Date: February 18, 2008
Byline: Andra Coberly
Crossword guru thirsts for a crown
Al Sanders is not the kind of American idol who has throngs of cheering fans chanting his name. There are no worshipping teeny-boppers asking for his autograph, and people rarely stop him on the street to ask, "Are you that guy from that movie?"
But for a rare breed of person — those who worship Will Shortz, who think Sudoku is for illiterates and who know that a three-letter word for a Japanese sash is an obi — Sanders is the idol they never knew they had.
Sanders, a Fort Collins family man and a Hewlett-Packard engineer, is one of the foremost crossword puzzle competitors in the United States. He is often considered the Phil Mickelson of word nerds and is the almost-champion of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, The New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz's annual competition that brings together hundreds of the country's fastest and most competent crossword whizzes for two days in puzzling paradise.
Sanders, who easily completes a Monday NYT crossword in under three minutes and a Sunday NYT crossword in under nine, also is one of the stars of the acclaimed 2006 documentary Wordplay.
In less than two weeks, Sanders will once again attempt to become the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament champion. What's stopping this longtime contender? A 20-something wunderkind and Sanders' own history of choking under pressure.
"I think I just need some mental training to get me in the right state of mind," he said while sitting in a Fort Collins coffee shop during his lunch break.
"It's hard because I've never won. I just end up making it to that stage (the finals) and then getting mad at myself for messing up. It'd be great to win. I just don't really have that killer instinct."
But, Sanders added, he does have more confidence now than he has had in the past.
With the 2008 tournament nearing, Sanders is preparing.
His usual five daily crosswords will need to be bumped up to 10 or 15. He'll mix easier puzzles, which will help him perfect his speed, with the harder ones that will help his stamina.
Sanders has handed over the title to another competitor twice in the last three tournaments because of puzzle errors, one of which was highlighted on the big screen.
Wordplay, in which filmmaker Patrick Creadon follows the 2005 tournament and interviews everyone from Bill Clinton to Jon Stewart on their love of crosswords, captured the hearts of critics and viewers with its diverse crew of unlikely heroes: Sanders and his co-competitors. The charming film made it to the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for the grand jury prize.
Shown in the movie is the intense final round where Sanders faces longtime competitor Trip Payne and then college student Tyler Hinman.
To save Sanders from reliving the tragic final moments of that year's tournament, let's just say he forgets to fill in a couple of squares and loses the title to Hinman.
While it was hard for Sanders (once again standing on that stage as the tournament's perpetual bridesmaid, never the bride)it made for a compelling story on the big screen, and likely thrust the Fort Collins resident into the hearts of all who saw the movie.
In the next tournament, which was held before the movie came out, Sanders surprisingly failed to make the top five. But last year, after Wordplay had seen its success and the tournament's population soared, Sanders once again found himself in the finals. He even finished the puzzle first.
But something went wrong once again: He put an "L" instead of a "B" in a clue that asked for a carpenter's tool. To his chagrin, the answer was supposed to read "bevel," not "level." Hinman took the title.
"The final was really hard, much tougher than it was in the movie," he said.
"That was just an evil crossing. It was a trap. It was intended to throw us off."
Now, Sanders is collecting a supply of his favorite type of pencil — a mechanical one with large eraser and .9 mm lead — and strategizing for the next tournament, which will begin Feb. 29.
Looking at the rankings of the past few tournaments, the competitor Sanders needs to fear most is Hinman, who has taken the title three years running. But Sanders sees it as less of a competition against anyone else and more of a competition with himself.