Date: March 12, 2005
Byline: Kerry Wills
American Crossword Puzzle Torunament kicks off in Stamford
STAMFORD What's tougher than solving a crossword puzzle in less than an hour? Creating one.
That's what Mike Shenk tried to do last night at the kickoff of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
"Actually, I probably took most of the hour," Shenk said. His challenge was to finish the puzzle and print it out for contestants within the hour.
"Almost!" he told the pack that filled up the Stamford Marriott hotel's ballroom. He left to start the job at 8:22 p.m. and returned at about 9:40 p.m. with puzzle copies still warm in his hands.
The fastest contestants managed to scratch up the puzzle's solution in well under 10 minutes.
Shenk, crossword editor for the Wall Street Journal, took a theme generated by contestants, "Garden Variety," to create a classically designed puzzle 15 squares by 15 squares.
Contestants also came up with the grid's longest words, four vegetable-based word-plays on celebrity names: Gene Shallot, Okra Winfrey, Beet Sampras and Pauline Kale.
The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is the world's oldest and largest crossword competition. New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz founded and directs the event, which is in its 28th year. Shortz announced that 429 contestants pre-registered, with more expected to register this morning.
Actual competition begins this morning, with all contestants competing for a slew of cash prizes in more than 20 categories. Contestants will solve eight puzzles designed specifically for the event. Scores will be based on accuracy and speed. The overall winner will take home $4,000.
Constructing puzzles appears to be a natural interest among puzzle solvers. Several contestants are constructors themselves.
David Murchie, 36, of Norwalk started making puzzles two years ago. Since then, Murchie has sold puzzles to USA Today, Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.
"I tried to do a puzzle on graph paper," Murchie said of his early efforts. He began constructing in earnest when he learned that most puzzle designs are generated with computer software.
Contestant Gail MacLean, 60, also of Norwalk, sold a puzzle to The Times as well.
Many contestants have been coming to Stamford for the tournament for years. Bill Cash, 57, accompanied his mother, Mary, of Stamford, to the 1978 debut of the contest. His late mother competed in 19 tournaments and won a loyalty award at the 20th event.
"I was the only one of six children who picked it up and liked crosswords," said Bill Cash, who was raised in Stamford and later moved to Branford.
This was the first tournament for Betsy Crowley of Darien, though she's been solving puzzles religiously for three decades.
"I've been a fanatic about The New York Times crossword puzzle for 30 years in pen," said Crowley, 58. "Not because I'm a genius, but because I don't like the feel of pencil on newspaper."
Her goal this weekend is humble, despite her lengthy preparation. She'll "try not to embarrass myself. This stuff's hard," Crowley said.
She's excited, nonetheless. "I knew I was going to meet lots of interesting people," she said. "People who are fanatics about anything are always interesting."