American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

 Crossword Tournament

In the News

Source: Providence Journal
Date: March 16, 2002
Byline: Katherine Imbrie

25 across: Tournament for speedy cruciverbalists

The judging process is complicated, with points awarded for a combination of speed and accuracy.

Beyond that, there is little to compare between this weekend's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn., and the Winter Olympics.

This is the 25th year for the tournament, which was founded by New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz and annually draws some 400 cruciverbalists (crossword puzzlers to you) from all over the country to compete in a two-day round of eight puzzles.

In each round, all of the contestants have the same amount of time to complete the same puzzle. Points are earned for the number of minutes under the deadline that the puzzle is completed and for the number of correctly filled-in squares.

The prizes are modest -- mostly free crossword puzzle books and dictionaries -- so winning the tournament is more of an honor than a ticket to the high life. (The top prize money of $1,500 would hardly buy a decent suit for Survivor's naked guy, Richard Hatch.)

Still, every year, crossword enthusiasts return to Stamford to compete in a contest that is no less intense for being imbued with a sense of fun and whimsy. Last year's winner, Ellen Ripstein of New York City, will be back this year to defend her title. She's been attending for 24 years.

Among her challengers will be David Fox, the only Rhode Islander to compete, returning for the 13th year to the tournament. A friend told him about it, and he originally signed on as a lark.

"The first year that I went, I was really discouraged. I couldn't believe it when I saw people finishing a 25-minute puzzle in three minutes! It just didn't seem possible," says Fox, 66.

"I asked my friend how they could do that, and he told me it's just like a sport, you have to be in shape. The top guys do a minimum of 7 to 10 puzzles a day, 365 days a year."

Champions can complete a Sunday New York Times puzzle in under 12 minutes.

After that first year, Fox says he pretty much gave up any idea of actually winning the tournament and just went back for the fun, the challenge, and the camraderie.

"It's a very social group. Everybody knows each other, and they all are there year after year."

When they're not doing puzzles by the clock to win prizes, participants play word games, exchange puns, and socialize with star puzzle constructors such as Henry Hook and Maura Jacobson.

Fox says he normally finishes "in the 100s, nowhere near the top group."

In his real life, he is president and CEO of Nestor, an East Providence company that uses the science of pattern recognition to make traffic-monitoring devices. Fox and his wife Ginny live in Providence with their 15-year-old son, Lanny, who is a ninth-grader at Moses Brown School.

Fox says he is an enthusiastic but not a terribly regular puzzle-doer. He doesn't do one every day. He also likes doing jigsaw puzzles and once completed one based on an M.C. Escher print that took him and his family three months to do -- only to find it was missing a single piece. "They are always missing that one piece, aren't they? It stuck to somebody's sweater or something. I don't know."

Fox shares a few interesting facts about crossword puzzles and the people who do them:

New York Times crosswords, which are considered the sine qua non of puzzles, are designed to get harder on subsequent days of the week.

"A Monday puzzle is the easiest. Almost anyone can finish a Monday. Saturday's are the hardest -- harder even than Sunday's. For level of difficulty, a Sunday puzzle is about the same as a Thursday. Friday and Saturday are both very tough."

Virtually all of the contestants in the tournament always do puzzles in pencil rather than ink. "I don't know of anyone who uses a pen. My favorite is a Number 1. It's softer, so it's easier to erase than the Number 2s."

Long-time puzzlers can easily recognize the author of a puzzle by the type of language and clues that are used. "In the tournament, you'll hear a ripple of applause when there's a puzzle from a popular constructor like Hook."

Asked what the appeal of crossword puzzles is for a man with a family to tend to and a business to run, Fox says, "They're just challenging enough, and they take the right amount of time so that you feel pleasure at the outcome."

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