Date: December 6, 2010
Byline: Denise Grady
Dan Feyer, the Crossword Wizard Who Is Fastest of All
Across and Down, the Wizard Who Is Fastest of All
The cameras were set to shoot for only eight minutes.
Oh, it won’t take that long,” Dan Feyer said, with the hint of a smile.
The pressure was on. Mr. Feyer (FAY-er), 33, a soft-spoken, balding musician, had come to a photo studio at The New York Times to demonstrate one of his odder talents.
With the clock ticking and the shutters clicking, he put pencil to crossword. Not just any puzzle, but the Saturday one from The New York Times — the week’s hardest, notoriously clever and tricky. Fiendish, even, some would say. A form of mental cruelty. There are people who spend hours on this puzzle, people who give up, people who won’t even touch it. And then there is Dan Feyer.
His left hand tracked the clues while his right skittered over the grid. He pressed his lips together and grimaced. He erased, and rapidly filled in more boxes. Then he paused, erased again, and resumed skittering. Nearly five minutes had passed and he still seemed to be working the top left corner of the puzzle, the very beginning. He mumbled once and erased three more times. Was he in trouble? He wrote something, looked up, put his pencil down.
Done. Five minutes, 29 seconds. Penmanship, neat as a nun’s. Mr. Feyer, in jeans, sneakers and a black T-shirt, hadn’t broken a sweat.
Who is this guy? What kind of person knows the name of Gorbachev’s wife (Raisa), a synonym for no-good (dadblasted), the Rangers coach in 1994 (Keenan), a platinum-group element (iridium) and the meaning of objurgation (rant)?
The kind of person who whips through 20 crosswords a day (at least 20,000 in the last three years), who won this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and who has 100,000 puzzles saved on his computer.
“I feel I want to do them all, somehow,” Mr. Feyer said. “I’ve probably done more crosswords than anybody in the world in the last three years. I don’t know if that’s something to be proud of, but it’s a claim to fame.”
He does have another life, as a pianist and music director for musical theater productions. His most recent shows were “With Glee,” which ran Off Broadway in Manhattan last summer, and “Dracula, a Rock Opera,” which ran in Rochester, Mich., in October.
“Music directors teach actors the music, accompany them in rehearsals and conduct the band,” Mr. Feyer said. “On Broadway, the music director is the guy with the baton in the pit. Off Broadway, it’s the guy sitting at a piano conducting with his head.”
So how does that guy become a puzzle ace? Besides training like an athlete, Mr. Feyer said, it helps to have “underlying brain power and a head for trivia.” He always had high grades and test scores, he said. He excelled at math as well as music, abilities that he thinks go together with crossword solving.
What they all have in common, he said, is pattern recognition — as he begins filling in a puzzle grid, he starts recognizing what the words are likely to be, even without looking at the clues, based on just a few letters.
“A lot of the time, crossword people are musicians,” he said, noting that Jon Delfin, who has won the tournament seven times, is a pianist and music director. “Mathematicians and computer scientists are also constructors.”
Arthur Schulman, a crossword constructor and retired psychology professor from the University of Virginia, who taught a seminar called “The Mind of the Puzzler,” agreed that there is a strong correlation between skill at word puzzles and talent for math and music. All, he said, involve playing with symbols that in and of themselves are not meaningful. “There’s an underlying connection, but I’m not sure what it might be,” Professor Schulman said. “It’s finding meaning in structure.”
Mr. Feyer is a relative newcomer to the world of competitive crosswords, though he has liked all sorts of puzzles since childhood, when his parents bought him books of brain teasers to make up for his boredom at school. He grew up in San Francisco, where his father is a municipal bond lawyer, his mother a law professor. He has two younger brothers, one a management consultant and the other an English teacher in Bhutan. His grandfather George Feyer was a pianist, and played for decades in the lounges of some of Manhattan’s most elegant hotels.
