Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Crossword Tournament '09: Saturday Report

The first day of competitive play at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament saw 684 contestants fill the main ballroom of the Brooklyn Marriott, solving six puzzles that ranged from breezy to downright fiendish. With the interim results tallied, the scoring leaders are mostly familiar faces in the crossword world — with one notable exception: Dan Feyer, in only his second year of tournament play, is sitting pretty in the number one spot.

When Feyer made his debut at last year's Tournament, he was placed in the "C" solving division along with all the other rookies. (There are five divisions, A through E, with your placement determined by your previous finishes.) Feyer managed to win the C division for 2008, but he had his sights set on the big prize.

Since last year's tournament, Feyer has been racking up impressive times among solvers of the New York Times crossword — often finishing the Monday puzzle (the easiest) in under two minutes. Hard to believe? Check out the evidence in this video posted on the entertaining blog "Ryan and Brian Do Crosswords." Of course, that's using the Across Lite solving software, which allows you to type in your solutions much faster than the traditional pencil-and-paper method. But all that practice has clearly paid off, with Feyer's score of 9480 momentarily leading a pack that includes such hardened competitors as Trip Payne and Francis Heaney (tied for second with 9455), Tyler Hinman (fourth with 9430), and Al Sanders (fifth with 9405).

Clearly there's some significant bunching at the top, so a lot is riding on the seventh puzzle, held on Sunday morning. The top three finishers of each solving division will then go on to the final round, while everyone else watches on. In the finals, the competitors will be on stage solving on big whiteboards, wearing noise-blocking headphones while the commentators (noted crossword constructor Merl Reagle and NPR host Neal Conan) give the play-by-play.

A break in the action.

Today's puzzles followed the usual progression of difficulty: Puzzles 1, 4, and 6 were relatively easy, Puzzles 2 and 3 were relatively difficult, and Puzzle 5 was super-difficult. Because some solvers are doing the puzzles by mail after the Tournament, I won't be posting any spoilers here. But suffice to say that Puzzle 5 lived up to its billing as the killer crossword, with only a select few actually turning in correct grids. Puzzle 2 was a very fine contribution from Visual Thesaurus puzzle-master Brendan Emmett Quigley — his first puzzle to be featured at the Tournament. Bravo, Brendan!

Brendan is also part of the team of judges who collect the completed puzzles and determine their scores based on finishing time and number of incorrect squares. This year, the judges are aided by new scoring software that automates much of the tedious work that has been done in previous years. There were apparently a few small kinks in the system in its first day on the job, but overall it has accelerated the scoring process quite dramatically. Competitors can even see scanned images of their scored puzzles on the Tournament website so they can find out exactly where they messed up.

As for my own personal experience as a tournament rookie, I've learned some valuable lessons about balancing speed and accuracy. I'm currently edging into the top third (or so) of competitors overall, but I know my score would have been higher if I had spent some more time checking my work. (There's a 150-point bonus for finishing a puzzle correctly, so getting a single square wrong can have a huge impact on your score.) Live and learn!

Check back tomorrow for my report on what promises to be an exciting finish to this year's tourney.

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Ben Zimmer 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:

Sunday March 1st 2009, 8:15 AM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
You're making us proud, Ben!
Would those "white boards" be smart boards, Promethean boards, or just plain dry erase boards?
Sunday March 1st 2009, 7:24 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Georgia: Those would be plain old dry-erase boards. You can see the boards in the video at the end of Sunday's report.

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