Date: March 13, 2002
Byline: Craig Wilson
Teen is a man of letters in the puzzle worldBALTIMORE Michael Shteyman is only 17. His wispy mustache tells you that immediately. But the freshman at Johns Hopkins University here already knows the ups and downs of life. Actually he's more familiar with the acrosses and downs. Shteyman is a cruciverbalist, as they say in the business. A crossword puzzle addict.
So good is Shteyman that he makes up puzzles and sells them. And he was doing it before immigrating from St. Petersburg, Russia, five years ago.
Yes, English is his second language, but you wouldn't know it. Talking between classes in the Johns Hopkins library, he looks and sounds as all-American as the university's famed lacrosse team.
"Actually I'm a better constructor than a competitor," admits the "possibly pre-med" neuroscience major who also studies piano composition at the nearby Peabody Conservatory.
He'll see if that's true this weekend when he joins almost 400 other fellow cruciverbalists in Stamford, Conn., to compete in the 25th Annual American Crossword Tournament, an event founded by Will Shortz, the crossword puzzle editor of The New York Times.
Shteyman began constructing puzzles back in Russia even though the St. Petersburg paper paid him nothing for his effort. "I thought I'd try my hand. It didn't seem very hard to me, so I started to make more."
The rest is not so much Russian history as American. Since then, his puzzles have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the Universal Press Syndicate and Games Magazine.
"I just sit down and do it," says Shteyman, who often passes time making up puzzles during slow periods at his part-time job as a cashier. "I also compose, so it's like asking a composer where you come up with the notes. Sometimes I see a word and I associate it with another and that's that. But most times it just comes with a whim. There is no method."
He admits, however, that he likes to pay attention to "those rarely used letters like Q and Z."
Shteyman, a quick and eager rookie who solves puzzles in pen, will join veterans such as Jean Tintle of Whiting, N.J., who has missed only two tournaments in 25 years and finishes near the top every year. Last year, she came in second in the senior (over 70) division. Shortz dubs her a "fine solver."
"My reaction time isn't what it used to be," she admits. "I don't get that pencil to the paper as quickly as I once did." But "the solving is easier than it was 20 years ago, because I've been doing it so long."
Some of the younger contestants, she says, can finish the easier crossword puzzles in less than two minutes. She takes about five. Shteyman says he averages about seven. (When Shortz interviewed President Clinton about his love of crosswords a few years back, the president did a moderately difficult one in six minutes, 54 seconds half of the time on the phone.)
This weekend's competitors range from teenagers such as Shteyman to octogenarians. They're evenly split between the sexes, represent dozens of professions and come from every corner of the country. But they all have one thing in common. They love wordplay.
On Saturday, they will sit at long tables in a hotel ballroom and work their way through six puzzles. Two large clocks with sweeping second hands will mark the time as they speed their way through the clues. The contestant with the fewest mistakes and quickest times gets to compete on Sunday morning and possibly take home the big prize of $1,500.
The three top scorers who make it to the Sunday morning playoff work on giant puzzles set on stage so the audience can watch. There's even play-by-play, but the contestants can't hear it because they're wearing earphones.
Doug Hoylman, a retired actuary from Chevy Chase, Md., has won six times. He's dubbed "The Ice Man" because of his cold methodical technique of starting at 1 across in the top left corner and not stopping until he makes his way to the bottom right.
Last year's winner was Ellen Ripstein of Manhattan, who had lost so many times she has competed 24 years, finishing in the top three 12 times she was dubbed the "Susan Lucci of crosswords," after the perennial soap opera Emmy loser. But they can say that no longer.
Besides, anyone who can finish the Sunday New York Times crossword in less than 10 minutes is no loser. She can finish the Saturday one, which is smaller but harder, in six to eight minutes. To prepare for the tournament, she works up to 10 puzzles a day.
The Wall Street Journal did a story on her just before her win last year, something she now thinks was a "good omen."
"Grade-school friends saw the story and called and said this was going to be my year," she recalls. "But I told them it's never been my year."
But what really helped was that her two final competitors made last-minute mistakes, giving her the win.
This year, she says she's feeling less pressure. A freelance puzzle editor and statistician by trade, she knows the chances of winning twice in a row are slim. After all, it took her all those years to win once.
Don't underestimate her, however. Just last week, using a computer, she did a Newsday puzzle in 1 minute and 59 seconds.
But age may be taking its toll on her, too.
"I don't see as well as I used to," laments the 49-year-old.