Date: March 15, 2010
Byline: Michael Schulman
Dept. of Hoopla: Solvers
When crossword fanatics get together, they like to complain about words like "inee." "Everyone has a different definition of 'crosswordese,'" Peter Gordon explained the other night. "To me, 'crosswordese' is not a word like 'Oreo.' Any four-letter word that has three vowels — aria, area, Aida — is going to show up a lot in crosswords. But they're not as bad as 'inee'" — a type of African arrow poison — "because that word no one has ever heard of. The only reason you know that word is if you do crosswords.
Gordon, who writes puzzles for The Week, was at the bar of the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge, surrounded by other people who "do crosswords," in the sense that Michael Phelps "does laps." It was the opening night of the thirty-third annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and the "solvers," as they like to call themselves, were bonding over some A-L-E.
"What's the state bird of Hawaii?" Gordon went on.
"Not this again," a solver groaned.
Nene. The only reason you know nene is because or crosswords. The same goes for "anoa" (a Sulawesian buffalo), "Omoo" (the 1847 Melville novel), and "Attu" (the westernmost of the Aleutian Islands). Gordon disapproves of crosswordese; he considers himself more new school, which means that he prefers puzzles that incorporate pop culture. For instance, several solvers noted that "Joe the Plumber" had appeared in that morning's Times crossword (34 Across: "Metaphor for a middle-class American"). Even new-school puzzles are susceptible to habit. "S.L.A., the organization that kidnapped Patty Hearst — that was thirty-six years ago, and they're still using it," Gordon said.
For its first three decades, the tournament was held in Stamford, Connecticut. In 2008, it moved to Brooklyn in order to accommodate growing attendance. Ann Marie McNamara, from Nashville, had been to eight previous tournaments. "I came in four hundredth last year," she said. "We're not competing against each other. We're competing against the puzzle, so we're all very friendly. Not like the Scrabble people — they hate each other."
The evening kicked off in the ballroom, with two custom-made puzzles. Afterward, the attendees spilled into an adjoining room for wine and cheese. In crossword parlance, you are either a solver or a "constructor" (or, if you're in a fourteen-letter mood, a "crucivcrbalist"), though many people at the tournament had dabbled in both. Near the food table, Kevan Choset, a thirty-year-old attorney who constructs puzzles on the side, was talking with Frank Longo, who fact-checks puzzles for the Times. Longo is legendary for his database of crossword-worthy words and phrases, numbering some nine hundred thousand. (He had just entered "Nodar Kumaritashvili," the luger who died at the Vancouver Olympics, and whose first name might someday make a good 16 Down.) "If I'm stuck making a puzzle, I'll IM Frank and say, 'What do you have for blank blank w blank blank c blank blank?'" Choset explained.
"We should play Stump the Database tomorrow," Longo said.
"Not tonight?" Choset said.
They were joined by Eric LeVasseur, who was wearing a crossword-print tie. (He wasn't the only one.) "I was trying to remember," he said to Longo. "Last week, the Times had a puzzle that had quad-stacked fifteens on the top and the bottom — did you do that once with a vowel-less crossword?" ("Quad- stacked fifteens" means four fifteen-letter rows with no black boxes.)
"Yes, in the New York Sun," Longo said.
"A quad-stacked fifteen is, like, unheard of, LeVasseur said.
"I really want to do a five-stack," Longo said. "That would be awesome.
A trio of Brown undergrads, who had met through the campus crossword club, approached. "I did your fold-in puzzle and it was amazing," Natan Last, a sophomore, said to Choset, who had recently constructed a puzzle for the Times based on the fold-in illustrations from Mad.
"That was you?" his friend Jonah Kaguri, a freshman, said. "Now I'll shake your hand!"
Last, who had windswept bangs and was wearing a Silver Surfer T-shirt, published his first Times crossword puzzle when he was sixteen. Since then, he's had nine or ten more, often with math themes. He first came to the tournament two years ago, when he was a senior in high school. "It was two days after I published my first Sunday," he recalled. He ended up not competing that year. "I couldn't skip baseball practice," he said.