Sunday, November 7, 2010

Best of the Westchester

I recently happened to be in New York City on the same weekend that the 14th annual Westchester Crossword Tournament was taking place, so I caught a Metro-North train from Grand Central Station up to Pleasantville to check it out.

I've been to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Brooklyn (huge, national, packed with puzzle pros, hosted by Will Shortz) and the Chicago crossword tournament (small, unassuming, local, charming). Westchester was a hybrid of the two (small, unassuming, local, charming, packed with puzzle pros, hosted by Will Shortz).

There were maybe 75 or 100 participants, compared to the over 600 who enter the big national tournament, in a large room at a local church. Upon arrival many people enjoyed coffee and desserts provided by the evening's co-hosts, the friendly staff of the Pleasantville Fund for Learning. Will Shortz provides advance NYT puzzles to crossword tournaments that raise money for charity, and the Fund is the Westchester beneficiary.

Speaking of the venue, as wholesome and vaguely uplifting as it was to gather in a church, this was the last year the tournament will take place there. Will Shortz -- who is such a table tennis enthusiast that it would not be entirely inaccurate to describe him as "table tennis player Will Shortz, who moonlights as editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle" -- is about to open a table tennis club in a building he recently bought in downtown Pleasantville. Next year's Westchester tournament will take place there, which is kind of awesome, and rent-free to boot. I asked Will whether people would be sitting at Ping-Pong tables next year to solve their crosswords, and he said no.

Learning that I was at the sayonara go-round at the church made me feel a simpatico spirit with the people who played in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament during its 30-year run in Stamford, Connecticut. Hundreds of newbie moths like myself were attracted to the flame by the Wordplay movie a few years ago, and the spike in numbers caused the tournament to outgrow its Connecticut hotel and move to Brooklyn.

New York being New York, teeming as it is with crossword cognoscenti, there were plenty of noteworthy puzzle people in attendance. For example, I grabbed a seat next to Ben Pall, a friendly fellow from Bergen County, N.J.  He broke a record last November when, at age 14, he became the youngest person to publish a crossword in the New York Times. His puzzle was good too. (To clarify, I sat next to Ben's mom, presumably at least in part because he is still too young to drive from New Jersey to New York.)

This being Will Shortz's backyard, there were also several dozen New York Times crossword writers in attendance serving as volunteer tournament aides and judges. Having attending a few Brooklyn weekends, I spotted some familiar faces whose names are known to regular NYT solvers, including Fred Piscop, Patrick Blindauer, and Patrick Merrell. Will Shortz's inner circle was also in the house: correspondence manager Paula Gamache, puzzle whisperer Frank Longo, and ace technician Ellen Ripstein.

Because the tournament was a small local event with few bragging rights and no prize money at stake, Will dispensed with the elaborate scoring system familiar to ACPT regulars. In Westchester, as in Chicago, the tournament consisted of three opening rounds in which players solved the following week's Monday through Wednesday New York Times crosswords. The fastest correct solver of each puzzle would become a finalist, and in turn race each other through the following Thursday's puzzle. Three of the four tournament puzzle constructors were in attendance.

I finished roughly 160th at both ACPTs I attended, which is respectable but hardly amazing, and I knew there were so many strong players at Westchester that I had little chance to be a finalist. What I didn't stop to consider was that there was a fastest-rookie trophy on the line. This is where I made a rookie mistake, in both senses.

Before the tournament started I was chatting with some friends, lost track of time, and turned around to see the event was about to begin, so I hastily grabbed the only open seat in view. The Palls were seated on my left, and on my right was Bob Mackey, a ridiculously fast puzzle solver.

Bob is a delightful guy, but in hindsight I can't help but wonder whether the seat next to him was open for a reason. He blazed through the puzzles so fast that it got in my head a little. I wasn't looking at his paper, but I'd see him raise his hand and turn in each puzzle when I was only halfway done. This was slightly unnerving as I've grown accustomed to finishing before most of the people around me, and he had me beaten every time by a country mile.

Will Shortz announced that the third puzzle of the tournament would determine the winners of various awards (the rookie division, plus junior and senior age categories). I was seated with my back to most of the room, so by the time that puzzle rolled around, I'd started to feel as if there were 100 savants like Bob in the room, and bringing up the rear, me.

This set the stage for my rookie mistake: failing to stop and consider that for the only trophy I had a chance of winning, I was not likely playing against the super-speedsters like Bob. Although I'm reasonably fast myself, I raced so frantically through the trophy puzzle that I didn't notice there were still two blank squares on the otherwise correct grid I turned in. Had I noticed the omissions I would have put in the correct letters, but I was rushing so quickly that I didn't realize the puzzle was incomplete.

This stupid blunder cost me rookie of the year honors, which go to the first correct puzzle submitted by a new participant. 2001 ACPT champion and tournament judge Ellen Ripstein later told me that I was three and a half minutes faster than the winner of the rookie title, but my two blank squares disqualified me. To put this in perspective, I recently solved an entire Monday NYT crossword in under three minutes.

Now I know why no one wants the stall next to Tiger Woods at the driving range. Bob won the tournament, by the way.

I feel like shaking my fist and saying "Mackey!", but it's not Bob's fault I failed to keep mind over matter and overreacted to his impressive performance, so: (shakes fist) Bass!

I did, however, get an excellent consolation prize when Will Shortz gave me the award for having traveled the furthest to attend the tournament. This was perhaps not completely accurate in that I'd come to New York primarily to attend the New Yorker Festival, but as I'd flown in from Chicago that morning, I felt within my rights to accept the honor. In classic Shortz style, Will also presented an award to the person who'd traveled the shortest distance: a lady who lived across the street.

