Champions of the word At the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, contestants solve the puzzle of who's best, fair and square.

April 09, 1997|By Judy Colbert | Judy Colbert,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

STAMFORD, Conn. -- On the stage to Doug Hoylman's far right, Ellen Ripstein, the Susan Lucci of the crossword puzzle world, is stabbing her erasable marker at the grid in front of her, filling in one corner, then another, trying to get the easy stuff out of the way first. This year, it seems, she is determined to finally break her string of near-misses.

Next to Hoylman, Trip Payne, who was crowned king of crosswording as a mere babe of 24 in 1993, is careening around his board, furiously slapping all the "ing" and "ed" endings on wherever they belong without solving the whole clue.

Hoylman, an actuary from Chevy Chase known as "The Iceman," is unperturbed. He is facing the audience, marker still capped, when he is told to begin solving this, the final puzzle of the 1997 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

The ballroom of the Stamford Marriott is respectfully silent. There had been fun and games all weekend, late-night cards and Scrabble, even some cut-throat charades in the wee hours (you try miming the lyrics to the "Laverne and Shirley" theme song). But this is serious. A $1,000 prize awaits today's winner, but that is hardly the point. Something far more important is at stake: the grail of cruciverbalists across the country, the title of undisputed heavyweight U.S. crossword champion.

As crossword groupies and hundreds of vanquished solvers look on, Hoylman, a four-time winner here, methodically turns to his board and begins filling it in. His marker moves deliberately across the grid, letter by letter, square by square.

In my seat among the also-rans, I am riveted. It is almost too exciting for, well, words.

Like the swallows to Capistrano and the buzzards to Hinkley, Ohio, crossworders return to Stamford each year in late March, for a weekend of mind-bending, patience-testing, groan-producing championship puzzle-solving.

I had come this year on a mission, albeit a modest one. The year before, I had come from my Maryland home with no tournament experience and few expectations, and finished 198th out of 249 entrants. Since then, I'd pumped up my solving skills, doing up to a dozen puzzles a week. I'd returned for this, the 20th anniversary tournament, hopeful of a better finish.

There are 258 of us this year, half men, half women, ages 20 to 82. We've come from 30 states (and Canada), and are mostly "word" people: lawyers, teachers, librarians, computer programmers. But there's also a UPS driver, a nuclear medicine specialist, a steam fitter, an airline route planner, and the ad exec who gave the world the "Please Don't Squeeze the Charmin" slogan.

It's an "open" tournament, there's no qualifying and anybody could -- theoretically -- win. But we are handicapped according to skill level. And there are divisions based on age and geography, meaning that besides the prizes for the top three finishers, there are more than a dozen other trophies handed out.

Not that this means much for me. I mean, in this tournament, I am in the same age group and geographic area as the defending champion, The Iceman, Doug Hoylman. And I am no Doug Hoylman. In fact, for us amateurs, guys like Hoylman are marathoners to our joggers, power lifters to our 97-pound weaklings. Leading up to the tournament, they have solved as many as 300 puzzles a month.

As we begin arriving on a Friday night, for dinner and a panel discussion by crossword constructing heroes like Henry Rathvon (the Atlantic), Mike Shenk (Games magazine), and Maura Jacobson (New York magazine), it's easy to separate the tournament's contenders from its pretenders. Just listen for the solving times casually sprinkled into the conversation.

Weekday and Sunday New York Times puzzles are the usual standard. On a good day, I can complete a weekday crossword in under 10 minutes, the bigger and tougher Sunday puzzle in an hour. These are times I'm proud of, but they are no great shakes here.

Take Joel Darrow of New Jersey, who's been here 19 of 20 years and finished as high as second place. His best weekday and Sunday times, respectively, are 2: 40 and 6: 30 -- as in minutes. Fortunately, he is gracious enough not to rub this in. He's serious about puzzling, but pokes fun at himself as a perpetual also-ran, "the Harold Stassen of crosswords."

I do share some of the champions' savvy, though. When I fill out the answers to clues, for instance, I enter many of the letters in lower case. Why? It saves time. Compare the four, time-consuming strokes needed to make an upper-case "E" with the single, swift stroke used to make the lower-case "e." With as many as 30 "e's" in the average puzzle, this can save precious seconds, and in competitive puzzling, every second counts.

For serious cruciverbalists, there is no issue too obvious or arcane to be discussed. Pen or pencil? Most here use a pencil. But a No. 2 lead -- or softer? What about lighting? Is it better to find a seat directly beneath an overhead light, or to the side, so there won't be as much glare on your puzzle?

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