American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

Eric Berlin's Blog

Source: Eric Berlin's Blog
Date: March 13, 2005
Byline: Eric Berlin

Eric Berlin's Blog

March 13, 2005

Let me see if I can adequately convey the drama of three people racing to finish a crossword puzzle.

The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held each year in Stamford, Connecticut and hosted by Will Shortz, mainly consists of seven puzzles: Six on Saturday, and a seventh one on Sunday morning. After that, there are a series of finals, as the top three players in each division compete for first place. The finals take place onstage, with the contestants writing on giant whiteboards, in front of a rather intense audience and usually quite a few members of the press. Just to make this experience even more awkward, finalists are called upon to wear thick, noise-eliminating headphones.

Before the seventh puzzle began on Sunday morning, the results from the previous day were posted, and in the top-ranked "A" division, there was a most unlikely three-way tie for first place. Unless one of them made an error in the seventh puzzle, the three finalists were almost certain to be last year's champion Trip Payne, a repeat finalist named Patrick Jordan and, at all of 20 years old, a college student named Tyler Hinman. Sitting alone in second place was Al Sanders, who himself had made a trip to the finals in 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004, but had never won. If Al Sanders was called this time to participate in the finals, Trip and Patrick and Tyler would all have simultaneous mini-strokes, because the only way Al could make it to the finals was if Trip, Patrick, or Tyler made an error in puzzle 7.

And that is what happened. After the judging for puzzle 7 was complete, Al Sanders had eked (crossword word!) his way into third place. Patrick Jordan had gotten a letter wrong in the seventh puzzle and would watch the finals from the audience. Going in to the final puzzle, Trip was in second place, and Tyler Hinman (did I mention that he is only 20 years old?) was in first.

The final puzzle is always a wide-open themeless grid, packed with an amazing array of interesting words and phrases. The upper left corner of this year's puzzle consisted of entries like STEVE JOBS and EXIT WOUND and, sitting at 1-Across, ZOLAESQUE. While the same puzzle is used for each of the three division finals, the clues get harder and harder as we approach the main event, the "A" final. For the "C" final, 1-Across was clued in a way that even I was able to write it in with little difficulty: "In the style of French writer Emile." For the "A" final, this same word was clued as simply "Stark and richly detailed, as writing." When Trip Payne finally wrote in 1-Across, he said loudly, "You have got to be kidding me."

To put it bluntly, Al Sanders crushed both Trip and Tyler. He had as much trouble as anybody in that upper left corner, deducing _O_AESQUE but not understanding how to fill those last two blanks. But the rest of the puzzle he filled almost unthinkingly, flowing neatly from one corner to the next. Trip and Tyler, by comparison, were jumping around the grid, filling in a little here and a little there, and generally having a more difficult time of it.

Both Trip and Tyler had plenty of white space left when Al stepped back from his grid, quickly glancing it over one last time, checking for errors. And then he took off his headphones and said "Done!" He expected, at that point, to hear applause, but the first sound he heard when he removed his headphones was a sickening gasp of shock from the audience.

He had never remembered to fill in those last letters in _O_AESQUE. In the final puzzle of the World Series of crosswords, miles ahead of his competition, Al had left two spaces completely blank. If he had simply noticed, he would have had plenty of time to write in those last two letters. After four consecutive third-place finishes, he would have won first prize in a walk.

He looked up and saw his terrible mistake, and threw his headphones angrily to the ground. There was nothing he could do about this now but relive the terrible realization again and again. He leaned up against a wall and put his head in his hands. Several judges came over to console him as Trip and Tyler continued to work.

In the end, 20-freaking-year-old Tyler broke through to win, with Trip finishing up a minute or so later. Both finished perfectly, which meant Al Sanders, instead of winning at last, would take third place once again — for the fifth year in a row.

A few years ago, Al was defeated by Ellen Ripstein, who took 19 (!) trips to the finals before claiming her first victory. That year, the room was pulling for Ellen to win in a way that made Boston's feelings for the Red Sox seem positively lukewarm. There is no doubt that by making his heartbreaking error, Al Sanders has become the new sentimental favorite, a badge he will wear until he claims victory at last. When he claimed his third place trophy, he received a standing ovation.

