Five...four...three...two...one.... Start your pencils," said Will Shortz, and 161 pieces of paper were simultaneously flopped over with an awesome rustle. Then the lead flew.
Crossword puzzling had finally come out of the closet as a competitive event. Yet another once-private act, committed mainly by consenting addicts in the seclusion of their folded newspapers, had been unblushingly exposed. Here was a pack of admitted letterheads gone fully public in a hotel ballroom in Stamford, Conn. on a recent weekend, turning their cloistered striving into open, intercerebral warfare.
Oddly, the First Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, as a banner proclaimed it, was conceived by a puzzle dud. Mike Dolan has never been able to complete a New York Times crossword (the American standard of excellence). But as the director of marketing for the Stamford Marriott, he did have a new hotel to fill on weekends. Luckily, he had once been a commuter to New York and he remembered the intensity in the faces of the crossword-crazed riders as they attacked their morning papers.
Inquiry unearthed an authentic grid pro right in the neighborhood. This was Will Shortz, a mild, mustachioed 25-year-old who holds, from Indiana University, the nation's only known bachelor of enigmatology degree. Shortz, who has sold hundreds of puzzles and is writing his first puzzle book, listened to Dolan's idea and was game. He commissioned new crosswords from five constructors he knew and worked up a scoring system that would reward both accuracy and speed. He also brought in five friends to help officiate, members of a group of local puzzlemakers called the Fairfield County Puzzlers.
Newspaper ads enticed 161 hard-core gridfillers, most of them curious to test their talent against opposition after years of boxing alone.
"Like most people here I came with an inflated ego and arrogance," said Dr. Alvin Newman, an American gastroenterologist living in Toronto, whose idea of a good puzzle is "one where they don't use too many three-toed sloths [ais] hanging from trees." He was awarded a bottle of champagne as the solver who had come farthest. Actually, he started for Stamford from even farther away than Toronto—he was vacationing in Guatemala when he spotted the ad in the Times. "I like being with these eccentric, kindred spirits," Newman reflected in the puzzle room. "But they're not really as eccentric as I thought they'd be."
The contestants, who were just about evenly divided between men and women, ranged in age from 15 to 69 and for the most part were white, middle-aged and middle-class. By and large they were strictly amateurs, though awesomely dedicated ones. Eleanor Cassidy of Fairfield, Conn., who has been doing crosswords since she was eight, says her six children were quick to learn that "You don't disturb Mommy on Sunday mornings till she finishes the Times puzzle."
There were also some semipros who had sold puzzles of their own to publications. The puzzle editor of a games magazine was there also (he finished near the bottom), as was the editor of a crossword dictionary. And there was 15-year-old Mike Miller, a 10th-grader who teaches a course in advanced puzzling ("for someone who's ready to move on to British and diagramless puzzles") at Manhattan's New School. "I don't really expect to win," said Mike. "I came here as a vacation from exams." He wound up far out of the money.
They all got down (and across) to serious square-stuffing at 3 p.m. Saturday, after Dolan had pointed out the location of the electric pencil sharpener and wished them a hearty "May the best puzzler win." The solvers ratiocinated at long tables, separated from each other by yellow cardboard dividers, in an utterly silent and tense atmosphere that reminded almost everyone of College Board exams. Heavy smoke ascended and a big clock ticked off the seconds.
The rules were simple. One point for each letter correctly filled in. One bonus point for each minute the solver finished ahead of the time limit. No reference works. No cheating. Legibility required. Ink permissible for anyone arrogant or foolhardy enough to use it. The five officials patrolled the room in striped referee shirts, ready to whistle down offenders. But no one even tried to cheat, though there was plenty of temptation, from One Down in Puzzle No. 1, "Oatmeal cake in Scotland" (farl), through 56 Down, "acuminate" (hone).