Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Back to Brooklyn: It's Puzzlin' Time!

This weekend, the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott will once again host the 34th American Crossword Puzzle Tournament — the premier annual gathering of word nerds. Presided over by New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz, the ACPT promises to provide just as much competitive drama as past years.

Will Dan Feyer, something of a crossword-solving machine, be able to defend his title? Will Tyler Hinman, who won a mind-boggling five consecutive times before Dan emerged victorious last year, be able to snatch back the glory? Or will another puzzler break up the Feyer-Hinman juggernaut?

Here at the Visual Thesaurus, we've been avid spectators of the ACPT ever since the tournament moved to Brooklyn, having outgrown its previous home in Stamford, Connecticut. The success of the documentary Wordplay, which captured the first of Tyler's wins (setting the record for youngest champion ever), had a lot to do with the expansion of the field — now more than 600 entrants compete for the $5,000 first prize. We were on hand for Tyler's unbelievable fifth victory in 2009, and last year VT puzzlemaster Brendan Emmett Quigley gave us the play-by-play for the ascension of "Steely" Dan. Brendan has graciously agreed to provide commentary again this year, so look for his reports on Saturday and Sunday's action in this space.

Last year's finals were notable for the injection of new blood into the top ranks of competitive crosswording. As Brendan put it:

In just three short years, Dan has thrust himself into the spotlight among the best of the best. And he's not alone. This year's second-place finisher, Howard Barkin of Hillsboro, NJ, was making his second appearance in the finals in his five years of competition. And third-place finisher Anne Erdmann of Champaign, IL has been in the top 10 for three of her four years. It's as if the old-school regime represented in Wordplay, the 2006 hit documentary about the ACPT, has been supplanted.

But the old guard isn't going anywhere: along with the still-young Mr. Hinman, familiar names like Trip Payne, Francis Heaney, Ellen Ripstein, and Al Sanders promise to be near the top of the leaderboard. The fresh talent just keeps on coming, though. Just as Dan broke out as a force to be reckoned with two years ago, this year could see a new rising star make a move. Could it be last year's top rookie, Joon Pahk? Amy Reynaldo? Jeffrey Harris? The list of up-and-coming contenders is a deep one indeed.

One thing is clear: Dan Feyer will have to fend off a formidable group of challengers if he hopes to repeat last year's impressive win. But the smart money is still on the mild-mannered musician from Manhattan. If you want to learn more about Dan and his certifiably insane solving regimen (he's tackled at least 20,000 crosswords over the past three years), check out the profile that ran in The New York Times last December. There you can also see a video of Dan whipping through a Saturday Times puzzle — always the hardest of the week — in less than five and a half minutes. (As for the easy Monday puzzle? On his blog, he regularly posts solving times of under a minute and a half.)

In a pre-tournament interview on Brendan's blog, Dan says his training pace has been off lately: "I've been pretty busy with real work for the last month, and I haven't stepped it up as much as I was intending to." Perhaps he's luring the competition into a false sense of security. Tyler, too, is playing down his chances. But the gamesmanship will soon be over. Come Sunday, we'll know who wears the crossword crown for 2011. Keep it tuned right here for all the highlights.


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday March 22nd 2011, 12:40 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I'm a standard issue crossword solver, getting the Sunday Times crossword done by the next Sunday, and it's filled with cross outs and corrections, plus a bottle of white out always ready. My wife is faster than me. The difference between us, I think, not so much word or general knowledge, but visualization. She can see the whole word when there are only one of two letters filled in. When I read the times these champions post, I can barely believe them, but I say, hats off, I have no idea how they do it!

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Brendan Emmett Quigley recaps Dan Feyer's victory last year.
A blow-by-blow of Tyler Hinman's dramatic fifth win in 2009.
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