American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

They�re No Squares: Crossword Contenders Battle at Marriott

Source: Brooklyn Eagle
Date: March 21, 2011
Byline: Mary Frost

They�re No Squares: Crossword Contenders Battle at Marriott

DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — Before a rapt crowd numbering more than a thousand in the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott ballroom, the three top contenders in the “A-Division” championship playoff — wearing sound-blocking headphones — stood with their backs to the audience in front of three giant crossword puzzle grids.

It was the 34th-annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held this past weekend at the Marriott, and word whizzes Anne Erdmann (called “one of the fastest solvers on the planet” by The New York Times), Dan Feyer (last year’s champ) and five-time winner Tyler Hinman were ready for the sudden-death finale.

New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz, host of the three-day event, gave the signal to begin and the trio attacked the squares of their puzzles with white-board markers.

Feyer took an early lead, quickly filling in the words for “support for a mountaineer’s foot” (toehold); “the president between Tyler and Taylor” (Polk); and “ _ Lang Syne,” (Auld).

Neal Conan, host of NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” and crossword constructor Merl Reagle provided play-by-play commentary as the audience tried to solve the puzzle along with the champs.

“He’s realized his mistake; he’s changed it to ‘geared up.’"

“Ohh — Annie’s stuck on ‘Spinoza.’"

“He’s got ‘not my department.’ That’s going to help him out.”

A Human ‘Watson’

Soon it became apparent that Feyer, working the middle puzzle, was filling in squares with the efficiency of a human Watson, the super computer that defeated the former "Jeopardy" champion. “How does he do it?” Conan asked.

Taking but a second or two to double-check his words, Feyer raised his hand, becoming this year’s crossword champion. Hinman finished second a few minutes later — also with a perfect game — and Erdmann came in third, also perfectly.

“I’m thrilled,” Feyer told the Brooklyn Eagle. This is the second year in a row Feyer won the top prize — $5,000 — and it was his fourth year in the competition.

Feyer, who lives on the Upper West Side, plays piano for musical theater. “I think being a musician helps,” he said. “There’s a relationship between reading piano music and seeing how letters fit together on a crossword grid. I like to bring up the example of Jon Delfin, also a pianist, who won seven times.”

20 Puzzles a Day

Feyer says he completes about 20 crossword puzzles a day on average. “It takes about an hour,” he added. Feyer says he collects puzzles from old newspapers and also seeks them out via computer. “The New York Times, the L.A. Times and Newsday are usually the hardest. The Saturday Newsday can be even harder.”

“The competition is bigger this year,” the Times Shortz told the Eagle. Shortz founded the tournament in 1977. “We had 655 contestants and a thousand attendants. This year we had a professional talent show, and Roz Chast awarded prizes for the first time.” Three contestants came from Britain this year, he added.

Other 2011 winners included David Plotkin, Ken Stern and Richard Kalustian in the “B Division” and Jeffrey Dubner, James Lehr and Andrew Snyder in the “C Division.”

Puzzle aficionados enjoyed a full weekend of crossword competition, games and entertainment this year. Puzzlers put on pun-filled shows and devised word-crafty games. A talent show on Sunday — “Crossworders Got Talent” — featured contestants and officials, including Brooklynite Stern, who donned royal regalia and sang “Camelot.” New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast entertained with a speech composed almost entirely of crossword puzzle words, including “egret,” “emu” and “aerie.”

Andrew Ries, a puzzler from Minnesota, said he was happy with his performance this year — “I’m in the top 30s or 40s. Last year I was 53.” Ries, who runs the web site, says crossword puzzles are “more popular than ever. Now with the Internet, they’re more available.”