Date: March 2, 2008
Byline: Meredith McGroarty
Puzzle Me This
What's a four-letter word for geekfest? After a weekend at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Brooklyn, MEREDITH McGROARTY thinks she's got it. Crossword Tournament: Let The Games Begin
Contrary to popular belief, not everyone at the tournament is a hardcore puzzler. At the Friday night opening games and reception, I meet plenty of nice middle-aged couples who simply enjoy doing the crossword at home and come for fun and social interaction. I meet some people who dabble in crossword construction (people who create crosswords are called "constructors") and come to make business connections or get some work on the side. Todd McClary, a Colorado resident who was one of my teammates on Friday night, estimates that a quarter of the people attending the tournament are involved in the puzzling industry in some way. Publishers and editors come out to look for new talent.
And then there are the hot young gay men.
I am not sure why these men are so plentiful in the puzzling world, but at every event I go to they are there in droves. When I arrive on Friday night, I quickly find my friends Adam Cohen and Frank Longo. Both men are constructors who have had puzzles in the New York Times, among other papers. Within fifteen minutes I have been introduced to more than a dozen bright-eyed men with clean-cut good looks and formidable intellects. "It just doesn't seem fair," I whisper to Adam, who simply smiles at me. I plan on investigating this phenomenon later, when we all gather for Adam's Jeopardy!-esque trivia game, which he designed and wrote himself.
I join Adam and Todd for the opening games, which center around seven Brooklyn-themed puzzles (this is the tournament's first year in the city; it was previously held in Stamford, Connecticut) and are introduced by — who else? — Marty Markowitz. I'm feeling pretty good about my solving abilities until I see that even with two drinks under his belt, Adam has completely finished one crossword puzzle while I am still filling in the bottom third of mine. Nevertheless, our little team finishes 14th. Since there are 700 brainiacs in the room, I feel proud. Will announces that the hotel's anteroom will be open all night. "Perfect for Quizzard!" Adam whispers.
By 12:30 there are still many people milling about, but the mood is fairly sedate. Many of the New Yorkers who used to stay the weekend at the hotel in Stamford now simply go back and forth each day. I am exhausted, and the Quizzard queue is dauntingly long, so I decide to leave. The games begin early the next day, and I want to be ready.
Crossword Tournament: Round 1
Saturday, March 1, 2008
On Saturday morning, shortly before the first competition round, the atmosphere at the tournament has become frenetic. Although the puzzling doesn't start until 11 AM, registration begins at 9:30, and many have come early to get some last-minute practice in. I get some much-needed coffee and head inside, where those in the know have already claimed their spots. It's only 10:15, but I am still stuck over on the periphery of the room. I put my things down and take a stroll.
Saturday competition consists of two rounds. There are three puzzles in the morning: an easy one, a fairly difficult one, and one that is somewhere in between the two. In the afternoon, there is a medium-level puzzle, then "puzzle five" — the infamous ballbreaker — and then an easy grid to finish off. The final puzzle is on Sunday morning.
People are loading up on pencils and sucking down water from the assorted coolers in the room. Tyler Hinman, who has won the competition for the past three years (and who is still only 23 years old), swaggers down the aisle like the cock of the walk — and well he should. The documentary "Wordplay" cemented his wunderkind status, and his subsequent two wins have made him a celebrity among puzzlers. Tyler takes a seat right up front — where all can see his hand shoot up with a completed puzzle before most of us have even read the clues.
I make my way over to Al Sanders, who is sitting near the back. Al has placed in the top three contestants six times since 2000, but he has not won once in that time. I introduce myself, wish him luck, and tell him I'm on Team Al. He looks confused, but happy.
The first puzzle is easy, and I finish it in 6 minutes. Not bad for me, but still 3 minutes behind the fastest solvers. I finish two thirds of the second puzzle, stymied by the theme, as Adam Cohen beside me completes the thing twice before the time limit runs out. I finish the third puzzle just under the buzzer. Following the round, the hall is loud with people comparing answers, bemoaning mistakes, and debating the merits of the first three grids. Adam claims he is doing horribly; Frank is quiet on the issue. We head to lunch.
