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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

The annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is taking place in Brooklyn this weekend. It's hosted by Will Shortz, the editor of the NY Times puzzle, and is the closest thing to a national championship that there is.

The tournament consists of seven puzzles, varying in size and difficulty. The contestants are scored on their accuracy and speed, with accuracy counting for more. Points are deducted for every erroneously filled or blank square (it's like the SATs, there's no penalty for guessing, though here there are twenty-six multiple choices instead of four). There is a time limit for each puzzle, and for every minute that you finish under the limit, you get extra points. There are three finalists in each of three divisions (which are determined by experience level and past performance at this tournament). Each set of finalists then has a playoff, with each competitor competing on a separate large grid in front of a crowd. The three divisions all get the same puzzle, but each division is given a different set of clues. (The difficulty of a crossword tends to be determined less by the obscurity of the answers and more by the vagueness of the clues.)

I'm pretty much of a crossword addict; my morning doesn't feel right if I don't do the NY Times puzzle. In 2006, after hearing about the tournament, I decided to enter.

I figured I'd do pretty well; after all, I'd finished every Sunday Times crossword except one since 1997. Aware that this would be a self-selected group of fellow aficionados, I set a goal of finishing in the top twenty percent. I drove to the tournament full of confidence, signed in and looked around the room at my fellow competitors. They didn't look so smart.

I started the first puzzle well, all my mental cylinders firing smoothly. I knew the answer to almost every clue at first glance. My confidence grew.

About halfway through that first puzzle, out of the corner of my eye I saw a few people raise their arms to signal to the monitors that they were ready to turn in their sheets. I blanched. I had been absolutely zipping through the puzzle; how could they be through already?

That took me down a peg or two. The pattern continued. By the end of the tournament, I had been taken down exactly 269 pegs, finishing 270th out of 498 competitors at the tournament.

I felt a little better when I found out that Ken Jennings, the most successful competitor in the history of Jeopardy, only got 36th, although he did end up winning the novice division.

I felt a lot better when I found out what a competitive group it was. More than fifty of the competitors were evidently cruciverbalists, or people who actually construct crossword puzzles professionally. Obviously they're going to be an IQ level above those of us who merely fill them out.

Many of the competitors actually train for this tournament by doing five or six puzzles a day, perhaps three from newspapers and three from online sources.

There are tricks involved too. First, you never write with capital letters. An "E" requires four separate strokes; an "e" means just one quick squiggle. And you never actually look at the entire word as you write it out, you just look the first couple squares as you fill out them out, then you look at the next clue. To actually look at your writing instead of scanning the next clue is a waste of valuable seconds.

Another thing I hadn't appreciated was that crosswords, like much of the world, are constructed for right-handed people. If you're a lefty like me, and you hold your hand at a normal angle when writing, it will cover the clues, so you can't write and look at the same time. At the tournament, they gave an extra puzzle to us lefties (to place to the right of the one we filled out) so we wouldn't be at a disadvantage.

Some of the competitors are just mind-bogglingly good. Stanley Newman, an eminence grise in the crossword community, has written 23 books of puzzles. He once asked another cruciverbalist to construct a crossword for him. The man did so. Newman then challenged him to a contest to see who could fill in the answers more quickly. Despite the fact that the other man already knew the answers, Newman beat him.

Tyler Hinman, the overall winner of the 2006 tournament, has supposedly finished a Sunday Times crossword in five minutes. There are roughly 390 empty squares in a Sunday puzzle. That means that Hinman is averaging roughly 1.3 squares a second for the entire puzzle. Even with the answer key, I couldn't transcribe the answers that quickly.

Hinman is also astonishingly young -- he was 21 when he won the 2006 title, defending the title he first won at age 20.

I asked a 33 year old cruciverbalist who finished in the top twenty about this: "I'm 51 and I can barely remember the Beatles appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show. How can you possibly have the kind of storehouse of trivia it takes to be good at this?"

He answered, "Everything I know, I learned from doing crosswords. I haven't been to see a movie in six months. But you can learn an awful lot from just doing puzzles if you always check the answers the next day to the clues you didn't get."

And yet...I still have the nagging feeling that I could do six crosswords a day, always check the answers, place an extra puzzle to on the right hand side, and write with lower case letters, yet never come close to finishing a Sunday Times puzzle in five minutes.

I returned to the tournament in 2007 with a more modest goal: finishing in the top half. I was absolutely determined, and even drank a Red Bull before the first puzzle on Saturday morning (everybody else seemed to be having coffee). I finished 287th out of 698. (More people showed up in 2007 because of the release in June 2006 of the documentary "Wordplay" which centered on the 2005 tournament and interviewed famous crossword buffs Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart).

I don't plan to go back. I have no chance to win, or even place in the top twenty percent. I've already had the experience, and too many of the contestants smell like cigarette smoke for my taste.

Anyway, I've already absorbed the tournament's most valuable lesson: I'm not nearly as smart as I thought.

Strangely, no one else seems all that surprised by that.


Anonymous said...

I never knew about this kind of a tournament - I guess there's something for everyone. My mother use to fill out puzzles every Sunday, enjoying that activity. I can see her with the folded up newspaper and a pencil in hand, writing in the answers to the puzzle.


John Craig said...

Birdie --
Once again, I appreciate you looking through the archives like this.

They say you're never happier than when you're completely absorbed in something, and a crossword will certainly absorb you.

Anonymous said...

I'm doing housework at my home. My break involves reading older posts - I enjoy reading, finding it relaxing and thought provoking (at times).


John Craig said...

Birdie --
Thank you, and glad to be your break from your chores.