Westport Library crosswords tourney hosts crowd with winning way with words

More than 16 years ago, Maxine Bleiweis, the Westport Library's director, was at an outdoor book event on 5th Avenue in Manhattan when she spotted Will Shortz, the New York Times' crossword puzzle editor, signing autographs.

On a whim, she asked him if it were possible to get an unpublished puzzle that could be used for a library contest.

"Will said, `How about if I come and conduct a contest?' " Bleiweis said, overwhelmed by the "unbelievable generosity" of his offer, which in 2000 led to the first of what would become an annual crosswords contests at the Westport Library. Bleiweis later asked Shortz how many other such contests he hosted and he told her none. "`No one else has ever asked me,'" she recalled Shortz saying.

This year Shortz had a previous commitment, but the 16th annual contest went on with the guidance of veteran puzzle maven Patrick Merrill, who led more than 100 contestants through the friendly competition Saturday at the library.

"It's kind of a club of crossword puzzle people and it's nice," Merrill said. "It's nice to see familiar faces."

"Friendly" competition infused the event -- contestants uniformly cited the pleasure of seeing their friends again for the three hours of wordplay in the McManus Room.

"I like a lot of the people," said Andy Kravis of Brooklyn, N.Y., who took first place in the contest for the second year in a row. "I come back every year to see the same people."

"I've been looking forward to this for weeks," said Jan O'Sullivan of Killingworth, claimed second place. "I like seeing my friends again because I've been coming here for years."

She said there are other crosswords competitions throughout the years, but they're few and far between, making the Westport tournament a good opportunity to catch up with other puzzle aficionados.

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CROSSWORDS CHAMPS
Top puzzle-smiths in the 16th annual crosswords tournament at the Westport Library are:
• Andrew Kravis of New York City, first place for a second year in a row
• Jan O'Sullivan of Killingworth, second place and champion in the library's 12th annual contest.
• Glen Ryan of Norwich, third place and finalist in last year's tournament

"It's nice to see familiar faces again," concurred Glen Ryan of Norwich, who finished third. "It's like a family reunion in a way. You see the same faces year after year."

"This has become quite an annual event," said First Selectman Jim Marpe, who witnessed the event for the first time.

"I hope you all won't just leave us here" after the contest," he said. "Enjoy some shopping in downtown Westport."

Volunteer David Rubinstein, who has helped host the event for many years, praised Bleiweis, who is retiring from her position later this year, for helping establish the competition. "The greatness of this library and the greatness of events like this is largely due to her leadership."

"It's a blast," said Russell Wayne of Weston, who has participated for several years. "There's a lot of camaraderie."