Westport hosts crossword fanatics Saturday
Published 4:07 pm, Tuesday, February 1, 2011
For those who love them, working crossword puzzles is a solitary pursuit.
But once a year in Westport, more than 100 puzzlers cram into the same room to ponder the same clues in a crossword competition.
This year, that day is Saturday. And fanatics who didn't jump immediately for one of the 125 spots in the Westport Public Library's 12th Annual Crossword Puzzle Contest got left out.
"We started registration in mid-December and within days, it was more than half-filled, and it's been sold out [since mid-January]," said Joan Hume, the Westport Public Library's director of public relations.
The McManus Room at the library will accommodate 125 competitors, but elbow room will be scant.
Interest in the tournament has grown every year but "our room doesn't grow every year," Hume said in an interview Friday. Many competitors are local, but some come from as far away as New York and Boston.
There are a handful who quite literally wear their love of crossword puzzles on their sleeves -- or other attire.
Westporter Christina Brandt, who has participated in the contest for the past eight or nine years, said she's seen competitors dressed in crossword-covered pajamas. More formally attired contestants have worn crossword neckties.
"It's an interesting group of people," Brandt said, "Sort of a cross section of life."
What makes this contest so popular? A large part of it, library Director Maxine Bleiweis said, is the involvement of New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz -- a crossword god to many devout puzzlers.
Shortz holds the world's only college degree in enigmatology, the study of puzzles, which he earned in the Individualized Major Program at Indiana University in 1974. Besides his work with the New York Times, Shortz also does word puzzles on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Sunday.
"The daily act of doing a crossword puzzle is so solitary that being able to come together as a group, in the presence of Will Shortz just magnifies the pleasure of the experience," Bleiweis said.
Participant are challenged by original puzzles no one else in the country has seen; they appear in the New York Times the following week. Most will do three puzzles. Only three finalists get the fourth and most challenging puzzle to determine the winner.
Brandt reached the finals a few years ago but failed to claim the No. 1 prize. She's had smaller victories, however, such as earning the "perfect completion" award at least twice and a "perfect penmanship" award in last year's tournament.
Merely completing a puzzle correctly isn't all that counts, said Brandt, who will compete Saturday. Speed is also key. The fastest finishers of the third puzzle who get every fill-in correct, move on to the finals. And instead of working privately at a table, the three finalists work on oversized puzzles at the front of the room, where all in attendance can watch as lines are filled in.
"It's a little nerve-racking," Brandt said. "It's one thing to sit quietly among others. It's another to have all eyes on you."
One of Brandt's top competitors this year will be defending champion Peter Rimkus from the tiny northeast Connecticut town of Ashford.
Rimkus said there's no real secret to being successful. Rather, he said, it comes down to "a lot of puzzles and a lot of practice."
Seasoned competitors know they can save precious fractions of second by not lifting their pencils from the puzzles, Rimkus said, and that it's quicker to write a lower case "e" than an upper case "E." Another trick, he said, is recognizing the mentality of the puzzle writers. He recommended working on New York Times puzzles as often as possible.
Rimkus said many participate in the Westport puzzle contest knowing they won't win. They like "to meet with people who are like-minded," Rimkus said.
Westport resident Philip Weiner, another former winner, said the contest is a lot of fun.
"It's a community event," he said. After the third puzzle -- while judges examine them to determine the finalists -- participants get to chat about the puzzles and commiserate about difficult clues. Shortz leads the audience in word puzzles to pass the time.
Many competitors use the Westport contest as a warmup for the Super Bowl of puzzling -- the American Crossword Puzzle Contest in Brooklyn every March. If the weather -- a menace to Westport in recent weeks -- cooperates, Saturday's event should go on as planned. "So far we've never had snow," Hume said.
The forecast for Saturday calls for a 70 percent chance of rain or snow, presumably with a 100 percent chance of difficult clues.