In theory, the last night of the WPC — the awards ceremony and goodbye banquet — is the only one that is entirely puzzle-free. In practice, it doesn’t necessarily work out like that. And if you’re a reporter on the lookout for more story material, thank God for that.
I was seated at the American table, which included, in addition to the team, the full entourage: former American Crossword Puzzle Tournament champions Stan Newman and Nancy Schuster (who won in 1978, the first year the tournament was held); Helene Hovanec of the National Puzzlers’ League, who helped organize the very first WPC; and, of course, the puzzlingly-ubiquitous Will Shortz, who helps run the World Puzzle Federation when he’s not editing the Times crossword, serving as puzzle master for NPR, organizing the crossword championships, or hosting the National Sudoku Championship.
Even with the alcohol and conversation flowing freely, it took all of 15 minutes — approximately the amount of time until one has had his or fill of yet another meal of potato-and-[insert name of meat]-liver stew — before things got puzzling, as it were. On my left, Stan, the crossword editor of Newsday, handed out copies of some recent crosswords to Zack and Roger, whose puzzling prowess extends to word puzzles — they have each finished in the top ten at the American Crossword Tournament multiple times. (Earlier in the week, when I interviewed him, Zack told me the Times‘s Saturday puzzle usually takes him about eight minutes; the Sunday magazine’s, a minute or two longer.) Roger and Zack were also each nearly featured in the charming 2006 documentary Wordplay; their scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.
They flipped immediately to Stan’s Saturday puzzle. Someone suggested they compete. “I have a couple of glasses of wine in me,” Zack said, “but OK,” and within seconds the race was on.
On the other side of the table, I asked Will if he was looking forward to our guided tour of Minsk the next day. He said yes, but he indicated Minsk was never exactly on the top of his travel list. Someone joked it probably wasn’t even near his top 25, and when I joked it probably wasn’t even in his top 25 that begin with an ‘M,’ a game of Name-25-Cities-Will-Shortz-Would-Rather-Visit-Than-Minsk broke out, with Wei-Hwa as amanuensis. City names flew at Will from all directions. Milan? Yes. Montreal? No. (Already been.) Montevideo? Yes. Madison? No. (Too domestic.) Mexico City? Yes. Montgomery? No. (Too… Alamabamian.)
Meanwhile, on my left, Roger was filling in the final squares in his crossword. I looked over at Zack’s paper — he was behind. “Done,” Roger said, laying down his pencil. “Damn it!” Zack said. “You killed me.”
I looked at my watch. “He finished that in about nine minutes,” I said.
“Eight thirty-three,” Thomas said, smiling, and pointed at his digital watch.
Immediately, Roger moved on to another crossword while Zack finished his.
Malibu? Yes. Montpelier? Nope. Moscow? Definitely…
Zack finished the Saturday puzzle and flipped to a Monday or Tuesday. His pencil zipped from box to box as if he were just scribbling random words. (He’d simply put down music already finished in his head! Page after page of it, as if he was just taking dictation…) On my right, the list of 25 Cities Will Shortz Would Rather Visit Than Minsk had stalled at 24. From behind me, Thomas called out a candidate. “OK,” Will said, “I’ll take that.” Evidently Thomas’s puzzling skills also extend beyond the boundaries of the WPC.
I tried challenging the group with one of my favorite dinner-table trivia questions: Name the ten countries with exactly four letters in their name. Answers barraged me from all four corners of the table: Cuba, Fiji, Chad! Peru! Oman! Togo! [Note to reader: If you want to stump a group of crossword champions, breaking out the four-letter-countries question is not the way to go.] It took less than a minute for them to come up with the first nine. After a momentary thoughtful silence — it’s always the last one that’s toughest, isn’t it? — it was Thomas once again who finished off the list. “Laos!” he called out. And he is one of the few who doesn’t do crosswords.
I tried again, this time with my favorite brain-teaser: the “pirate booty” problem. Will grinned, a glint in his eye — the look of a natural-born puzzler who has encountered something fresh, something challenging. I was a bit surprised he hadn’t heard that one before. Wei-Hwa had. “If that’s the best brain-teaser you’ve ever heard…” he said, not needing to finish the thought.
While Will pondered the pirates, Simon Anthony of the British team joined the table and began talking crosswords with Roger. They explained to me the difference between British and American crosswords. (In short, British crosswords resemble cryptics, and thus utilize more word play, whereas American puzzles contain more unusual words due to the fact that every square must be used both vertically & horizontally.) Simon helped Roger work through another Saturday puzzle.
Behind me, Will was emceeing an impromptu game of Categories. (Apparently he had dismissed the pirate problem.) “Shortstop,” I heard. “Knuckleball.” The base word was MINSK; they had just finished off baseball terms. “OK,” Will continued. “Auto makes.” Mazda, Isuzu, Nissan… Words five letters or longer ending in ‘k’. …Stank, Knock.
Back, one more time, to my left. Simon was telling Roger about his favorite British crossword clue of all time. “Nice,” Roger said. Then he showed Simon the best clue he ever wrote himself, for a crossword that appeared in the Times. “That’s beautiful,” Simon said, sounding like an art historian appreciating a piece in a museum. “Just beautiful.”