“It’s a beautiful day for a crossword puzzle tournament” in New York

Dan Feyer
Champion Dan Feyer. (photo by Kwai Chan / Meniscus Magazine)

When the highly-lauded documentary “Wordplay” made its debut in 2006, it provided a fascinating look into the world of the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.  The brainchild of New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz, the event brings together hundreds of word-loving aficionados who eagerly challenge their minds and the clock in some vocabulary-defying timed exercises.

Four years later, the landscape had markedly changed.  The popularity brought the tournament – and “Wordplay” director Patrick Creadon – from Stamford, Conn., to Brooklyn.  The event now attracts 600 to 700 contestants each year, about a 25 percent increase from contestant pools prior to the film festival circuit screenings of “Wordplay.” But one thing had remained constant since the movie came out: the tournament’s youngest-ever champion, Tyler Hinman, was still the Division A winner.

No more in 2010.  Hinman’s five-tournament winning streak ended when he came in fourth that year – and second in 2011 – to Dan Feyer, a New  York musician who according to The Times became even more hooked on crossword puzzles thanks to “Wordplay.”  Feyer, the two-time defending champion, hopes to stave off former winners (and, of course, “Wordplay” subjects) Hinman, Ellen Ripstein and Jon Delfin when the 2012 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament concludes on Sun., Mar. 18.

The tournament is quite a spectacle to experience in person, particularly when it comes to the championship rounds.  Tongue-in-cheek live commentary appealing to word geeks peppers the proceedings as the finalists solve puzzles onstage on poster boards, just as shown in “Wordplay,” wearing headphones that block all peripheral noise should a spectator attempt to shout out answers.  That same puzzle is distributed to members of the audience to try and solve during the Division C finals; in a hilarious moment, I looked at the stage, then back at the crowd in the ballroom, and not a single person was paying attention to the timed competition because everyone was too busy trying to solve the puzzle on paper.

Those wanting to capture the spirit of “Wordplay” in person can do so this weekend, Mar. 17-18, at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott.  Feyer will attempt to make it a three-peat, while Dr. Fill, a computer program that made its debut last year, will attempt to defeat all human beings.

Editor’s Note, Mar. 18: In a repeat of last year’s Top 3, Feyer successfully defended his championship, making it three Division A titles in a row. Hinman came in second place, followed by Anne Erdmann.

Photos: 2010 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

Video: 2005-2009 champion Tyler Hinman accepts fourth place in 2010