March 31, 2011 —
The announcers’ voices were steady and excited.
“David’s still got the mistake on one across but he’s making good time with the bottom left corner of the puzzle. Ken’s got one across and he’s got the entire right side of the puzzle.”
David Plotkin was neck-in-neck with Ken Stern and Richard Kalustian wasn’t far behind. The three of them were battling in the B division of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT for short). Battling head-to-head on three different four-foot-tall dry erase boards in front of 650 crossword puzzle contestants— and me. Two announcers added color commentary.
“Ah, there it is, David fixed the mistake, he sees it. Now the top left corner will fall. This is going to be very, very close.”
Last Sunday, I traveled to the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott to attend the final afternoon of the ACPT and watch the three rounds of finals in competitive crossword-ing. I had heard a bit about the weekend and had seen Wordplay, the documentary that includes a trip to the contest. But I really didn’t know what to expect. A friend was going and invited me along.
The whole thing is surprisingly low-fi. But charmingly so. People sport different colored name tags; leftover puzzles on 8 ½ by 11 pieces of paper are strewn about. Some people are dressed up; everyone is nervously excited.
The finals play out without the aid of a video projector, so from the back it’s a bit hard to read what the contestants are writing. But the energy is amazing and everyone seems like they are having a good time. New York Times puzzlemaster Will Shortz is the founder, and still acts as the master of ceremonies. BIC pens is the sponsor.
I should pause for a moment and explain just how fast these folks are doing these crossword puzzles. We’re talking about less than 10 minutes for the whole thing. It’s almost as if they have memorized the answers and are simply filling them in. It takes me a half an hour to do Monday. They finish a Monday in under three minutes.
There are separate finals for each of the three top divisions (A, B, and C). Three finalists in each category all fill out the same puzzle, but the clues range in difficulty. For example one across, eight letters: Division A (hardest) clue: “Prepared;” Division B (medium): “In Uniform and ready to play;” Division C (easiest): “Readied oneself.” Answer: “GEAREDUP.”
You basically watch the same puzzle be filled out three times and each of the three sets of clues are passed out to the audience so that they may play along with the finalists. (I didn’t get too far.) The contestants wear ear buds as well as large airport head phones.
“David’s finished and it all looks correct,” the announcer says.
David steps back to check his work.
“Ken’s finished as well!”
David and Ken both have the correct answers but they don’t know it yet. They can’t hear anything or see each other. They are both standing back, checking their work. Whoever signals first will be the champion.
David signals that he’s finished a mere moment before Ken. David is declared the Division B winner and the crowd goes wild. It comes down to half a second. I would never have imagined that a crossword competition would be so (five letter word, the opposite of distant).