Date: February 13, 2005
Byline: Arline Bleecker
Clueless in Connecticut
When an amateur runs across some of the world's best crossword puzzlers, there's no place to go but down.
Question: Where do crossword-puzzle enthusiasts go when they die?
Answer: 8-across and 6-down.
OK, it's an insider's joke. But in the meantime, any keen cruciverbalist that's a 14-letter word for a crossword-lover can check out the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn., set for March 11-13. The event gives a whole new meaning to the notion of doing the weekend puzzle.
The annual war-with-words tourney was born more than a quarter-century ago by enigmatologist Will Shortz, current puzzle editor of The New York Times, and delivers a quirky couple of days in the company of convivial competitors and clever puzzle constructors.
Just bring your love of locutions. Pencils are provided.
I attended the 2002 event. Let's just say the experience had its ups well, acrosses and downs. And that's only the beginning of the weekend's puns.
As a lifelong crossword-puzzle addict, I couldn't resist the urge to test my skills at the largest event of its kind in the world.
It was staged at the Stamford Marriott, temporarily transformed into a coliseum of crosswords. Nearly 500 high-wattage minds including 130 rookies like myself amassed to match wits; to see who is the fastest, cleverest, sharpest puzzle dude around.
Participants included a best-selling mystery writer, an appeals court judge, a patent attorney, a shark trainer and a guy who used to guess age and weight at Coney Island. And that's not to mention a bevy of musicians, financial planners, software designers, teens and homemakers.
Contestants prepared intently for the mental marathon. They warmed up like Olympic figure skaters on ice rinks. Some stood around practicing their puzzling skills solo, several of them against stopwatches. And this was just in the hotel lobby on Friday night, before the competition even began.
If fancy duds were immaterial, style was everything.
One entrant donned a two-foot-high Dr. Seuss-like hat in emerald green (a nod to St. Patrick's Day.) But black and white the color of puzzles seemed de rigueur. Contestants sported T-shirts with legends such as "Give us this day our daily puzzle," and strutted around in sweaters, earrings and hats with crossword motifs.
A notable exception: Anne Marie MacNamara, a spiffy Junior League-like belle from Nashville, who admitted that she was the most overdressed attendee.
"I subscribe to the theory," she said, "that you're supposed to wear diamonds anytime after 9 a.m."
Crossword puzzles have been an American pastime since 1913, when the first one appeared in the old New York World newspaper. Today more than 50 million Americans solve them at least occasionally.
Many of the folks at the contest were the masters of that universe.
Hotel barroom chatter centered on the finer points of "wiccan" ("Is the eight-letter answer 'paganist' or 'satanist'?") and the virtues of shortcuts to scrawl faster to gain a second's edge in the competition (Rounded e's use fewer strokes than capital E's).
By the time the contest kicked off officially on Saturday, everyone was loaded for bear.
A sign posted outside the hotel ballroom door read, "Quiet Please: Minds at Work." Aptly, the room was large enough to stage a gladiatorial event.
Long tables, three across, stretched nearly 40 rows to the back wall. Five players to a table were separated by royal-blue cardboard to discourage cheating.
I chose a seat 18 rows back — near the exit.
The mood of the place was somewhere between the gravitas of a chess tournament and the lunacy of a bingo game. Players clutched good-luck totems and decorated their cubicles like office "cubbies."
One woman gripped a small jade amulet. A grandmother posted digital pictures of her newborn grandson.
A rookie seated at the table behind me mumbled, "The only way I'd win is if everybody else here came down with bubonic plague."
At crossword competitions, it's the pencil that's mightier than the sword; entrants crowded the electric sharpeners to hone them. What was really needed, I decided, was a pencil emptier, as shavings piled up faster than snow in a blizzard.
The sharpeners' high-pitched drone buzzed like the sound of a hundred dentists drilling. I spotted a clock the size of Big Ben on the front wall and already sensed time running out.
Battle of wits
From the podium, Shortz instructed us: Depending on difficulty, allotted puzzle times range from 15 minutes to as long as 45 minutes for the killer puzzle of the day.
Like a proctor at an exam, Shortz's job included silently holding up signs indicating time remaining. Contestants who finished early raised their hands to signal a referee to pick up their answers.
In a lilting voice reminiscent of satirist Tom Lehrer, Shortz announced: "Ready, Set . . . Begin." Five hundred pages turned over.
The rest was silence.
I began puzzle No. 1. The familiar grid of black and white squares which always seems so tidy and beckoning at home on a lazy Sunday sneered at me as amnesia set in. When I finished, within seconds of the puzzle's 15-minute time limit, I stifled the urge to blurt, "Yes! One down."
But it went downhill from there. I didn't complete puzzle No. 2, titled "Go Figure." By the time I figured out that Roman numerals were the key ("CD burners" was the answer to the clue "What 400 stovetops would likely have") it was too late.
