American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

Dad, daughter to test grasp of useless facts

Source: Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, FL)
Date: March 13, 2002
Byline: Charlie Patton

Dad, daughter to test grasp of useless facts

I'm an obscurist. I know a lot of things nobody needs to know.

Being an obscurist does have a limited number of practical applications.

You can kick tail in Trivial Pursuit. You can play along at home while watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and roll your eyes in amazement when someone misses an answer. You can, as my colleagues Soyia Ellison and Nick Marino recently did and I once did, earn 15 minutes of fame and a few thousand dollars by going on TV and winning The Weakest Link or Jeopardy!.

Or you can do what Ralph Crawford and his daughter, Claudia Crawford, are going to do this weekend: compete in the 25th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn.

Ralph Crawford, an 81-year-old retired State Department official, is definitely an obscurist. "I know a great deal about almost everything up to 1950."

As is Claudia Crawford, a 52-year-old anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. "I have a broad range of useless knowledge."

Which won't be useless this weekend.

"The key to being a good puzzle solver is to know a little about everything," said Will Shortz, crossword puzzle editor for The New York Times and organizer of the annual tournament. "Also, you've got to be a good speller. And to be a great solver, you need speed. The top people are amazingly fast."

"I've heard the pace can be bewildering," Ralph Crawford said. "That's what I'm scared of."

The first published puzzle appeared in The New York World on Dec. 21, 1913, so Crawford, born in 1920, is almost as old. He began working puzzles in 1929, when he was 9. Over more than six decades, he's worked at least a puzzle a day, or close to 25,000 puzzles in his lifetime. But speed has never been his thing.

In fact, for the last two decades, his approach has been antithetical to speed. He favors a style he calls "A-perfect," in which he begins in a corner and works out, each new word touching a previous word. If he reaches a clue he can't solve, he generally abandons the puzzle. "I've got to get rid of this habit of being a perfectionist," he said.

Claudia Crawford, whose idea it was to enter the tournament, picked up the crossword puzzle habit from her father. "It seems like I've been doing them all my life," she said.

Shortz expects a field of at least 375 contestants. They'll all work seven puzzles on Saturday and Sunday, getting points for accuracy and bonus points for speed. Then the top three contestants will compete on an eighth and final puzzle to determine the champion.

The contestants will range in age from 17 to 81, with Ralph Crawford enjoying the distinction of being the oldest puzzler in this year's field.

First prize will be $1,500 and a Merriam-Webster dictionary, but only a handful of contestants will be superstar solvers who are in serious contention.

"I'm just interested in trying something new and different," Claudia Crawford said.

But Ralph Crawford admits he's competitive enough to hope the tournament will include age group competition. "I'm hoping there's a category for 80 and over," he said. "Then I might have a chance."

Charlie Patton's column appears on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Contact him at [email protected] or (904) 359-4413.