Last spring, I took a really boring class. I think it had something to do with DNA. I don’t really remember, because instead of paying attention, I did the New York Times crossword puzzle every day.
At first the puzzle was just a way to combat tedium, but when I found myself reading crossword blogs (http://rexwordpuzzle.blogspot.com is my favorite) and plotting ways to steal the Arts section of the Times from the girl sitting next to me in section, I realized I was a crossword nerd. (A cross-nerd?)
So when I saw the announcement about the Yale Cruciverbalist Society’s Third Annual Crossword Tournament, I signed up immediately, and on Monday night I headed over to LC 102 with a pencil, prepared to throw down some obscure four-letter-words.
By 7:30 p.m. the room was buzzing with fellow cross-nerds. I also caught a glimpse of Will Shortz, the Times’ crossword editor, helping stick black squares onto the white boards to create the large crossword grids that would be used in the final round of the tournament. I felt a little star-struck.
Josh Price ’11, a member of the Cruciverbalist Society, went over the rules as we contestants (a few dozen people) settled down at our desks. “The goal,” said Price, “is to finish in the fastest time.”
To an outsider, crosswords might be yawn-inducing. Your grandmother does crosswords when she isn’t knitting. But when you’re racing to finish a puzzle, frantically pencilling in letters and desperately trying to remember the name of an obscure character from “The Simpsons,” adrenaline runs high. It’s the quiz-show thrill of asserting how much random shit you know, like Victor Hugo’s daughter’s name or the Swahili word for dog. Crossword puzzles are vindication for those of us who spent our high school Saturdays at debate tournaments: We may not be cool, dammit, but we can finish a puzzle.
As the countdown began for the first round, anxious contestants tapped pencils or nibbled fingernails, and when Price announced the start we flipped our papers over and started filling. Of course, I got stuck on 1-down, and it was slow going from there. Even though this first puzzle was at a New York Times “Monday” level (easy), gaping holes loomed across my grid. Finally, about eight minutes in, something clicked and I sped through the rest of the clues, clocking in at just over 10 minutes. Definitely not my best, and far behind Philip Hall MED ’10, who finished first at 4:31.
The second puzzle was a “Tuesday”: a little harder. The theme here was cute and I caught it right away, which helped me breeze through in just under 10 minutes. At the end of this puzzle, Daniel Habib LAW ’10 had passed Hall — but just barely: The two stood at the top of the scoreboard at 9:36 and 9:56 cumulative times, respectively. Here is where it should become obvious that I, with a cumulative time of 21:08 (including two error penalties which cost 30 seconds each), am an amateur cross-nerd.
As Shortz explained before the tournament, this “Wednesday” puzzle (along with the “Thursday” that would serve as the final round) was “clued down” a little, meaning that although the fill was consistent with a Wednesday, some of the clues were reworked to be slightly easier. It was still a challenge: I puzzled frantically for about 10 minutes until we were all interrupted by the Yale Sudoku Society (aka the Pundits) who burst into the room and loudly demanded Shortz’s attention.
It’s a testament to the intense focus of a competitive crossworder that almost no one looked up. If we had, we would have seen “Sudoku Man” (Spider-man with a sudoku shirt on) challenging Will Shortz to one of the Japanese number puzzles, printed on another boy’s bare chest.
I finished this puzzle at about 17:30, after totally giving up on 68-across. At the end of the round Habib and Hall held their leads, with Loren Loiacono ’10 rounding out the top three.
THE FINAL ROUND
Habib, Hall and Loiacono stood nervously in front of a trio of large crossword grids, preparing for the final puzzle. Although all of us had a copy of the puzzle to follow along, the attention was on the finalists, who paced in front of their boards, scribbling in letters. They all worked impossibly quickly; by the time I’d finished reading the first clue, Habib had a whole quadrant full. In minutes, he finished, error-free, in first place. Hall was second, with one error, and Loiacono, third, with two. I tried to sympathize with Hall at the end by explaining that I’d made the same S-to-T error as he did, but it didn’t really seem to help.
Around 10 p.m. we finally filed out of the auditorium, dozens of cross-nerds released into the wild once more. There’s a whole year before the next tournament, and until then? I’ll take that Arts section, please.