Date: February 22, 2010
Byline: Allie Townsend
Our Geek of the Week: Meet Dan Feyer, 2010 American Crossword Puzzle Champ
Sunday, Dan Feyer of New York City was crowned the reigning American Crossword Tournament Champ after a weekend-long event of wordplay. The 32-year-old pianist records his speed while solving day's most prominent puzzles - he finishes the heralded New York Times puzzle in about an average of 3.5 minutes - and logs his daily progress online. Techland chats with the puzzle world's newest champ about his technique, why the NYT was not always the top dog and how his Scrabble game just might not be as strong as you'd think.
Allie Townsend: Tell me a little about the competition. How did you feel going into the last day?
Dan Feyer: Well, I felt pretty confident that I was going to win because I finished in fourth place last year, and only a tie-breaker kept me out of the final round. So, I was pretty confident that I had a good chance. I got lucky and did really well on the hardest puzzle, which gave me a lead going into the finals. I had another good solve on the final puzzle and that was enough to beat the other two.
AT: Where did your interest in puzzles begin?
DF: I did kids' puzzles and games when I was a kid. I was in the National Spelling Bee, so I've always had a facility with words, but I didn't really get hooked on crosswords until about three years ago when the movie Worldplay came out. Before that I would get my hands on a NYT Magazine and work on that, or the big Sunday puzzle. But aside from a couple NYT Crossword Collections that I had, I didn't really solve everyday. But then I discovered how many great puzzles were coming out online for free - and I subscribe to the online NYT puzzle - and discovered the crossword blogosphere and a whole community of puzzle people who are just as obsessed as I was. That got me into doing (puzzles) everyday and learning from all the other solvers out there. And of course, when I went to my first tournament I really enjoyed meeting all the nice, smart, funny people.
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AT: How did you prepare?
DF: Well, I've probably done more crosswords over the past 2 to 3 years than anybody in the country. I haven't done that in order to win the tournament. I got hooked and started doing puzzles in my spare time and on the subway and during breaks at work and pretty much anywhere else. I found that I was getting faster and faster and I figured that if I was going to have a shot at winning the tournament, I should step it up a little bit and practice speed solving a little bit more.
AT: What was the last word you solved for the win?
DF: I'm not sure what the last thing I got was. There was a particularly hard clue for "air quotes," which once I figured it out and had a "Q" that allowed me to fill in the last few boxes. There wasn't one part that really stumped me. It was just slow and steady going like the hard puzzles usually are.
AT: How long did it take you to finish?
DF: I believe it was 7:50. It's always a little hard to solve on a white board where you have to step back to see all the letters and refer to the clues in your hand, and of course, feeling the pressure of other brilliant people next to you or working on the same one and I tried to forget about the almost 1,000 people behind me watching and waggish commentators behind me, talking.
AT: I see on your blog that you log your progress every day. How long have you been doing this?
DF: I think I started posting my time everyday in December of 2008. I actually started doing that because I don't know how to make a fancy spreadsheet to keep track of all my time, so I figured I'd just put them online and maybe someone else could do something with the data. At that time, I knew I was one of the fastest solvers in the country and a lot of the online community likes to compare their solving times and a couple of the blogs have leader boards. But mostly, it's just for myself to keep track and to see if I'm getting faster.
AT: If you had to guess, how many puzzles have you solved in your lifetime?
DF: Well, I estimated in 2008 I had solved about 9,000 puzzles that year, which comes out to about 25 a day. So over the past 2 and a half years, it's probably between 20,000 and 25,000. Of course, many of those are easy and they only take 2 to 3 minutes. And I don't time myself for most of them when I'm solving on the subway or in bed.
AT: So now that you snagged the championship, are you going to retire?
DF: Oh no. When there's a cash prize involved, there's a little bit of a motivation to try to do it again. The previous champion won five times in a row, so that's also a goal I can shoot for, although that's getting ahead of myself. But it's a lot of fun to get up there and match wits with not only the best solvers in the world, but with the best constructors in the world. I have to take the toughest clues they can come up with and try to figure them out.
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AT: In your opinion, which publication has the best crossword?
DF: Well, the New York Times is clearly the gold standard, although they were challenged for many years by the New York Sun. Unfortunately, the paper is now defunct and it took its crossword puzzle with it. That puzzle was edited by Peter Gordon was more difficult and more creative than the New York Times. It wasn't for everybody, but for the real crossword aficionados the New York Sun had the puzzles we looked forward to. Now, a lot of the most exciting puzzles are published by Sterling Publishing in books. They have come out with some amazingly creative publications by the most creative constructors.
AT: So, do you play other word games?
DF: Nope, I'm not very good at Scrabble, though I don't play it that often, so I'm sure I've gotten a lot better at anagramming words. I've certainly learned a lot of short words. I don't really do other puzzles regularly, or effectively. I can't solve Sudoku unless they're really easy.
AT: Do you have tips for people who'd like to get better at solving?
DF: Yeah, the best way to get better is to do lots of puzzles. I'm living proof of that, but even if you're not doing as many as I am, and I hope you're not, it also really helps to go online and read more about the puzzle after you've finished it. There are a lot of crossword blogs; the New York Times has one and a lot of top solvers write about the puzzle every day. They can really help explain how that theme worked or why that clue goes with that answer. That really helped me when I first started. It would reinforce all of the tricky words that I've never heard of so that I'd remember them for the next time. You'll also learn how the different editors like to go about choosing their puzzles.
AT: So because this is Techland, we'd really like to know what is the geekiest thing you've ever done?
DF: I think that solving 25 crossword puzzles a day would qualify, don't you?