The air crackles with anticipation and nerdiness. We are sardined into the McManus Room awaiting the arrival of Will Shortz, crossword wizard, and puzzle editor for the New York Times. He graciously presides over this annual contest hosted by the Westport Public Library. Veterans and neophytes alike flock to attempt the puzzles he brings. We have 20 minutes for each of the first three. As finalists, the three contestants who finish those correctly and in the shortest time, compete to complete a fourth puzzle, writ large and propped on an easel, on stage. The winner must not only finish first, but also have a perfect puzzle.
This annual ritual thrills me for so many reasons:
I feel less like a geek when surrounded by these kindred spirits. Where else would it seem completely normal to see this much crossword-themed clothing? The winner’s black and white squared, short sleeve cotton button up shirt was a blank crossword waiting to be filled in.
I get to indulge my love of “words, words, words” (Hamlet,II,ii,192). We generally read and write alone. There are not that many opportunities to exercise this mutual passion en masse. The snacks and water provided by the library assures steady blood sugar and hydration so that we can pour forth maximum effort through our pencils. I love teasing my brain to unlock answers that I know are there, or to deduce those that aren’t, from clue and context.
I challenge myself. Although I do the puzzle daily anyway, it’s often a leisurely, sometimes even lazy endeavor. In this timed competition, I concentrate intensely to push the synapses to connect quickly and efficiently. While I may never run a 10K, this is my marathon. It’s exhilarating, and I feel proud of the certificates I’ve won for penmanship (in pencil) and perfectly completing all three puzzles over the years.
I get to see THE MAN! Many of my icons are either dead or unlikely to drop by the library on a Saturday afternoon (or both). But Will Shortz, genuine, funny, and brilliant, stops by to bend our minds regularly. He not only brings us the treat of next week’s as-yet-not-seen-by-the-public NYT puzzles, but regales us with stories of his life in the puzzlers’ fast lane. While the volunteers review the completed puzzles to determine the finalists, he challenges us with brain twisters similar to those he shares on NPR’s Weekly Sunday Puzzle radio show. This man has serious street cred! HE created the clues that The Riddler leaves for Batman in Batman Forever.
I look out over the room after the third round but before they announce the three finalists and, oddly, think of Elton John: “They’re packed pretty tight in here tonight.” But it is, of course, Saturday afternoon, and there will be no “dollies,” alcohol, or fighting (I’ve yet to see the final round come to a fisticuffs). But there is as much joy and camaraderie as in any British pub.
I hope the library has a larger space for this event in its expansion plans. After all, who couldn’t use more joy and camaraderie? That’s a puzzle that’s easy to solve.