Voice of the Industry
Print Across and Down
By Richard Romano
Published: February 23, 2010
I posted bits of this over on my personal blog, but some of it seems appropriate to repurpose here, as there is one place I found where print will remain alive and well—for the foreseeable future, anyway.
Last weekend, I competed in the 33rd annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott in beautiful downtown Brooklyn, NY. It’s located right across the street from the Supreme Court Building, and rumor has it that the hotel was constructed for the primary purpose of sequestering juries, although I’m told that’s likely apocryphal.
The event drew about 650 contestants (and many other non-competing guests, such as spouses and significant others, who ran the gamut from being supportive to staring slackjawed in horror that people actually do this for fun—well, chacun à son goût) and worked like this. For most contenders, there were seven puzzles, which ranged in difficulty from pretty easy to “queen bitch” difficulty (Will Shortz’s term). Everyone gathered in the main banquet hall at long tables, and yellow folders help ensure that one's eyes stay on one’s own puzzle. More than one person I hung out with during the weekend likened it to the SATs. That may not have been a compliment....
A puzzle is passed out. All those who have “think about the environment before printing this e-mail” in their sig files would probably jump off the top of a tree if they saw how much paper they go through at this event. There are seven puzzles times ~650 contestants, and because of how puzzles are formatted, left-handers are allowed two copies because their writing hand obscures the clues as they fill in the grid, and then there are large-print clues for people with vision problems. There is also an eighth puzzle—and there are three versions of it—that everyone is given to follow along with during the playoffs—see below. Finally, everyone is given a complete set of the tournament puzzles at the end of the event. Some paper company should sponsor this tournament!
Anyway, after the puzzles are passed out, Will Shortz says, “Ready, set, go,” and a clock ticks down the time allotted for a given puzzle—15 minutes, 20 minutes, etc. When you are done, you raise your hand, a proctor picks up your paper, marks the time, and you are released to go out to the lobby and commiserate with others—“What the heck was 19 down?” “What was the theme of that puzzle?” “I have shamed the family and the House of Atreus,” “I paid money to do this?” and so forth.
It’s interesting how the puzzle scoring and tracking has evolved. (Well, I say “interesting,” but then I just spent a weekend solving crossword puzzles, so perhaps I am not the best arbiter of what is interesting...) It’s become a somewhat sophisticated process. Every contestant is given a contestant number, and a sheet of bar-code labels that you stick on the back of each puzzle. (How fortuitous that a crossword puzzle grid can be easily used as a bar code!) These all vary by contestant.
The passed-in puzzle is graded by hand; judges manually verify that each square is filled correctly, and deduct points for wrong letters and blank squares (I am happy to say that in seven puzzles, I got no wrong answers, nor did I leave any blanks). Points are then awarded by how quickly the puzzle was completed (this is what got me). The marked puzzles are then scanned, the bar codes keep track of all contestants’ scores, and the scans are uploaded to the contest Web site. Players can log in with their contestant number to see how they did, as well as track the standings (which are also posted in hard copy on the wall near the banquet hall) over the course of the tournament. I would say that at least half of the contestants had iPhones and BlackBerrys or at least laptops. There were computers in the lobby of the hotel, as well. It was not uncommon to see people between puzzles in the hotel bar or lobby hitting “refresh” on their Web browser every few minutes.
There are a bunch of different contestant categories, based on skill, age, and geography. The A category is the best of the bunch—these are the power solvers who are more like human laser printers and can fill in an entire grid faster than I can write a single letter. (There are all sorts of tricks they use, only some which I have any aptitude for.) They don’t always (or ever) worry about penmanship, and at the end of the tournament the judges give out a tongue-in-cheek award for “Best Handwriting.”
At the end, there is an eighth puzzle that is used for the playoffs. If you’ve seen the 2006 documentary Wordplay about this event (and the crossword puzzle craze in general) you know how this works. There is a stage on which is a set of three large dry-erase puzzle grids mounted on easels. The three contestants stand at their easels (they are angled such that they can't see each others’ grids), they are given sound-proof headphones, and then solve the final, really hard puzzle while 700+ people watch—and Neil Conant of NPR and puzzle constructor Merl Reagle do play-by-play commentary. Merl likes puns. We’re all masochists.
People were tweeting and Facebooking the event (as was I) and I was talking with one other contestant—a Web programmer for a NYC investment bank who is probably about 10 or so years younger than me—about the possibility of the event going entirely electronic and dispensing with laser-printed puzzles. He didn’t seem especially sanguine about the idea; the expense and logistics of hooking a room up with 700 computers would likely be prohibitive. And you also have a very large puzzle-solving contingent that doesn’t like solving puzzles on a computer and would be at a severe disadvantage. (I don’t really like solving puzzles on a computer either, but can do it if need be.) And the crossword puzzle iPhone apps I have used leave a great deal to be desired.
But who knows? Some day, the demographics may work out that everyone will have some kind of portable computer with them—we thought that perhaps the Apple iPad could fill this niche in some way. But not for a while.
Anyway, it was a fun time, and I look forward to next year’s tournament. I must work on my speed. (Oh, for the record, I finished 75th out of 644. Not too shabby!)