Monday, April 19, 2010

The 2010 Chicago crossword puzzle tournament

The second annual Chicago crossword puzzle tournament took place on Saturday afternoon at Marbles the Brain Store.  Here's a recap.

The event was a rousing success. Where last year's tournament drew a crowd of around 25, this year's roster was up to 45, which forced the Marbles staff temporarily to dismantle the store's office to provide overflow seating. The price of popularity.

Participants warmed up for the tournament by tackling Marbles' in-store April puzzle.  I felt like a proud yenta watching people solve it, as I was the matchmaker who delivered crossword constructor and FOBB&B John Cunningham last year when Marbles czarina Lindsay Gaskins asked me to recommend someone to write a monthly crossword. John does a great job and everyone enjoyed his handiwork while he and I chatted before the tournament.  I gradually solved it between tournament puzzles.

The Chicago tournament's three opening rounds are races through, in order, still-unpublished Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday New York Times crossword puzzles. The first correct finisher in each round advances to the final round, where the first correct finisher of a Thursday puzzle is the champion.  (For the record, our puzzles were this week's Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, and next week's Tuesday.)

At first I grabbed a seat in the overflow room, but then a tournament staffer asked that fast solvers sit in the main room. "Fast," of course, is all relative. At the national tournament in Brooklyn I'm not particularly fast, but I was among the leaders in the Chicago tourney last year.

This reminds me of a silly question I hear surprisingly often from tennis non-players who ask, upon learning I play the sport, "Are you good?"  I'll generally reply "Compared to whom?", a more polite way of saying, "Compared to Roger Federer or you?"

Tournament organizer Amy Reynaldo clarified things by saying, "If you can solve a Monday New York Times crossword in under five minutes, sit in the main room."  I don't generally time myself, or do a lot of Monday puzzles for that matter, but I did remember finishing the Monday puzzle in 4:25 at last year's tournament (which was good for second place, and a finals seat because the first finisher made an error).

So although it felt self-aggrandizing I moved, and barely justified the relocation by completing the first puzzle in 4:58. Unfortunately for me, this was only good for 5th place.  Whoa!  Who brought the ringers?  Fastest was Marty Howard, who finished in a speedy 3:59.  He was our Roger Bannister.

On the Tuesday puzzle I again set a fairly brisk pace by local standards — and benefited by starting in the southeast corner of the grid, where I learned the key to the puzzle's theme before having to tackle any theme answers — but my 5:15 time was only good for 4th place.  William Hall, whom I met at the Brooklyn tournament this year, finished in a tidy 4:54.

One last finals seat was up for grabs, so I had to step it up on the Wednesday puzzle.  I raced through it at breakneck speed, discerning the theme immediately and deducing the 15-letter theme answer across the middle of the grid while it was still blank.  I wrapped it up in 5:44, but my neighbor Scott Orman was better at 5:22.  Scott was error-free so second place was no good this year.

If I had to lose, I was happy that I lost soundly; 22 seconds is a long time. (Missing the finals by two seconds would have been a drag.)  But I honestly didn't mind not making the finals.  I squeaked into the final round last year from a field of strong solvers and it was fine with me that three new people got the chance to be finalists this year.  There were a lot of deserving players in the room and I've already had a turn.

At least I managed to edge my friendly rival Kent Brody for bragging rights among Chicago attorneys (assuming none of the finalists or other almost-finalists was an attorney, which I have no reason to assume but will until proven otherwise).  Kent has finished solidly ahead of me during my two visits to the national tournament, but I finished second in Chicago last year and outpaced him during every Chicago round this year. You're tougher east of the Hudson, Kent!

Relative to the room I did better with each passing round, but I ran out of time.  Perhaps I was gradually warming up, or more likely it's that I am more competitive on tougher puzzles.  I would feel a lot more confident in a tournament with Wed-Thu-Fri rounds and a Saturday final.

But this tournament's final was a Thursday puzzle, and all three finalists put on some speed.  William finished first in 8:14, with Marty just behind him at 8:20 and Scott taking third place in 9:02.  I finished the grid about ten seconds after Scott, but then again I wasn't a finalist so I wasn't racing as hard during the finals.  The three finalists received $25 Marbles gift cards and the winner another one worth $50.

Yes, it's a contest, so I feel obliged to discuss the tournament in terms of times and finishes, but more than anything the Chicago tournament is an afternoon of camaraderie and enjoyment.  Crossword solving is a generally solitary activity, so it's fun to rub elbows and compare notes with fellow enthusiasts.  In that sense, everyone who showed up won.

Congratulations to William Hall, Marty Howard and Scott Orman.  For the trivia file, William had a cast on his wrist when I met him in NYC last February.  Apparently it was on his puzzle hand because when the doctor removed the cast she unleashed a monster.

Thanks go to the friendly Marbles staff for hosting the tournament; to Amy Reynaldo, Bob Petitto and Anne Erdmann, and the other volunteers whose names I didn't catch, for running it; and to Will Shortz for generously providing the puzzles.

