Date: March 31, 2002
Byline: Susannah-Jane Sears
Puzzled in StamfordI'm seated in a room with 400 other people, staring down at a sheet of paper that prompts me for answers I'm largely unable to provide. The time remaining is being measured by a giant plastic clock at the front of the room. It's as though I'm back in university, taking the final exam for a class I haven't attended. The scene is familiar to me, but usually it takes place while I'm asleep, gripped by a particularly disturbing nightmare. This time I'm wide awake at the 25th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut.
Among those attracted to this Úlite event is 33-year-old Peterborough resident Sean O'Keefe. Two weeks before the tournament, which is organized by Will Shortz, legendary crossword editor at the New York Times, I get a phone message from O'Keefe, offering to give me an overview of the weekend-long event. When I return the call, he's in the process of timing his completion of that day's New York Times crossword.
"Under six minutes," he says after a pause. "Good. I'm on track."
When I tell him I spent 35 minutes on the sample puzzle from the tournament Web site, the concern in his voice is obvious. Realizing I'm in trouble, I set a single target for myself to finish any place except last. Even this modest goal seems doubtful when I meet some of my fellow solvers at the wine and cheese reception the night before the competition. At some point, crosswords crossed the line from pastime to passion for these people, many of whom wear puzzle-patterned ties or sweaters.
One schmoozing contestant forms an instant anagram of my first name, while another explains my name's historical significance. As a cryptic puzzle author, I have a facility with wordplay, but facts are usually things I have to double check. These contestants have a rare command of both. They're people who would beat you to the punch at every question on Jeopardy! then defeat you soundly at Scrabble.
O'Keefe learned this the hard way last year as a tournament rookie. The factory supervisor, whose grandmother taught him all about Acrosses and Downs when he was five, finished 144th out of 322 contestants.
"You can't make mistakes," he says. "I had one wrong letter on three puzzles in a row, and that basically sunk me. Last year, my goal was to come first. Now I just want to crack the top 100. There are monsters here."
Perhaps the most intimidating monster is Ellen Ripstein. Dubbed the "Susan Lucci of crossword puzzles," Ripstein ranked between second and fifth 18 years in a row before taking home last year's top trophy.
"I made the mistake of sitting next to her during last year's competition," says O'Keefe. "That was very deflating. This year, I went to the other side of the room. It turns out I'm sitting beside the guy who came third."
I err in my seat selection as well, once the tournament gets under way Saturday morning. Though 10 minutes remain before the 11 o'clock start time, the ballroom of the Stamford Marriott is packed, with hardly a free seat in sight. Camera crews are setting up in every space not occupied by contestants. I find a chair at the end of a long row of tables, only to realize the pencil station is directly behind me. A noise like a dentist's drill adds to my anxiety as pencil after pencil is chewed by an electric sharpener. Soon all pencils are sharp and so is the tension.
I spot O'Keefe putting on the puzzling gloves that will prevent his pencil from slipping through the sweaty palms underneath. Shortz, standing with a microphone at the front of the ballroom, explains the scoring system. In each of the seven puzzles before the final round on Sunday, 10 points will be awarded for every correct word. Another 25 points are added for each full minute remaining until the deadline upon completion. A bonus 150 points are awarded for a totally accurate grid. As Shortz fields final questions from contestants, the two dozen judges most of them well-known crossword constructors distribute the puzzles, to be laid face down on the table.
"On your mark, get set, go!" calls Shortz, once all papers are in place.
More than 400 puzzles are flipped over in unison. I suffer another setback by glancing at the competitor across from me, Janet Bradlow, a 47-year-old financial planner from Manhattan. She's scribbling solutions before I've read the first clue. At least two minutes pass before I pencil in a tentative answer for the clue at One Across, "Whittle down." Were I at home on my sofa with a cup of tea, I would write the word "pare" with confidence, perhaps even in ink. Here, I'm second guessing even the easiest answers.
My heart is pounding as the Downs and Acrosses begin blurring together. I'm further distracted by a large microphone at my left, positioned to pick up scratching sounds from my pencil. Over my shoulder, a TV camera is fixed on my paper. Before long, solvers around the room are raising their hands, indicating they've completed their puzzles. When I look up at the huge clock, the allotted 15 minutes has nearly elapsed, and I've entered fewer than a dozen answers. I scramble to fill my sparse grid with plausible words.
Between each crossword, there is a 10-minute break. Some contestants use this time to agonize over answers in the hotel lobby, others head outside for a cigarette, while the hardcore solvers remain seated, pulling out their personal puzzle stashes to continue feeding their need for word crossing. I join the smokers outside the hotel entrance, where I find a sympathetic solver in Linda Hotchkiss, a thirtysomething marketing manager from East Meadow, New York. Like me, she has difficulty finishing some of the harder New York Times puzzles, often taking a week and teaming up with a friend to complete them.
"This is fun," she says, though her expression is unconvincing. "I knew I wouldn't compete for speed, so I was just here for fun, and see if I could do the puzzles in the first place."
Even for contenders like five-time champion Jon Delfin, the appeal of the event is largely social.
