Eyes bloodshot and bleary, the three U.S. Open finalists slumped on stage, their battle over at long last. Applause from the gallery washed over them.
Actually, it covered them with a fine mist. You see, this was the U.S. Open Crossword Championship, held last August in New York University's Loeb Student Center. The applause seemed somehow to have been imported from a cello recital.
How richly deserved it was, nonetheless. The finalists, a tall man, a short man and a woman, had each just plundered their extraordinary rattrap minds and completed the day's sixth, most difficult, puzzle.
As the tournament director, Will Shortz, approached the podium with the name of the new national champ on his lips, so did the moment of truth. The assembled throng, 247 beaten qualifiers and two or three dozen crossword fans, held its collective breath....
But rather than spoil the surprise, let's first chart the course of the day's events and briefly acquaint ourselves with the finalists.
Gracing stage left is Rebecca Kornbluh, a weaver of tapestries and rugs out of Mundelein, Ill. Widely read—"I own several large dictionaries and spend many evenings studying them"—and possessing a master's in German literature, she's an accomplished puzzler who finished third at last year's open and was runner-up in '82. She's whispered, however, to suffer from Bud Grantitis—can't win the big one.
Pacing stage right is John McNeil, a computer salesman from Austin, Texas and the defending champ. McNeil is a "money solver," at his best in the big competitions, performing for crowds. He was a strong favorite to repeat, and happy to confirm that when asked.
If anyone could depose McNeil, the cognoscenti agree, it would be the redoubtable Massapequa Park, N.Y. bond analyst, Stanley Newman. Standing at center stage in purple sneakers, black socks and plaid Bermuda shorts, Newman looks like a crossword whiz. A versatile mental athlete, he was the open champ in 1982.
In the lounge before the puzzling began, McNeil and Newman exchanged a barb or two vaguely—very vaguely—reminiscent of an Ali-Frazier weigh-in. "John is at a psychological disadvantage," said Newman. "He carries the onus of having won last year."
"Whatever you say, Stan," replied McNeil. He would have been Frazier.