Imagine sitting in a crowded room with 120 people doing something so torturous, so grueling…you start to question your sanity. This happened to me recently when I attended the annual Crossword Puzzle Tournament at the 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 filled with puzzlers of all ages, from doe-eyed youth to steely-eyed senior citizens.
There’s a core of people that return each year. There’s the gray-haired man with the ponytail who finishes every puzzle in five minutes, no exceptions. There’s the man with the moustache 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.
Soon 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 admiting 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 is passed out. Once a decade (okay, never), I complete a Wednesday puzzle in less than 20 minutes. 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, 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’s 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 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. After all, 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.
(Originally published in the Westport News, February, 2012).
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