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A (17 across) among word (5 down)

  • Don Christensen photo<br/>Founded and hosted by Will Shortz, shown at right with a microphone, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament this spring attracted hundreds of crossword lovers, including freelancer and self-described rookie Hazel Crowley of Conway.

    Don Christensen photo
    Founded and hosted by Will Shortz, shown at right with a microphone, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament this spring attracted hundreds of crossword lovers, including freelancer and self-described rookie Hazel Crowley of Conway.

  • Want to give it a try yourself? Here is the tournament’s fourth crossword puzzle. Champion Dan Feyer solved it under 3 minutes and the average solving time was around 9 minutes, according to puzzle master Will Shortz.

    Want to give it a try yourself? Here is the tournament’s fourth crossword puzzle. Champion Dan Feyer solved it under 3 minutes and the average solving time was around 9 minutes, according to puzzle master Will Shortz.

  • Don Christensen photo<br/>Puzzle master Will Shortz

    Don Christensen photo
    Puzzle master Will Shortz

  • Don Christensen photo

    Don Christensen photo

  • Don Christensen photo

    Don Christensen photo

  • Don Christensen photo

    Don Christensen photo

  • Freelance writer Hazel Crowley of Conway

    Freelance writer Hazel Crowley of Conway

  • SPOILER ALERT!! These are the answers to puzzle No. 4

    SPOILER ALERT!! These are the answers to puzzle No. 4

  • Don Christensen photo<br/>Founded and hosted by Will Shortz, shown at right with a microphone, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament this spring attracted hundreds of crossword lovers, including freelancer and self-described rookie Hazel Crowley of Conway.
  • Want to give it a try yourself? Here is the tournament’s fourth crossword puzzle. Champion Dan Feyer solved it under 3 minutes and the average solving time was around 9 minutes, according to puzzle master Will Shortz.
  • Don Christensen photo<br/>Puzzle master Will Shortz
  • Don Christensen photo
  • Don Christensen photo
  • Don Christensen photo
  • Freelance writer Hazel Crowley of Conway
  • SPOILER ALERT!! These are the answers to puzzle No. 4

It’s 8:30 a.m. on Sunday morning and already the lobby of the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge is buzzing with activity. Printed crossword puzzles cover every available surface. In the hallway, vendors hawk puzzle collections, word-game apps, patterned mugs and pencil sharpeners. A contestant wearing a black-and-white checkered football helmet with pencils protruding from the top like antennae works the room.

Bagel in hand, I traverse the cavernous, chandeliered ballroom through a crowd of people who bear the crossword grid on shoes, neckties, vests and numerous other accessories. In the corner of the room, a gigantic digital clock reads 45 minutes. A yellow folder propped up to form a makeshift cubicle marks my station. Eraser bits remaining from yesterday’s toils litter the tablecloth. I take my seat. The seventh and final puzzle on the third day of the 37th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT) is about to begin and I have a new goal: Don’t give up.

Like many, I first heard of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament after watching the excellent 2006 documentary “Wordplay.” The film spotlights Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle since 1993, founder and director of the ACPT in 1978 and remarkably (or fittingly?) the only person known to major in enigmatology (the study of puzzles) in college. The film also follows several world-class solvers as they battle to become champion of the 28th annual tournament. Delighted and awed by the enthusiasm for puzzling shown by the film’s eccentric cast, including famous solvers like comedian Jon Stewart and former president Bill Clinton, I never presumed I would join their ranks.

Fast forward to December 2013, when my friend Amy Gaidis of Portland, Maine, asked me to accompany her to this spring’s tournament. A puzzle fanatic, Amy says she can identify the New York Times font at a distance from years of scrounging for puzzles in discarded newspapers and has admitted accepting praise for arriving early to work only to spend the remaining time (and more) puzzling. Aware that Amy could out-solve me with her eyes closed and, moreover, knowing that she herself expected to be at the bottom of the barrel, I hesitated. But — as Shortz once said — “as human beings we have a natural compulsion to fill empty spaces,” and, facing a long winter of unemployment and the care of two ill parents, I had a lot of empty spaces to fill. Before I could back out, I went online and paid the tournament fee — nearly $300 but open to anyone. Then I began training. Previously a once-a-month, waiting-room puzzle-doer, I was now attempting three or more puzzles a day.

In another interview, Shortz described the unique delight of creating puzzles: “(I)n the end the solver should triumph and think, ‘Oh, how clever I am!’” Pleased by my increasing speed and growing vocabulary, I boarded a Peter Pan bus to New York on Friday afternoon. Accustomed to doing puzzles online, I had hastily sharpened some pencils with the only available tool — a Swiss Army Knife. Fearing New York City prices, I packed bags of trail mix, hardboiled eggs and a sleeping bag. I was a giddy hillbilly off to seek my fortune.

After arriving safely and locating the hotel — a puzzle unto itself — Amy and I found our name tags and headed to the tournament’s kickoff event, a Carnival of Puzzles featuring 10 specialty puzzles with intimidating names like “Genius at Work” and “3-D Word Hunt.” After four rounds of 15 minutes each, top scorers would be awarded tickets to be redeemed for prizes at evening’s end (“like at Chuck E. Cheese!” Amy noted).

So began the emotional roller coaster. At my first stop, I blew through a puzzle trio, heart pounding, brain cogs firing, only to learn later that the series, by Patrick Merrell, was adapted from a bathroom reader for kids. At the next, I watched as people completed their puzzles before I could decipher how to even begin. In the Digital Trivia Quiz, I was asked esoteric questions like: “What does $1,000,000 in $20 bills weigh?” and “How many different people are mentioned in the full text of The King James Bible?” Impossible!

