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Barely Surviving A Crossword Puzzle Tournament

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Laurie recently attended the annual Crossword Puzzle Tournament at her local library. 

By Laurie Stone

Imagine sitting in a crowded room with 120 people doing something so torturous, so grueling, so excruciating, that you start to question your sanity. This happened to me recently when I attended the annual Crossword Puzzle Tournament at my local library. Hosted by The New York Times’ Puzzle Editor, Will Shortz, this is the area’s annual assemblage of brainiacs, puzzle geeks and masochists.

I fall into the third category. The tournament is held in the library’s lower level, in a room containing many long tables. Puzzlers of all ages, from doe-eyed youth to steely-eyed senior citizens, are assembled.

There’s a core of people that return each year — the gray-haired man with the ponytail who finishes every puzzle in five minutes, no exceptions. There’s the man with the mustache who always seems to be a finalist (more on him later). There’s the same knot of six women, plying themselves with peanut M&M’s for strength. The atmosphere is jovial with an edge of nervousness.

Will Shortz appears and is greeted like a rock god. Cute and charming, he’s every nerd woman’s fantasy. He gives us rules. We have 20 minutes to complete each grid — the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday puzzles that will appear in next week’s Times.

First comes Monday’s, the easiest. On the signal, we begin. Heads bow. Pencils move. Already, I’m in trouble. The first clue is “Group who sang Who Let the Dogs Out. That upper left corner becomes an albatross and what should’ve been a breeze becomes a fight for survival.

In the cobwebs of my mind, I remember it’s the Baja Men, only to learn later it’s the Baha Men. That throws off the whole corner and, for some reason, the rest of the puzzle for me. I turn it in, confidence already shaken. When done, you stand in the hallway.

motherhood, guilty pleasures, meals, mother, worrying, hopeful, boys, asleep, pedometerSoon we go back for Tuesday’s, the next hardest. The signal goes off. Heads bow. Pencils move. Oh dear. Again, the first few clues have me stymied.

And that’s when this event becomes not only an intellectual test for me, but an emotional one.

In no time, people are handing in their puzzles. Do I sit there for the full 20 minutes admitting I’m stumped or do I throw in the towel and stand in that comfortable, safe hallway?

I battle with myself and finally, with the puzzle three quarters through and not much time, throw in the towel. And yet looking back, I see plenty of people still working till the very end and have to admire them. They’re not afraid to be themselves.

The last, hardest puzzle of the day is passed out. Once a decade (okay, never), I complete a Wednesday puzzle in less than 20 minutes. I see today will be no exception. In half that time, some people are already done.

The reptilian side of my brain emerges. End this torture, I tell myself. The hallway beckons. Get some peanut M&M’s. But no, this time I stay and struggle and sweat and admit to the puzzle-based world that I’m human.

And although I don’t come close to finishing, a funny thing happens. I feel better than if I’d run to the hallway.

At the end, certificates are handed out for those who completed all three puzzles perfectly (wow), even for those who had the best handwriting.

The three finalists are also announced, those with perfect puzzles in the fastest times. This year the contest is between three men, one of them the man with the moustache. They assemble up front to do giant crosswords in front of everyone — Saturday’s puzzle, one of the hardest.

The signal goes off. They begin. We can either watch or try the puzzle ourselves.

I start, assess it will take two weeks to complete, and watch the pros. Boy, these guys are fast and all finish in less than eight minutes. One guy wins. The man in the moustache comes in second. Everyone cheers. The winner is handed his certificate.

And that’s it. We’re done. We file out congratulating ourselves on surviving.

In my three years doing this, besides the psychological torture, I realize I’ve gained something. I’ll never be a finalist or get even near a perfect score, but I’ve learned to accept my limitations. I’ve learned to be gentle with myself.

Will I do it next year? Not sure. Yes, Will Shortz is cute, but enough is enough. How much torture can a girl take? And yet, when next year’s invitation rolls around I’ll probably end up saying yes.

After all, there’s always peanut M&M’s.

Laurie Stone writes from the woods of Easton, Conn. Her blog, “Musings, Rants &Scribbles,” shares thoughts on growing up, older and (hopefully) wiser. Follow her on FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.

4 Responses to “Barely Surviving A Crossword Puzzle Tournament”

  1. Diane says:

    Ohmyword, this would be so hard for me! I have a very difficult time doing crossword puzzles. I guess I have to be in sync with the author…. Kudos to you, my friend

  2. Rena says:

    Yikes! This sounds like torture to me! I no I wouldn’t make it past the first round!

  3. Alana says:

    It took great courage to just show up. Three years in a row! I don’t do crosswords but even if I did, no way. But I’m sure it benefited you a lot, those last three competitions. An ex-boss of mine (who only saw his wife on weekends as he lived out of town) used to shut his office door every afternoon and do the NY Times crossword with her over the phone. Now, that’s true love.

  4. Lauren says:

    You are so brave! This sounds like pure torture. I never could have done this. Then again I am not very good at the NYT Crossword Puzzle. I gave up years ago. Now if there is ever a Wordle Tournament I will be there!

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