Date: April 1, 2007
Byline: David Lieberfarb
Nary a cross word at puzzle competition
"From geek to chic." That's how Bonnie Sirower of Glen Rock described the status of crossword puzzle aficionados since the documentary "Word Play" emerged as a popular contender last year at the Sundance Film Festival.
Sirower, an independent fundraiser, was competing for the 22nd time in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held last weekend in Stamford, Conn. This reporter was there for the first time.
Founded in 1978 and still run by Will Shortz, crossword puzzle editor of the New York Times, the event had the celebratory air of a coming-out party, yet with a slight tinge of nostalgia for the hotel it has outgrown. Thanks to "Word Play," the competition added some 200 puzzle solvers. In fact, Shortz said, there were more rookies this year than the total number of contestants in 22 of the previous 29 events.
Which is why Shortz sadly said sayonara to Stamford and announced that next year's tournament would be held at the Brooklyn Marriott on Feb. 29, March 1 and 2.
Like many of the rookies, I decided to enter the tournament after seeing "Word Play," which featured the dramatic conclusion of the 2005 contest. In the final round, Al Sanders of Fort Collins, Colo., believed he had the tournament won, but in his haste didn't notice that he had failed to fill in two squares on the board and lost to Tyler Hinman, then a 20-year-old college student.
Last Sunday, history repeated itself in eerie fashion.
Sanders, 48, was the sentimental favorite, an eight-time finalist who had never come out on top, while his youthful foe was going for a three-peat. Again, Sanders stepped away from his puzzle first. Again, he was brought down by a minor error. One letter, the "L" in LEVEL, should have been a "B" for BEVEL to answer the clue "Carpenter's tool."
Hinman, 22, of Chicago, was crowned as the "third youngest champion," which drew a big laugh from the knowledgeable throng who watched the climax. Last year Hinman was the second youngest winner, and in 2005, the youngest.
Success at the tournament can be measured in other ways. Since 1981, the official photographer has been Bridgewater resident Don Christensen. Though he doesn't compete, he considers himself a big winner, having met his wife, Kelli, there in 1993.
"Kelli was a guest of one of the judges," Christensen said. "We were introduced in the main ballroom at the Stamford Marriott, fell in love and got married — with Will Shortz attending our wedding and a crossword puzzle menu at each place setting."
I considered my efforts successful, too. Over the course of two days, I flawlessly solved seven puzzles and racked up 10,425 points under the tournament's scoring system, yet trailed more than 150 of the 698 contestants. The reason? The time factor. Each puzzle had a time limit ranging from 15 to 45 minutes. Each minute under the limit was worth 25 points. So by completing puzzle No. 4 in nine minutes — 11 under the 20-minute limit — I earned 275 bonus points. Hinman and other top contenders raced through the same puzzle in three minutes. Hinman earned 425 bonus points on his way to a total of 12,275. In all, the defending champ zipped through the seven puzzles in a total of 38 minutes, compared to my 112.
I was out of my league, but proud of my effort, and impressed with both the skill of those who outpaced me and the cleverness of those who constructed the seven challenging but fair puzzles.
The top New Jersey cruciverbalists were Howard Barkin of Fair Lawn (11,950), Elaine Lippman of Hoboken and Bob Mackey of Toms River, who finished 11th, 12th and 20th, respectively. Another Jersey standout was Jason Keller of Edison, a Rutgers graduate student who placed third in the juniors division (for ages 25 and under) with 10,040 points.