Oh, and how did I do? Well, last year I placed 166th. This year I shot up to 110th. I was hoping to be a top-100 contestant, but I guess there's no way to be disappointed in such a dramatic improvement. And as they say, just wait til next year.

Finally: Congrats to Tyler and Trip! And also to Amy Reynaldo, frequent commenter on this blog, for her first-place finish in the "B" division. And as a first-time competitor, no less!

Update: The news stories have started sprouting up. ABC News is here. Newsday is here. And the Albany Times-Union profiled Tyler a few days ago here. Finally, this blogger writes that he won't be back:

Doing it once is a lark, an "experience," but doing it twice would be a little too much like joining the Borg...

Also, to be honest I'm a little disappointed in the other contestants. I was hoping they'd be more like Trekkies´┐Żwild-eyed zealots who can only talk in crossword clues. Instead they're (mostly) normal, friendly, articulate people who all seem to be either lawyers, computer programmers, or teachers.

Sorry we weren't kooky enough for you, SadPunk!


This will go down as one of the most memorable finals ever — but oh, how hard that was to watch. I heard a lot of "no, no, don't say it, don't say it!" just before he called himself done.

Posted by: Kath at March 13, 2005 08:53 PM

I won on my 13th trip to the finals, and was not far behind the top 3 most of the other years.

Al's tragic mistake was something like my 1989 (?) final where SENSELESSNESS crossed the completely obscure TEMSE, and I left SENSELESENESS in the grid (that puzzle was by Trip Payne, as I never fail to remind him). But if I had won then, the victory in 2001 wouldn't have been nearly as dramatic.

I'm not so sure I will ever be in the finals again (the competition has gotten BRUTAL, especially from the young whippersnappers), but I feel certain that both Al and Patrick Jordan will have more chances for victory in the years to come.

Posted by: Ellen Ripstein at March 13, 2005 10:42 PM

Your readers who are unfamiliar with the tournament may realize how much more dramatic this story is made by the following numbers:

The second place prize is $600.
The first place prize is $4000.

Maybe I'm materalist, but to me that makes the A finals a million times scarier than the B finals.

Posted by: The Dan at March 13, 2005 11:24 PM

Having won the B finals this morning, I agree that the A finals have got to be terrifying. The clues! Pure evil! I think Byron Walden opened a hellmouth and let some demons take over when he was working on the A clues. B was much more doable (top B prize, $200; media attention, minimal; relief at not having to deal with the A clues, priceless).

If you check the standings, you'll see that I made a mistake — in puzzle 1! I have no idea what it was. Damn. I'm glad I didn't know about that before Sunday.

I'll see you all next year!

Posted by: Orange at March 14, 2005 01:12 AM

Eric, outstanding writeup of the day's events. Reading it, I felt like I was actually there! Oh, wait, damn, I was there :-)! It was a pretty bizarre day, going from realizing I was locked into 4th, to realizing I was in the finals, to realizing that for once I was actually doing well on a final puzzle, to realizing I had "finished" first, to realizing I had just pulled off the stupidest move in the history of crosswords. I really appreciate everyone's supportive comments. And congrats to Tyler who aced every single puzzle this weekend. This will be the first of many for him. –Al

Posted by: Al Sanders at March 14, 2005 01:54 AM

Not if I can help it, Al. Of course, I probably can't...

It almost felt inevitable, somehow. The whole tournament felt like it was leading up to Tyler's victory. And not only did he steal my "youngest winner ever" crown, he did it young enough that his record may never be broken. (My next goal: OLDEST winner ever!) I had to laugh when I saw that one of the articles linked from the Stamford site quotes Tyler (before the tournament) complaining about the fact that someone took his "youngest Sunday NYT contributor ever" crown, and that you can never take a record like that back. Heh. Take that, whippersnapper. :-)

5 of the top 10 this year were younger than me. I used the words "damn kids" way too often this weekend...

The Saturday NYT was by Byron Walden, and I destroyed it. So when I saw the final would be by him as well, I was feeling pretty good. But I just couldn't get a handle on it, and had to jump around far too much, whereas Al "was channeling Doug" from what I heard elsewhere, and Tyler managed a final breakthrough a little before I did.

