Date: March 25, 2007
Byline: Doug Dalena
Across and down: Clued in to crossword mania at tournament
STAMFORD — The chatter subsides to a murmur.
"On your mark, get set, go."
The words of New York Times puzzlemaster Will Shortz reverberate through the sound system, and the flutter of 700 crossword puzzle sheets being flipped over gives way to silence.
In opposite corners of the expansive Stamford Marriott Hotel & Spa ballroom, two heads and two pens bear down on the third puzzle during day one of the 30th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
In one corner, in the seat its owner takes every year, is the red head of 22-year-old Tyler Hinman. Hinman's youth, status as returning champion from 2005 and 2006, and his role in last year's crossword-puzzle documentary, "Wordplay," have made him a minor celebrity among puzzle fans.
In the other corner under, laboring in relative obscurity, is the trademark white mane of the granddaddy of daytime talk-show hosts.
Before seven minutes have run off the clock, Hinman's hand shoots up to indicate he has finished what Shortz describes as the second-most difficult puzzle in this year's tournament.
When the 30-minute timer reaches zero, television legend Phil Donahue is still working on his.
"I'm a rookie," he says.
"Well, that last one just humbled me," Donahue says of the day's second crossword, which he also didn't finish within its 25-minute limit. "My nightmare is, I'm going to look up, and I'm the last one in the room doing the puzzle."
That almost happened to him during a practice round on Friday. Only a few heads were still down when he picked his up.
Donahue has been marking up the down and across for years, often to pass time on cross-country flights.
"This gets me from New York to L.A. in like, eight minutes," he says. "That's the real excitement for me. You don't know panic until you've seen me on an airplane that just took off, and I don't have a pen."
Though he lives in Westport, Donahue never made it to the annual tournament until this year, the contest's last in Stamford. George O'Donnell, his college roommate at Notre Dame and a much better puzzle solver, finally convinced Donahue to attend after years of prodding.
"He's good. He's fast," Donahue says of O'Donnell, who flew in from Cleveland for the weekend. "He's been on me for 15 years. I said, 'All right, this year we'll go.' "
In this room, Donahue says Shortz, the tournament's founder, is clearly the bigger celebrity.
"Oh, Will," he says with only half-mocking reverence. "Will's Elvis."
After signing a New York Times crossword book for a fan, Shortz acknowledged that last year's documentary film has boosted not only his profile but that of other participants, including Hinman, syndicated puzzlemaster Merl Reagle — one of about two dozen judges prowling the room — and several of the tournament's other top performers.
The film has also drawn many new participants to the tournament — one reason it will move to New York City next year.
Shortz said the documentary, which featured the Stamford tournament but also included interviews with celebrity crossword fans from Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina to former President Clinton and comedian Jon Stewart, convinced many viewers that the tournament is fun whether you're in the top tier or not.
"They saw the camaraderie here, that it doesn't have to be intimidating," Shortz said. But he added, "it can be intimidating."
"It's just interesting to see the people who do this," Donahue says. "We're not better, just different."
"I think this is the first place I've been where the majority of people are wearing glasses," says the bespectacled Sally Anderson, another judge.
The crossword puzzle set has its own odd vocabulary and shorthand. For instance, a puzzle's difficulty is measured by days of the week, derived from the increasing level of difficulty in each day's New York Times crossword.
"It's a hard Thursday or an easy Friday," one judge whispers during the day's third puzzle.
Celebrity status isn't reserved only for those who are for solving puzzles. Just before Shortz starts the clock for each puzzle, he announces who wrote it, and everyone applauds.
For some, their love of crosswords leads to other minor forms of celebrity. Jessica and Greg Pliska of New York City were featured in the Times' "Vows" column after meeting at the Stamford tournament two years ago. They were engaged by last year's contest and got married in June.
Greg, who writes crosswords and other puzzles and is one of three "quizzicists" on the "A Way with Words" show on a public radio station in San Diego, devised a treasure hunt for his marriage proposal.
"We sent crosswords out with the invitations," Jessica says.
"Will's came back perfect."