Date: April 18, 2003
Byline: Peter Putrimas
Across and Down, CompetitivelyWalking into the 26th American Crossword Puzzle Tournament one recent Saturday morning in Stamford, Conn., I was greeted by a fashion show.
There were crossword-themed hats, T-shirts, scarves, ties and accessories. My favorite was the ensemble on a young woman — a black-and-white crossword-grid kerchief in her hair and a black-on-gray shirt that read "Real Women Use a Pen."
It was obvious I was making the leap from the world of casual solver to one populated by people whose thought processes run across and then down. I had been solving crossword puzzles for 40 years or so, having graduated from TV Guide to The New York Times with honors. I had known about the tournament for years and had always thought that I could compete but had never entered until this year. As I awaited the start, I began to wonder if I could make the leap to competitive wordsmith.
Three puzzles were scheduled for the morning and three after lunch. Sunday's schedule had one big puzzle before the championship finals in three of the five divisions.
Puzzle 1 (a 15-by-15 grid with a 15-minute time limit) was an easy warmup. I was done in six minutes, made no mistakes and was feeling cocky, only to realize that at least a quarter of the 495 contestants had finished before me and had already left the room.
Who were these people? Do they read and write at the same time? As it turned out, my first score would have left me in 99th place, tied with 110 others.
We were warned that Puzzle 2 (17-by-17, 25 minutes) was one of the most difficult of the tournament. Muttering yet another cross word, I was left looking at about 30 empty squares as time ran out. Only 48 people scored lower. This wasn't the toughest?
Later I overheard a contestant as he chatted with Mike Shenk, the puzzle editor of The Wall Street Journal and a noted puzzle constructor who had created our Puzzle 2. "I thought it rather pedestrian," said the contestant. If the clue were "Like Puzzle 2," my 10-letter answer would have been unworkable, inoperable or unfeasible.
Puzzle 3 (19-by-19, 30 minutes) was also vexing. Blank squares stared at me again as time ran out. My goal changed from a respectable finish to avoiding last place.
I finished Puzzle 4 (15-by-15, 20 minutes) early but had three wrong squares, lowering my score considerably. As it developed, Puzzle 5 (17-by-17, 30 minutes) was the highlight of my weekend since I was done three minutes early with no errors. Still, there were 188 people who did it faster. How can they print that fast?
By the time Puzzle 6 (19-by-19, 30 minutes) was passed out, I was almost done in. This was tougher than I had anticipated. I finished 15 minutes early but had one wrong letter, so I lost the perfect-puzzle bonus and was penalized for the wrong letter that made two answers wrong. A rookie mistake.
I rationalized an 18-minute late arrival for Sunday's final challenge, citing late-night birthday revelry in Manhattan. "It wasn't as if I were late for a tee time," I said to myself. But even spotting the field 18 minutes on a 45-minute puzzle, I scored ahead of 95 people.
At least I met my adjusted target. I finished 330th in the field of 495; I was 37th (of 55) from Connecticut and 91st among 188 rookies. The overall winner was Jon Delfin of New York, the defending champion, who won for the seventh time. (Complete results and other tournament information is at www.crosswordtournament.com.)
Most of this year's competitors will probably be back next year. I will not. I realized this in the hour between Puzzle 7 and the championship finals. I went outside, sat in 60-degree sunshine and took on the Times Sunday puzzle. It was a cleansing experience.
No clock was ticking. There was no pressure to read, think and write at the same time. I was using a pen again. I was sitting in the sun and was able to contemplate a clear sky ("That's the color it's supposed to be") and the start of spring ("I ought to go pick up that new putter") between answers.
I realized that I do puzzles for fun and diversion, as mental gymnastics to move my personal transmission into Drive at the start of the day. I have readjusted. A clean puzzle, in ink with no writeovers, is my goal, regardless of how long it takes.
And when my competitive juices start flowing next spring, I will head for the golf course. While I am probably better at puzzles than at golf, at least my pals Squid, Zee and the Sparrow give me strokes.