A fun tournament as always. Congratulations to the damn kid, and also to Al, who showed everyone that he is ready and able to take the trophy.

Posted by: Trip at March 14, 2005 10:09 AM

EXCELLENT RECAP! I was on the left side of the room so I missed the drama that was going on over on the right side until the throwing of the headphones. I'd love to see the documentary they make out of this year's ACPT!

Posted by: Jeff at March 14, 2005 11:43 AM

I've also had trouble explaining to coworkers just what a nail-biter the whole tournament was, and I believe I'll just send them here to read it. Being solidly in the bottom 25% myself (on top of being a rookie), I got an interesting perspective on the finals by sitting within earshot of Kiran. Ken Stern said later that "they couldn't have scripted a better documentary — drama, a surprise ending..."

Posted by: Sarah at March 14, 2005 03:42 PM

But who won American Crossword Idol?

Posted by: Francis at March 14, 2005 06:03 PM

Francis, Leslie Billig was the top vote-getter and Judge Vic Fleming (with backing vocals from Stella Daily and...was it Ben Tausig? — was second. There may be QuickTime videos of the performances and the finals coming soon, thanks to Nancy Shack. Check the ACPT website later on.

Trip and Al (and Tyler), yo! Look out. The crossword grrls are coming on strong. Maybe most of us are older than Katherine and Stella, but we're working our way onward and upward.

Posted by: Orange at March 14, 2005 06:57 PM

Nice writeup, Eric. One point that I would underscore, is that Al was still in it, even after stopping. Had Tyler and Trip not finished with two or more blanks, in the few minutes left, or had a couple of squares wrong — a longshot with those guys, but a real possibility with this puzzle nonetheless — he still would have won. He certainly won the heart of the crowd, anyway.

Orange is generally correct about the relative difficulty of the "A" and "B" session, but there were a few clues that I thought were harder on the "B" side. You know, I think I was called "evil" this weekend enough that I could end up in the next State of the Union address.

Posted by: Byron at March 14, 2005 07:27 PM

Byron, I told Tyler how generous you were to throw that frat clue for 60A in the A clues, whereas you foisted "ice feints" on us in the B clues. I got that one strictly by the crossings and only figured out just now that it's a hockey thing and not some sort of meteorological or geological term.

If you've been developing your own nukes, you'll totally be added to the axis of evil next time around.


Posted by: Orange at March 14, 2005 07:36 PM

Great summary, Eric. Of course, with Tyler winning in such a dramatic fashion, nobody bothers to mention the C division winner. Certainly there is much less pressure in C — I knew going in that I was going to win something (the difference between 1st and 3d place prizes was basically the cost of my husband's lunch) so I just relaxed and plowed ahead. Much thanks to Amy for making her way into the B finals — there is no way I would have beaten her, and I'm also glad she will be an A next year, which gives me a decent shot at B. I thought the "THEO" clue was easier on B than on C (B referenced the Cosby kid, while C referenced Kojak), at least for me. THEO crossed EMERIL, which I always misspell as EMIRIL (thinking the Arab), but fortunately I knew THIO made no sense and caught it. The other trap was UNBEKNOWNSTTOME — the WNSTT really threw me off for a bit, and I couldn't believe how quickly Al got that one. I was shooting for a rookie prize but had no expectation of making any of the finals, so it was really a great first experience for me. I'll be back (spoken in a low, threatening voice).


Posted by: Susan Hoffman at March 15, 2005 09:00 AM

Dude, don't knock the young'uns! Although it was quite satisfying to hear "damn kids" said about me in the presence of my boyfriend, who is 24 years old and continually gives me crap for being older than he is. PHHHHHBBBBBBTTTTT.

Great recap, Eric. I am still in shock, myself. I think my goal next year will be to prove that 2005 was not a fluke.

Posted by: Stella at March 15, 2005 11:52 AM

Stella, you and I and Ellen Ripstein and Katherine Bryant and Susan Hoffman need to formulate a plan for making the ACPT a girls' club. Sure, Trip and Al and Tyler are great guys, but it's time for the boys to move over. What do you say?

