Not all that long ago, if you were to make a “David vs. Goliath” metaphor at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, there would have been no question who you intended for the role of Goliath. Tyler Hinman won the tournament for the first time in 2005, at the age of 20 years old, and then kept winning it, again and again, for five consecutive years — an incredible feat. The finals of the tournament take place in front of a large audience, on giant whiteboards, and year after year, we saw what makes a crossword champion: Tyler was fast, accurate, nimble-minded, and seemingly unstoppable.
Tyler’s first victory was documented in the movie Wordplay. The success of that movie attracted many more solvers to the tournament, including Dan Feyer, a good-humored, bespectacled theatrical music producer. Dan won the tournament’s C division in 2008. He won the B division in 2009. And in 2010, he unseated Tyler Hinman not only as overall champion, but as the tournament’s Goliath.
Dan elevated the competition: He was so freaking fast, and the puzzle community soon understood that he trained endlessly, solving every crossword in the world, one after the other, day after day.
Sure, Dan had only one win under his belt at that point, but anybody with half a brain could see that 2010 was likely the start of a new dynasty.
And so it has proven to be. Dan has won every year from 2010 – 2014, often leaving Tyler in second or third place. If Dan won in 2015, he would break Tyler’s record of five consecutive wins. Tyler, I think it is safe to say, dearly wanted to prevent that from happening.
Each year’s tournament begins with an easy puzzle — an appetizer for the meal to come. The top solvers hardly even need to engage their brains: Many of them wrap up this trifle in under three minutes… maybe under four minutes if they pause to breathe.
Dan Feyer solved the first 2015 puzzle in under two minutes.
Dwell on that for a moment, please. Think about the process of looking at a clue, understanding it, gleaning the correct answer, and writing it into the spaces. Think of all the things that might slow you down along the way, especially with a countdown timer looming over you: Even on an easy puzzle, you might misread a clue. Or you might come up an answer that fits the blanks but is wrong. Or the correct answer might simply elude you — not forever, but for a few seconds.
Apparently none of that happens to Dan — not on an easy, Mondayish crossword puzzle, anyway. An arrow shot from a bow meets no significant resistance on its way to the target. Dan is a similarly resistance-free machine for turning crossword clues into answers, and answers into letters in the grid. Breaking the two-minute mark for a tournament crossword is simply unreal.
Tyler had a similiarly impressive moment toward the end of the tournament. The main part of the ACPT consists of seven puzzles — six on Saturday and a final, Sunday-size crossword the following morning. The top three competitors move on to the finals. At the end of the first day, Tyler sat firmly in fourth place, behind talented solvers Joon Pahk and Howard Barkin. If he was going to have his rematch against Dan, Tyler would first have to solve the Sunday morning puzzle a full minute faster than either of the people ahead of him. It would be doable, but it wouldn’t be easy.
Well, it wouldn’t be easy for most people. Tyler wound up solving that crossword — akin to a Sunday New York Times puzzle — in just six minutes. Tyler would have been happy with third place, but his performance was so amazing that he wound up in second.
And so, we had our re-re-re-re-rematch. I confess that I felt skepticism about my friend Tyler’s chances. He is a shockingly good crossword solver, but Dan Feyer is… well, Dan Feyer. It was hard to imagine Dan making a mistake. It was equally hard to imagine him slowing down long enough to give either of his competitors an opening.
And yes, I also confess that I thought the odds were pretty long that Howard Barkin, the third-place finalist, would emerge as champion. He, too, is an incredible solver, always there in the mix at the top of the leaderboards. But solving in the finals — on those crazy whiteboards, in front of a large audience, with bright spotlights shining at you and while wearing the clunky headphones necessary to drown out the noise from the commentators — well, that’s a completely different experience from paper-and-pencil solving, and not much can prepare you for it. Howard has been in the finals before, but he doesn’t have the mileage of Dan or Tyler. His victory would have been a huge upset.
No, this was a battle between Dan and Tyler. The rules of the tournament gave Dan a five-second headstart, and he leapt into the puzzle with fervor — for the first minute or so, he shrugged off superhard clues like they were nothing at all. He soon had an entire corner filled in. Tyler, meanwhile, wrote in one long entry without any crossing letters (“Best-selling 1975 horror novel whose title has two apostrophes” — SALEMSLOT) but seemed unable to build on it in any significant way. He was sputtering around, writing in words here and there.
I’m not quite sure how Dan first ran into trouble. Perhaps it was because that first corner he filled in was the upper right, which provided him with a lot of unhelpful ending letters to other words. Undoubtedly, the middle-right section of the grid was more than a little difficult, with a semi-obscure inventor (James HARGREAVES) sitting on top of two geographic names. I couldn’t imagine Dan slowing down? Well, then, here was the unimaginable. Dan never stopped writing — he never just stood there, stymied; at least not for long — but he was somewhat short of his usual pace.
Tyler, meanwhile, knew that the only way to go was pedal-to-the-metal. He was jittery with energy, pausing here and there and then all but attacking the grid, slashing in letters and words. His scattershot beginning had provided him with a strong base, and soon he had a significant section of the puzzle completed. It was suddenly hard to tell who was in the lead.
For Tyler, it ultimately came down to perhaps ten squares in the lower left, blanks peppering words like ANNULI and the partial AIN’T I and the word RELIC, challengingly clued as “Holdover.” Tyler wrote letters in and erased them, and the audience started to mutter and then shout. Dan had only the lower right to go — more than Tyler’s ten squares, but he was picking up the pace again. He seemed to have none of Tyler’s doubts about his remaining answers; it was only a matter of writing them in fast enough. The audience was now very loud. It was clear that whoever won would do so by seconds.
Finalists solve the puzzle with their backs to the audience; they signal that they are finished simply by raising a hand and saying “Done.”
They say that Dan won by a half second. I’m not sure that’s right. It might be as little as a quarter second. Dan raised his hand, and then Tyler raised his hand in the very next instant; there was almost no pause at all. The audience went crazy — I certainly don’t recall ever seeing a standing ovation while one of the competitors was still trying to finish the puzzle. (The headphones the finalists wear aren’t that good at blocking out noise — Howard Barkin understood what had happened, and he paused long enough to bow in the direction of his competitors.)
It’s worth reiterating that Dan had a five-second headstart over Tyler at the start of the puzzle. Dan earned this by scoring fifty more points than Tyler over the course of the tournament, and Dan did that in part by tearing to shreds that very first puzzle — the one he solved in under two minutes. If the timer had ticked into the third minute, Dan would have scored fewer points, and thus have earned less of a head start — and would have lost. (It’s obviously of little consolation to Tyler that in fact he solved the final puzzle a few seconds faster than the champion.)
So… that was exciting. Indeed, the grand finale of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament has rarely been more nailbiting. I suppose that will frequently be the case when Goliath battles Goliath.