Date: March 20, 2007
Byline: Elizabeth Birge
War of Words
Crossword fans sharpen their pencils for battle
Robert Mackey hunches over a newspaper folded into quarters, smoothes the surface of the crossword puzzle and whips a pen from his pocket.
Pausing only to read aloud the clues to a visitor, he works the grid across and down, filling in the blocks one letter at a time with the kind of authority usually reserved for people looking at the answer key.
"A lot of people would panic if they saw 'ae' in a puzzle," he muses aloud while looking at the grid, "but a lot of plurals end in 'ae'."
He doesn't panic, and finishes in 11 minutes, twice the time it normally takes him to complete a midweek Star-Ledger puzzle when he isn't talking through the clues; which is to say, he typically finishes the Wednesday puzzle in four to six minutes.
"It's an ordered universe, something has to go in every single box," said Mackey, who works at Pathmark in Eatontown stocking shelves on the overnight shift. "Life isn't usually like that."
By the end of the week Mackey will solve 50 to 60 crossword puzzles, a routine he has followed for years and one that will help him prepare for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, scheduled for Friday through Sunday in Stamford, Conn., where he is the defending champion in the New Jersey division.
He won't be alone. More than 620 people are expected to gather at the Stamford Marriott for fun, games, cash prizes and, perhaps most important, bragging rights.
The tournament, which was the subject of a documentary last year called "Wordplay," is the kind of gathering that attracts a particular group of people, the word for which is cruciverbalists — solvers or constructors of crossword puzzles (You were thinking "geeks," weren't you?).
They're the kind of people who understand how useful it is to know that the dog in "The Thin Man" was named Asta and that Lou Grant worked for the Los Angeles Tribune (or Trib). But they're an isolated bunch, locked away with their thoughts, and usually end up sharing their lettered inspirations with a cup of coffee or bagel.
Thus, many people who come to the tournament do so not because they think they're going to win, but because it's a place where they fit in, not stand out, said Helene Hovanec, who is the tournament coordinator. Will Shortz, the crossword puzzle editor for the New York Times, founded the tournament 30 years ago, only a few years after he'd graduated from Indiana University, and directs it still.
"You're spending the weekend with people who are like minded and people who have a positive addiction and who enjoy the nuances of words," said Hovanec, the author of many crossword puzzle books for children. "You can break into any conversation, 'What did you think of 27 across?' There's an instant rapport."
Elaine Lippman of Hoboken has attended the tournament for 15 years, and finished no lower than fourth in New Jersey's division over the last five, including 2003 when she came in first (12th overall).
She's drawn to the tournament for the competition, but also for the camaraderie.
"I enjoy competing," she said, "but it's nice to sit in a room full of people and (do the crossword puzzle) and not feel weird."
Which is to say that anyone who can solve a crossword puzzle faster than it takes to cook a three-minute egg is going to draw some glances (peeks, scans, gazes, or quick looks).
"The best part (of the tournament) is the schmoozing in between the games and at night," said Lippman, who works in corporate real estate and as a state food inspector in New York.
Evenings are marked by group activities, such as special versions of "Jeopardy!" or the "$10,000 Pyramid" or charades, as well as lectures and light refreshments.
A couple of years ago Lippman was in 12th place after finishing the sixth of seven puzzles in the Saturday of the competition. She stayed up late, until 3 or 4 a.m. Sunday, playing games, and then slept very badly. She dropped in the standings after the final puzzle.
"You have to balance these things out," she observed (eyed, saw, spied, noted, studied).
This year, contestants will attempt to solve a series of eight increasingly difficult puzzles over two days; scoring is based on accuracy and time. The overall winner goes home with a grand prize ($5,000) and the admiration of the many who gather in the ballroom to watch the three finalists in the overall competition take the stage, put on earphones to block out noise, and work feverishly trying to solve (first and correctly) the same oversized crosswords puzzle set up on easels.
The first time Mackey entered the tournament in 1998 he finished seventh overall (last year he finished 18th out of 504).
"I couldn't believe how well I'd done," he said, having entered the tournament the day it started on a lark.
His beginner's luck did not follow his three succeeding efforts to secure the top prize in 1999, 2005 and 2006; on Sunday he hopes his fortunes change.
He solves and constructs puzzles of every shape, but prefers crosswords to Sudoku, saying with a bit of a sniff, "Those are just numbers 1 to 9." He works on them during breaks at work, or before bed.
And though he is eager to return to the top 10 finishers list, he too goes because of the unique opportunity it allows him.
"You're in a room with a lot of people who share your passion," he said. "I don't fit well into a lot of social situations; it's nice to fit."
Registration information for the tournament is available at www.crosswordtournament.com.