Date: April 6, 1998
Byline: Angela Carella
Wordsmiths compete for 'crossword' championshipEither way you looked at it, down or across, the Stamford Marriott was "puzzle palace" yesterday.
For the 21st year, the hotel ballroom was the site of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Billed as the oldest and largest continuously run crossword competition in the world the three-day event drew 250 contestants from 31 states and the District of Columbia, as well as Canada and Japan. About 40 noncompeting puzzlers also took part, organizers said.
In yesterday's final championship rounds, three big crossword grids were set up on a stage in the packed ballroom In each of the top three of five skill divisions, three finalists stood filling in the grids, reading the clues from paper.
Spectators and less serious puzzlers, such as Joe Miller of Middletown, NJ, watched the finalists compete or filled in the puzzle on their own paper copies. "For each division--C, B and A--there is a different set of clues: harder, hardest and impossible. But the grid is the same and the answers are the same for all the divisions," said Miller, who finished about 212th in the E division. "A lot of the people in the A division construct puzzles for a living. That's the toughest level."
For example the A division clue for 52 Across was, "Part of a 'firm' term."
The answer has five letters. Got it?
No? Then try the B division clue: "Tooth, in Italian."
Still don't have it? Maybe the C division clue will help: "Al ___ (firm to the bite, as pasta.)"
That's right: The answer is "dente."
One crossword puzzler's secret is to solve the fill-in-the-blank clues first, said Matt Jones, a 22-year-old college senior from Milwaukie Ore., and a first-time competitor in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Jones made it all the way to the final round of the C division, where he placed third.
"Those are usually a little easier to solve, and they can help get you started," said Jones, who has constructed a few puzzles for The New York Times, an online puzzle syndicate and a puzzle magazine. "Sometimes it helps to start at the top and work your way across. It's good to know how to write backwards. And some people who compete in tournaments make the letters in a certain way, 'e' instead of 'E,' because it's faster to write."
The fastest of all yesterday was Trip Payne of Atlanta, who placed first in the A division, solving the puzzle in 9 minutes, 34 seconds with no errors. It was the second victory for Payne, who became the tournament's youngest winner in 1993 at 24.
Yesterday he spent 35 seconds--and nearly lost the championship-searching for the letter "H," which anchored the answers to 24 Across and 24 Down, Payne said.
"One clue was, 'They precede snaps, ' (answer had four letters) and the other was, 'Chatter, so to speak,' (answer had three letters.) Those were hard clues," said Payne, who constructs crossword puzzles for a living. "I had some of the letters for each one, but l just couldn't solve it."
Then he let his mind go a little and realized "snaps" had to do with football, and come after the quarterback shouts his "huts." And he saw that a "charter" could be a "hit," as in a song that tops the charts.
Eight seconds behind Payne with perfect answers was Jon Delfin, a New York City musician. The tournament even has its own "Susan Lucci" the soap-opera star who is nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award year after year and never wins.
In crossword competition, it's Ellen Ripstein, a statistician from New York City who has finished in the top five 14 times but has never won. Yesterday Ripstein took third, 1 minute and 36 seconds behind Delfin, with one error. Like Lucci, she'll be back to compete next year, Ripstein said.
"There have been 21 tournaments here and I've competed in 20 of them," she said. "I'll come again next year."
If the tournament is any indication, interest in crossword puzzles is growing, said Will Shortz, event founder and director, crossword editor of The New York Times and puzzlemaster for National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition Sunday." Tournament participation last year was the highest since it began in 1978, and it was nearly as high this year, Shortz said.
"Ten years ago, it was only half the size it is now," said Shortz, a former Stamford resident now living in Pleasantville, N.Y. "This year the age range is from 18 to 82, and we have 12 people in the junior division, age 25 and under, which is a record. It's wonderful. It's a group of intelligent, funny people who read a lot and have lively imaginations. Some are here as competitors but most are here to enjoy themselves."
Miller, the New Jersey man, said if there's puzzle, he'll try to solve it.
"I'm not here to beat anyone--I'll probably never leave the E division. I'm just here to have fun," he said. "I do road rallies, too, which are direction-following contests."
A puzzler is a little like a golfer--someone who likes to compete against himself, said Janice Nichols of Hartford, who participated in the tournament yesterday for the third time.
"A lot of us are test-takers. We're the kind who did well on their SATs," Nichols said. "We may not know the subject matter but we're good at taking the test."