Date: March 14, 2005
Byline: Dean Olsher
The Agony of Defeat
Now I understand why people watch sports.
It really had been a mystery to me until this past weekend, when I took part in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, CT.
Sure, it was exciting when twenty-year-old Tyler Hinman became the youngest champion in the history of the tournament. Hinman, a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, is eight years younger than the competition itself. Not only did he take the title from the reigning champ, Trip Payne of Boca Raton, FL, but something else as well: until Sunday, Payne had been the youngest person (24 years old) ever to win at Stamford.
But really, the competitor who made everyone's heart stop was Al Sanders. Sanders, once described by The New Yorker as "a perennial also-ran from Colorado," breezed through the championship crossword at an astonishing speed, leaving Hinman and Payne in the dust. And while the Associated Press was accurate in reporting that Sanders "missed" the answer "Zolaesque," this did not take note of what had to have been the most heartbreaking moment in the 28-year history of this event: thinking he had finished the puzzle, Sanders did not look carefully enough at his grid and failed to notice that he had left two squares blank in the upper left-hand corner.
"Done!" he called out, and put his marker down.
"No!" shouted the crowd. "No!"
Sanders looked up and realized the catastrophe. Then he took the noise-blocking headphones that finalists wear and threw them to the floor. And then he sunk his face into his hands.
I've always assumed that when sports fans start shouting and throwing things, it's because they envision themselves on the court or the field. I have never in my life been an adequate enough athlete to imagine what it must be like to sink a three-pointer as the clock hits zero or to hit a bases-loaded home run. Although my performance at this year's crossword tournament was less than mediocre (a more disheartening turnout than bombing, really), I can conceive of a day when if I train for three hours per day during the next year I might be a little less mediocre. But since I am a person who does crossword puzzles, I can at least fantasize about what it must be like up there on that stage.
That must explain the tears.