BOB GARFIELD: The last weekend in March, at a Marriott in Stamford, Connecticut, the 29th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was held. It was a record-breaking affair with 500 contenders. We sent our producer Mike Vuolo to the event because, as a puzzle fanatic and a published puzzle constructor, a person who writes puzzles, he was desperate to go.
MIKE VUOLO: It's true, so I could empathize with contestant Stella Daily, who, in the lead-up to the tournament, was struggling for equilibrium.
STELLA DAILY: I won't say I'll be disappointed if I don't win, but I think I, I'd be a little bit – yeah, okay, I would be a little bit disappointed in myself.
MIKE VUOLO: Daily happened upon crossword puzzles back in 1998, while a junior at Princeton University. She wasn't a speed solver back then. It would take her an entire day to finish the New York Times Sunday Crossword, and just finishing it was enough. Then, in 2001, Daily stumbled on a website for the tournament. She had gotten faster by then – a lot faster – so she thought -
STELLA DAILY: Hey, this is great! A crossword tournament. I should go. And, of course, they have on the website a puzzle from the tournament, and they say if you can solve this in under 15 minutes, you'd be competitive at the tournament, and if you solve it in under 10 minutes, that's excellent. So I solved it in like 9:45 and I thought I was the bomb and I was gonna go and do great.
MIKE VUOLO: What Daily didn't realize is that 15 minutes would be no gauge of greatness at the tournament. In fact, for some rounds, 15 minutes is all you get.
STELLA DAILY: In order to be competitive, as in the top 10 at the tournament, you better solve that puzzle in three to four minutes, so I was completely embarrassed. My first finish was 220th out of 330, and I'm a really competitive person and I was really pissed off by that, so I decided that was never going to happen to me again.
MIKE VUOLO: Daily started solving The New York Times puzzle every day, and the following year at the tournament, she placed in the 170s. Then she upped her regimen to several puzzles a day, from newspapers around the country, and in 2004, she jumped to 39th in the rankings. Last year, with more than 450 solvers in the tournament, Stella Daily finished sixth. Now, at home in Brooklyn Heights, less than a week before the big event, she's doing 20 puzzles a day.
STELLA DAILY: Ferocious fishy is a piranha. Assume – six letters – blank, blank, blank, E - O blank. I'm guessing that's "take on." Name from Woody's past. Oh! Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, M-I-A. One-fifteen across. Senator – [SONG]
MAN [SINGING]: I am sitting here and doing the Sunday Times Crossword Puzzle. Somehow the words won't come. I am staring at squares but my eyes never focus, and my mind's feeling strangely numb. It's a fact that a word – [SONG FADES OUT]
MIKE VUOLO: The very first crossword was published in the Pulitzer-owned New York World in 1913. As the story goes, the paper's "fun pages" editor, Arthur Wynn, hailed a horse-drawn cab in midtown and told the driver to take 42nd across and 1st down, and in that moment, the puzzle was born. New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz says that crossword puzzles went quickly from local curiosity to national craze.
WILL SHORTZ: What caused that craze? It was partly the rising educational level in the United States, I think. It was this wonderful mass distribution system of newspapers and a sense of fun, fun, fun of the '20s, you know, in the Roaring '20s, and just within a matter of months, virtually every American newspaper started publishing a crossword puzzle.
MIKE VUOLO: Of course, the 1920s was a decade given to crazes. There was flagpole-sitting and dance marathons – even imports, like mahjongg. But for a brief time, says Shortz, crossword was king.
WILL SHORTZ: There was crossword jewelry. There was a show on Broadway called "Puzzles of 1925," in which one of the scenes was in a crossword puzzle sanitarium for solvers who had lost their minds. The B&O Railroad installed unabridged dictionaries for the convenience of its puzzle-loving passengers. [LAUGHS] So the country was just mad about crosswords for about six months.
MIKE VUOLO: One puzzle-themed hit from 1924 was titled, "Crossword Mama, You Puzzle Me, but Papa's Gonna Figure You Out."
WILL SHORTZ: "You treat me like an orphan in a storm. Crossword books won't keep my tootsies warm. Crossword mama, you puzzle me, but papa's gonna figure you out. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Washington, he crossed the Delaware. Columbus crossed the ocean blue. If there's any more crossin' to be done, Papa's gonna double-cross you." [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MIKE VUOLO: So virtually every American newspaper had, by the '20s, been publishing a crossword - the sole holdout: the New York Times. On November 17th, 1924, the Times dismissively asserted that solvers, quote, "get nothing out of it except a primitive sort of mental exercise." Puzzle fan Louise Sinclair fired off a nimble repost in the form of a letter to the editor. "I cannot but believe," she wrote, "that in this day of looking and listening, of movies and radio, a sport which demands a little thinking should not be utterly despised." The New York Times went on despising the crossword for another 18 years, and finally ran its first one in 1942.
