Date: March 11, 2005
Byline: Margaria Fichtner
Across and down a ballroom, crosswords will rule the day
South Florida has its share of addicts and experts playing in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament this weekend in Connecticut.
Come Saturday, as some of us are slithering out of bed, a few South Floridians, certainly more highly motivated and perhaps even more highly evolved, will sit fidgeting at long tables in a crowded Stamford, Conn., hotel ballroom for the 28th American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
Their brains jangling with esoteric clues "Deny oneself;" "It may be blind;" "Pattern in prosody;" "By and by;" "Duel units;" even "Oh, yeah?!" they are members of the quaint and peculiar species Homo cruciverbalis, which more or less translates as Those Who Are Willing to Pay $175 Each, Not Including Transportation and Lodging, to Square Off at the Country's Most Prestigious Linguistic Slug Fest.
"My children call it my nerd weekend," Judie Berger says, laughing. "I really don't care."
A retired Miami-Dade public-school music teacher, Berger began competing in this intellectual slap-down in 1989 and has returned every year since.
"It is the great joy of my life to be with these people," she says. "The first few years, I would come home with a migraine. Now, I just go and have a good time."
That phrase "Good time" resonates with the brassy clang of an excellent crossword clue, of course, but unlike "Wall hanging," say, or "Manly neckwear," it is much more problematic, more open to wide margins of interpretation and nuance.
"Well, I'll tell you that being in that room is much different from sitting at your table on a Sunday with a cup of coffee," admits Wendy Fader, a Boca Raton psychologist who will be attending her second tournament.
The atmosphere may be [seven-letter word for "Friendly"], but the competitive fervor is [nine-letter word for "Extremely keen"], with participants not only vying against each other but also racing the clock. The most skilled crossword puzzlers are accurate and quick, expert at minute strategies (a lower-case "e" takes less time to write than an upper-case one) that shave seconds and earn bonus points.
"Once you're aware of that clock, your brain tends to well, my brain tends to slow up," Fader says. "All of a sudden I felt like I was back in school, only it's much more nerve-racking."
Fader, Berger and the tournament's 500 or so other participants must solve seven puzzles. Then, on Sunday, three finalists will slog through one more teaser, battling on stage for the title and the $4,000 grand prize as National Public Radio's Neal Conan and veteran puzzlemaker Merl Reagle dish up play by play. Three huge crossword grids will be set up on easels, and "your back is to the audience, so it's sort of easy to tune everything out," says defending champion Trip Payne of Boca Raton, who has won the tournament three times.
"They also give you a headset to wear that's blasting white noise at you so the color commentators can talk without the contestants hearing, . . . " says Payne, a professional puzzle constructor who was solving crosswords at an age before most children even learn to read.
Perhaps the most popular word games in the world, crossword puzzles first appeared in England in the 19th century. However, they did not become a serious adult preoccupation until Scottish-born Arthur Wynne contrived a simply-clued, diamond-shaped, all-white-square puzzle that ran in The New York World on Dec. 21, 1913. By contrast, today's more elite puzzles, in particular those of The New York Times, which famously grow more difficult, frustrating and annoying as the week progresses, tend to be sophisticated, devious and addictive.
"I probably do a minimum of three puzzles a day," says lawyer Bob McFann of Fort Lauderdale, who is participating in the tournament via its online component. "When I fly, my routine is to do The Herald, The New York Times, The Sun-Sentinel and the puzzle in the airline magazine. . . . I think my record is five Sunday puzzles on a nonstop flight to Los Angeles."
Yet, in this age of cyber-manic diversions and protracted attention spans, is it not something of a tiny cultural miracle that such a low-tech, low-cost, nonglam diversion continues to survive?
"It's the love of language, partly," says Will Shortz, The Times' crossword editor and director of the tournament. "We use words every day to communicate our thoughts and emotions, and crosswords take this common knowledge and turn it into a game. There's also the love of mystery, being able to take a problem and carry it through from start to finish, when most problems in life aren't that easy. There's the playfulness, the humor of puzzles. I think people use crosswords to test themselves, to reassure themselves that their brains are still working."
"I just think the more you do to exercise your brain, the more chance you have of keeping your wits as you age," says Berger, a puzzler since ninth grade. 'My teacher said, 'You have to read The Herald Tribune every day,' and why throw the paper away without doing the puzzle? I went to Queens College, . . . and you could get The Times every day . . . for a dime, so all my friends and sorority sisters would sit around the table, and we would do the puzzle every day. I have a friend whom I've known since I'm 12, and for the last 40-some years we've called each other every Sunday to commiserate on the puzzle."
Fader caught the bug from her father and passed it on to her 23-year-old son, who also is competing this weekend.
'One thing I love is that 'Aha!' moment," she says. 'You can be looking at a puzzle, looking at it, and just absolutely not getting it. And then you sleep on it and look at it the next day, and it's like, 'Oh, my God. Why didn't I get that before?' "
Fader will need every "Aha!" in the ballroom.
"I think I was 428th last year," she says. "I was just happy that I wasn't dead last. I just think it's fun to be among the quirky for a weekend."
A little warm-up might be fun, too. What is a four-letter word for "Good time"?
"Hoot!" Fader says, giggling. "For me it's a hoot."