In my 30th year of life, I’m attempting to do 30 new things. Full List Here. All Bucket List Adventures Here.
At the finals of the 2016 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the three best cruciverbalists were readying themselves on the stage in front of their giant crossword boards, their ears covered with sound-canceling headphones. The two announcers (one a puzzle constructor, the other a Connecticut sports radio personality) discussed crosswords.
“So what does it take to become good at crosswords? What makes someone enjoy them enough to come here and compete?” The sports radio personality asked.
“Two things. It takes a desire to acquire and retain a great deal of knowledge. And it takes a passionate love for language and words.”
I sat in the crowd (SPOILER! I wasn’t a finalist) and nodded in agreement. I think those are two of the biggest things that define me. An unending need to learn more and an obsession with the beauty of language and how we communicate with one another. As I told friends, co-workers, and family that I was competing in the competition, they all responded with a resounding “NERD.” So be it. Perhaps I am. But it was a special experience to spend the weekend with others who are as wordy nerdy as me.
I took the Metro North train from Grand Central up to Connecticut, and as I walked to the hotel where the competition was held, I started to see people wearing crossword shoes, scarves, dresses. In the lobby of the hotel were stacks of xeroxed copies of the crosswords that had come out that morning in various publications. Everyone was scattered around, chatting about the puzzles, discussing different themes and puns.
Since I didn’t know anyone, I headed into the ballroom and settled at my seat. As other contestants filtered in, I made friends with two of the ladies sitting near me. A retired science teacher from Long Island and a retired Internist from Michigan. They talked to me about past years’ competitions, their favorite crossword blogs (that’s a thing!), and pointed out to me some of the crossword “celebrities.”
“Oh, I just feel so star struck when I come here,” my friendly neighbor said as she pointed out her favorite blogger.
The competition consisted of 7 different puzzles. 6 on Saturday, and the final, large puzzle on Sunday morning. Top scorers then got to compete on an eighth puzzle, Sunday afternoon. My friends (despite relentlessly teasing me for being a nerd) had also encouraged me and almost convinced me that I could win the whole thing. But as soon as time was up on the first puzzle, I realized it wouldn’t be the case. Points are rewarded based on correct answers, finishing the puzzle early, and a bonus for a completely correct puzzle. I decided to take my time and make sure my answers were right. This led to me only being able to finish one puzzle. And it hurt my pride to see so many of the people around me raising their hands and finishing when I hadn’t even gotten around to all of the clues. I’m also used to doing the puzzles on my computer and had to adjust to doing it on paper. I kept losing my place, looking at downs when I was trying to fill in acrosses. Classic rookie mistake.
The one puzzle I finished: #6.
I didn’t get to stay for the Saturday night festivities, since I had to cat sit in Manhattan, and it was my friend’s 50th birthday party in Chelsea. And I was sad to run out when the “party” was just getting started.
Sunday morning, I dragged myself back to Connecticut, feeling a bit down that my ranking was 542 out of 576. I didn’t think I’d do THAT bad. Puzzle 7 was Sunday-style, meaning it was much larger, and I learned from the previous day’s mistakes and worked through it a lot faster. At the end of the day, I bumped my rank to 536 out of 576 which made me feel a little bit better about myself. After the puzzles were done, there was a talent show dubbed “Crossworders Got Talent,” and it featured song covers about crosswords, spoken word, comedy. It was incredible and weird.
THEN, the finals. If you think that watching other people finish crossword puzzles isn’t fun, you’re wrong. You’re dead wrong. There were three final rounds, with the top three finalists in three different division. What I thought was interesting is that all three divisions had the same answers, just different levels of clues. For instance, a division C clue was “Dots on i’s and j’s,” the answer is Tittle. Difficult, and a term I’ve never heard before. The clue for division A? “A trio in Beijing.” Get it? Because there are three tittles in Beijing?! That’s one I would never have gotten…in either division, honestly.
So the finals were Division C, then Division B, then Division A (the big guns). Everyone in the crowd had the clues in front of them, and by the time Division A got up, we all knew the answers. In the center of the Division A was a man who has gotten first place in the tournament for the last 6 years. If he won this year, he would have the longest winning streak in ACPT history! And he had a 8 second head-start, since he had scored higher on the puzzles. Everyone was sure he was going to win. Then, the second place contestant started to pull ahead. A gasp stirred through the crowd as everyone realized, he was almost done, that he might just dethrone the champ. Then he filled in the final answer, turned around yelling, “Done!” The crowd exploded! He had won!
Okay, maybe it was a “you had to be there” moment, but I had a blast. Not just watching the finals, but the whole competition. I met smart, kind, interesting people. And despite my poor showing, I learned so much about crosswords and improved a lot. I now find myself actually finishing Fridays and Saturdays, which I had never been able to do before. I learned some lessons in solving, and I’ll be back. I have to go back. I have to somehow make my way to that Division A stage.
I took the train home, exhausted from my hectic weekend. I changed into my pajamas and crawled into bed. I took a long deep breath and sat there for a moment before I reached into the backpack sitting at the side of my bed, pulled out some of the xeroxed puzzles I had collected and started working on them until my eyelids were so heavy, I feel asleep pen in hand, puzzles spread out on my comforter.