A record number of people piled into the Marriott in Stamford, Conn., this weekend for the 30th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
When the last T had been crossed, the last square filled, and the last clue deciphered, Tyler Hinman ’06 emerged on top yet again.
The RPI alumnus captured his third consecutive title, a feat matched only by four other solvers since the tournament’s inception in 1978. At the age of 22, however, Hinman is by far the youngest to do so—just as he is the youngest to have ever won the overall title.
“It’s really good company,” he said. “Only two people have ever three-peated, and one of them holds the record for the most overall titles—seven—and the other won four in five years.”
“It’s one thing to be the youngest champion ever. That’s kind of a vulnerable record, but to have a three-peat at 22? That’s going to be tough for someone else to follow. Hopefully that will be a record I can continue to carry.”
The tournament pits solvers against the clock and seven puzzles of varying difficulty over two days. Once the scores through those rounds are calculated, the top three finishers in the A-C divisions square off in the final.
Each finalist must solve the same puzzle on a whiteboard grid while the assembled crowd watches. The solvers are given noise-cancelling headphones to help cut down on distractions, but the pressure of being in a final can be daunting.
Al Sanders, this year’s runner-up, has been in the final three for eight years and has never won. Ellen Ripstein, who came in sixth, won her first title in 2001 after finishing in the top five for 18 consecutive years.
The B and C division finals are first—for those who haven’t won or placed in the top 20 percent in recent tournaments—and solvers compete for all events in which they are eligible. Hinman won the B division in 2003.
After those finals, the A division closes the tournament. Though Hinman acknowledges the high pressure of the situation, it clearly hasn’t affected him.
“Waiting down in the bowels of the hotel while the other division finals are taking place is very nerve-wracking,” he said. “You just want to get up there and do it. Once you start, you get into it.”
“It’s also daunting in the sense that the puzzles are extremely hard.”
For the second time in three years, Sanders finished before Hinman in the final but had a mistake, allowing Hinman to win.
The last word he completed was “G-A-S-P-A-R,” a variation on “Caspar,” one of the three wise men, by getting the “P,” crossed with “pinky rings,” and the “R,” crossed with “rest.”
Hinman also noted differences in the seven puzzles leading up to the final. “The consensus was that they were, on the whole, a little easier than last year,” he said. “Last year’s number five is regarded as possibly one of the toughest regular, non-final puzzles in the tournament’s history.”
“I thought the difficulty range was a little tighter this year,” he added. “Puzzle one is usually the easiest. It was still easy, but it was a little more difficult than the average puzzle one. A few expert solvers couldn’t break three minutes on it, which ended up being the difference in a few cases.”
The tournament, spurred by the popularity of last year’s acclaimed documentary Wordplay, will move next year to the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott in New York City. The event’s organizers planned the move to account for the rise in entries—approximately 700 people entered this year, but no previous tournament had eclipsed 500.
Hinman’s first victory was chronicled in Wordplay, in which he emerged victorious after Sanders left two squares blank in the tournament’s final puzzle. Last year, Hinman said, he “kicked the door down,” winning handily after spending nearly a minute in the final with a completely blank grid.