The Case Against Will Shortz

Once again this year, I am competing in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. This will be my fourth go-around (you can read about my rookie year at the ACPT here). I write this the night before the tournament begins, but I already know what tomorrow will bring. I will be solving crosswords in a well-lit ballroom, seated comfortably with a firm surface under my puzzle. Folders will be set up between competitors to allow for privacy. Fresh pencils will be provided, and distractions will be kept to a minimum. Great pains will be taken to maintain silence during solving, and my fellow contestants will pride themselves on their courtesy to those around them.

I cannot possibly solve crossword puzzles under these conditions.

* * *

Will Shortz is our host again this year, as he has been since he began the tournament 37 years ago. If his name sounds familiar, you may know him as the Crossword Puzzle Editor of the New York Times, or may be familiar with his weekly puzzles he brings to NPR’s Weekend Edition. He seems like a nice enough guy, so I’m uneasy accusing him of instilling an elitist bias into the tournament. But how else are we to explain my lack of success in the ACPT?

Not only have I never won the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, I’ve never even come close. In my past three tournaments, out of a field of roughly 600 competitors, my standings remain in the middle third. I’ve never finished above 300th place, and in fact last year finished even worse than the previous year at around 370th in the standings. “What color ribbon do you get for 370th place?” a friend asked after the tournament last year. “I don’t know,” I replied, “but I’m pretty sure it’s brown.”

It’s become painfully clear to me over the past few years that Mr. Shortz and the ACPT discriminate against people like me who, let’s say, don’t test well. It’s difficult for us to breathe the rarified air of the tournament setting.

* * *

Here’s how I normally solve crosswords:

My Sunday routine is to run out and pick up a copy of our local paper, and a copy (if I can find it here in the country) of the Philadelphia Inquirer. I love the Sunday Philly Inky for many reasons, but the Sunday puzzles are the best thing about it. I always bring one of our dogs with me (we have a carefully rotated schedule), and I stop by the donut place for a hot mocha latte for My Bride, and donut holes for the dogs (whichever one is riding with me gets one right away). When I get home, I make a nice brunch. Then I sit down to the puzzles.

I warm up with the Sudoku and Cryptoquiz, then hit the Merl Reagle puzzle. The Inky also has last week’s Sunday New York Times crossword, so I do that one, too. Just not in one sitting. I’ll start a puzzle and get stuck. Then I’ll go to the kitchen and do some dishes, and let things percolate. After I return to my puzzle, I generally find I’ve been able to break through. In the meantime, I’m working on a few loads of laundry, so when the buzzer goes off to switch loads, I get another few minutes to percolate while I fold laundry, and then return to the puzzle mentally refreshed.

If The Knucklehead is home, he’s generally watching a European Football match. At least once in the two puzzles, I will consult him, usually for a Spanish word. When The Knucklehead is not at home, I permit myself one text to him of the same sort of question I would ask if he were in the room (unfortunately, by the time he texts back, I’ve usually worked my way around the answer). Googling or otherwise consulting the internet for an answer is cheating, and not done. Less egregious is searching for an answer in a book that’s right over there on the shelf, but even that is to be avoided unless it’s something that’s right at the tip of you’re tongue and it’s going to hound you all day until you figure it out.

This is how I solve crossword puzzles. This is how most of us solve crossword puzzles.

In order to create a more fair and balanced tournament, I would like to propose the following changes:

  • The Stamford Marriott (the venue for the ACPT) should give all of its kitchen staff the day off. Whenever anyone gets stuck on a puzzle, that person stands up and announces in a loud clear voice, “It’s time to do the dishes.” At this point we all put down our pencils and go wash some dishes.
  • We all bring our laundry from home. At least three loads’ worth. When the buzzer goes off, you change loads.
  • Televisions tuned to the soccer channel will line the walls of the ballroom, each with an 18-21 year-old on a couch in front of them. Said 18-21 years-olds will be silent, absorbed in their smart phones for most of the tournament, punctuated at unpredictable intervals with cries of, “no-no-no-no-NO-NO-NO-NO-YES!”
  • Dogs will roam the ballroom, at least two per contestant. They will want attention. They will nose up against the puzzle you’re working on trying to get attention. They will crawl on your lap on top of your puzzle as you are trying to solve. They will slobber on your puzzle. They will scratch at the door every five minutes to go out. They will periodically bark at imagined threats.
  • Each contestant gets to ask a question of the room once during the tournament, like, “is the Spanish word for “bear” oro or oso? I can never remember which.” The contestants will convene for discussion.
  • At random times during the solving, Will Shortz and the other judges will interrupt contestants to ask them to “come look at this.” Or get something off the shelf. Or whatever.

Only by adopting these changes will I and people like me have a chance at victory in the ACPT. Only in this way may the bias toward the brilliant, practiced, dedicated and focused contestant be eliminated. And Will Shortz’s Tyrannical Reign of Fairness might finally be brought to an end.

I have a dream.

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6 Responses to The Case Against Will Shortz

  1. Amy Goldstein says:

    That was great. I think you want Lollapuzzoola. A Saturday in early August in Manhattan.

  2. Jack Martin says:

    Well put, sir.

    P.S. Spell-check Merl Reagle’s first name. You can delete this afterwards if you choose.

  3. mishedup says:

    brilliant and so true.
    My favorite part about doing the NYT crossword in the midst of family life was that I was doing the NYT crossword in the midst of family life! sometimes it would take me all week, sometimes I would throw the damn thing across the room (which should definitely be one of your options : one frustrated snit per entrant, timed, no longer than 5 minutes).
    Loved this post and the memories it brought back, now if I could just get the Sunday NYT delivered for less than $30,000 a year (slight exaggeration).

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