Date: March 27, 2006
Byline: Lauren Klein
Student wins as puzzle fans cross words in annual tournament
STAMFORD — They can't sing like Bono, play drums like Ringo or dance like Madonna, but they can rock a crossword puzzle faster than anyone in the country.
Tyler Hinman, Kiran Kedlaya and Ellen Ripstein, icons in the word game, did not disappoint their fans at yesterday's conclusion of the 29th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament at the Stamford Marriott.
After the weekend-long tournament that draws puzzlers from around the world, Hinman, 21, started the final crossword in third place behind Kedlaya and Ripstein, who held a small lead. But only Hinman completed the 70-word puzzle in the 15 minutes allotted, making him the youngest champion to win the tournament for the second consecutive year.
"I wanted to prove last year wasn't a fluke," said Hinman, originally from Hebron. "I earned this victory. I'm wired."
Hinman, a senior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., completed the puzzle in 11 minutes, 31 seconds. At the end of the time period, Kedlaya, 32, an assistant professor in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., was missing three letters. Ripstein, a New York City resident, was missing seven letters.
"If I only had five more minutes, I could've done it," Ripstein said. "But I never thought I could make the final again. I'm glad I made it that far."
Ripstein, 53, has made it to 14 finals but won only once, in 2001. Because of her record, fans have dubbed her the Susan Lucci of the crossword tournament, after the soap opera actress who has been nominated many times for a Daytime Emmy Award but won only once.
The puzzles are meant to be a challenge for the top three, but it is rare for them not to finish, said Merl Reagle, tournament commentator and crossword constructor for the Los Angeles Times.
"It's not that they were bad," said Will Shortz, the New York Times puzzle editor who founded and directs the tournament. "It's because it was a really tough puzzle."
Mike Shenk, puzzle editor for the Wall Street Journal who created the final puzzle, said one of the pleasures of the tournament is watching puzzlers crack the code.
"I would've liked it if they finished the puzzle," Shenk said. "Your goal is to make them think they can't finish it, but you want them to finish."
Many of the more than 500 competitors in the three-day tournament were enamored of the top three.
"You're brilliant," Robert Moy said to Hinman after he won. "Can I get a photo?"
Moy, 49, a New York City man who has been attending the tournament for 14 years and is listed in the Top 100 puzzlers, said he hopes that in 10 years he can be at Hinman's level.
"He's so young and coming out of the woodwork," Moy said. "It's a real pressure cooker. It could've been anyone's game."
Ken Jennings, who won a record $2.5 million on the television game show "Jeopardy," presented the awards and hosted a trivia challenge during the tournament.
Jennings competed in the crossword contest for the first time and won first place in Division C, which is for beginners.
"I can't wait for the award ceremony where Ken is going to give himself an award," Shortz said. "We'll see if this is the start of 75 consecutive victories."
Hinman took home a $4,000 prize, Kedlaya won $600 and Ripstein won $300.
But it's not about prize money or even competing, participants said.
"People come because it's fun. They talk word puzzles," said Pru Boland, 65, of Glenn Ridge, N.J. "It's a weird little nerd convention and here they are rock stars."