American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

Puzzleheads unite: Tournament draws crossword fans from near and far

Source: Stamford Advocate
Date: March 12, 2004
Byline: Mark Ginocchio

Puzzleheads unite: Tournament draws crossword fans from near and far

David Murchie's got the eye of a five-letter word for an orange-and-black striped feline.

For the past year, he's been waking up extra early in the morning, grabbing a cup of coffee, and focusing his mind on the five or six crossword puzzles laid out in front of him.

"I'm interested in competing this year," the Norwalk information technology manager said. "I'm training and I've stated my goals."

Murchie, 35, is one of over 500 puzzlehead expected to fill the Stamford Marriott this weekend for the 27th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, hosted by Will Shortz, puzzle editor of The New York Times.

After competing a year ago, Murchie evaluated his standing and developed a training regimen that he hopes will be the secret to his success.

"I'm just doing puzzles," Murchie said. "Some peoples quiz each other or compile lists of things that come up over and over again. But really, how good you do is all about luck."

Luck, maybe, but other competitors admit there is a high level of skill and ability that enables a person to run through an entire Saturday Times puzzle — which is regarded as the toughest there is — in five minutes.

"I'm just there trying to do my best. I'm not anywhere near the top," said Greenwich resident Karen Otto.

Saturday will mark Otto's 13th competition. However, even with her vast experience, there's still a lot for her to learn in the world of speed puzzling.

"I just don't get the knack of how they do it so quickly," she said. "Some say they are working on one clue while looking at the next one. That's not easy."

So, Otto, 42, keeps coming back to the tournament for other reasons.

"I have a great time and I love meeting other people," she said.

The tournament's social atmosphere is a major selling point for other competitors who keep coming back.

"It's a huge ballroom filled with 500 bright, verbal and quirky people," said Stamford resident Joe Olivebaum, another puzzler entering his 13th contest. "It's a weird sort of thing."

Olivebaum, 54, has been meeting a friend, Mort Butler, at the competition for the past 12 years. Previously, the two had engaged in a crossword tournament in New York City.

"It's really just an excuse for us to get together," Olivebaum said. "It's become our annual ritual."

New to the ritual this year is Stamford resident Mark Kudz. After playing with the Times daily crossword puzzle for the past 20 years, Kudz decided to take the short walk to the Marriott and take on the best of the best.

"I'm definitely here to compete," Kudz said. "I'm familiar with The New York Times style."

But style alone won't win the competition. The grand prize, which is $4,000 this year, requires a contestant to have a broad range of knowledge that includes vocabulary, pop culture, geography and anything else the puzzle masters can think of it.

"I once had to find a four-letter word for an old sword. It was snee," Kudzy said.

Wendy Elson of Norwalk once had to recall a children's fairy tale for an answer.

"The word was frabjous and it absolutely stumped me," she said.

If Elson had only remembered the "Jabberwocky" poem from Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass," a word like frabjous would have been second nature to her.

"Now if that word ever shows up, I'll be ready for it," said Elson, who is entering her third competition.

Even with the disappointment of knowing she missed that one clue, Elson's passion for crosswords remained untouched.

"It's mentally stimulating stuff," she said. "I need some balance in life. Every spare moment I have, I'm moving things around for a crossword puzzle."

It's that love for the puzzle that keeps the competition growing year after year, Shortz said.

"Puzzle people have flexible minds and are interesting group of people," Shortz said. "They talk about everything. It's their once chance every year."

And it's once chance for Murchie to go from crossword amateur to legend.

"I go for fill in the blanks first and then I'll pick a corner," said Murchie, who has recently designed a few puzzles himself, selling one to a syndicated news service for $65.

"We'll just have to see what happens," he said. "I didn't come here to lose."