Posted by: Amy Reynaldo at March 15, 2005 02:06 PM

Amy, I'm with you! I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to meet you, but you sure did the girls' club proud. We'll show the boys yet...

Posted by: Kath at March 15, 2005 04:13 PM

What a finish! Congratulations to Amy and Tyler, and I for one am very happy that both Amy and Stella will be competing in the A group next year. (I'm pretty certain that Peter Gordon shares this sentiment!)

Amy and Susan: Considering that this was your first tournament, your performances were particularly impressive.

Posted by: Steve Levy at March 15, 2005 09:49 PM

March 12, 2005

Notes from the crossword tournament, day 1:

- Dinner was at Bennigan's, and this was the first time I'd stepped into one of those loud megachains in many years. The food was better than I expected, mainly because my expectations were cowering in the sub-sub-basement. Those expectations were not brightened by the following conversation with the waitress, when she brought our food:

Waitress: (holding up a plate) "...and something with fried onions on it?" (nobody claims the meal) "I think it might be meatloaf?"

Me: "That's the meatloaf?"

Waitress: "I think it is."

Me: "You think it is?"

Waitress: "I'm pretty sure it is the meatloaf. Did you order meatloaf?"

The waitress simply would not offer a greater than 75% assurance that the plate I was given indeed contained meatloaf. This is not the level of confidence one expects from the restaurant staff, in regards to recognizing their own food. It turned out that the meatloaf normally does not come with a blanket of fried onions, and this addition threw off the waitress. The onions were added, it turns out, because the meatloaf itself had met with some kind of kitchen tragedy and had fallen apart. The cook had mashed it all back together and thrown on the onions as a disguise. It was still tasty enough.

- Patrick Berry presented a multimedia crossword — 32 words defined by 32 clues, and each clue was a different mini-puzzle: Teams were given a grid and a thick envelope full of clues. It seems a crying shame that this magnificent work should have a lifespan of only one evening. They should sell it in stores.

I was solving with three very nice strangers — the people whose table I happened to be at. I realized quickly how much I am used to solving exclusively with people who are much smarter, and more knowledgable about puzzles, than I am. This time, I found myself in role of the sage, understanding immediately how to solve a given puzzle, even if I couldn't actually see through to the solution. It took about three minutes for my teammates to defer to me at all times; if I wasn't available immediately to explain how something worked, they just ran down like a cheap watch, waiting for me rather than trying to work it out themselves. I didn't want to be ultra-competitive — I knew that was hopeless from the outset — but I wanted to experience as much of this magnificent puzzle as I could in the 45 minutes we were given. What I really would have liked is to steal the envelope and run away, so that I could solve the thing with Janinne, taking our own sweet time.

- Mike Shenk took a theme suggestion from the audience, and went off to create a 15x15 crossword: Filling it, cluing it, printing it out, and making 500 photocopies. Elapsed time: Just over an hour. Afterwards, Mike attempted to explain how he did this, but Mike Shenk explaining how he created a crossword is like you explaining to somebody how you breathe. Your audience may be curious, but to you it's such a basic operation that it hardly merits an explanation. "I laid out the theme entries, and then I put in some nice longer words, and then I filled the rest of it," is the slightly condensed version of Mike's explanation.

- With the official events over, my friend Scott presented a Jeopardy game that morphed into a lovely puzzle extravaganza, forcing the six players to work together to solve it. Elegant beyond belief, the half-dozen varied puzzles all referred back to the questions we had been asked back when we thought it was just a normal Jeopardy game. Very clever and a lot of fun. I am constantly, endlessly amazed at the variety and quality of puzzles that the members of the National Puzzlers' League produce for the sheer hell of it.

- Everybody asked about the kids, of course, and I promised I would deliver them for inspection on the second day — today, that is. That's not going to happen. I woke up to find a lovely white snowfall that is going to screw everything right the hell up. The plan called for me to drive my family back and forth in between major tournament events, but there's no way that can happen now — the drive will take two hours, instead of the usual half an hour. We'll try again tomorrow.