Time was up.
The morning's third puzzle, titled "Near-Miss Palindromes," was subtitled "There's no turning back now!" Its answers included such near misses as "madam, I'm that naked guy" instead of "madam, I'm Adam."
I watched the clock as if it were a taxi meter.
Big Ben told me 10 minutes remained, and only a dozen of us were still working this puzzle. Who were those folks who were finishing this stuff in the first five minutes? I succumbed to the peacefulness that overtakes you when you're so far behind like a drowning man yielding calmly to the sea.
I comforted myself with Shortz's palliative: "Remember, crosswords are not an intelligence test. They're simply a game, which some people are able to perform faster than others."
After the lunch break, Shortz readied the crowd for the toughies.
Puzzle No. 4, titled "All Hopped Up," proffered such memorable gigglers as "outlaw duo" (answer: "Bunny and Clyde").
The final puzzle on Saturday, "Animal Crackers," was a first of its kind: a crossword in the form of a narrative story. This would separate the men from the boys, Shortz warned cryptically.
In fact, it was a punster's nirvana, with more than 80 clues across and 73 clues down. One clue read, "Well, your 4B there'd be days like this." To most puzzlers, "Mama said" jumped to mind as the logical substitution for "4B." But only the illuminati correctly guessed it slyly elides to "Marmoset."
I overheard one puzzler moan: "I was in the top half until I just had a major brain cramp."
When time was up, everyone applauded as much for the end of the agony as for the cleverness of this puzzle's constructors.
Clash of titans
For the weekend Shortz recruited some of the world's most skillful and devious puzzle constructors, who doubled as judges. Scoring involved a complex calculus that made Olympic ice-skating judging seem like kindergarten arithmetic.
By midmorning Sunday, nine mental giants were culled from 500 to compete in the finals for each of three skill levels.
Anxious hopefuls jammed the lobby to scrutinize the posted results. I didn't have to hurry. I didn't expect to win, but I sure didn't expect to place a pathetic 382nd.
So much for solving crosswords er, make that: trying to solve crosswords.
But I wasn't the only one disappointed. Before finally winning her championship two years earlier, Ellen Ripstein the pit bull of puzzlers, who can complete a Sunday puzzle in eight minutes had missed winning by a hair so many times in 23 years she was dubbed the "Susan Lucci of crosswords."
This year, she was out of the running.
For the tourney's climax, three contenders in the top division took to the stage to work giant 4-by-4-foot puzzle grids in full view of the also-rans. Contenders wore headsets to block out even the merest whisper from the audience.
Good thing too because the playoff was stoked by ironic play-by-play commentary by Neal Conan of National Public Radio and veteran puzzle-maker Merl Reagle of the Los Angeles Times.
Audience members could follow along with copies of the playoff puzzles.
The opponents ran the gamut from Al to Zack: Al Sanders, an R&D project manager from Colorado, to Manhattan musician Jon Delfin to Zack Butler from Vermont, a "roboticist."
"All right," quipped Conan, "we'll take his word for it."
And thus began the longest 15 minutes of the weekend.
As the finals began, the three feverishly started filling in the blanks. The only sound emanating from the stage was that of thick felt pens on erasable boards, squeaking like sneakers on a gym floor.
The players' collective mental energy could have launched a rocket. "Twenty-seven across is extremely difficult I thought," Conan mused over the mike. There was no 27-across, the crowd reminded him. "That's why it was so hard," he retorted, never missing a beat.
In a nanosecond, Conan observed, "Jon's just waiting to fill in the left-hand bottom . . . He's got the r, g, o from Key Largo; the z, n, r, y for citizenry.
"That leaves only 7,000 options."
But for Delfin, a chipmunk-cheeked favorite, this was a piece of cake. He scored a perfect board in 8 minutes, 10 seconds and declared, "Done!"
Meanwhile, Al was "running in circles . . . He's not tackling the clues as well as Zack and Jon." One minute 20 seconds to go and Zack desperately erased merest and scribbled in modest for the clue minimal.
With less than a minute left, he was back to square one well, actually, one square, a stumper.
Zack scratched his head. He was having trouble filling in the blank in "_ i t a" for the clue "Talbot of TV." At 23, Zack was probably too young to remember the 1950s celeb. He tried "r" but knew that wasn't right. He lost concentration and peeked at the clock.
"Why is it so anguishing when we do it ourselves but so amusing when we see others do it?" commentator Reagle whispered conspiratorially.
Then, with 35 seconds remaining, Zack got the "n" and snatched second place.
The place went wild.
The nametag that dangled from a white ribbon around each finalist's neck was no gold medal. But it might just as well have been.Note: several factual corrections were made by the webmaster.