Stamford Crossword Tournament Still Puzzles Players In 40th Year

STAMFORD, Conn. — Will Shortz took an idea that wasn’t even his and ran with it. Now, 40 years later, the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is returning to Stamford with more than 600 players and an array of new puzzles to test the nation’s top wordsmiths.

Will Shortz has directed the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford since 1978.

Will Shortz has directed the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford since 1978.

Photo Credit: File
Competitors do crossword puzzles on giant boards in the championship finals.

Competitors do crossword puzzles on giant boards in the championship finals.

Photo Credit: Skip Pearlman

Shortz, a former Stamford resident and the editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, has been the driving force behind the tournament since its inception in 1978. 

The original marketing director at the Stamford Marriott -- which was new at the time -- approached Shortz about holding a crossword tournament there. Shortz, who was 25 then and working for Penny Press puzzle magazines, agreed to run it. The tournament drew a good response, and, except for a few years at the Brooklyn Marriott, has remained in Stamford ever since.

  • What: American Crossword Puzzle Tournament
  • Where and when: Stamford Marriott Hotel, Friday through Sunday
  • More info: On the tournament website (click here)

“The event was owned by the hotel for the first few years,’’ said Shortz, who now lives in Pleasantville, N.Y. “But then they decided they didn’t want the responsibility anymore, and I took it over.”

The contest attracted 149 players in its first year. It stayed fairly small, with fewer than 200 contestants, until the mid-1990s. Lately, however, the number of contestants has surged, a result of the documentary "Wordplay" on the event. There were a record 699 players in 2008, and the number has remained well above 500 for the past decade. 

Dan Feyer of San Francisco won the tournament six straight years before finishing second last year to Howard Barkin of New Jersey.

“A big factor in the tournament's success," Shortz said, "has been the addition of solving categories. There are now more than 20 of them, which give people more chances to win prizes. There are categories based on skill, age, and geographical area, along with special prizes for rookies."

A lot of the same people keep coming back. As Shortz says, "There is a high rate of recidivism." One player, from Albany, N.Y., has competed in every tournament. Several others have competed for more than 30.

The tournament begins Friday evening and concludes with a playoff round early Sunday afternoon that has a sporting event atmosphere. 

Commentators Ophira Eisenberg, a comic and National Public Radio host, and Greg Pliska, a New York composer and puzzle maker, describe the action for fans. 

“Both know puzzles and are very funny,’’ Shortz said. “It’s simultaneously fascinating and hilarious. People come just to watch the playoffs.”

The tournament is a labor of love for Shortz, who is probably the only person in the world to major in puzzles at college. He developed his own program at Indiana University in Enigmatology, the study of puzzles. He graduated from law school at the University of Virginia but went straight into a puzzle career. 

“I knew law wasn’t for me,’’ Shortz said. “In the spring of my first year I told my parents I wanted to quit and go into puzzles. My mother wrote me a long, thoughtful, ultimately persuasive letter on why that was a terrible idea. She suggested I get my degree and then do whatever I wanted. And that’s what I did.”

Now he’s the man behind the annual crossword championship, serving for four decades to attract the nation's foremost word experts. 

“I was surprised when it lasted even a second year,’’ Shortz said. “But people like it. It’s not necessarily because they have a chance to win either. Mostly they want to test themselves, solve some first-class crosswords, and meet other puzzle people. The camaraderie is a big part of the event. It attracts a smart group of interesting people with flexible minds, with a wide range of interests and great personalities. I think that’s why it has endured all these years.”

For more information on the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, click here to visit its website.

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