Crossword Tournament: Round 2
Over lunch, we talk about tournament hookups. One man says that puzzlers often have hyperactive libidos, partially because they tend to be shy but have creative, active minds. I've noticed a flirtatious undercurrent at the competition, but it appears to remain mostly among men. The boys are keeping quiet on their own tournament dalliances, and I realize that this might be an area my extra X chromosome and I will never really get to explore.
We return to the ballroom and take our seats. I finish puzzle 4 in 9 minutes and can feel my brain starting to slow down. I do not finish the fifth puzzle at all, and neither does Adam, which is surprising. Frank, however, shoots his hand up quickly. Though he was not as quick as Adam at the other puzzles, his completion of puzzle 5 is probably what boosts him up to 15th place by the end of the night. I finish puzzle 6 in 17 minutes. Even though it is an easy one, the theme trips me up. I am bad with phonetic answers.
Outside, everyone is complaining about puzzle 5 and mentally tabulating their declining stats. "Team Al!" I say when I pass Al Sanders, who is looking dejected over by the table for the National Puzzlers' League. Later, I find out why: He has fallen to sixth place in the A division, while Tyler has risen, once again, to first. Francis Heaney and Trip Payne round out the top three.
Crossword Tournament: The Final Countdown
Sunday, March 2, 2008
I skip the Sunday morning puzzle and show up in time for the final round, which is played out on giant grids at the front of the ballroom. Frank, photographer Dan Burnstein, and I sneak through a side door into the ballroom before the crowd is let in. In this way, we score the best seats in the house and get some face time with Will. I grew up on Games magazine — my mother got me a subscription somewhere in the mid-80s, and I have been a subscriber ever since. Will was the editor of Games before he became the Times crossword editor, so I tell him that his magazine was used as a bribe for me in school: for a good report card, I would get a copy of "Pencil Puzzles" or a subscription renewal. In the way that some children follow sports stars, I followed puzzle constructors. Getting to meet the people behind the puzzles of my childhood — Trip Payne, Frank Longo — was a big thrill for me.
Soon, the doors are opened and the crowd rushes in. During the final round, three sets of puzzles are distributed. The answers are the same, but the clues are scored from difficult (C division) to extremely difficult (A division). The C division finalists use the easiest clues; the A division, the hardest. The C division finalists are first, and while they compete I try to suss out the crossword using the A clues. I get five words into it before the B finalists take the stage and the commentary by famed constructor Merl Reagle and public radio's Grant Barrett begins. The B division champion, Anne Erdmann, flies through the puzzle and finishes well before anyone else, including New York Sun crossword editor Peter Gordon, who takes so long checking his answers that I duck out for a coffee refill. This is Anne's first year at the tournament, and she is so quick that one wonders whether she could, in a year or so, snatch Tyler's crown away from him.
But soon the A-list arrives and the crowd gets quiet. Tyler Hinman, Trip Payne, and B-lister Howard Barkin, who ended up in the A division due to a number of factors, take the stage and put on their headphones, which pipe in white noise to drown out the murmurs of the crowd and the voices of the commentators. No sooner does the clock start than the solvers are filling in clues. Trip and Tyler begin close together, but Tyler slows down a few minutes into the round, and Trip pulls ahead. Soon Trip is far ahead of both Tyler and Howard, and he throws up his hand to signal his completion. But as soon as he hears the crowd groan, he knows something is wrong, and he quickly sees his mistake — two incorrect letters. The tragedy is that Tyler is still miles away from completing his puzzle, and Trip could have checked his grid twice with time to spare. But everyone who has seen Tyler compete knows that he is extremely quick, and Trip did well to assume that today would be no different. It was simply an unfortunate coincidence.
Considering his famous speed, it is interesting to see Tyler struggle with the top left corner of the puzzle. He is stuck for so long, in fact, that Howard is able to close much of the gap between them. But Tyler finally pulls out from his rut and finishes — perfectly. And so Tyler Hinman wins his fourth consecutive title.