"It's about meeting people who share this. Crossword puzzling is such a solitary thing," says Delfin, a 47-year-old cabaret musician from New York City. "To find out that there are other people who like it too, and you all know the same people on the mastheads and the bylines... it becomes a social gathering."
This is one of the main objectives for Shortz, who says the highest compliment a competitor can pay him is returning each year, regardless of ranking.
"Puzzling keeps the mind young," he says. "Although it doesn't stop the hair from receding."
Perhaps not, but Shortz, 49, appears no older than he does in photos from the first competition, organized when he was 25. A soft spoken man with a face made less boyish only by a moustache, he seems too young to be the undisputed king of crosswords.
"It was always a dream of mine to have a crossword puzzle tournament," he says. "I lived in Stamford at the time, and happened to be approached by the marketing director at the Marriott, who saw a tournament as a good way to fill rooms in the mid-winter season."
Though the hotel has been home to the tournament ever since, its future as the venue is uncertain as the event grows in popularity. This year the tournament attracts nearly as many first-timers as the total 149 competitors in its inaugural year.
Back inside the ballroom, I have only slightly better luck with the second and third puzzles. Each involves a gimmick a common element in tournament level crosswords that further complicates solving. Puzzle Two uses Roman numerals in contemporary phrases, like "MC Hammer" as the answer for "Early second-millennium tool." Puzzle Three is even more difficult, employing phrases that fall just short of being palindromes. For example, "Madam, I'm that naked guy," a play on the familiar palindrome "Madam, I'm Adam," is the answer to the clue at 89-Across, which reads only "Near miss palindrome #6." While arriving at a solution like this may seem impossible, there is a trick on which expert solvers rely pattern recognition.
"After a while, you start to look at even two letters in a string, and you already have in your head what you think the probable answer is," says Josh Weinstein, a 36-year-old advertising copywriter from Brooklyn, New York. "So all you're looking at the clue for is confirmation."
Weinstein, a stylish man who sports three earrings, and looks like he'd be more at ease in a New York nightclub than at a crossword contest, is attending for the first time.
"I've known about the tournament for a long time. I noticed over the last year that I was pretty quick, and thought I might be at least a little competitive here."
His suspicions prove correct. After three more puzzles, one of which includes animal-related puns like "Marmoset there'd be days like this," the scores are tallied and posted in the lobby Sunday morning. Weinstein is 89th among 401 contestants, an impressive ranking for a rookie. I find my name at number 391.
Having met my goal, I switch to spectator mode for the seventh and last puzzle before the finals, and face the end of the 40-minute time limit with a quarter of my grid filled. Judges collect papers from the few stragglers, and hotel staff move in to set the scene for the finals. The media contingent has grown in anticipation. A friendly man with a familiar face approaches, and offers to take my picture. After the flash, I realize he's Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes.
An hour later, the ballroom is transformed, the rows of tables removed and all chairs facing forward. On the podium, three large easels supporting crossword grids on erasable white boards await the top three scorers in each of the A, B and C skill levels. The contestants don headsets to block the noise and pick up their markers, while puzzle constructor Merl Reagle and radio personality Neal Conan launch into a play-by-play worthy of Hockey Night in Canada. Janet Bradlow is under scrutiny in the B division. She finishes third in the round, and 25th overall. Having come a long way since her near last place position at the first tournament in 1978, she accepts the runner-up ranking with delight.
"I never expected to be in the finals," she says. "I didn't think I was fast enough, but it was the accuracy that helped me no mistakes. I usually make at least one." As the B team bows and leaves the stage, crowd noise lowers to a murmur and photographers line up for the top three crossword contenders.
In the race for first place, Delfin is joined by Vermont roboticist Zack Butler and Colorado project manager Al Sanders. All three get off to a good start but the contest turns anticlimactic as Delfin completes the crossword almost without pause. He takes a seat and watches his challengers work toward the second-place title, the only real drama of the finals. Sanders moves methodically, while Butler fills in nearly every entry. However, he's written "modest" instead of "merest" as the answer to "minimal." He raises his hands in frustration as he tries to understand why his other answers won't fit. Moments before the deadline, Butler spots his error, finishes the puzzle, and is awarded the loudest applause of the weekend. Media focus turns quickly back to Delfin, however, who's tied a tournament record of six wins.
"The best advice I can give anybody about learning to do crosswords is to approach it as a language," he tells me. "Once you've learned the idioms of that language, which you do through repetition, you see that different edito rs have their own dialects."
O'Keefe, who ends up in 124th place, is disappointed that he's failed to reach his top 100 target, but he's consoled somewhat by a prize for his second-place finish in the Foreign Division.
"Grandma will be proud," he says.
I'm shocked to find my position is unchanged after the half-hearted attempt at solving the seventh puzzle, and am further pleased to discover I'm ranked number eight out of nine in the Foreign Division, ahead of an author from London, England.
On the way out of the hotel, I pick up a crossword book, and make plans to pay Shortz his favourite compliment I'll be coming back next year, to try to solve my way into the top 300.