MARC ROMANO: Crossword puzzles are really a soothing ritual.
MIKE VUOLO: Mark Romano is the author of Crossworld: One Man's Journey into America's Crossword Obsession.
MARC ROMANO: For some people it's a cocktail after work. For other it's tea made a special way in the morning. So the crossword is a daily presence in my life. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MIKE VUOLO: You might guess that the fastest puzzle solvers are masters of words rather than numbers, but many of the best actually come from the math and science fields. You might also guess that a crossword puzzle tournament would be a sedate affair. Marc Romano.
MARC ROMANO: One would expect that somebody who spends a significant amount of their time alone and doing a solitary activity would tend more toward the introvert on the introvert/extrovert emotional scale, so it's with a certain amount of trepidation that you approach your first tournament, because you're thinking, my gosh, this is going to be the quietest, most boring thing in the world. And then you walk in through the lobby of the Stamford Marriott and it's like all hell has blown lose. [HUBBUB OF VOICES]
MIKE VUOLO: It's 8:30 on Sunday morning. Contestants solved six puzzles yesterday which were graded for speed and accuracy overnight. The results have just been posted. Stella Daily, her hair still wet from a shower, wearing a "Don't Mess with Brooklyn" tee-shirt, is pressed up against the lobby wall.
STELLA DAILY: Ah, a little disappointed right now. Puzzle Five just about, you know, killed quite a lot of us, and me in particular, so I'm currently ranked in 12th place, even though yesterday I actually walked out of Puzzle Two having finished it faster than anybody else.
MIKE VUOLO: After the seventh and final puzzle later that morning, Daily remained in 12th place, which makes it the first time she's ever moved down from one year to the next in the rankings. She'll shrug this one off and try again, the kind of determination shown not just by puzzle solvers but also by puzzle constructors. [SOUND OF TRAIN IN BACKGROUND]
WILL SHORTZ: So let's see what we got here.
MIKE VUOLO: On the Friday after the tournament, Will Shortz picked up his mail at the New York Times. He receives about 75 submissions from puzzle constructors each week and sifts through them on the train ride back to his home in Westchester County.
WILL SHORTZ: Don't know this person. The acceptance rate for new people is extremely low, but, you know, you never know, so I always hope for the best.
MIKE VUOLO: During his 13-year tenure as crossword editor, Shortz has published several hundred constructors, some frequently, some only once. Somewhere among that list of names is me. Over the years, I've gotten a few dozen crosswords into the New York and Los Angeles Times. My last puzzle was published in 2004, while in graduate school, which has a way of obliterating hobbies. But despite all that, I'm not sure I could be a contender at the tournament. Speed solving's just not for me. I like to take my time. In fact, unlike Stella Daily, I do it in bed.
STELLA DAILY: I would see a lot of personal ads that said, you know, I'm looking for a woman who wants to spend the day in bed with me, just like reading the New York Times and solving the Sunday Crossword in bed, and I'm like, well, you probably shouldn't go out with me unless you want to feel really inadequate because I'm gonna sit there [LAUGHING] and I'm gonna solve the New York Times Sunday in 10 minutes or less, and it's not, it's not leisurely to me at all.
MIKE VUOLO: Turns out curling up in bed with the Sunday Times is no longer an issue for Daily. In fact, she and Marc Romano and 40,000 other premium subscribers don't think of solving as attached to the physical product of the newspaper at all. Those solvers don't bother to grandstand by wielding a pen instead of a pencil. For them, solving the puzzle has already gone the way of the rest of the paper – online. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] For On the Media, I'm Mike Vuolo. [SONG]
MAN [SINGING]: I feel so unnecessary each night when I go to call. Fools there have been since the world began, but I'm the daddy of all. Crosswords have made me blue as can be, Cross, crosswords between my sweetie and me, Every night in our little home We sit together, but I'm all alone.
I'm jealous. How can I win sympathy? I'm hoping she'll soon need L-O-V-E. She's so contrary- Her old dictionary and crosswords are sweeter than me. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]