At the wine and cheese reception, I was starstruck. Eying David Steinberg, the youngest contestant present though already a prolific puzzle creator, I let out an embarrassingly audible “OMG!” Later, “Will Shortz! He’s eating a strawberry!”

But everyone was friendly. One woman showed off her handbag, crocheted in homage to a memorable grid. Another told of her strategy to sit amongst “average looking” solvers only to once find herself seated next to Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings. Other rookies saluted us. Veterans promised a fun time and encouraged us to check our work. (A 150-point bonus is awarded for a correct solution while just 25 points are granted for each full minute the contestant finishes in advance of the puzzle’s time limit, placing the importance on accuracy over speed.)

It was time for Puzzle No. 1. After a brief welcome, Shortz advised the crowd of nearly 600 competitors ranging in age from 17 to 87 and representing 37 states, Washington, D.C., four Canadian provinces and farther, to solve as we would at home. I laughed. Nothing about this was like home! Then, ready, set, go! With a great whooshing, everyone turned over their papers at once and began to solve. There was loud silence. My eyes darted every which way, afraid to focus on one challenging corner of the puzzle for fear of taking time away from another area I might know better. Next to me, I could hear Amy scribbling furiously. Sitting diagonally behind me, Dan Feyer (who would go on to win the tournament for a remarkable fifth consecutive year) raised his hand to signal completion — after about three minutes!

At the end of the allotted 15 minutes (the shortest time limit to match the small 15-by-15 square puzzle), I had failed to fill in at least 10 squares. Worse yet, I had been too flustered to notice that the puzzle, with theme answers like “FRANK SINATRA”, “CANDID CAMERA” and “REAL ESTATE,” had a helpful title: “To Tell the Truth.” I was devastated. I wanted to reverse time. I wanted to go up to Shortz and tell him personally that I could do better. Never again would I have the opportunity to do the first puzzle at the ACPT for the first time.

In the brief pause between rounds, as I reviewed my Roman numerals on Amy’s smartphone, I overheard two men discussing the pros and cons of single-stroke letters in order to solve faster. There was no denying it: I was out of my league. Swallowing my pride, I readjusted my goal from not losing to losing gracefully and began again.

In Puzzle No. 2, the names of five New York City bridges lay hidden across two clues (i.e. “King James of the N.B.A” and “TV talent show from England with ‘The’” became LEBRON XFACTOR.

In Puzzle No. 3, titled “Silence of the Lampreys,” all theme answers revolved around a missing “eel” sound. I had never heard of a lamprey before and so could not for the life of me decipher 70 across: “Saw a one-named rock star in concert?” (Answer: “CAUGHT STING”). Also elusive was 96 across: “What’s out of a hoopster’s hands?” (Answer: “LOOSE BALL”). Cleverly, when you add the missing “eel” sounds, you get “Caught st(eal)ing” and “Luc(ille) Ball.”

The answer for 106 across, “Done ---?” (Answer: “YET”) felt especially cruel. My new goal: finish a puzzle.

Before Puzzle No. 5, the tournament’s toughest, Shortz described having to commission a new puzzle after accidentally leaking the original by leaving it in the printer during an interview in his office. Announcing that the new puzzle was by noted creator Brendan Emmett Quigley, the crowd groaned. At the end of 30 minutes, I had 10 answers filled in, about half of which turned out to be wrong.

On Sunday, I commit only to doing my best. The puzzle is a 21-by-21 grid, the size of the Sunday New York Times puzzle, which I have only recently been able to finish independently ... using a whole day. Today, in 45 minutes, I am able to finish 70 percent of the puzzle excluding the center, which atypically included numbers! A first.

While an elite few prepare to compete in the finals, for me it’s time to breathe and enjoy the festivities. The stress of competition had distracted me from enjoying the witty, wordplay-loving crowd before my eyes! At the annual variety show “Crossworders Got Talent,” competitors perform stand-up comedy and sing. In the audience, most people do another crossword.

Finally, with each puzzle lovingly reviewed and uploaded to the Internet, the results are in. Awards are presented in a wide variety of age and geographic categories. For the first time ever, the award for best penmanship is presented to a man. Shortz shares a selection of the funniest wrong answers (“ARSES” instead of “APSES” for the clue “semicircular recesses,” for example). Then, the top solvers are welcomed to the stage. Wearing noise-canceling headphones and standing at a big dry-erase board in front of the crowd, Feyer, a musician, completes the challenging puzzle (with references that range from Picasso to Super Mario, David Bowie to Lemony Snicket and including puns like 5 down: “Biblical mount” (Answer: “ASS”) and 56 across “Bad at capitalization?” (Answer: “BROKE”) in a whirlwind to take home the $5,000 grand prize.

On the bus home, Amy uses her phone to check the final standings. A quick Google search reveals other tournaments in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Boston and London but none with the same appeal. We begin planning our trip to Stamford, Conn., where the tournament will return in 2015. Having placed 393rd, Amy speaks excitedly about her chances next year. Having finished 555th out of 580 participants, I’m looking forward to a lifetime of chances.

And to celebrate, we each start another crossword.

Hazel Crowley is a freelance writer from Conway. Her email is: hazel.crowley@gmail.com

You can see more of tournament photographer Don Christensen’s work, and learn more about the event, at www.crosswordtournament.com/2014/

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