CROSSWORD puzzle fans tend to savor solutions to special clues the way tennis players recall particularly brilliant serves. An edge of excitement creeps into the voice of puzzle champ Doug Hoylman as he remembers how he aced a clue in a tournament on Long Island.
"The clue was 'Course of Action,' " he says, pausing somewhat dramatically. "It took me a while before I realized the answer was PHYS ED."
Hoylman, a 47-year-old actuary for Geico Insurance in Chevy Chase, will compete with 160 other puzzlers this weekend in the 14th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in the Marriott Hotel in Stamford, Conn. One of three contestants from Maryland, Hoylman won the tournament three years ago.
This year's competition, open to all puzzle enthusiasts, will offer a grand prize of $1,000, a copy of Webster's third New International Dictionary (Unabridged) and a subscription to a puzzle magazine.
Hoylman entered his first tournament in 1986. Since then, he has won several other titles at annual competitions in New Jersey and Long Island. He works at puzzles every night, completing three or four while he watches television. Before a tournament he concentrates on the work of those puzzle constructors who have created the competition's puzzles.
Maura Jacobson of New York magazine, Mike Shenk of Games magazine and Merl Reagle of The San Francisco Examiner have prepared puzzles for this weekend's event. (Reagle also created puzzles for two tournaments which were held in Baltimore in 1986 and 1987.)
"I don't practice a lot, I don't take it that seriously," says 64-year-old competitor Jinny Jones, a computer consultant in Bethesda. "I do the Washington Post one just to keep my hand in, but daily crosswords really aren't very good."
Both Jones and Hoylman prefer the "New Wave" or "contemporary" style of crosswords to the kind which traditionally require solvers to become reservoirs of arcane information.
"New Wave puzzle constructors rely more on making you use your wits rather than remembering obscure animals and things," Jones says.
(According to Will Shortz, director of the tournament, some of the most popular contemporary clues from the 1990 nationals were: Flat piece of paper: LEASE; Attire at the fireman's ball?: BLAZER; Spokesperson: BIKER; Shore activity for barbers?: BEACHCOMBING; Russia now has "Big" ones: MACS.)
For about 10 years, Hoylman says he turned to acrostic puzzles because he became so bored by traditional crosswords. He discovered the New Wave style in Games magazine, a showcase for the work of many of the country's most innovative puzzle constructors.
At the tournament this weekend, solvers will tackle seven puzzles, scoring points for accuracy and speed. The grand playoff will require the finalists to solve their puzzles on large plexiglass boards which are placed on a platform in front of an audience. It can prove a bit unnerving for some practitioners of this usually solitary art.
"For some reason, I don't seem to be too much bothered by it," Hoylman says. "I think they've been working out a few bugs in these tournaments as they go along. In the first Long Island tournament in '87, for instance, the final puzzle was so difficult that no one finished it. They're getting better at providing puzzles which are do-able."
A. Charles Catania, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, will also compete in the tournament.