Anne and Bob's further contributions should also be recognized.  Bob is an avid puzzle constructor and collector and brought some of his impressive collection for everyone to peruse.  He also donated a rare puzzle book as a prize for the tournament winner.

Anne, meanwhile, effectively donated a finals seat by graciously sitting out of this year's event, instead choosing to help run things after a trip in from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.  She is a superstar solver who took third place in this year's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Brooklyn and eighth place last year, in fields of 600-plus.  Not surprisingly, Anne won the Chicago event in a rout last year, and she generously took pity on the rest of us this time around.

Although you might not know it, we're in a golden age of crossword puzzles right now.  With today's excellent computer software and powerful online resources, crossword construction is no longer an esoteric skill, and indeed there are more good puzzle constructors than ever.

Teenage kids are writing puzzles for the New York Times.  Tournaments are spreading like weeds with the assistance and sometime participation of Will Shortz and other top editors from the newsprint world.  Crossword clubs are popping up at high schools and colleges around the country.  In turn, the Internet has erased the barriers of time and geography, making a wide range of puzzles immediately available.

Heck, it's even helping me distribute my stuff.  I posted my first-ever crossword puzzle in this space last Friday and was flattered when this year's top three Brooklyn finishers were among those who emailed to ask for electronic copies.  Their interest says a lot more about the days we're living in than it does about me.

So it's a good time for cruciverbalism.  If you enjoy doing the 15-by-15 in your daily paper and are curious what more is out there, dive in.


Jeff said...

Loved both your tournament write-ups, but I have one question. How were interested solvers notified of its existence?

I live in the far western suburbs of Chicago and saw no notices about the Chicago tournament.

I don't race or time myself, so tournaments don't generally appeal to me but after solving puzzles for over thirty years and reading your blogs about the friends and friendship I'm intrigued and interested.

How can I find out about the next Chicago tournament?

Keep up the good work!


Ben said...

Jeff, thanks for the nice note.

I wish I could say otherwise, but I think general notice of the tournament was a bit haphazard. I only learned about it last year after I made my first trip to the national tournament in New York, then saw something about it on that tournament's website. Didn't see anything about it in the Chicago press either year.

My local puzzle friends and I dutifully posted it to Facebook, blogs, etc., but if you didn't already know us, you'd never have seen that stuff.

Likewise, I'm sure the store has an in-house promotion mechanism, but I'm not sure whether they issued a release to the mainstream media. It would have struck a nerve on Chicago Public Radio, for example. (Then again, doing so would have far exceeded their seating capacity.)

Upon reflection, I also write for a popular going-out guide called Flavorpill Chicago and covering the Chicago tournament never crossed my mind. It would have been perfect for our site (urban, inexpensive, offbeat, fun, smart) but I am so locked in to the mindset of writing about theater and comedy that it just never occurred to me. I will have to rectify that next year.

So I guess the answer is, unfortunately, word didn't spread as far as it might have. I can only assume that the increase from 25 to 45 people this year was due to word of mouth from last year's players, and the store's larger mailing list one year later.

By all means, come out next year. Meanwhile, you can subscribe to Marbles' free email mailing list to stay informed about their activities; they also have game nights, guest speakers, etc. Next year's tournament might be at their Naperville store closer to you as they're quickly outgrowing their River North location.

Also, check out the calendar section of to see the array of tournaments around the country throughout the year. Perhaps your travels will take you near another such event so you don't have to wait a year to jump in.

Finally, if you keep checking in here, you and my other three readers will get notice that way as well.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,

Love the blog. Keep up the good work.

Any tips for those of us who struggle to finish even a Monday puzzle?


Ben said...

Hey Rosario, thanks for checking in.

Just because the Monday puzzle is the easiest day in the NYT doesn't mean it's easy; it can be a good deal tougher than the puzzles in other papers.

Tips, hmm. I would say repeated exposure is part of it, getting used to the kinds of words you see in crosswords. There is a whole subset of the language, for example, that pops up constantly: words that begin and end with vowels: AREA, IRE, OREO, ARIA, ASTA, ETUI, ESSE, ESNE, AIDA, OBI, ETA, ATE, LEOXI (as in Pope Leo XI), etc.

I would also be remiss if I did not mention that FOBB&B Amy Reynaldo, who ran the Chicago tournament, wrote a popular book called How to Conquer the New York Times Crossword Puzzle. It will give you a good grounding in the basics.

Amy also blogs the NYT and other puzzles every day at, where you can learn a lot.

Also check out the great crossword blogger Rex Parker at He's a great writer and crossword savant, plus he has demonstrated his excellent taste by becoming a "follower" of Ben Bass and Beyond.

That will get you off to a good start. Hope all is well in sunny California.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ben! I'll check out the book.

California had the nerve to rain last night, but don't worry, it looks like it's back to perfect.

Ben said...

Upon reflection, LEOXI doesn't start and end with a vowel. Forget everything I said.