American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

A Canadian Rookie's Trip to Stamford

Source: The Tom Newsletter
Date: May 1, 2003
Byline: Tom Ratcliffe

A Canadian Rookie's Trip to Stamford

For several years, I've subscribed to the New York Times crossword puzzle online. Considered the ne plus ultra of puzzles, it took me awhile to uncover the secret of solving it. The puzzles are published following a difficulty scale whereby the Monday offerings are relatively easy, and the Friday and Saturday works provide a real test. On Thursdays, you're likely to see a gimmick or some trickery, like a rebus (where a square might contain more than one letter--a recent puzzle featured the rebus 'ESP' anchored around a clue about the movie "The Sixth Sense"). Early week puzzles tend to be themed, in that the long answers all relate to each other somehow. Fridays and Saturdays usually feature wide-open themeless grids--blocks of, say, 6- or 7-letter words defined by a series of vague and misleading clues.

In March, Will Shortz, the puzzle's editor, organizes the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut (a suburb of New York City along I-95), and this year, I decided I'd try my hand at it. With my sister Elyanne now living in New York, I had a (reasonably) free place to stay! With my friend Graham, we drove down from Ontario on the Friday (I needed the car to commute from New York to Stamford), taking some of the back roads through New York and Pennsylvania.

We crossed the George Washington Bridge ($6 toll--yikes!) and I dropped Graham off so he could do his own sightseeing. I battled my way through the rush hour traffic to the Stamford Marriott for the opening festivities--dinner with folks who participate in the Times crossword puzzle online forum (whom I'd only known by reputation), and a keynote address by Jean Rossat, a leading French puzzle editor. Then there was a large puzzle to be solved in groups of four--to get us all warmed up. I didn't stay for the wine and cheese reception because I needed my sleep!

On Saturday morning, I woke up to find that my inflatable mattress had deflated during the night (serves me right for buying Elyanne the cheap one), but I was too tired to care. I drove back out to Stamford (no traffic this time!) for the tournament. Back in my high school days, I competed on the debating and Reach for the Top teams (no surprise, eh?) and figured this experience would be similar. On this day, there would be six puzzles, with a final one on Sunday morning. 495 people had registered, and we filled the ballroom from wall to wall. It was a scene not unlike a university exam in a gymnasium!

Armed with a Starbucks grande latté, I solved three puzzles I had brought with me, and I knew I was in the zone. The first puzzle was distributed, and when the signal was given, we all flipped it over and began scribbling. Six minutes later, I was done. I handed it in to a judge and left the room. I knew I'd nailed it, and I could tell by the number of people remaining that I had a very fast time.

The first puzzle is generally an easy one, with the second being much more difficult. Composed on a larger grid, it was indeed a challenge, but I munched my way through it, verified my answers, and submitted it. Again, when leaving the room, I saw that I was among the first one hundred or so to be done. My confidence was boosted and my nerves were just on the edge--what a great feeling!

When the six puzzles were completed, I knew I'd nailed them all, and I would have a good score. Points were calculated based on speed and accuracy, with a bonus for a perfect puzzle. I skipped the evening's festivities to return to New York. Elyanne, Graham and I met a friend of ours for dinner in Greenwich Village. The adrenaline was still flowing, and my sister forbade me from having any more caffeine (I had a bottle of pop in the afternoon when the effects of the latté began to dissipate)--I didn't want to use up all of my brain before Sunday's finale!

This time, the mattress stayed up, and in the morning I sped out to Stamford. The scores were posted on the wall, and I was ranked 87th! The last puzzle was distributed, this one filled with awful puns--it's like giving Sammy Sosa a belt-high fastball, and in short order I was done. I wanted to stay in the top 20%, and there was a possibility I would finish as the top Canadian/foreign contestant (there were 8 of us in all).

The contestants are divided into categories, based on past performance, 'A' being the top group, going down to 'E'. As a rookie, I was placed in the 'C' category. The top three finishers in groups 'A', 'B' and 'C' competed in a final showdown onstage solving a puzzle on giant whiteboards. It's like watching the crossword puzzle all-star game, complete with play-by-play on National Public Radio! The overall winner, Jon Delfin, claimed the title for the 7th time.

The awards were handed out after lunch, and I earned a trophy for being the 9th-place rookie. I checked the scores on the web when I got home, and I ended up ranked 91st, tied in points with the Canadian winner, Fraser Simpson (constructor of the Saturday Globe and Mail cryptic crossword), but he earned his trophy based on a tiebreaker rule. Overall, I am very satisfied with the results, and in true shameless self-promotion fashion, I even got a mention in the Ottawa Citizen out of it! The Hollywood movie studios haven't called yet, but I suppose they're just waiting for the hubbub to die down before picking up the phone ...