the final round is declared the tournament champion — receiving $5,000 and a championship silver bowl.
Barkin noted the clues are progressively harder for each higher division. His weakness: anything that has to do with pop culture or the arts.
In a beginner's division, the clue might be "Walt Disney film set in a forest." The answer: Bambi. In Barkin's advanced division, his clue for the same answer was "flower's bud."
"You had to know "flower" is the skunk's name in Bambi and "bud" means friend," he said.
In 2005, Barkin's first taste of crossword competing was during a fundraiser to raise money for a Bergen County blood bank. There, he quickly learned to win at such tournaments, participants need to be both accurate and fast.
"When I finished, I looked up and there was a guy already reading a book and another, with his feet up on the table," Barkin said.
In 2006, he traveled to his first American Crossword Puzzle Tournament then held in Connecticut, where he's competed annually ever since. But, he said it's not about winning — it's about meeting people with a common interest.
"I wasn't going there to see what place I could come in — I was there for the atmosphere," Barkin said. "It was just like a getaway from everything. Most people aren't going there in the hopes of winning a prize or trophy — you're going there to make friends — that's the big draw."