Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Crossword Tournament '09: Sunday Report

The finals of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament promised to be a thrilling event, and it did not disappoint. Tyler Hinman emerged as the winner for a fifth consecutive time, but only after a grueling and highly dramatic round against fellow finalists Francis Heaney and Trip Payne.

Dan Feyer, who was on top of the leaderboard after the six Saturday puzzles, did not make it to the A Division finals, even though he actually worked his way into a four-way tie for first after Sunday morning's Puzzle 7. The tiebreaker rules specify that high scores on individual puzzles take precedence, beginning with Puzzle 7 and proceeding backward. That left Dan the odd man out, with Tyler, Francis, and Trip finishing Puzzle 7 faster. (Amazingly, Francis and Trip finished with identical times on all seven puzzles to tie for second going into the final.)

Dan still got to compete in a final, however, because he had the most points on the seven puzzles in Solving Division B -- where he was placed after winning Division C as a rookie last year. In the Division B final, he ended up winning with plenty of time to spare, so we'll be seeing Dan competing in Division A next year. He certainly qualified as the breakout star of this year's tournament.

The Division A final pitted four-time champ Tyler against three-time champ Trip, with Francis yet to win the big prize. Since their scores were all tied, no one started with a time advantage as is typically the case. After some technical difficulties, they donned their noise-canceling headphones and went at it, solving the big puzzle on big whiteboards in front of the buzzing Tournament crowd, with crossword constructor Merl Reagle and NPR host Neal Conan exchanging quips in their color commentary.

Trip was actually the first to finish the grid, but the crowd gasped as they saw that he had two incorrect squares in his grid, costing him an enormous point deduction. It was shaping up to be deja vu all over again, as Tyler bested Trip last year under very similar circumstances: Trip finished first, in a bit over nine minutes, but was penalized for an error.

Francis was second to finish in about 12 minutes, but made the exact same mistakes that Trip made. Another big gasp from the crowd. Tyler was unaware of the drama unfolding on either side of him, and continued on for several minutes, stuck on a particular difficult crossing. He had two squares empty, and was staring at them for what felt like an eternity before finally filling them in. In a supremely ironic twist, the clue that Tyler had difficulty with was clued "They're tied at the top," nine letters. The answer, so fittingly, was COLEADERS.

When Tyler finally cracked the grid in about 17 minutes, the crowd erupted with a huge ovation. Taking off his headphones, he realized that like last year, slow and steady won the race. Though finishing last, his completed grid was error-free. Another year, another exciting finish!

And now, here's the video of the thrilling conclusion...

(For further details on the finals, check out the posts by Eric Berlin and the VT's own Brendan Emmett Quigley.)

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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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