The contestants entered the ballroom to roaring applause, like it was a heavyweight prizefight. It was a crossword puzzle tournament.
They took their places on stage in front of giant whiteboards with empty crossword grids. Dry erase markers in hand, noise-canceling headphones on their heads, the three men stood in proper puzzling stance: right foot in front of left, marker arm crooked, clues in hand at convenient reading height.
“On your mark. Get set. Dan, begin,” said Will Shortz, New York Times crossword editor and tournament impresario. A tournament judge tapped Dan Feyer on the shoulder, and he began. Feyer, 37, is a professional musician and five-time defending champion.
Five seconds later: “Tyler, Howard, begin.” Tyler Hinman is the record-holder for youngest champion — he first won the tournament when he was 20, in 2005. He’s now 30, a grown-up prodigy. And while Howard Barkin has never won, this was his fourth trip to the finals.
The final puzzle was devilish. There’s wordplay aplenty. “Beat reporter?” is METRONOME. “Professional offers?” is ASSASSINS. “One who’s not committed?” is a SANEPERSON. And plenty of trivia. “Inventor of the spinning jenny” is HARGREAVES. “Four Holy Roman emperors” are OTTOS. “Rhododendron relative” is AZALEA. Whoever finishes first raises his hand and, assuming nothing is wrong in the puzzle, wins the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.