American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

A Way With Words

Source: Fort Collins Now
Date: February 13, 2008
Byline: Andra Coberly

A Way With Words

Is this the year that Fort Collins' Al Sanders is finally victorious at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament?

But for a rare breed of person — those who worship Will Shortz, who think Sudoku is for illiterates and who know that a three-letter word for a Japanese sash is an obi — Sanders is the idol they never knew they had.

Sanders, a Fort Collins family man and an Hewlett-Packard engineer, is one of the foremost crossword puzzle competitors in the United States. He is often considered the Phil Mickelson of word nerds and is the almost-champion of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz's annual competition that brings together hundreds of the country's fastest and most competent crossword whizzes for two days in puzzling paradise. Sanders, who easily completes a Monday NYT crossword in under three minutes and a Sunday NYT crossword in under nine, is also one of the stars of the acclaimed 2006 documentary Wordplay.

In just weeks, Sanders will once again attempt to become the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament champion. What's stopping this longtime contender? A 20-something wunderkind and Sanders' own history of choking under pressure.

"I think I just need some mental training to get me in the right state of mind," he said, casually sitting in a Fort Collins coffee shop during his lunch break. "It's hard because I've never won. I just end up making it to that stage (the finals) and then getting mad at myself for messing up. It'd be great to win. I just don't really have that killer instinct."

But, Sanders added, he does have more confidence now than he has in the past.

With the 2008 tournament nearing, Sanders is now beginning to strategize for the competition. He admits that he should have started earlier, but "I'll get it together in time," he says with a smile.

His usual five daily crosswords will need to be bumped up to 10 or 15. He'll need to mix easier puzzles, which will help him perfect his speed, with the harder ones that will help his stamina. He also works on the NYT's Friday and Saturday theme-less puzzles, which are the same style as the puzzle in the final round of the tournament.

"Some people say I should focus on practicing while standing up, and that maybe I don't do as well in the finals because I don't practice standing," he said. "I think it's just about coming up with better answers and times."

Those people, the Monday morning quarterbacks of the crossword world, likely give Sanders advice because he has handed over the title to another competitor twice in the last three tournaments because of puzzle errors, one of which was highlighted on the big screen.

Wordplay, in which filmmaker Patrick Creadon follows the 2005 tournament and interviews everyone from Bill Clinton to Jon Stewart on their love of crosswords, captured the hearts of critics and viewers with its diverse crew of unlikely heroes: Sanders and his co-competitors. The charming film made it to Sundance and was nominated for the film festival's grand jury prize and became the first documentary to sell out at the movie Mecca.

"When we heard we were going to Sundance, we thought, 'Why would they make a bunch of words nerds into movie stars?'" Sanders told this newspaper following the film's release in the summer of 2006.

Shown in the movie is the intense final round where Sanders faces longtime competitor Trip Payne and then college student Tyler Hinman. To save Sanders from reliving the tragic final moments of that year's tournament, let's just say he forgets to fill in a couple of squares and loses the title to Hinman.

While it was hard for Sanders — once again standing on that stage as the tournament's perpetual bridesmaid, never the bride — it made for a compelling story on the big screen, and likely thrust the Fort Collins resident into the hearts of all who saw the movie.

The next tournament, which was held before the movie came out, Sanders surprisingly failed to make the top five. But last year, after Wordplay had seen its success and the tournament's population soared, Sanders once again found himself in the finals. He even finished the puzzle first.

But something went wrong once again: He put an "L" instead of a "B" in a clue that asked for a carpenter's tool. To his chagrin, the answer was supposed to read "bevel," not "level." Hinman took the title.

"The final was really hard, much tougher than it was in the movie," he said. "That was just an evil crossing. It was a trap. It was intended to throw us off."

Now, Sanders is collecting a supply of his favorite type of pencil, a mechanical one with large eraser and .9 mm lead, and strategizing for the next tournament, which will begin on Feb. 29. This year, he'll need to pick a new favorite spot to sit during the preliminary rounds; Sanders will no longer be able to park himself in his regular seat in the Stamford Marriott in Stamford, Conn., the 30-year home of the tournament. The movie's success attracted more competitors to last year's event and the size of the tournament swelled beyond the capacity of the hotel. This year, for the first time in the tournament's history, it will take place outside of Stamford.

Sanders looks forward to the change of scenery that Brooklyn will provide, but says the growth is likely short-lived.

"There might be a ripple effect for a few years, but I don't think that there will be long-term effects," he said.

Though he was concerned that the movie would bring a new hot-shot competitor, no newcomer has become a threat yet. Looking at the rankings of the past few tournaments, the competitor Sanders needs to fear most is Hinman, who has taken the title three years running. But Sanders sees it as less of a competition against anyone else and more of a competition with himself.

"I'm sure (Hinman's) goal is to have the best record ever. ... But I don't think he's unstoppable. I did hand over two of the last three to him," Sanders said of his young friend and opponent.

Hinman, in an email to Fort Collins Now, calls Sanders the first good friend he made at his first tournament as a 16-year-old. In fact, he says he's rooting for Sanders.

"Two of my three victories have come after a mistake by Al in the championship round. I'm very happy to have enjoyed that success, but Al coming so close to the title has definitely made him a sentimental favorite, even among his fellow challengers for the top spot," wrote Hinman, now a bond trader in Chicago. "He is second on my list of people I want to win (No. 1 being myself, of course), and I think many contestants would feel similarly.

"Al's a competitive guy; I'm sure he wants it for himself much more than anybody else wants it for him."

To Go:

Check out for more on the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and to see how Al Sanders does during the 2008 competition, which will be held Feb. 29-March 2.

Al Sanders is not the kind of American idol who has throngs of cheering fans chanting his name. There are no worshipping teeny-boppers asking for his autograph, and people rarely stop him on the street to ask, "Are you that guy from that movie?"


Check out for more on the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and to see how Al Sanders does during the 2008 competition, which will be held Feb. 29-March 2.