Crossword puzzles are a solitary activity. Something you do on a lazy Sunday morning or to pass time on the commute home. But for about 1,000 crossword enthusiasts, solving them became a spectator sport this weekend when they gathered at the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge in Brooklyn Heights for the 35th Annual American Crossword Tournament.
The world’s oldest and largest crossword competition, it was founded in 1978 by New York Times Crossword Puzzle Editor Will Shortz, who also hosted the event. For the first 30 years, the tournament was held in Stamford, Conn. For the last five it has been held in Brooklyn because the tournament outgrew any available hotels in Connecticut, and Brooklyn was a great economical alternative to holding it in a Manhattan hotel, says Shortz.
“New York City in general is a hotbed of crosswords,” says Shortz, adding that this is partially because it’s the intellectual capital of the country and is home to the New York Times, which has the best-known crossword.
This year’s approximately 600 competitors battled against each other in eight different rounds, in different divisions, divided by geography (including a category for foreign competitors), by age (competitors this year ranged from 15 to 87) and skill. Contestants are allowed to play in more than one division. Special puzzles were created especially for the event, one for each round, with varying difficulty of clues. Puzzle solvers earn points for accuracy and speed.
What makes a good crossword solver, says Shortz, is that “you have to be a good speller, you have to know a lot of words, and you just have to know a lot of stuff—everything from classical subjects like history, mythology, opera, geography, up to modern things like TV, movies, sports and rock n’ roll.”
But it’s just not a matter of what you know, he adds, to be a top solver you have to also be fast.
The reigning champ, Dan Feyer from New York City, won this year’s tournament, with Tyler Hinman from San Francisco coming in second. Both men solved the puzzle perfectly, and the third place player, Anne Erdmann from Champaign, Illinois, was missing just one letter.
The finalists were determined during the previous seven puzzle rounds where competitors sat at rows of tables in the hotel’s large ballroom. The puzzles were done on paper, using either a pen or pencil, whichever a competitor preferred. Expert crossword referees and judges watched carefully over each round, while the participants sat hunched over their puzzles.
Though the competition required quiet, intense concentration, in between puzzle solving, tournament attendees enjoyed socializing with their fellow crossword lovers.
What made this year’s event stand out, however, was a competitor known as Dr. Fill. This crossword expert had a big advantage over the other players—it’s a computer program. This new crossword-solving program made its debut at this year’s tournament, and is supposed to be one of the best ever created.
But Dr. Fill wasn’t smart enough to win and ranked 141st overall. Those that beat the computer during the first seven rounds, got to take home a button that read: “I beat Dr. Fill.”
During the eighth and final round, the top three players from each of the top three skill divisions competed on stage, in front of a large crowd of the other attendees, and had to solve a puzzle on gigantic wipe board crossword grids. Each division had the same puzzle, but with clues based on the difficulty of the division.
For example, one clue for one across (Super PAC), was “Fund-raising org. resulting from the Citizens United Case” for division C, “Many an attack ad funder” for division B, and “Often adversarial advertiser” for division A.
In the playoffs for the C and B divisions all the competitors solved the crossword perfectly, and within about half the time of the approximately 15 minutes allotted.
The audience members had copies of the puzzles so they could play along and see if the finalists were making a mistake (the finalists had to wear noise canceling headphones while competing). It was at this point that this crossword competition truly became a spectator sport.
A couple of commentators gave the play by play to the audience, remarking on the finalists’ solving methods—“Looking at Erik, he’s very random,” and if they were having trouble with certain words. During the same time audience members could be heard gasping and then sighing in relief, such as when one finalist erased a correct answer and then wrote it again.
Right before the playoffs, trophies were handed out to those that were top ranked in each division in a ceremony on the third and last day of the tournament Sunday.
It was the first time at the competition for Peter Anderson, who traveled all the way from Ann Arbor, Mich. He was inspired by the 2006 documentary “Word Play,” which centers on Shortz and other crossword makers and solvers, and the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
“I thought ‘It looks like fun, I should give it a shot,’” says Anderson. He managed to place ninth in the Rookie division and received a trophy, but he ranked 135 overall and was hoping to place in the top 100.
Feyer, the winner of the highest skilled division, A, received a large trophy and $5,000. He came into the tournament having won the two prior years. Hinman was a former five time champion, and Erdmann, the only woman to compete in the playoffs, was a third time A division finalist.
At the top level the tournament has been male dominated for a while, says third place winner Erdmann, adding that a woman hasn’t won the championship in about a decade. But there are a lot of great female crossword solvers who come each year, she says.
For Erdmann, who has been doing crosswords since she was a child, puzzle solving brings her a sense of satisfaction. “I really like completion,” she says.
Crossword puzzles have a lot to do with putting the world in order, says Shortz, and that’s one reason why people love doing them.
“We almost never find a perfect solution to any problem we face. We just do the best we can and move on,” he says. “With a crossword or another human made puzzle, you have the joy of completing, doing the project from start to finish and getting the perfect solution. And that’s a very satisfying feeling.”
In honor of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, The Brooklyn Ink has created its own crossword puzzle, Famous People Born in Brooklyn. You can play online or print the puzzle out.