Date: March 24, 2007
Byline: Natasha Lee
Contestants: Sharpen your pencils
STAMFORD -–It was hard not to spot Jim Jenista in the sea of contestants gearing up last night for the American Crossword Tournament.
He stood out.
It wasn't because of his hard hat decorated with black and white flames or the crossword puzzle do-rag under it.
It was his slippers: a Shamu on his right foot; a hermit crab on his left.
"It's very much about being comfortable," said Jenista, who traveled from Colorado Springs, Colo., to participate in his sixth tournament.
The annual tournament opened at the Stamford Marriott Hotel & Spa last night with a series of practice puzzles to get everyone prepared for today's competition.
About 682 contestants had checked in last night, said New York Times crossword puzzle editor and tournament founder Will Shortz.
Jenista, a military exercise planner, dresses in a different costume each day of the three-day tournament to brighten up the tense situations that can occur in competitions.
"It's about enjoying the atmosphere and about lightening things up," he said.
After 30 years at the Marriott, the popular tournament has outgrown the space and will move to New York City next year. The first tournament was held at the hotel in 1978 with about 150 contestants. This weekend, about 750 contestants will compete.
For most, the tournament is about testing individual knowledge rather than winning a title — although the cash prizes are a nice touch.
"We are here just to totally enjoy it," said Judy Roeder, a retired teacher from Shavertown, Pa., who has been coming with her friend Ruth Tetschner for the last 15 years.
"We sit here amazed at the intelligence," said Tetschner, a retired principal who's been coming for 16 years. "This is a group of egg heads. You know what egg heads are? The super brains."
Organizers attribute the growing popularity to last year's documentary film "Wordplay," which featured footage from the 2005 competition. The film was nominated for a Sundance Film Festival award.
Shortz told contestants last night that there were more than 250 "first-timers" participating this year, and that more first-time attendees would be present than the total attendance at 22 of 29 tournaments.
Kristyn Dietrich of Winter Park, Fla., said the crowd's chatter and excitement last night was what she expected after seeing the movie.
"We knew there was going to be a lot of people," she said.
After years of doing The New York Times and Wall Street Journal puzzles, Dietrich and her mother, Nancy Elliott of Bonita Springs, Fla., decided it was time to put their knowledge to the test and signed up for the tournament's rookie division.
Elliott said the satisfaction of filling in the squares and solving the puzzle keeps her doing it daily.
"I'm sort of an addict," said Elliott, who is fond of the Wall Street Journal's Friday puzzle. "She (Dietrich) has four kids so she doesn't have time to be an addict."
"I can't think of any other organized sport that has such a broad range of ages," Shortz said.
Contestants' ages range from 15 to 89. The competition ends tomorrow.
Ann Franklin, 89, was recognized as the oldest contestant. She said she has been doing crossword puzzles for "more years than I can count."
Franklin has traveled from Frankfort, Mich., for the last five years to participate in tournament, but she said next year's change in venue might not be for her.
"I don't know if I'll go again. I like Stamford," she said.