Solvers

By Schulman, Michael | The New Yorker, March 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

Solvers


Schulman, Michael, The New Yorker


When crossword fanatics get together, they like to complain about words like "inee." "Everyone has a different definition of 'crosswordese,' " Peter Gordon explained the other night. "To me, 'crosswordese' is not a word like 'Oreo.' Any four-letter word that has three vowels--'aria,' 'area,' 'Aida'--is going to show up a lot in crosswords. But they're not as bad as 'inee' "--a type of African arrow poison--"because that word no one has ever heard of. The only reason you know that word is if you do crosswords."

Gordon, who writes puzzles for The Week, was at the bar of the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge, surrounded by other people who "do crosswords," in the sense that Michael Phelps "does laps." It was the opening night of the thirty-third annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and the "solvers," as they like to call themselves, were bonding over some A-L-E. "What's the state bird of Hawaii?" Gordon went on.

"Not this again," a solver groaned.

"Nene. The only reason you know 'nene' is because of crosswords." The same goes for "anoa" (a Sulawesian buffalo), "Omoo" (the 1847 Melville novel), and "Attu" (the westernmost of the Aleutian Islands). Gordon disapproves of crosswordese; he considers himself more "new school," which means that he prefers puzzles that incorporate pop culture. For instance, several solvers noted that "Joe the Plumber" had appeared in that morning's Times crossword (34 Across: "Metaphor for a middle-class American"). Even new-school puzzles are susceptible to habit. "S.L.A., the organization that kidnapped Patty Hearst--that was thirty-six years ago, and they're still using it," Gordon said.

For its first three decades, the tournament was held in Stamford, Connecticut. In 2008, it moved to Brooklyn in order to accommodate growing attendance. Ann Marie McNamara, from Nashville, had been to eight previous tournaments. "I came in four hundredth last year," she said. "We're not competing against each other. We're competing against the puzzle, so we're all very friendly. Not like the Scrabble people--they hate each other."

The evening kicked off in the ballroom, with two custom-made puzzles. Afterward, the attendees spilled into an adjoining room for wine and cheese. …

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