As other students relaxed outside in the sun Saturday afternoon, Brown’s puzzle fans gathered in MacMillan Hall 117 to compete in the second annual Brown Crossword Tournament for fame, glory and puzzle books by Will Shortz, the event’s host. Shortz is the New York Times crossword editor and puzzle master on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday.
Brown students constructed two of the four crossword puzzles used in the tournament, said event co-organizer Natan Last ’12. A puzzle constructed by co-organizer Jonah Kagan ’13 will be published in the Times on April 14 and Natan Last ’12, who will intern with Shortz this summer, will have his puzzle published April 30. Kagan and Last create weekly crosswords for The Herald.
Though Shortz also hosts crossword tournaments at other colleges, he noted that Brown has the most student crossword constructors. He hopes to have a week of puzzles entirely created by Brown students in the Times next September, he said.
Participants were divided into three categories: pairs, Brown undergraduates and non-Brown competitors. All competed in the first three rounds and were judged based on time and accuracy. The top three Brown undergraduate finishers then moved on to the final round, which was played on giant whiteboards for all to see.
First-time competitors Brendan Hainline ’12 and Melissa Byun ’12 competed in the pairs division. They partnered up at the last minute, “borne of necessity,” Hainline said. Relative novices at the game — Byun only does crossword puzzles “when I find old used copies in the (Sciences Library),” she said — Hainline and Byun’s dreams were modest. “My hope is to finish a puzzle,” Hainline said at the competition.
Nathan Margolin ’11 and Sarah Hersman ’10 also competed in the pairs division. Margolin regularly completes the Monday and Tuesday crosswords in the Times and occasionally attempts the Sunday puzzle with a partner, he said. Hersman, on the other hand, admitted, “I’ve only done 10 crossword puzzles in my life.”
Both teams completed the first round puzzle with time to spare but struggled with the second, for which all competitors needed extra time. With a minute and a half left, Last announced, “You should just put in some letters. You can put in all Cs, I don’t know.”
Hainline described his mental state after the second round as one of “despair.” Paula Gamache, who also helps Shortz with his crossword correspondence and constructed the second-round puzzle — which will appear in the Times April 20 — seemed surprised by the difficulties contestants had with the second-round puzzle, saying it was a “Tuesday-level puzzle.”
Gamache came to Brown to meet Zoe Wheeler ’13, the only teenage girl who has published a crossword in the Times, whom she mentors, she added.
The tournament’s third round puzzle exhibited Shortz’s belief that “puzzles should embrace everybody’s culture,” he said. Clues in Kagan’s puzzle included “34 Across: What Justin Timberlake’s “ ‘bringin’ back,’ in a song” and “12 Down: Receptacle for Voldemort’s Soul in Harry Potter.”
Hainline and Byun’s knowledge of the “SexyBack” lyrics and the Dark Arts ultimately helped to propel them to a third place finish in their division for that round. Margolin and Hersman did not place, but Hersman said, “We’re just having fun.”
Between the third and fourth rounds, Shortz entertained the crowd with word games.
Jack Gill ’11, Jonah Wolf ’12 and Wendy Kwartin ’11 advanced to the final round, where each was given a giant whiteboard, a pair of noise-cancelling headphones and a 20-minute time limit to complete the puzzle. All immediately knew “1 Across: Inspiration for the cover band Bjorn Again” but were stymied by the correct spelling of “36 Across: Hound.” Ultimately, Gill earned first place, finishing a few minutes ahead of runner-up Wolf.
Last, who constructed the final puzzle, said he tries to include “as many awesome words as possible” in his puzzles.
Gill, who won second place in last year’s tournament, has done crosswords since middle school and described himself as a “daily Ratty solver.” A good friend of Wolf, the two “bonded over our love of puzzles,” he said.
Still smarting over his misspelling of 36 Across, Wolf said, “That one letter is going to haunt my dreams.”