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Spell It Out

This article is reprinted from The American Prospect.

The tournament hasn't even started, and already I've made a mistake. I'm one of 25 judges who've fanned out across the hotel ballroom, placing copies of Puzzle #1 in front of all 467 tournament entrants. But I'm the only one of the 25 placing the puzzles face-up, instead of face-down, as tournament rules dictate.

It doesn't last long. "Face-down!" a small chorus of 60-something entrants scolds me. "Face-down!"

It's an inauspicious start to my first year officiating at the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held every March in Stamford, Conn. I'd competed in years past and seen the judges in action, but I didn't quite know how it would feel on the other side of the tournament fence.

This first round, it feels nerve-racking. The petty sense of importance I feel wearing my judge's nametag isn't enough to calm my jitters. And being chastised by contestants for handing out the puzzles wrong doesn't help.

Tournament director Will Shortz, who is also crossword editor at The New York Times, takes the mike and briefly explains the rules: no talking; no reference tools of any kind allowed; turn off your cell phones before each round. Puzzles will be scored, he explains, on both accuracy and speed. All participants will solve seven puzzles over the weekend, and the three top finishers will play a final round for the championship. There's a huge digital clock on the side of the ballroom; it reads 15:00, the time allotted for Puzzle #1. Finally Shortz announces, "On your marks, get set, go!" The clock starts counting down, and the tournament has begun.

My next duty as a judge is to spot contestants who've finished their puzzle (a raised hand is the signal, sometimes accompanied by impatient snapping); dart over to collect their puzzle; and mark down the number of minutes left on the clock. I stake out a position in the far right corner of the room, a nice little circumscribed area where I can keep my entire section in view at all times – unlike the judges in the center of the room, whose territories span 360 degrees.

A few tense minutes elapse; then, far across the room from me, a hand goes up. It's Trip Payne, a three-time champion here, and no one's surprised to see him finish Puzzle #1 first. A judge scurries over to him, takes his paper, and notes the time left: 12 minutes. It's taken Payne under three minutes to finish the first round.

My corner strategy works. The outer edges of the ballroom are easier to patrol than the narrow, chair-clogged aisles between tables. As a couple of minutes pass in silence, with no raised hands in my vicinity, my mind starts to wander. But the main thing keeping me focused is fear of shame. I see a judge in the center of the room let his attention slip for a moment and fail to notice a raised hand just a few feet away. His punishment is silent and immediate: a half-dozen judges around the room jab the air with their hands to get his attention, pointing at the ignored contestant, who's now waving her solved puzzle in frustration. Castigated, the judge hurries over to her and retrieves the puzzle. That'll never happen to me, I promise myself.

The Judges' Room is a nondescript little hideaway on the second floor, tucked back behind a small maze of mirrors and hallways and doors. I get lost the first couple of times I go there. Just four round tables fit inside, but it's in this small space that tournament fates are decided. After judges working the floor collect the puzzles in the tournament hall, they're rushed up here, where judges on scoring duty mark them for accuracy. We slash red, green, and orange pens across each incorrect letter; the final tally is posted in the upper right-hand corner of the puzzle; and each participant's score for the round is entered into a computer.

Much of the banter in the Judges' Room revolves around incorrect answers. Wrong answers range from good guesses (putting FRIGID instead of the correct ARCTIC for the clue "Bitterly cold") to not-very-good guesses (one contestant had RAY instead of ALI for a three-letter word clued as "Will Smith title role") to careless mistakes caused by time pressure (someone had written in TOW-AWAY ZOTE instead of TOW-AWAY ZONE) to total shots in the dark (instead of the correct answer NOSE to the four-letter entry clued as "Overall smell of wine," one entrant had written SO-SO).

But the best wrong answer of the tournament comes at 68-across on Puzzle #2, where a five-letter entry is clued as "Round parts." The correct answer was BEERS (as in a "round of beers"), but one solver, thinking along different lines, wrote in BALLS.

Down in the tournament hall, veteran judge Henry Rathvon mutters something to himself as he starts passing out the crossword for Round 5. Will Shortz overhears him and laughs, then announces into the microphone, "Henry Rathvon has just called Puzzle #5 'the puzzle that'll rip your heart out.'"

It's not much of an exaggeration. "Difficult Week Ahead," as the puzzle's title reads, is a beast; after 14 of the allotted 25 minutes, only six people in the room have completed it. When Shortz announces, "One minute to go," the room reacts with a dark groan. Later a contestant will ask me, "Where's that guy who made puzzle #5? I think we should burn him in effigy."

"That guy" is one of the judges, David Kahn; up in the Judges' Room, his fellow officials are starting to warm up to the effigy idea. Kahn's brain-busting puzzle was easy for the judges on the floor to collect since so few people finished it on time, but it's a pain in the ass to score upstairs because of all the mistakes solvers made. For most of the tournament puzzles, judges need only count the handful of incorrect words; but most of the papers this round have so many wrong answers (and unfilled fields of white) that judges find it easier to count the number of correct words in each puzzle. In one puzzle that judge Stan Newman scores, only eight words are correctly filled in. "Eight words in 25 minutes," Newman clucks. "That's not very good."

The final round brings high drama; one veteran of all 28 ACPTs tells me it's the most exciting finish ever. My judging duties are pretty much over, so I watch the scene unfold with the rest of the crowd.

In a battle of generations, 46-year-old Al Sanders appears to have 20-year-old Tyler Hinman and 36-year-old Trip Payne on the ropes. Up on a stage before an audience of 500, the three top finishers battle it out for the title with dry-erase markers on oversized grids, and the gray-haired Sanders is running circles around his younger rivals. Methodically, he plows his way through section after section of the grid as Payne and Hinman flounder. The audience loves it, since the well-liked Sanders has made the final round six times before but has never won, and they break into wild applause when he announces "Done!" and removes the noise-blocking headphones finalists wear.

Suddenly Sanders' body freezes in horror: He has absentmindedly forgotten to fill in two letters, the Z and A in 1-across, ZOLAESQUE. The oversight means he will almost certainly lose. In disgust, Sanders throws his headphones to the ground and marches offstage. He knows that a quick final check of the board would have easily won the tournament for him; instead, he finishes third. Although it takes Hinman two – and Payne four – more minutes to solve the puzzle than it took Sanders, they both complete it perfectly, and accuracy trumps speed in the final round.

Hinman, a red-headed IT major at Rensselaer, becomes the youngest champion in tournament history. He tells the waiting media that he'll use the $4,000 first prize for tuition. When he returns next year to defend his title, I'll be there – ready to score his puzzles.

This article is available on The American Prospect website.

Copyright © 2005 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Matt Gaffney, "Spell It Out", The American Prospect Online, Mar 16, 2005. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@prospect.org.
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