American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

Ellen Ripstein Is a Puzzle Whiz, But Will She Be No. 1 This Year?

Source: Wall Street Journal
Date: March 13, 2001
Byline: Hilary Stout

Ellen Ripstein Is a Puzzle Whiz, But Will She Be No. 1 This Year?

Ellen RipsteinEllen Ripstein had a terrible dream the other night. She was in a hotel ballroom in Stamford, Conn. She was staring at a crossword puzzle, and it was the wrong one. The clock was ticking and she was crying, "I need puzzle No. 2! I need puzzle No. 2!" Then she woke up.

"It was really horrible," she says.

This is the kind of nightmare Ms. Ripstein has. She is preparing to compete in the World Series of crossword competitions, the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, to be held Friday through Sunday this week at the Stamford Marriott. The pressure is intense. Ms. Ripstein, 48 years old, has finished among the top five competitors every year since 1983. Usually she's in the top three. Last year she was second, as she was in 1997, '93, '92, '90 and '87. But she has never won.

Ellen Ripstein
Her rivals call her the "Susan Lucci of crosswords," after the soap-opera actress and perennial Emmy nominee. But even Ms. Lucci finally managed to grab the elusive statue in 1999 for her work in "All My Children," after 19 nominations. (Ms. Ripstein finished fifth that year, done in by 94 Across: "Film director Petri," crossed with 96 Down: "River in D-Day news." (She wrote ELIA and ARNE. The correct answers were ELIO and ORNE.)

Ms. Ripstein can finish the Sunday New York Times crossword in 10 minutes. She can usually do the Saturday puzzle -- which is harder than Sunday but smaller -- in six to eight minutes. A couple of Saturdays ago, she got into serious tournament mindset and clocked 4:46. She's in fighting shape.

But so are her archrivals, people like Doug "Ice Man" Hoylman, a 57-year-old retired actuary from Chevy Chase, Md. He has won six times, which nobody else has done. Mr. Hoylman gets his nickname because he is exceedingly quiet and very methodical. He's the kind of solver who starts by filling in Number 1 Across, moves on to Number 2, and never pauses till he has completed the last down clue.

All Over the Grid
He stands in stark contrast to Trip Payne of Atlanta, a two-time winner who was the youngest-ever champion at age 24 in 1993. Mr. Payne constructs crossword puzzles for a living. On stage, he is a competitor with flair, a real audience pleaser. He jumps all over the grid. When he doesn't know an answer, he groans, grimaces, tugs his hair, stamps his feet or slaps himself. Last year, Ms. Ripstein blew him away in the three-person final on a puzzle titled "Chunky Style." He couldn't even finish -- but Ms. Ripstein still lost to Mr. Hoylman, who accurately completed the puzzle in 9 minutes 49 seconds. That was after Mr. Hoylman caught himself in a major error and changed his answer to 61 Across, "Maker of circular cuts," from COPINGSAW to CANOPENER. Ms. Ripstein -- also 100% accurate on a puzzle that included such clues as "Adjectival suffix on mythological names" and "Hungarian sheep dogs" (answers EAN and PULIS) -- finished in 10 minutes 20 seconds. (Scores are based on accuracy first, then speed.)

Then there's Jon Delfin, 46, a pianist from New York, and the 1999 champion. He has won five times and could tie the Ice Man's record should he prevail this year. He's very strong on clues involving literature, music and mathematics. He's weakest in geography. He says, "If I'm not going to win, I'd certainly like to see Ellen win. But that's predicated on 'If I'm not.'"

Mr. Payne and Mr. Hoylman feel the same way. But just about everyone else is fervently behind Ms. Ripstein. "If I win, everyone in the room is going to be disappointed," says Mr. Payne.

In the Know
Will Shortz, the New York Times crossword editor and the tournament's founder and director, puts it this way: "If Ellen won, they would blow the roof off the hotel."

Mr. Shortz can't figure out why Ms. Ripstein always falls just short of the top prize. "She's very good," he says. "She has a very quick mind. There's a lot of trickery and deception in modern crossword puzzles, and she's very good at that."

She is also known for being very steady and meticulous, and Mr. Payne thinks that could be her downfall. "Ellen is very fast, faster than 99% of the people in the room, but she is very careful. In general that's a good thing. ... But in the final when it's all or nothing and you're going up against two very fast people, I think you have to go flat-out your fastest pace, at the risk of making mistakes."

Maybe she's haunted by 1988. That was the year she was so sure she had done it. She was ahead, she was cruising. She finished the puzzle first. But she had no idea what a five-letter word for sieve was. She wrote TEMEE. It seemed to fit. But on the crossing she'd written SENSELEES instead of SENSELESS. If she'd checked carefully she'd have caught the error, which would have led to the correct word TEMSE. She's still kicking herself.

Graduating to Harder Stuff
Crosswords are in her blood. Her parents always bought two copies of the New York Times every Sunday just so both could do the puzzle. She started filling in the puzzles in children's magazines at about the age of six, little ones with words like "CAT crossed with the A in BEAR," she says. She then quickly moved on to her parents' crossword books. Like many crossword fanatics, she is well-educated, with degrees from Barnard College and the Harvard School of Public Health. After working for years as an actuary, she now does research for a game show (her employment agreement bars her from saying which one), so she gets to spend her days immersed in trivia.

Still, she has her weaknesses. She says she's "terrible on sports." She's still smarting from the time she wrote DEA VOLENTE instead of DEO VOLENTE (Latin for God be willing) because it was crossed with "some sports guy's name." She's not too hot on "old history, like English history," either. "I can't keep track of what king is what," she laments.

But she's in her element on pop culture. She rarely has time to go to movies but she knows all about any film you'd care to name because she reads People, Entertainment Weekly, US, Movieline, Premier and Vanity Fair. She's a lifelong Motown fan, which serves her well. She's very strong on wordplay. And it goes without saying that she knows words like ERNE (a sea eagle) and ESNE (an Anglo-Saxon slave) cold. These are "crossword words" -- words an intelligent person with a great vocabulary can go a lifetime without encountering but ones that will appear often in crossword puzzles because their peculiar construction (short word, lots of vowels) makes them ideal for interlocking.

To limber up for the tournament, Ms. Ripstein has been doing even more puzzles than usual -- about 10 a day. Recently she switched to "tournament conditions." That means a timer and a pencil. She prefers pen (it's smoother,) but you have to use pencil in a tournament because you need to be able to erase your mistakes. Of course no amount of training can prepare you for the nerve-racking conditions of the final. The three highest scorers from the previous seven rounds -- where contestants do their work with pencil and paper and without anybody looking over their shoulders -- stand before an audience and fill in an excruciatingly difficult puzzle with erasable markers on boards three feet square.

There's even play-by-play commentary that the contestants can't hear because they're wearing earphones. Some of the remarks during last year's final, a showdown among Ms. Ripstein, Mr. Hoylman and Mr. Payne, went like this:

"Trip is clearly cherry-picking. And he does have a mistake. ... Trip is smart to leave the last letter off CETO."

"Ellen's got STRAWBOSS already. ... There's a big breakthrough there for Ellen in the bottom right-hand corner."

"Doug is putting in a completely wrong answer at the bottom."

That was sprinkled with a smattering of elitist crossword humor: "The TV Guide puzzle last year had a clue "star of Seinfeld." The answer was "Jerry Seinfeld."

The commentary ended with: "We're just a few seconds away! I don't know if there's any way Ellen can catch Doug!

"Poor Ellen."

Write to Hilary Stout at [email protected]