Date: March 14, 2005
Byline: Jennifer Smith
Crazy for crosswords
More than 500 gather in Stamford for 28th annual Crossword puzzle tournament
STAMFORD, Conn. After a weekend's worth of brain-teasing, the battle for top spot at the 28th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament came down to this: three men, three grids on large erase boards, and a clock ticking off the remaining seconds as more than 500 cruciverbalists crossword puzzle enthusiasts watched intently in a hotel ballroom.
First to finish, Al Sanders of Fort Collins, Colo., went from elation to despair as he realized his haste had caused him to leave two spaces blank. The Z and A that would have completed "zolaesque" across and "zests" and "atvs" down were missing. Sanders, 46, flung down his headphones and retreated, red-faced, to the rear of the stage, gray head in his hands.
About two minutes later, computer student Tyler Hinman, 20, of Troy, N.Y., scrawled his way to a perfect puzzle with a time of 10 minutes, winning this year's title and $4,000 prize. The youngest competitor ever to win the contest, Hinman beat both Sanders and this year's favorite, Trip Payne, 36, a professional puzzle maker from Boca Raton, Fla., who waltzed off with the top prize in 2004 with minutes to spare.
"I can't believe another guy who's 7 years old is going to win this," cracked commentator Merl Reagle, who makes puzzles for the Los Angeles Times.
In competitive crossword puzzle solving, enthusiasts tend to skew more toward the middle-aged and bespectacled, but this is no contemplative meander through the Sunday newspaper. Speed and accuracy are paramount, and the top players among the 456 competitors at the Stamford Marriott raced through some puzzles in just three and four minutes. The fast reflexes of youth can occasionally trump the experience of seasoned contestants such as Sanders, now in his ninth year of competition. "This tournament's being taken over by the 20-year-olds," sniffed Payne the day before he was dethroned.
The tournament founded by New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz drew contestants as young as 18 and as old as 87 from all over the country, including 21 from Long Island and 61 from New York City. There are five skill divisions, five age divisions, and prizes for the top solver in each of 11 geographical zones. Patricia Buethe, 43, of North Merrick, won the Long Island division and placed 19th overall while Stella Daily, 26, of Brooklyn, won the New York City zone and finished sixth overall.
Some competitors work in the puzzle industry. Many more are brainy, passionate amateurs teachers, attorneys, computer programmers, students, retirees and one self-described "hip-hop mogul-impresario." Shortz called them smart, interesting and well-read: "People with flexible minds, the ability to look at a clue and see the different ways it can be interpreted."
To win, said Michael Tuffiash, a graduate student at the University of Florida, "being a word freak" is a must. Wannabes must familiarize themselves with specific obscure words that constructors rely on, such as "Este," the name of an Italian family from the Renaissance and immerse themselves in the culture.
Contestants played games for fun long into the night and competed in a talent contest whose winner, Leslie Billig, sang "My Will," an ode to Shortz to the tune of "Bill" from the musical "Show Boat." One man hired Newsday crossword editor Stan Newman a few years ago to construct a puzzle for his girlfriend containing a marriage proposal (she said yes). And Nancy Kavanaugh, 49, of Dix Hills, an amateur puzzle constructor, plans to get a tattoo of her first grid that was published in the New York Times.
Saturday a hush fell in the ballroom as competitors seated at long tables with yellow cardboard dividers readied for the first puzzle, face down before them. With a rustle of paper, the competition began. The hands of the fastest solvers shot up mere minutes into the varying times allotted, signalling they were done.
Hinman, a keyed-up redhead in a baseball cap, bolted from the ballroom after tearing through the notoriously tough 25-minute fifth puzzle described by Shortz as "the one that's gonna rip your heart out." His time: just under eight minutes. In the interest of speed, he didn't even check his answers. "I either just put myself in first or took myself out of contention," he said, pacing.
Almost everyone seems to revel in the company of others who understand their passion for what is a lonely pursuit.
"Solving is a solitary thing," said Charlotte Cremin, 71, a retired math teacher from New York who lives in Los Angeles. She placed 64th in her 15th tournament. "If you can do better than you did last year, for a lot of us, that's the point," Cremin said. "I'm up against myself."