What's the Word?

Crossword-puzzler Al Sanders has had his ups and downs.

Al, too, was precocious, demonstrating an unusual interest in games, contests and word problems early on. "I had been doing puzzles since I was about seven," he says. "Since I was an only child, I was good at coming up with ways to play games with just one person." He invented elaborate sports contests for one, drawing plays out of a bag or setting up tournaments.

He bought the old Dell puzzle books and, later, moved on to the newspaper crosswords. He had an unnatural interest in quiz shows -- Password, Match Game, Jeopardy -- for a kindergartner. (After much pestering, his parents finally revealed he had to be an adult to be on Jeopardy. In 1993, he did get on the show. He had a hefty lead going into the final round and blew it -- a pattern that has haunted him in other competitions.)

As the years passed, nothing much changed. "I was pretty nerdy in high school," Al remembers. "I was still dressing like my dad; I hadn't discovered normal clothes yet. Eventually I discovered Levi cords, so I didn't get harassed as much."

Al Sanders works on a puzzle.
Anthony Camera
Al Sanders works on a puzzle.

And most kids cut him some slack because he was so obviously smart. He scored just below perfect on his SATs, graduated valedictorian of his class, and decided on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "When I got to college, I discovered that I hadn't learned any study habits because I didn't need them up until then," he recalls. He also noticed for the first time that the thing he'd done alone for years and years -- crosswords -- he did better than anyone he met.

As is the case with most people with real lives, the idea of competing in crosswording had never occurred to Al. But in 1984, just out of college and starting a career with Hewlett-Packard, he entered a contest through Games magazine, in which contestants filled out crosswords to qualify for a tournament in New York City. Al raced through the first two puzzles. The third required a full day at the library to solve. But the last one stumped him. Then, late one night, the solution came to him in one of those endorphin-releasing "A-ha!" moments that solvers live for.

The title of the puzzle was "Cross-Out." Having failed to grasp the meaning of the phrase at first, Al let his mind wander: What does a cross look like? The letter T. 'Out' means remove. Finally it hit him: If he omitted the letter T from several crucial answers, everything fit.

Al was invited to New York to compete. He came in fortieth out of several hundred contestants. "The most overwhelming thing about the tourney was figuring out on my own how to navigate public transportation," he recalls. By the following year, when he came in fourth place, he was addicted, and he has been hitting puzzle tournaments every year since. In 1994, he was a surprise second-place finisher in Shortz's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. In 1999, he finished third; the next year, he came in fourth.

This spring, Al hoped to regain the finals. Throughout the winter, he'd made a conscious effort to work on speed. His natural curiosity and wide range of interests ensured his brain was content-ready. ("I was a voracious reader while growing up and probably watched too much TV," he says. "I was also a rabid Astros, Oilers and Rockets fan. All of that pop culture and literature and sports knowledge has helped me in puzzles, though. It's a good thing there weren't video games when I was a kid.") He saved up six months' worth of the New York Times puzzles and, as the tournament date approached, did them methodically.

On the first day of the competition -- held, as always, in March at the Stamford Marriott -- the contestants were treated to six puzzles of varying difficulty and fiendishness. One featured a theme of Roman numerals in contemporary phrases ("Early second-millennium tool" = MC Hammer.) Another departed from standard form by randomly sprinkling clues throughout a story narrative. The last puzzle theme was humorous epitaphs (Descartes = I think not; Bambi = deer departed). Al finished in less than five minutes.

At the end of the day, the judges, using a complex formula considering both speed and accuracy, named the day's three top finishers. For the third time, Al had risen to the top. In fact, surprising everyone, he found himself in first place. Even with an uncharacteristic error in one of the day's puzzles (he'd left a square blank), Hoylman was in third. Second place was held by Jon Delfin.

Sunday was divided into two parts. First everyone tackled a seventh puzzle. After that, the tournament's three finalists were named. Delfin had moved into first. Al was second, and Hoylman had been replaced by a young robotics professor named Zack Butler.

The three men moved to the front of the room. As always, the final puzzle grid was blown up to easel size; the top three solvers faced the boards wearing headphones to block out crowd noise and the play-by-play announcer's voice.

It was an anti-climactic finish. Delfin smoked the puzzle, finishing it in an untouchable eight minutes. Butler worked though a sticky section and barely completed the puzzle under the limit of fifteen minutes.

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