Date: March 14, 2005
Byline: Joy L. Woodson
After vet blunders, 20-year-old makes crossword history
STAMFORD It was the mistake that few, if anyone, saw coming.
Al Sanders, a veteran finalist in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, was whizzing past his competition yesterday in the championship round at the Stamford Marriott hotel. He worked methodically, moving counterclockwise across the board and leaving the hardest corner for last.
With more than eight minutes to spare in the 15-minute final round, Sanders signaled that he was finished.
But the audience knew better two letters remained in the top left corner for the word "zolaesque," answer to the clue "stark and richly detailed, as writing." They gasped at the error.
"This is a cautionary tale to always go back and check your work," said Beth Dunn, 47, of Brooklyn, N.Y., as Sanders saw his mistake.
He slammed his head phones on the floor, walked to the back of the stage, slumped over and cradled his face in his hands. Instead of the grand prize of $4,000, Sanders will return to Fort Collins, Colo., with $300 for a third-place finish. Tyler Hinman, 20, a junior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., took the top spot the youngest winner ever.
"To not take a step back and look at the board was a colossal error that someone at my level shouldn't make," Sanders, 46, said after receiving a standing ovation.
Later he told disheartened well-wishers that he usually comes in third place, but he couldn't believe his blip. One puzzlehead said that now, at least, Sanders is a legend.
"He knew that answer," said Eric Nyman, a competitor from Phoenix. "I was surprised that he didn't fill those in. I was sure he was going to go back and fill those in. It's one of those shoulda, coulda, wouldas."
Sanders said he was thinking of the high scorer, Trip Payne of Boca Raton, Fla., before he took the stage. Payne, 36, took the championship last year by finishing the final puzzle in about five minutes. He was in first place before dropping to second place in the final round this year.
"I thought, 'I don't have time to check. I just got to get this over with and done,'" Sanders said.
New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, who founded and runs the annual event, said puzzleheads usually have 100 things running through their minds.
"He would've won this easily if he hadn't made the most basic error ever," Shortz said.
Hinman said he saw Sanders walk off but thought "there's no way he could mess up." Only after pulling off his headphones and hearing the news from Sanders did Hinman realize he was the winner.
A free-lance puzzle maker, Hinman finished in just less than 10 minutes and 30 seconds. His win was "pretty cool," he said. He plans to use the $4,000 for college.
"I know I earned it, but at the same time, it was his," he said of Sanders. "I was certainly lucky in that regard."
His mother, Krista Hinman of Hebron, said her son was always a voracious reader who enjoyed games and puzzles. When he jumped into crossword puzzles in high school, his parents thought it was a nice hobby that would help boost his SAT scores.
"I think it's amazing," Krista Hinman said. "I'm really impressed that he won."
Shortz said Tyler Hinman replaces Payne as the youngest person ever to win the competition in its 28-year history.
"It's hard to believe that the record will ever be broken," Shortz said.
Payne said he will train better for next year because he sees he's got a new challenger. About 500 people from around the country participate in the tournament every year.
"Obviously, I would have preferred to have won," Payne said, "but there's no shame in losing to somebody better."
Division B those who have not won a Division A or Division B prize during their past seven tournaments:
- Amy Reynaldo of Chicago, a rookie
- Stella Daily of Brooklyn, N.Y.
- Arnold Reich of Bronxville, N.Y.
Division C those who have not finished in the top 20 percent during their past three tournaments:
- Susan Hoffman of Merion Station, Pa., a rookie
- Jonathan Gray of Spokane, Wash., a rookie
- Len Elliott of Kent, Wash., a rookie