“The nice thing about doing a crossword puzzle is, you know there’s a solution.”
— Stephen Sondheim
SORRY, MR. SONDHEIM, but that is small comfort. I may know that the name of the second-longest river in Belgium contains five letters, but that doesn’t mean I can figure out what they are. (I’ll spare you from running to Google: It’s the Meuse.) When it comes to crosswords, most of us spend hours staring at the blank boxes of the Sunday New York Times puzzle, drumming a pencil tip on the kitchen table. What’s a seven-letter word meaning “hung up on”? Try: stumped.
The 572 contestants at the 36th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament feel differently. The tournament, held in early March at the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Marriott, is the largest crossword competition in the world, indeed the largest puzzle tournament of any kind. More than a dozen Princetonians were among the 572 competitors, with three finishing among the top six in the toughest “A” division. And for the fourth year in a row, Dan Feyer ’99 walked off with the $5,000 first prize, putting yet another trophy on a shelf that already is groaning with them.
Want to feel bad? Feyer can whip through the Monday Times puzzle, traditionally the easiest, in about 90 seconds, and has been known to knock out the Saturday puzzle, the hardest, in less than three and a half minutes. (Although the celebrated Sunday puzzle is the biggest of the week, it is not the hardest.) That is barely enough time to get warmed up, so Feyer does three other puzzles daily (usually ones in The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Newsday), and more on the weekends, and matches his times against other top solvers on his blog, dandoesnotblog.blogspot.com.
Even that does not a champion make, so Feyer does another dozen or more crossword puzzles every day, just to stay sharp, and estimates that he has solved at least 40,000 in the six and a half years since he started doing them seriously. He thinks that he has close to 50,000 unsolved puzzles on his computer, many of which aren’t worth doing because they are too easy. His job as pianist and music director for theater productions provides him with lots of down time, but he says he sometimes finishes 10 puzzles on his tablet just on the half-hour subway ride to work. He prefers solving online because he can type faster than he can scribble; working on his tablet also shaves off seconds because the clue usually is highlighted when the cursor moves over the answer blocks, so he does not have to hunt for it. “Being able to immediately spot the desired clue is a key aspect of speed-solving technique,” he explains. “You have to look for clues 100 times or so in a normal puzzle, so any time not thinking or writing adds up!” When he works on paper, he favors a mechanical pencil; and, yes, he sometimes uses the eraser.
Although Feyer did the odd Sunday crossword in college, solving did not become an obsession until he saw Wordplay, a 2006 documentary about the tournament. Stella Daily Zawistowski ’00, this year’s fifth-place finisher, started doing crosswords at Campus Club as a way to avoid working on her junior papers. (Now a copywriter for a pharmaceutical firm, she wrote about the 2003 tournament for PAW. See “War of Words,” April 23, 2003.) Kiran Kedlaya *97, who finished sixth, got hooked as a graduate student. When he discovered that the tournament was being held relatively nearby in Stamford, Conn., he entered on a whim and has been competing on and off ever since.
Many crossword aficionados have mathematical or musical backgrounds, which does not surprise Kedlaya, now a mathematics professor at UC-San Diego. “Crossword puzzles do test knowledge,” he says, “but they also test your ability to combine strings of letters in an unexpected way, and a lot of mathematics is about the ability to combine things in unexpected ways.” Feyer has said that the same part of his brain that helps him sight-read music helps him to see how words will fit into a puzzle grid. After winning his first American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 2010, he told The New York Times that as he begins to fill in a grid, he starts to recognize what the words will be based on just a few letters, without even looking at the clues.
THE FIRST CROSSWORD PUZZLE, diamond-shaped and without the internal black boxes, was published in the New York World on Dec. 21, 1913. Other newspapers followed, and the puzzles soon became a national obsession. The Times, characteristically, was slow to follow the crowd; it did not run its first Sunday puzzle until 1942 (publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger thought it would give readers something to do during World War II air-raid blackouts), and daily puzzles did not appear until 1950.
Today, tens of thousands of crossword puzzles are produced each year in all shapes, sizes, and themes, but the ones in the Times remain, like the Gray Lady herself, the puzzles of record. Bill Clinton does them religiously. So do — or did — Ken Burns, Jon Stewart, Jude Law, Leonard Bernstein, Beverly Sills, and Moss Hart. Norman Mailer once described his morning puzzle ritual as “how I comb my brain.” (Sondheim, however, dismisses the Times puzzle as “a mechanical test of tirelessly esoteric knowledge ... sending you either to Webster’s New International or to sleep,” and prefers a more difficult form known as a cryptic crossword.)
What makes crosswords so addictive? Bob Klahn ’66, who bills himself as “The Universe’s Toughest Clue Writer,” directs the CrosSynergy Syndicate, which provides daily crossword puzzles to The Washington Post and many other papers, books, and websites. He believes puzzles are popular for many reasons, providing a challenge, a diversion, an escape, and a sense of accomplishment (or, depending on your skill level, frustration).
Despite the common belief that doing crosswords sharpens mental acuity (the oft-cited assertion that it can help stave off Alzheimer’s, though, is just a myth), the talents that make a good solver don’t necessarily transfer to other types of puzzles. Feyer admits that he is not particularly good at Scrabble, which calls on a very different skill set. Zawistowski says she is “terrible” at Sudoku. One would think that crossword mavens would also be trivia buffs, but that is not always the case. While some Jeopardy! contestants prep by poring over the World Almanac, crossword addicts might know the capital of Mauritania (Nouakchott) because they have seen it before in clues.