Date: March 12, 2001
Byline: Will Shortz
Clash at the Intersection of Across and DownBy WILL SHORTZ
Will Shortz, the founder and director of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, is the crossword editor of The New York Times.
SOLVING crossword puzzles is usually a solitary activity. It is something often done during the commute into work or at home on a quiet Sunday morning. But for three days next weekend, about 400 puzzle solvers will be going to Stamford to show off their stuff in front of an audience as they compete for the bragging rights of who's the best in the nation.
The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament will be held in Stamford from Friday through Sunday at the Stamford Marriott Hotel, the 24th year the contest has been held there. It began in 1978 when the director of marketing for the hotel, which was new at the time, was thinking of a way to fill empty rooms on a weekend in March. He said he remembered commuting by Metro-North into New York City and seeing a lot of people working on crosswords on the train. So he contacted me (I was the puzzle editor of a group of crossword magazines in Stamford at the time) to organize a tournament.
This weekend, the contestants will range in experience from veteran Marilyn Munro, a lawyer from Westport who has attended all 23 previous championships, to first-timer Stella Daily of Norwalk. Douglas Hoylman, a retired actuary from Chevy Chase, Md., who won the contest last year, will also be returning.
The contestants will vary in age from 16 to 82, about evenly divided between men and women. They will come from 30 states, the District of Columbia, Canada and Europe. The leading occupations are teacher, computer programmer, writer/editor, and lawyer. But there are also one each of busboy, prison chaplain, appeals court judge, poet, rock musician, stagehand, aerial photographer, and the music critic for a newspaper.
Many of them are preparing for the contest as athletes prepare for a sporting event. Kevin Wald, a professor at the University of Connecticut, gets ready by "doing several crosswords as fast as possible on the bus to Stamford" on his way to the tournament.
Michael Goodman of Westport solves 20 to 25 puzzles a week leading up to the tournament.
Ellen Ripstein, a researcher in New York City, solves 12 to 15 puzzles a day. She can complete a typical Monday Times crossword (the easiest of the week) in less than three minutes. Her average for a Friday or Saturday puzzle, which are harder, is 6 to 8 minutes, and on Sunday 10 to 15. (For regular solvers, the Sunday puzzle typically takes from one to four hours.)
During the contest, some people will finish the easier puzzles in three minutes and the harder ones in 12 minutes or less. The group will tackle seven crosswords created for the event by leading puzzle creators, earning points for accuracy and speed.
On Sunday morning, the top three scorers will be in a playoff on a final puzzle on stage, printed on giant boards, for the audience to watch. There will even be, like at a sporting event, play-by-play, which will be announced by Neal Conan of National Public Radio and the crossword creator Merl Reagle. The finalists will wear headsets to block the commentary and outside noise. The grand-prize winner will receive $1,500 and an armload of dictionaries and puzzle books.
Altogether, about $4,000 in prizes will be awarded in 21 categories representing different skill levels, ages, geographical zones, with additional prizes for contestants attending their first tournament.
To some, solving crosswords competitively might seem an odd activity because crosswords are usually enjoyed at a leisurely pace.
Racing to finish a puzzle in a large room of people is a little like devouring a meal at a gourmet restaurant as quickly as you can. It's a wonderful skill, to be sure, but what's the point?
The point is that people want to test themselves. A tournament provides a means of self-measurement. Martin Cobern, a first-time contestant from Cheshire, wrote in an e-mail message, "I decided to enter the contest to see how I stand up to others in the country." Similarly, returning contestants try to better their previous year's ranking.
Also, solvers like to meet in person the crossword creators and editors with whom they do friendly battle. Notable editors and creators, who will be serving as officials, are expected to include Mike Shenk of The Wall Street Journal; Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon of The Atlantic and The Boston Globe; Stanley Newman of Newsday; Mr. Reagle of The Los Angeles Times; Maura Jacobson of New York magazine; Janis Weiner of Official Publications; Susan West of Games magazine, and many of the crossword contributors in The Times.
Almost a quarter of the contestants and more than a third of the champions over the years have been left-handed. No one knows exactly why, although some say it is because left-handers are more creative. Actually, puzzles are traditionally printed favoring right-handers. The puzzle grid often appears on the right-hand side of the page so the hand doesn't cover the clues when filling in the answers. Left-handers don't have that advantage.
Ms. Ripstein is a righty. Over the years, she has earned the nickname "The Susan Lucci of Crosswords," in reference to the long-time daytime television actress who was nominated 18 times before winning her first Emmy award.
Ms. Ripstein has finished in the top three 12 times, and in the top five 18 times, without ever capturing the grand prize.
Contestants use all sort of tricks to gain an edge during the tournament. One time-saving strategy is to write the letter "E" as a small "e." A capital "E" normally takes three strokes to complete, while a small "e" can be done in a single loop, saving a precious split second each time it is written. The only problem with this tip is that none of the top solvers seem to follow it.
Many contestants also bring their favorite pens. Others use pencils to make correcting wrong answers easier.
Some like to sit near the top solvers, who often finish first, to know when time is running out. Others feel intimidated by them and sit as far away as possible.
Perhaps the best advice to any solver is to remember that crosswords are not an intelligence test. They're simply a game, which some people are able to perform faster than others.
As someone remarked after a tournament several years ago: "It was interesting. I enjoyed it. However, I am not going to change my habit of a nice leisurely Sunday afternoon crossword."
Registration for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament costs $145 for all events, including a Friday night reception and Sunday awards luncheon, or $100 for the tournament only. Registration may be made in advance or at the door (Friday, 7 to 8 p.m., or Saturday, 9:30 to 11 a.m.). For more information or a free brochure call (732) 274-9848 or visit the Web site www.crossword tournament.com.