Mr. Feyer went to Princeton, majoring in music. He did crosswords from time to time over the years, but he didn’t get hooked on them until he saw the 2006 movie “Wordplay”, a documentary about crosswords, the tournament and Will Shortz, the New York Times puzzle editor and the founder and director of the tournament.
“I didn’t realize this whole puzzle world existed,” he said.
He bought a book of crosswords, and then another, and began following crossword blogs and downloading puzzles. Before he knew it, he had become one with the puzzle people.
In 2008 he entered his first tournament, in which hundreds of people in a hotel ballroom race to finish a series of puzzles. He had found his niche: the sound of 700 people turning over a piece of paper at the same time thrilled him. He finished “50-somethingth,” he said. But that put him at the top of the rookie division for which he had qualified. The following year, he finished fourth. This year he won, beating many veterans, including Tyler Hinman, the champion of five previous tournaments.
His brain is jammed with factoids: the names of songs and rock bands that lived and died before he was born, far-flung rivers and capitals, foreign sports equipment, dead astronomers, fallen monarchs, extinct cars, old movies, heroes of mythology, dusty novelists and the myriad other bevoweled wraiths that haunt the twisted minds of crossword constructors. He has learned their wily tricks and traps, like using “number” in a clue that most people would take to mean “numeral” but that really meant “more numb.”
He was almost stumped recently, by a clue asking for a type of wheel. The answer: wire spoke. “I had a heck of a time with that,” he said. Cruel? Maybe so, he said, but he shrugged and added, “That’s what Saturday is for.”
Each morning, he finishes a half dozen newly published puzzles and a few more from the trove stashed in his computer. The easier ones take him only two or three minutes. He does puzzles while riding the subway and while watching TV. He may do a few before going to sleep and even take one to bed with him. He said he now spends about an hour a day on puzzles.
“It hasn’t taken over my life or anything,” he said, then added, “I don’t think.”
Nonetheless, on his blog, Mr. Feyer describes himself as “a mild-mannered musician who developed an addiction to crosswords,” and he posts his solving times every day. There is, he says, a friendly competition among top-ranked solvers. For a Monday puzzle in The New York Times, his fastest time by computer was 1 minute, 22 seconds. Paper takes longer, 1 minute 58 seconds, maybe 59. His fastest time ever was 1 minute, 9 seconds, for a Newsday puzzle. But he admits that in speed-solving, one can lose the “Aha!” moment and the chance to savor a clever solution.
Another musician who works in puzzle publishing helped Mr. Feyer land freelance editing and proofreading work for a company that produces books of puzzles, and signed him up to write a book of word-search puzzles. He has tried his hand at constructing puzzles, but decided that just as he is better at playing or directing music than composing, he is better at solving puzzles than creating them.
Even so, he has managed to sell a few puzzles, including one to the Times; it will run on a Tuesday, a relatively easy day (the Times puzzles get harder each day, with the easiest on Monday and the hardest on Saturday). He spent 20 hours creating it, off and on over six months. The pay for a daily puzzle is $200 ($1,000 for the big Sunday one).
Given a choice, he prefers to solve crosswords on a computer. But in competitions the puzzles are done on paper, where the clues are arranged a bit differently, so as the yearly tournament approaches (the next one is in March), he switches to paper to stay on top of his game. Otherwise, he said, “you can lose precious, precious seconds looking for clues.” He writes with a mechanical pencil, the same kind he uses to mark up musical scores.
He plans to compete again.
“I’ll definitely try to defend the title,” he said. Winning is fun, but also, he added, “the only way to make money with this hobby.”
The grand prize is $5,000. He professed mock outrage that Sudoku tournaments pay much more — $20,000.
“I’m not particularly good at Sudoku,” he said.
He does not play Scrabble. That game and crosswords differ in the types of words they use.
“It would probably hurt my championship chances if I tried to memorize the Scrabble list, too,” he said. “My brain is full of crossword vocabulary.”
He figures he has seen just about everything that is likely to appear in a crossword puzzle. But he continues to collect them. “One day,” he said, “I will have done them all.”