Award winners were invited to take their pick from a table full of puzzle books, games, dictionaries and the like. I grabbed a copy of "Will Shortz Presents Puzzle-A-Day KenKen," featuring the sudoku-style logic puzzle that shot to prominence a few years ago when Will started running it every day in the New York Times. After the tournament there were plenty of prizes left over and all were invited to take one home.

As at Brooklyn and Chicago, though, the Westchester tournament wasn't so much about competing or winning as it was about camaraderie, warmth, and the relatively novel experience of having crosswords become a group activity and social conduit rather than the solitary armchair pursuit they usually are. It's all about the people.

The folks who come out for crossword events are -- without a single exception I've met, at least -- bright, friendly, curious, involved, literate, accomplished people. They all have stories to tell, plus there's the comparing notes on puzzles in general. Every time I leave a crossword tournament I think to myself, that would have been just as much fun without any puzzles.

It wasn't all about crosswords either. Will Shortz is also the NPR puzzlemaster and between rounds he invited the room to play some casual brain teasers. Not surprisingly, everyone was up for it, and Will presented all kinds of word games ranging from fairly straightforward to quite challenging. I write the occasional puzzle for Will to use on Weekend Edition Sunday so I felt right at home.

I won't repeat the puzzles Will gave us because he's been using some of them on the radio, but I will share the following. At one point, an attractive young Indian woman solved a word puzzle. Will asked her name, which was Usha. She spelled it for him: U-S-H-A.

Immediately wheels started turning in this room full of crossword constructors, and a few people chuckled, because as Will explained, her name happens to be perfect for a crossword puzzle. Short names that begin and end with vowels (ETTA, ELLA, ARTE, AIDA) or rather short words like that in general (ANTE, ERA, ARIA, IRE) are usually needed to complete a grid, so they're disproportionately represented in crosswords.

Will asked Usha what she did for a living. I forget her reply, but it was a brainy, anonymous-type job like chemist or schoolteacher. You could feel the mild disappointment in the room that Usha was not a Tony-winning composer or a former Secretary of Agriculture. Will asked another open-ended question or two, clearly hoping to learn that she had discovered an element or won the New York City Marathon. Unfortunately, her replies suggested a life of gentle obscurity.

As Will struggled to find grounds to add Usha's name to the crossword lexicon, everyone was lost in thought and there was a short lull. I couldn't resist breaking the silence by asking from across the room, "Would you be willing to murder a celebrity?"

If you live in greater New York City and you like crossword puzzles, then by all means visit Brooklyn in March for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, but don't overlook the less prominent, similarly enjoyable Westchester version. It will only get better next year with the intriguing possibility of a crossword-table tennis biathlon.


zadok said...

Having spent the first Chicago tourney and the last ACPT next to the blazing pencil of Anne Erdmann, I fully understand the challenge of sitting next to a crossword superstar.

Tuning Spork said...

Aargh! When did this happen? I always hear about these local tournaments after the fact.

Ben said...

It was Friday, October 1st. I think it tends to be in late September or early October.

dave said...

murder a celebrity?!?
sheesh! lennon would have turned 70 on october 9th...

Rosario said...

Time to fess up, you didn't "happen" to be in NYC, you specifically went for the 14th annual Westchester Crossword Puzzle Tournament!

Ben said...

It was a happy coincidence. I Andrew Lucked into it.

kevin said...

hey ben, thanks for posting, i really enjoyed reading this. cheers

Dave Mackey said...

Don't feel bad, Ben... I can never beat that Bob guy myself, either. Been chasing him for almost 50 years now, and he just keeps going faster and faster.

Unknown said...

Hi Ben. It was nice to meet you at the tournament. As I write this I am getting ready to leave for Will's Wonderful World of Words Weekend at Mohonk. Once again, I am chauffeur for my son Ben, although I do admit I look forward to the weekend myself. I enjoyed reading your blog. Thanks for mentioning us.

Ellen Pall (Ben's mom)

Ben said...

Ellen, thanks for stopping by. Enjoyed meeting you as well.

Have fun up at the Mohonk Mountain House. I'm envious, that looks like a great weekend.

Don said...

As someone who would like to be able to solve crossword puzzles (and the Rubiks Cube), this always fascinates me. A great entry on a world I wish I could be a part of. Love your blog.

Ben said...

Thanks for the nice note, Don.

You don't have to be an expert solver to dabble in the crossword tournament scene, or even have to travel. The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament has a "solve at home" option (see

If you're otherwise interested but just OK at puzzles, don't let that stop you from taking part in, e.g., the big national tournament. Not everyone there is a rock star solver; plenty are just plain folks. Like a marathon, it's more about the experience than where you finish, and you will have a great time.

Meanwhile, if you keep at it, you can't help but improve. I've certainly gotten faster and wiser by doing crosswords regularly over the past few years.

Anonymous said...

Got to your blog by pursuing Will Shortz's endeavor to form a table tennis club in Pleasantville.

I live nearby and would love to know where in Pleasantville it'll be. Do you happen to have more information on that?

Every reference says virtually the same thing, that he bought roughly 10,000 sq. ft. in "downtown Pleasantville."

Which consists of like 5 buildings!


Ben said...

Sorry, I'm afraid I don't. All I know is that it will be in downtown Pleasantville, which you already know.

The good news is that since you're local, you'll get the news as soon as it breaks. Faster than I will, certainly.