Date: March 31, 2006
Byline: Ben Tausig
The competitive world of crossword
Think you've got a challenge with STEN or EIRE? You ain't seen nothing yet. BEN TAUSIG finds the crossword puzzle masters.
Tyler Hinman wasn't born when it happened, but he knows that IDI AMIN was the "Self-proclaimed King of Scotland in the 1970s." He hasn't yet graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, but can deduce, under pressure, that "Senior Moment?" is an obscure definition for FINAL EXAM.
Hinman, 21, used preternatural brainpower and a bullet-quick pen last weekend to take home the top prize for the second straight year at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. In the final round, before more than 500 spectators, he soundly defeated MIT mathematics professor Kiran Kedlaya and past champion and New York Times test-solver Ellen Ripstein, completing a merciless puzzle in less than 11 minutes. He was the only finalist to finish.
"I wanted to flat-out win," said Hinman, whose victory in 2005 was overshadowed somewhat by a heartbreaking finale. Perennial top solver Al Sanders finished with the fastest time that year, but failed to write the "Z" in ZOLAESQUE ("Stark and richly detailed, as writing.") The mistake cost him a long-sought victory, and handed first place to Hinman.
Such are the dramas of competitive solving, a phenomenon that casual, coffee-sipping crossword fans may find a bit bizarre. To the brunch crowd, crosswords embody the lazy pace of a weekend. The light mental exercise they provide is to be savored, quite likely with friends, and certainly not rushed in solitude.
Not so for the record 504 entrants who traveled from 39 U.S. states and as far away as Switzerland. Before and between rounds, they crammed the lobby of the Marriott, racing through puzzle books, tuning up their minds with no pretense to relaxation. Naysayers compare the practice to eating a gourmet meal as fast as possible.
The brutal final puzzle was written by Wall Street Journal crossword editor Mike Shenk, but Will Shortz, the legendary New York Times crossword editor and NPR Puzzlemaster, organizes and emcees the event. As he stood onstage Friday night, delivering a welcome address and explaining the rules in his carefully modulated, made-for-radio voice, the room beamed collectively in admiration.
This year, the participation of "Jeopardy!" uber-champion Ken Jennings and a screening of a new crossword documentary, "Wordplay," added buzz. The film, which is slated for release this June after a warm reception at Sundance, played to a packed audience, many of whom appeared in the film themselves.
Despite inevitable comparisons to other recent documentaries about the competitive side of arcane word games, including "Word Wars" (Scrabble) and "Spellbound" (spelling bees), most crossword enthusiasts insist that their community is different.
"Crossword people are more of a family," said Trip Payne, one of the featured solvers in "Wordplay" and a Scrabble competitor as well, "because everyone here is mutually supportive."
Amy Reynaldo, author of the widely-read blog Crosswordfiend.Blogspot.com added, "At Stamford, you're surrounded by kindred spirits — people who read a lot of books and liked puzzles when they were shy kids, people who devour trivia and have a knack for remembering arcane facts and names, people who find that crosswords feed a basic part of who they are. It's really the brightest group imaginable. Maybe Nobel laureates are smarter, but do they like to have fun?"
The film follows Hinman, Payne, and Sanders from the comfort of their Sunday morning breakfast tables to the stage at Stamford, and explains the process of writing a crossword, from the initial idea for a theme to the solving process.
Merl Reagle, among the greatest active constructing minds, is shown in his Florida home writing a crossword for The New York Times. Editor Shortz accepts the puzzle, which soon makes its way into the paper. Several celebrity solvers then tackle Reagle's gem, including Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart ("Bring it, Shortz!"), Mike Mussina, and the Indigo Girls.
Back at the tournament, Jennings, who won a record 75 consecutive episodes of "Jeopardy!," handily won the C division in his first year of competition.
"The consensus from the hard-core faithful was 'As long as I can finish ahead of Ken Jennings, all will not be in vain,'" said first-time competitor Janet Siefert. "On Sunday at 8:30 (when the standings were posted), everyone raced to find their name, then subsequently raced to the J's. Seeing as how only 42 people beat him, there must have been a lot of muttered curses."