Puzzle fans from across the region demonstrated word wizardry and linguistic legerdemain Saturday as they vied to surmount the challenges set forth by the guru of American crosswords Saturday at the Westport Public Library.
Will Shortz, the New York Times crossword puzzle editor, co-hosted the 14th annual Crossword Puzzle Contest at the library. It was his 13th appearance at the Westport tourney, but as he'd done since the first contest, the king of crosswords provided a selection of unpublished Times puzzles to challenge the more than 100 competitors.
"I love this event because these are my kind of people -- smart, funny, well-rounded," Shortz said. "It's nearby and it's a tradition. I like traditions."
The library's McManus Room was filled to capacity with a range of competitors -- everyone from novice hobbyists to seasoned wordsmiths.
"It's a lot of fun," said Randy Spector of Westport, "and this guy is like crossword puzzle royalty. This is as good as it gets for people who love this kind of thing."
"I've been doing The New York Times crossword puzzles every day since the day I graduated college in 1981," said Diane Lowman of Westport. "It's like my drug. I haven't missed many days, but I get cranky when I do."
"It's really cool that Will Shortz comes all the way out here for this," she said. "It's like a celebrity spotting for us nerds."
Along with providing the puzzles for three separate 20-minute competitions, Shortz also led the large group in a word game -- the same kind of activity NPR radio listeners can hear him do regularly Sunday mornings on air.
The first competition was the easiest puzzle, which was to be published in Monday's Times, the second to be in Tuesday's editions and the third that was set to go Wednesday. The contestants in each of the three competitions who clocked the best times with the correct answers then faced off in a showdown.
Asked why crossword puzzles endure in popularity, Shortz said, "I think the big reason is, as human beings, we like to put things in order. We like to complete things, and that's not a feeling we get a lot in life."
"When you solve a puzzle, you're finishing something, you've achieved perfection," he said.
And since the puzzles also draw on the joy of working with words, he said, "Crosswords make you feel smart."
Many at the contest said they enjoyed the event simply for the opportunity to gather with kindred spirits.
"I know I'm not a contender, but I like the atmosphere and the camaraderie," said Willow Landon of Norwalk, who has come to the Westport tourney for nine years.
Of Shortz, she added, "He's always a delight. We love his humor."
Peter Rimkus of Ashford is more of a competitor, and won the event four years ago.
"It's part of the crossword-solving circuit," he said. "The top people all from Connecticut are pretty much here."
"It's a geeky thing to do, but that's what we're into," he said.
"The competition is fun," said his girlfriend, Debbie Myers of Ashford. "And you get out of the house for the weekend."
"This is my third year here," said Bill Thompson of New Canaan. "It's just a great bunch of people. I've got some friends here and we do this every year. It's just a fun thing."