Growing up, I used to do crosswords with my dad at the kitchen table. We would work through the answers together, him always figuring out the clues in ways I didn’t really understand.
As I got older, I became more and more capable of actually helping him solve them. I transferred colleges to a school in Massachusetts this past fall, and although I don’t do crosswords with my dad anymore, I frequently do them with my friends. It’s become a fun way to relax (and a good way to procrastinate from doing homework).
So you could imagine my nerdy excitement when my dad texted me that the 7th annual Akron Crossword Puzzle Tournament was happening during my spring break. We decided to both compete. I informed my friends that I was doing it, and swallowed the light self-shame at investing my time in an old-person activity.
On the day of the competition, I walk into the Akron Summit County Public Library and choose my lucky number 8 as my number. I walk into a meeting room off of the library’s lobby.
Cardboard voting dividers are placed on tables, and the room is very quiet. I settle in and check out the competition. Although I can tell I’m the youngest person competing by maybe five years, the crowd is varied.
Men, women, black, white, balding, not balding, well dressed, casual–who are these nerds? The whole set-up is simple, but kind of official looking: a large digital stopwatch is projected on the wall in the front of the room and pencil sharpeners stand at the ready. Competitors trickle in, and by 12:58 p.m., when a man with an enormous beard walks in and all 30 contestants are in the room, I start to get a little nervous. What if I’m not fast enough?
Deb Papa, a library employee and the tournament coordinator, heads to the front of the room. She explains the rules: there will be three rounds of puzzles, with 20 minutes given to solve each one. The puzzles will get progressively harder, and for the fourth round, only the top three contestants will compete. By a show of hands, I learn that about half the contestants have been to this competition before. We are handed our first puzzles, the clock starts, and we all dig in.
1:20 p.m.: I finish up my puzzle with a few minutes to spare and head outside into the lobby. That was more difficult than I expected—but this first puzzle wasn’t too hard. It was fun, in fact, and I had been feeling pretty good about my speed and accuracy until I noticed people finishing around me, almost instantly it seemed. I somehow managed to finish before my dad. There are 14 other people in the lobby, 14 people who finished faster than me.
The puzzles are scored not only by time, but also by accuracy—these people were fast, but were they correct? Several people stand around and chat together- are they old hands at this? Comrades, rivals, allies? This is a war, and these are the soldiers. I’m getting way too into this, I think.
After the time is up, everyone heads out to the lobby and Deb puts up a poster board with the correct answers for everyone to see. Groans, knowing chuckles and the comparing of answers pop up all around. There’s a kind of camaraderie among all the contestants. After our 10-minute break is over, we all head back for round two. “I’m not going to survive this round,” my dad tells me, but I’m feeling pretty good. The first puzzle wasn’t too bad, so I should be okay, right?
Wrong. The second puzzle is a fiend. I can fill in 14 Across (“Mazel___!”) and many others, but some clues have me stumped—for instance, what on earth could the answer to “D.D.E.’s charge in W.W.II” be? I don’t even complete the puzzle. My dad, right next to me, finishes early like many others, but I’m one of the ones who runs right to the end of the clock. I go out to the lobby. “That was hard!” I complain to my dad, and a young woman near me nods in agreement. Deb brings out the answers to the second puzzle, and we all gather around. “This section almost caused me an ulcer,” says one man, pointing to the bottom right quadrant. I’d say—I completely missed several of the clues.
Back in the room, I remark to my dad that the competition feels a bit like taking the SATs. This feeling is heightened by the presence of my high school counselor, Mr. Wisberger, who is also competing. By 2:40 p.m., the third round has come and gone. Once again, I haven’t completed the puzzle, but I was sort of expecting it this time. I’ve by now developed an immense respect for the people in the tournament who not only finish these puzzles, but finish them early.
It’s now 3:10 p.m. We all move across the hall into the library’s auditorium. Up on stage there are three large boards, set up for the final puzzle and the top three contestants. The digital stopwatch is once again projected on the wall, except now it’s on the huge wall of the stage. It’s quiet, but I’m relaxed- my job is over. I wonder how I did?
The three finalists are announced. They are three men that, strangely, all look a little similar. One of them even looks a bit like crossword saint Will Shortz himself. We’re given puzzles of our own in case we want to solve them, the clock starts, and puzzle number four begins.
At 3:19 p.m., disaster strikes! One board falls down. It’s quickly fixed.
It’s a good thing I’m not a finalist, I think to myself as I look at the puzzle, because I have no idea what the answers are to this puzzle.
It’s 3:22 p.m. and the room is dead silent. Some people work on their puzzles. Others watch the stage. The three men are plugging away at a fairly steady pace.
It’s now 3:30 p.m. and only four minutes left. One man has finished, and I think the other guys are close. I cheer them on mentally. The time seems to drag on in the audience, but I know it’s rushing by for the puzzlers.
At 3:35 p.m., it’s all done! The judges go to check answers. While they score the top three contestants’ puzzles, our stats are released and, with maybe a little too much excitement, I find my rank on the sheet. Out of 30 people, I got 21st place. So I didn’t do too hot. But I did pretty well considering this was my first time, I tell myself.
Amazingly, my dad ranked just one spot higher than me. That’s probably because I learned from him—but one day, the student will become the master.
The winners are announced; the third place winner says it’s his first time here. When asked advice on how to solve puzzles, he gives the usual suggestions—it’s okay to guess at answers, practice a lot, but he also offers a different piece of advice. He says, “If you can marry, that might be the greatest puzzle of all and it might help with other puzzles as well.” Good advice…I think?
I’m trying pretty hard but my crossword skills aren’t really helping me in the love department. The second place winner is a younger man, the Will Shortz look alike. This year was his 6th time coming to the competition with his girlfriend, an annual tradition, and his first time in the top three. For the first place winner, Tony Antonakas, it was his fourth year at the competition. His family was there to support him, and his young daughter was seated in the very front row listening to her dad accept his award.
This tournament was a completely new experience for me. I was thrown into a world of fast-paced, competitive leisure activity, and it turned out to be really fun. Although I by no means won, the tournament was an enjoyable way to make a usually solitary activity into a group event, and I felt a sense of community and good-natured competition. I’ll definitely come back next year, maybe with my dad again, and try to beat my score. In the meantime, I’ll just keep practicing.