Magazine article Verbatim

Notes from a Cross and Down Competitor

Magazine article Verbatim

Notes from a Cross and Down Competitor

Article excerpt

By early Friday afternoon the lobby of the Stamford Marriott Hotel is beginning to fill up with a lively and motley crew of individuals--what someone has called a bunch of introverts getting together once a year to become extroverted and witty and gregarious and charming with one another. It is the weekend of the twenty-seventh annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut, and 479 competitors will eventually arrive to test their word skills and catch up socially with old friends.

This is my ninth year at the tournament and I still feel like an outsider among all these friendly people: men and women, old and young, smart and smarter, from Maine to California, as well as France, Switzerland, and Canada. A list of the pre-registered contestants shows teachers, attorneys, physicians, one cat attendant, one slacker, and one excursion boat captain. I am the only poet. I have also found myself a niche in the standings--consistently finishing at the top of the bottom third.

The festivities get under way Friday evening with opening remarks by Will Shortz, the crossword puzzle editor of the New York Times and director of the tournament. Will, as he seems to do every year, reads letters addressed to the Times puzzle editor. The gist of many of them seems to be that Will is a fool and an idiot and definitely no (take your pick) Margaret Farrar, Will Weng, or Eugene Maleska. He also reads a letter from a man who has somehow figured out the answer to the clue "West of Memphis." The answer is Dottie. Our correspondent goes on to say he has scanned several maps of Tennessee and found no Dottie. There is a great outburst of laughter from everyone except me. Later someone explains that Dottie West is a singer of country music. (And now you know why I languish in the bottom of the standings.)

Several word games follow, with the audience shouting out answers while I'm still listening to the questions. It has taken me nine years to figure this out, but I think I am out of my element. A wine and-cheese reception puts me in a happier mood and I go to bed to rest up for Saturday's six puzzles.

Saturday morning finds us in a large ballroom seated on both sides of long tables. By the time I arrive, fifteen minutes before kickoff time, most of the seats are filled, the waiting contestants busy at more crossword puzzles that they have brought with them. (Note to self." Do more puzzles before next year's tournament.) I find a seat and see that a zigzag cardboard partition down the length of the table separates me from the prying eyes of my neighbors to the right and left of me, as well as from those across from me.

The first puzzle is a simple warm-up, on a 15 x 15 grid (the size of the daily Times puzzles), 78 words and a fifteen-minute limit. You score 10 points for each correct word filled in, 150-point bonus for getting then all right, and 25 points for each full minute you finish early. I'm helped by the fact that I've just seen 17 across, the 2002 DiCaprio-Hanks movie, Catch Me If You Can. I have a tin ear and think that 34 down, "triangle's sound," is tink. This causes me to slow down at 45 across, "corner fold." I have dokear and fear something is wrong. Minutes go by until I realize that triangles go ting and voila! I have dog ear. Ah, the tings you learn in crossword puzzles! Still, I finish in twelve minutes, giving me a score of 1005, 780 for the 78 words, 150 for all correct and 75 points for finishing early. …

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