American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

What's 8 Down? Brooklyn, New Home for Crossword Puzzle Tourney

Date: February 27, 2008
Byline: Meg Tirrell

What's 8 Down? Brooklyn, New Home for Crossword Puzzle Tourney

Brooklyn is going to be the most puzzling place in the U.S. starting this week.

Hundreds of crossword junkies from 37 states and four other countries will gather Feb. 29 through March 2 as the New York borough becomes the new home of the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

After being held at the Marriott Hotel in Stamford, Connecticut, for 30 years, the event is moving DOWN 41 miles to the bigger Brooklyn Bridge Marriott. Will Shortz, the contest's founder and the New York Times puzzle editor, said he hopes the new site will raise the tournament's profile.

"This is sort of puzzle headquarters in the country," Shortz said. "I hope that being in New York City allows the event to grow and attract more people."

The move already is paying off. Participants booked all 400 rooms held for them at the Brooklyn Marriott, a half mile ACROSS from the famous bridge, and Shortz had to line up additional spots at the LaGuardia Airport Marriott and the Brooklyn Holiday Inn Express.

Three days before the tournament, 655 people had registered to compete, he said, "within striking distance of last year's record" 698 contestants. About 90 onlookers have bought $30 tickets to watch the finals in the hotel's ballroom. The top prize is $5,000.

Shortz credits the 2006 documentary film "Wordplay" with increasing the number of contestants last year from 498 the year before, triggering the move to Brooklyn. The film chronicled the 2005 tournament and featured Shortz and celebrity puzzlers, including former President Bill Clinton, filmmaker Ken Burns and Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show."

'The Big Time'

"They're making it to the big time," said Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. "They've been in Stamford for 30 years. That was the minor leagues."

The tournament started when the Stamford Marriott was new, Shortz said. The hotel's marketing director sought him out, a then-25-year-old puzzle-maker and editor living in Stamford, to help start an event to fill rooms on a slow winter weekend. Shortz now lives in Pleasantville, New York, about 40 miles north of Manhattan.

The tournament is taking up residence in the city where the first crossword was published, by the Sunday New York World on Dec. 21, 1913. The diamond-shaped puzzle, originally called a word-cross, was created by Arthur Wynne, a journalist from Liverpool, England, who worked for the newspaper.

The relocation also means higher expenses for entrants. The registration fee for the two-day competition and associated events rose 41 percent to $275, and the daily hotel rate 54 percent to $169.

More Competitors

That isn't deterring competitors, who range in age from 16 to 90 and come from the U.S., Canada, France, the Netherlands and the Dominican Republic. They include computer programmers, teachers, editors, writers, musicians, attorneys, an archeologist, an excursion boat captain and a brewer.

Shortz, 55, has been crossword editor at the Times since 1993, and he is the puzzle master for National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition Sunday." He has a degree in enigmatology, the study of puzzles, from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. He designed the curriculum himself under an independent major program, he said.

The contest is sponsored by Kappa Publishing Group Inc., based in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania; St. Martin's Press, based in New York; and New York Times Digital. Kappa is the world's biggest-selling publisher of puzzle magazines, Shortz says.

Sweaty Palms

Each contestant is given six puzzles on Saturday and one on Sunday morning, to solve with pencil, pen or any other writing instrument. Scoring is based on speed and accuracy.

Prizes are awarded in more than 20 categories. The top three finishers take center stage in the ballroom later Sunday for the championship.

Spectators also get copies of the last puzzle so they can follow along as the finalists race to fill in oversized grids of 15 squares by 15. Commentators provide analysis of the ACROSS and DOWN moves, so the contestants wear headphones to block out the sound.

"The playoff round of the crossword championship is genuinely exciting," Shortz said. "Your palms sweat, you get tense, you get wrapped up in the event."

Participants say the competition is about much more than the chance to win the cash prize.

"There's the tournament and there's everything else," said Francis Heaney, 37, a puzzle editor with Sterling Publishing Co. in New York. Heaney, who lives in Brooklyn, placed third last year.

"Everything else" includes staying up late playing charades and other games in the hotel lobby, said Heaney, who met his wife at his first tournament, in 1995.

'Relatively Normal'

"We always pretty much take over the hotel," said Tyler Hinman, 23, a former bond trader at the Chicago Board of Trade who won last year. Hinman was the tournament's youngest champion and this year will seek to become the first to win four in a row.

Some participants said they have nostalgia for the Stamford Marriott, where general manager Joe Kelly said they'll be missed.

"It's kind of the end of a tradition for them and for us," Kelly said. "If attendance starts to wane again, maybe it will come back to Stamford."

For Hinman, if the move attracts more spectators, that would be a good thing.

"I'd like it to be more popular, have people show up and see that at least some of us are relatively normal," he said.