American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

War of Words

Source: ABC News
Date: March 18, 2001
Byline: Bill Blakemore

War of Words

The 'Susan Lucci' of Crosswords Has Her Day at Tourney
STAMFORD, Conn., March 18
You may consider crossword puzzles a pleasant way to relax. But for the 300 word-crazy scribblers gathered for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, they are a competitive sport.

They come every year to a ballroom in Stamford, Connecticut. The best finish a tough puzzle in just a few minutes.

"These are solvers that are so fast, you just cannot imagine a mind working this fast," says a smiling Will Shortz, the contest's creator.

Shortz, who is also the puzzle editor of the New York Times, had the idea of turning crosswords into a race.

A 'Silly' But Very Popular Event

"It's been compared to drinking a bottle of wine as quickly as you can or racing through a four star meal in five minutes. It's kind of silly, but the people who do it love it and keep coming back."

The popular favorite this year, as in every year, is Ellen Ripstein, a researcher from New York City. She's been in the top five for the past 18 years, but she's never won.

They call her the "Susan Lucci of crosswords," after the soap opera star who received scores of Emmy nominations before winning the acting prize.

"Maybe I don't deserve it," says Ripstein modestly, before the contest's final round.

Her competition includes Doug "Ice Man" Hoylman, a six-time winner known for his silent, methodical approach, and the competition's youngest winner, Trip Payne, who is a flurry of groans and grimaces as he tackles his puzzles.

Accuracy Outweighs Speed

To turn what is normally a pastime into a competition, the event's organizers had to create a scoring system. Points are given for accuracy and speed, but accuracy is more important.

"The first mistake that a person makes costs about eight minutes in equivalent time," explains one judge. This year, as the crowd chanted her name, Ripstein emerged as one of the three finalists.

Will Ripstein Emerge Victorious?

As a commentator shouted to the audience, Ripstein and the two other remaining competitors worked their way through the puzzle, wearing headphones to block the sound.

Patrick Jordan finished first, but was marked down by the judges for writing "Mainstep," instead of "Mainstem," in his puzzle. Not far behind, Ripstein plowed ahead, eventually answering all the clues correctly, and quickly enough to claim first prize.

"I have tears in my eyes," shouted one well-wisher as the judges announced her victory, her first in 19 years of competition.

"I have tears in my eyes, too," she said.