Gridlock: Battling Wits at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

“For this puzzle, each answer will be a 7-letter word. I’m going to give you the first and last letters, and the middle 5 letters will be an anagram of the word ‘inset.’ If you think you know the answer, yell it out. Ready? F, S.”

“Fitness!”

“D, T.”

“Dentist!”

“J, G.”

“Jesting!”

“Ok, this next combination has two possible answers. D, Y.”

“Destiny—and density!”

I scribbled furiously. All around me, the best puzzle solving minds in America were gleefully shouting out answers. Meanwhile, I could barely keep up recording the answers on paper. Clearly, my brain was missing some wiring in the verbal juggling department.

“All right, this next puzzle was one that I decided was too difficult for radio. I’m going to give you a word and you’ll add two w’s to rearrange it into a new word. So if I said ‘took,’ you would say—”

“Kowtow.”

“Apish?”

“Whipsaw!”

“Armies?”

“Swimwear!”

“Healthier?”

“…wherewithal?”

“Yes, that’s correct!”

Our host was Will Shortz, editor of the NY Times crossword puzzle and puzzle master of NPR’s Weekend Edition. Shortz is the only person known to hold a college degree in enigmatology, or the study of puzzles. But he is not alone in his love for inductive reasoning. Around me sat over 600 of the most brilliant wordsmiths, trivia buffs and mental gymnasts to have ever massaged the English alphabet. This is the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

Personally, I have never solved a crossword puzzle in my life, and I usually fill in a scant half of a Tuesday crossword before giving up. But Jenn was in town on a mission—to crush her enemies in a gridlocked tangle of wits. This was her 9th year in a row of participation. And she insisted that I would have fun at the tournament’s evening festivities, when the high stakes crossword competition gives way to more laidback verbal jousting. Who am I to say no to hanging out with crossword nerds on a Saturday night?

Inside the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott hotel, dozens of puzzlers loitered in the lobby, a varied crowd of mostly vanilla, mostly older people, though there was a good sprinkling of college age kids and young teens. They were comparing notes on the dreaded Puzzle #5 (generally the most difficult of the seven in the competition), gossiping about rankings, and ogling at That Guy.

“Every year, he dresses up in some ridiculous outfit,” explained Jenn. “One year, it was a wedding dress. This year, it’s some kind of—well, I don’t really know…”

I stared. “Are the black and white knobs on the helmet meant to symbolize Go pieces?”

“Hmm, maybe. I’m sure he’d be happy to explain to you in lengthy detail,” said Jenn with a sniff.

As you might imagine, the ACPT attracts smart people. Ivy league degrees run rampant. Many have been contestants on Jeopardy and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. However, if you think that the tournament is stacked with history buffs or English teachers, you are wrong. While there, I met a computer science professor, an NY state food inspector and a Google engineer. The general consensus is that the best crossword solvers are musicians and mathematicians—they have the mental wiring to systematize and retrieve lots of abstract information in short periods of time. And those who don’t have the proper sort of brain, well, they can find other ways to be happy, right?

“So, I can see from your name tag that you’re a judge,” I said. “Why did you decide to judge rather than compete?” I asked Steve Levy.

He gave me a bittersweet smile. “Let me tell you why I started judging. See, back in 2005, I placed 26th in the tournament—the best I’d ever done in my life! Puzzle #1, it only took me 3:36 to solve that one. Do you know how fast that is? Take a NY Times crossword puzzle, time yourself, and start filling in letters at random. It will take you about two minutes to fill all the blanks, simply by writing random answers. So, you know that 3:36 is pretty darn fast.”

Levy paused for a moment. “Do you know how long it took the top guys to complete that puzzle? 2:53. 2:53! It was then that I knew that I had done the best I could do. I decided to call it quits and I’ve been judging ever since. Listen, those guys at the top—their brains are special. To improve from 15th to 5th is way harder than it is to improve from 40th to 20th. And to go from 5th to 3rd, well that’s even more difficult. If we held this tournament every day for the next year, the top ten ranked people today would still be placing in the top ten.”

As with any specialized subculture, the community develops its own quirks and eccentricities, inside jokes and languages, Gods and adulators. This is the stuff movies are made of. No, really. In 2005, the documentary Wordplay was released, chronicling the dramatic tensions inspired by the normally underground ACPT. Instantly, names like Tyler Hinman and Trip Payne became household names. Okay, maybe not. But the publicity from the movie did bring a slew of new interest—and participants—to the ACPT, which moved from its old home in Stamford, CT to its current location in New York.

The Saturday evening entertainment line-up included a one-act play titled Life is Shortz, and a team puzzle competition based on the TV show Amazing Race. Each team would be given a series of puzzles that would lead to a location and a password, and based on that information, you had to track down the person holding the appropriate flag for your next clue.

As I jumped into a team, I apologized profusely for my dearth of puzzle solving experience. Then I landed a puzzle titled “Taste Test.” The task was to identify a dozen or so spices and decode the corresponding message. I sprinted toward the table. Nutmeg, sage, paprika—it was as if I’d been training for this moment my whole life! Or at least, for the past year.

The remaining puzzles were a tad more challenging. I settled into my seat and racked my brains over a puzzle built around the letters STAN. Among other items, the answers included each of the countries ending in -stan; can you name all seven?

In the end, we managed to solve all the regular puzzles and got all four maps, but we couldn’t solve the final clue. It was time to give up and go home.

I’m still puzzling over the answer.

2 thoughts on “Gridlock: Battling Wits at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

  1. Turned out that if our brains hadn’t been fried, it would have taken us only a few minutes to solve that final Amazing Race puzzle. Connecting the dots of the countries we visited on each of the map pieces gave the letters LAX, as in the airport code for Los Angeles. And what would we do once we got there? RELAX, of course! (I also realized the next day that I actually had a pair of scissors we could have used to cut out the pieces, which wasn’t strictly necessary but might have helped make the answer more obvious.)

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