Tonight the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament kicks off at the Brooklyn Marriott with "an evening of games and entertainments" — a night of conviviality before the Tournament proper begins Saturday morning. We here at the Visual Thesaurus are happy to help sponsor the Friday fun, providing complimentary VT subscriptions to the prize-winners. I'll be attending tonight (in advance of competing in the Tournament in the "rookie" category), and I'm looking forward to meeting up with friends old and new in this collegial community of diehard verbivores.
New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz will, as ever, be presiding over the festivities. Among the special features on tap for Friday evening are a panel discussion on crossword blogging and a variety of word games and puzzles. (Brendan Emmett Quigley, the VT's own puzzle-master, has been working hard behind the scenes, test-solving and fact-checking the puzzles used at the Tournament.) The diversions aren't all word-related, either: the Japanese math/logic puzzle KenKen, which recently made its debut in the Times, will also be included — with the puzzle's inventor, Tetsuya Miyamoto, on hand to introduce it. Will it catch on like sudoku? Only time will tell!
As I (sheepishly) mentioned earlier, I'll be competing in the Tournament for the first time this year. This is a rather belated move, since I've been involved in the puzzling community in one way or another going back to my teenage years. As a budding word nerd, I joined the National Puzzlers League, taking part in "The World's Oldest Puzzlers' Organization" (founded in 1883). Though the NPL chiefly focuses on word puzzles in verse known as "flats," the overlap with the crossword crowd is extremely high. So I've had the honor of knowing many of the top crossword constructors and solvers for more than 25 years now. (Whoa, feeling old.)
A trip down memory lane: the year is 1984, and Games Magazine has become a hotbed for high-quality puzzling. A cadre of young Turks has taken over the magazine, breathing fresh life into crosswords and a wide variety of other wordplay. The leading lights at Games would come to define the "new wave" of puzzle-making, full of revered names like Henry Hook, Stan Newman, Merl Reagle, Mike Shenk, and of course Will Shortz. Shortz had already been hosting the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (then held in Stamford, Connecticut) since the event's founding in 1978. Games, with sponsorship from Merriam-Webster, started up another national crossword competition dubbed the U.S. Open — not exactly a rival to the ACPT, because Shortz was the director of this tournament too. I didn't compete in the '84 U.S. Open (which you can read about in Sports Illustrated of all places), but through my puzzling connections I ended up as a judge, one of the folks in the back room checking grids and assigning scores to the competitors. An exhilarating experience for a 13-year-old word lover.
I fell out of touch with the puzzlers after high school, but the memories of those years came flooding back when I saw an advance press screening of Patrick Creadon's wonderful documentary Wordplay in 2006. In the film (which I highly recommend, even to non-cruciverbalists), we see the loyal following that Shortz has developed since taking over the Times puzzle in 1993 — fans include Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, and New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina. The second half of the film is devoted to the 2005 ACPT, the year that (spoiler alert!) Tyler Hinman won the crossword crown for the first time, becoming the youngest champion ever in highly dramatic fashion. The documentary was full of familiar faces: perennial top finishers Ellen Ripstein and Trip Payne looked exactly as I remembered them two decades earlier.
Thanks largely to the success of Wordplay, the ACPT outgrew its old stomping grounds at the Stamford Marriott and took up new residence last year in Brooklyn. I crashed the final round of last year's tournament, getting to witness young Mr. Hinman win for the fourth consecutive year, an unprecedented feat. This year I'm headed back to Brooklyn, to report on the goings-on for the Visual Thesaurus, and finally to compete in a tournament after all these years. I'm not expecting to do very well, since I recognize that my prime puzzling days are long behind me, and I haven't trained for competitive crosswording in any serious way. But as Wordplay so movingly documented, the Tournament has just as much to do with community as competition: it's a gathering of friends, warmly partaking in their shared obsession.
I'll be back over the weekend to report on tournament play, so keep it tuned right here at Word Routes.
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 other articles by Ben Zimmer