Kornbluh had a strong stretch run of her own, arriving home just a minute behind McNeil. Her printing was easily the neatest of the three. Newman, pacing the stage like a doomed man in a labyrinth, required 14 minutes to finish. When he did, all three received sincere, if undeafening, applause.
Shortz announced that Newman was third. No news there. Then things got interesting. "In second place," said Shortz, pausing to wring every teaspoonful of drama from the moment, "with one error, finishing in seven minutes, 41 seconds"—there were shocked gasps all around—"John McNeil."
Forgetting itself, the crowd went wild. Kornbluh the underdog had carried the day! McNeil, it turned out, had lost 25 points and his title for misidentifying an 1885 Maupassant novel as Ben-Ami instead of Bel-Ami.
"When John said 'finished' I just relaxed and said, 'O.K., it's out of my hands,' " said Kornbluh between drags on a Camel no-filter. Sitting cross-legged, smoothing wrinkles in her peasant skirt, she also spoke of possible retirement from crossword competitions. "It's becoming harder for me to enjoy them," she said. "I'm always keeping track of my time, always competing against myself or a clock—either that or they're too easy."
Whenever she retires, Kornbluh will have the memories of the prolonged, lusty applause that followed her win at the '84 open. It was lusty because, whether the event is a Super Bowl or a spelling bee or a crossword championship, humankind loves an upset.