It was 16 minutes into the third crossword puzzle. Heads bowed, brows furrowed and feet tapping away, the participants of Monday’s Third Annual Yale Crossword Tournament were scribbling their answers in the white squares when the door to Linsly-Chittenden 102 burst open.
“Is Will Shortz here? Where is Will Shortz?” asked a group of four masked students, who simply revealed themselves as members of the Yale Sudoku Society.
When Shortz, the editor of The New York Times’ crossword puzzles and National Public Radio’s puzzle master, stepped forward, a man who identified himself as the “Sudoku Man” — wearing a Sudoku T-shirt over a Spider-Man costume — challenged him to an immediate Sudoku duel. After a few seconds’ hesitation, Shortz agreed, only to discover his Sudoku board: another student’s bare chest.
Shortz, who visited Yale as part of what he called his “mini-Ivy tour,” officiated Monday evening’s tournament, which consisted of three qualifying puzzles and a final puzzle. With good-natured humor and an unassuming air, Shortz also played word games with the 58 contestants last night. When it came to the Sudoku battle, however, Shortz was defeated.
“I’m telling you, he was just scribbling random numbers on that guy’s back,” Shortz said of his masked opponent.
The tournament’s three finalists, Daniel Habib LAW ’10, Philip Hall MED ’10 and Loren Loiacono ’10, solved their last puzzle onstage. (Loiacono won the tournament in 2007). While the eliminated contestants followed along on paper, the finalists each had their own easel with magnified copies of the puzzle. Although Habib went on to win the grand prize, all 58 contestants — mostly undergraduates — received a paperback copy of Shortz’s “Kenken Easiest Volume 1: 100 Logic Puzzles That Make You Smarter.”
Andrew Mayersohn ’11, last year’s winner, placed fourth and was unable to compete in the finals onstage. In preparation for the tournament last night, Mayersohn said, he solved the New York Times puzzle everyday.
“It’s the only one I do,” said Mayersohn, who has been solving crossword puzzles since high school.
As editor of the Times’ crossword puzzles for 16 years, Shortz founded the World Puzzle Championship in 1992 and is also the author or editor of more than 100 books. After emceeing last year’s tournament at Yale, Shortz was invited this year by his interns from the last three summers to visit their schools — Brown, Harvard and Yale — all within three days.
“I am so pleased about seeing smart, young people doing crossword puzzles,” Shortz said in an interview with the News. “There is a misunderstanding that crosswords are only for old people.”
Citing the use of slang and contemporary references in today’s puzzles, Shortz said crosswords are now more interesting than ever and relatable to young people.
In fact, the final puzzle for last night’s tournament — which used singer Amy Winehouse as one of the clues — was designed by Oliver Hill ’12, who has previously submitted puzzles to the New York Times. And the Yale Cruciverbalist Society, founded in 2006, has been organizing annual tournaments to foster campuswide interest in crossword puzzles.
“Crosswords in general are more fun than a lot of kids think they are,” said Hill, who has been making crossword puzzles for two years. Because his home is only a block away from Shortz’s, he was able to get advice and feedback, Hill added. “There are not many young people doing crosswords, but it can be a pretty amazing and super-rewarding experience,” he said.
Shortz added that while the future of print journalism is “scary,” the popularity of crossword puzzles is prolonging the lives of newspapers. Although good journalism can be supported online, he said, people prefer to solve crosswords in newspapers. When Shortz took an impromptu audience poll, all but one contestant said they solve puzzles on paper rather than on the Internet.
Asked what advice he would give to beginning crossword solvers, Shortz said one should start with the Monday puzzle. The New York Times puzzles get progressively harder throughout the week, he said.
“Fill in first what you know for sure. Then build off from that,” Shortz said. “Consonants are more useful, so try to get them first, and then fill in the vowels. Don’t be afraid to guess, but also don’t be afraid to erase.”
He paused, then added: “That’s also general life advice.”