“Done! Done!” That’s what I heard, almost simultaneously, as 300 voices cheered, 300 voices groaned, and 600 people stood and applauded. Including me, there on the front row in the Stamford, Conn., Marriott ballroom, venue of the 2015 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
After seven sessions in Brooklyn, 2009-2014, the March 27-29 event returned to where it began in 1978. And 567 competitors, plus 40 or so volunteers, were treated to the most exciting finish ever in the A-Division finals, which once again pitted musician Dan Feyer against game-designer Tyler Hinman.
Tyler, star of “Wordplay,” won in 2005, when he was but 20 years old – the youngest-ever champ. In 2004, he’d finished 12th. In 2003, he won the B-Division, finishing 19th overall. In 2006-2009, Tyler became the second-, third-, fourth-, and tied-for-fifth youngest champ.
Dan, on the other hand, now 37, didn’t start solving crosswords until he saw “Wordplay.” At his first ACPT, in 2008, he won the C-Division. In 2009 he won the B-Division, finishing fourth overall. He then won the tournament five years in a row.
Tyler was loaded for bear. He wanted his title back. He’d like to best Jon Delfin’s record of seven titles – a quest Dan’s been quashing, zeroing in on it himself. Tyler and Dan found themselves in the finals with Howard Barkin, I Swear Crossword honoree of two weeks ago. Recovering from a cold and showing signs of having a newborn at home, the ever affable Howard was not at full speed.
The score was Dan 12,100, Tyler 12,050, Howard 12,050. The 50-point differential signifies only a few seconds. You get 25 points for every “whole minute” by which you beat the time allocated to a puzzle. Dan finished Puzzle 1 in under two minutes, Tyler and Howard in under three. The latter two may have finished in 2:01, at which point the sensible thing is to proofread for 58 seconds.
Those 50 points entitled Dan to a five-second head start for the 20-minute final puzzle. Was it hard? Consider the following:
[Like Harold Lloyd for much of “Safety Last”] ON A LEDGE
[Hirsute Christ figure of literature] ASLAN
[Ichabod Crane rival] BROMBONES
Howard, a real crowd favorite, would finish five minutes behind his rivals, who provided a furious fight to the finish of this super-tough puzzle.
Bouncing like a boxer, Tyler solved in fits and starts – zip, zip, rest. I could not see his whiteboard; I was one of two officials assigned to watch Dan, who methodically filled out the grid, never really stopping. When he finished, he stepped back and reviewed it.
Tyler was feverishly writing on his grid. I focused on him, with Dan in my peripheral vision. I counted: One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi. Are you kidding me?! Tyler slashes with his marker, spins with no review at all, crying, “Done!” A split-second earlier, Dan turns slowly, saying, “Done!” All agreed that Dan uttered the word first. Some estimated a half-second, others less than that. Almost 13 minutes remained of the 20 allotted for the puzzle.
Grats to Dan, first-ever sixpeat champion! Condolences to Tyler. Howard, get well soon!
Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at email@example.com.