Date: March 6, 2008
Byline: Nick Malinowski
Commissioner takes time out for a few hundred crosswords
The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament turned 31 this year, and among the hundreds of cruciverbalists on hand was Springfield Township Commissioner Doug Heller, who has been a judge for the tournament since its inception in 1977.
"It was a great, great weekend," Heller said in an interview Monday.
Though traditionally held in Stamford, Conn., the tournament moved this year to a larger space at the New York Marriott, in Brooklyn, N.Y. to accommodate a growing number of competitors, families, and fans.
Interest in the event, and in crossword puzzles in general, has risen since the release of the documentary "Wordplay" in 2006, Heller said. The film chronicled the 2004 tournament and included interviews with celebrity crossword connoisseurs such as former President Bill Clinton, New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, ex-Senator Bob Dole and comedian Jon Stewart.
This year, 699 contestants competed — up from just under 150 in the first event.
The tournament consists of seven puzzles over two days, which competitors solve against the clock, Heller said.
Point scores are tallied as a combination of speed and accuracy and the three contestants from each of three divisions compete in suddent-death, winner-take-all, final rounds that are watched by the other competitors and narrated by a play-by-play broadcast, Heller said.
Tyler Hinman, 22, won for the fourth consecutive year after becoming the youngest champion in the history of the tournament four years ago.
At the inaugural event, there were only six judges and Heller and two others stayed up literally the whole night compiling the scores by hand. "I've never been more tired in my life," he said.
Improvements in technology and a greater number of volunteer judges have changed his responsibilities, he said.
Heller has assumed the role of "the go-to-whenever-there-is-a-problem judge," he said.
This means everything from fielding scoring complaints from contestants to maintaining the audio system and ensuring that the paper puzzles are actually in the building ready to be solved.
Heller also serves as the tournament's webmaster, and this year, for the first time, scores were posted online in real time, which added another detail to Heller's busy weekend.
"I enjoy the role a lot, correcting problems and getting things to run smoothly," he said. "There's always something that happens."
Heller first got involved with the tournament through Will Shortz, who is now the editor of the crossword puzzles at The New York Times.
According to Heller, Shortz is the "grandmaster of crosswords."
In the late 1970s Shortz started a puzzle constructors club in Stamford, which Heller, who had written crosswords for the school newspaper while studying at the University of Rochester and later edited them for Penny Press Magazines, joined.
When Shortz initiated the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament to help the Stamford Marriott fill its winter weekend calendar, Heller signed on as a judge and has returned every year since.
Heller has maintained lifelong friendships with Shortz and others through crossword puzzles and sees many people at the tournament who return year after year, with no chance of winning, to reconnect with friends they met in the Stamford Marriott ballroom in years past.
This year, 20 contestants and from six to eight judges traveled to the event from the greater Philadelphia area and were a noticeable presence, Heller said.
Next year the event will again be in the New York Marriott in Brooklyn, from Feb. 27 to March 1.
People who are interested should go the Website at crosswordtournament.com and sign up for the mailing list, Heller said.
"If someone from my town is going to go, I'd be thrilled," Heller said.
Note: minor modifications were made from the printed article.