From the Archive

American Crossword Puzzle Tournament starts tonight

February 19th, 2010 at 3:38 pm ET

Yes, it’s here again — the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament begins tonight and runs through the weekend at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott. About 800 of the best crossword puzzle solvers from all over the world, including yours truly, will be competing for standings, recognition, and prizes (of no material value). 90% of the roughly 100 people on Earth who create crosswords in English will also be there, along with more press than you might expect.

For those who are joining us late, I ranked 364th in the world in 2007, 257th in 2008, and 189th in 2009. My goal this year is to break 150. I’m afraid rising much closer to 100 will be very difficult, as at that point you start to enter the range of the brilliant misfits who dominate the world of puzzling, which (for all my many charms) I am afraid I am not one of. (Or am I?)

After an informal social puzzle competition on Friday night, the winnowing begins in earnest on Saturday, with 6 competitive, timed puzzles (in a hotel ballroom set up like the room you took the SATs in), scored according to an arcane formula (which every single participant could explain to you from memory) that balances speed against accuracy. One final qualifying puzzle follows on Sunday. By convention, puzzle 2 is difficult, puzzle 5 is absolute and obscene torture, and puzzle 6 is an entertaining schmaltzfest by New York magazine crossword constructor Maura Jacobson, who has had a puzzle in every competition since the very first. Interim rankings are posted two or three times during the day on Saturday, so that the obsessives in the competition (i.e., everybody) can micro-obsess about their micro-standings throughout the whole damn weekend.

The top three by rank in each of Divisions A and B will competitively solve an eighth championship puzzle on a whiteboard up on a stage on Sunday beginning around noon, with live play-by-play announcing by NPR’s Neal Conan and crossword constructor Merl Reagle. The championship puzzle has three different sets of clues, of different levels of difficulty, for the three divisions. In Division A, college prodigy Tyler Hinman, professional crossword puzzle contestant Trip Payne, bookish “Wordplay” star/fashion plate Ellen Ripstein, and eternal Catholic schoolboy/crossword constructor Francis Heaney are all favored. (Yes, there is such a thing as crossword tournament VIPs; see “briliant misfit,” above, which most of them would consider a compliment.) This event is not technically open to the public, but security is not tight by that point in the tournament — if you’re in New York, adventurous, and up early on Sunday, it’s quite an experience. (Just don’t expect to see me on the stage.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, crossword puzzle people are very heavy drinkers — I wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow was the busiest night of the year in the hotel bar.

If you’d like to try your luck, puzzle #1 from last year’s tournament (PDF) is here. If you think you’re good enough to place in the top half of the Tournament pack, you should be able to complete this puzzle with no errors within about 10 minutes without breaking a sweat.


6 Responses to “American Crossword Puzzle Tournament starts tonight”

  1. brentsleeper Says:

    Good luck!

    It just took me 9 minutes for the sample you posted, after a glass of whisky. The hard-drinking part of the scene you described suits me just fine ;-), but I tend not to like timed puzzles — I like to do them at my leisure with a cup of coffee.

    How are puzzlers during the preliminary rounds of competition timed? Is it an honor system? Do contestants have a button or something similar to press when they are done with a puzzle? How are nearly-simultaneous completions adjudicated?

    The whiteboard play sounds terribly difficult — but I suppose if one reaches that level, performance anxiety isn’t likely to be an issue.


  2. Rich Mintz » Blog Archive » Crossword Tournament Dispatch #8: How the tournament works Says:

    [...] a comment here, Brent Sleeper asks about timing and scoring. Here’s more about how it [...]

  3. richmintz Says:

    I responded to Brent’s comment here:




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