Al Sanders works on a puzzle.
Anthony Camera

What's the Word?

A yellowing newspaper clipping from the Houston Chronicle hangs on the wall in Al Sanders's home office in Fort Collins. The matted and framed article, dated January 27, 1964, is accompanied by a photograph of a five-year-old boy, identified as Austin Sanders III, sitting on his mother's lap. He is reading Life magazine.

"At five, he is something of a master of the written word," the story notes. "He taught himself to read -- and not just simple children's books...but things like the daily newspapers, magazines and dictionaries."

The boy's reading skills apparently arrived suddenly, all in a rush. Before the age of two and a half, he barely spoke at all. Then, one day, his mother noticed him matching symbols from newspaper and Yellow Pages ads with the real businesses around town.

He began talking soon after that. But no one could understand him. The words poured out in such a torrent that it sounded like no language anyone had heard. So his parents had him tested. Their doctor was reassuring. He told them their only child's tongue merely needed time to catch up with his brain: Austin's thoughts were so far ahead of his words that it rendered his speech unintelligible.

"Al enjoys word games and quiz-type television programs," the article added.

"I want to know everything," the boy explained.

The reporter asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up.

"A cash register man," he replied.

On a recent Monday morning, Al, now 43, sits down at his kitchen table to do the New York Times daily crossword puzzle. His children are in school; his wife is running errands. The family's aging and deaf spaniel has been put outside. The house is quiet.

He has printed the puzzle off the Internet. The Times releases its crosswords the night before actual hard-copy publication. Recently, Al discovered how to adjust his printer so that the blank squares in the puzzles come out gray instead of black. This saves money on ink.

Al pushes his glasses up and adjusts his mechanical pencil. (Using a pen is show-offy, he believes; besides, it's too slow if you have to erase.) He removes his watch from his left wrist, sets it to its stopwatch function and places it next to the puzzle. He takes a breath. Then, with his left hand, he starts the watch. He begins writing with his right.

He moves clockwise around the puzzle, upper left to upper right to lower right to lower left. He reads the clues out loud and then answers them under his breath. His talk is nonstop. There are no pauses, verbal punctuation being a colossal waste of time.

"Decoration on an Indian moccasin bead sound of astonishment gasp relative of a croc gator therefore ergo long (for) ache blazing afire 'You said it!' amen tall tale teller liar like property for businesses zoned 'Good Will Hunting' actress Minnie Driver..."

As Al advances through the puzzle, his pencil is like his early speech, always one step behind his brain, still writing the answer to the previous clue as he reads aloud the next. He writes in all capital letters.

"Ferdinand's queen Isabella shooter pellet pea compete (for) vie storage places closets theater district Rialto helps out aids..."

There are 66 clues in the "across" column, 58 in the "down." Of the 124 answers, there are two that Al does not know immediately; however, those blanks are filled in as he races through the other clues. When he puts down his pencil and hits the button on his watch, the time reads two minutes and 27 seconds.

"Under two-thirty," Al says. "It's a good day."

He adds, "When I tell people I do ten puzzles a day, they're like, 'Whoa!' But in all, it probably takes less than an hour."

Being a successful crossworder is a particular skill, which is to say it is not very transferable. Many people assume, for example, that those who are infatuated with crossword puzzles are also good at other word games, such as Scrabble. But Scrabble players are derided by crossword solvers as mere memorizers, freaks who know how to spell many obscure words even though they may have no idea of the definitions.

Still, it was not so long ago that crossworders were more akin to Scrabblers than they are today. Crossword puzzles began as little more than vocabulary and geography exams. Clues were straight tests of knowledge: A town in central Scotland. A small galley propelled by both sails and oars. The space between nose and lip.

About twenty years ago, though, the editors of Games magazine, a new publication dedicated to serious wordsmiths, began to change all that. In an attempt to inject more playfulness and pizzazz into crosswords, they decided to make all of their answers to crossword puzzles common words. They reserved their creativity for the clues, which began to resemble riddles and wordplay more than mere definitions.

The shift turned the entire game upside down and bred a new class of crossworder. Now, while still being rewarded for a broad range of general knowledge, today's best solvers achieve success not by memorizing the dictionary, but by letting their brains wander to places slightly off-center.

This is because the cleverest clues will use mental misdirection in an attempt to throw off pursuers, and solvers must be prepared to follow. "The good ones are where you'll read the clue and you're certain that it's going one way, and then it doesn't," Al says. Whereas an old clue might simply read "mal de mer," the new-style one would hint: "Needing relief from pitching." (The answer to both is "seasick.")

"Who cares about the Babylonian god of dirt?" the notorious "new wave" crossword constructor Merl Reagle once said, explaining his motivation. "Instead of the usual themes, I wanted to do themes like movies that should not be shown together -- like Driving Miss Daisy/Nutz, or Men in Black/Lipstick. Or Three Men and a Baby/Anaconda."

The riddlesome clues have added an addicting element of sweet torment to crosswords. With older puzzles, you either knew the answer or you didn't. Newer puzzles hold out the alluring promise of a sudden solution to every clue if only you think hard enough. They are as much tests of wit as they are of knowledge. Many puzzles now have themes; a few have punchlines. It is hardly surprising that serious solvers have more than a bit of the masochist in them.

In fact, the whole dynamic between crossword solvers and constructors is a lot like S&M -- a period of excruciatingly pleasurable anguish at the hands of a master, followed by blissful release. Constructors commonly refer to themselves as torturers; one early British editor was known only by his pen name, Torquemada.

Puzzles that are too easy leave a solver feeling cheap and unsatisfied. On the other hand, "the best puzzles string you along until the end," says Al. Constructors have a name for that balance point between pleasure and pain -- the exquisite area between a patently unsolvable clue and one that makes the solver writhe and then, with a smack of the forehead, break through. They call it the "sweet spot."

The cleverest constructors become celebrities. Especially brilliant puzzles are collected and recalled with awe, like great sports moments or Grateful Dead concerts. One such famous puzzle appeared on election eve in November 1996. A crucial fourteen-letter clue hinted, "Lead story in tomorrow's newspaper." Outraged solvers quickly jammed phone lines, protesting the constructor's chutzpah when they learned the right answer was "Clinton Elected."

Other callers, however, complained that the right answer, "Bob Dole elected," was factually incorrect. What both discovered, of course, was that the constructor had covered his bases -- and earned his place in crossword lore -- by writing the puzzle so that both answers fit perfectly. (The first down clue was "Black Halloween animal"; both "cat" and "bat" worked.)

Crosswords have been called the world's most popular pastime, yet the demographics of competitions are like NCAA women's basketball. While some fifty million people are thought to dabble at wordplay in newspapers, magazines and online, a mere handful of solvers dominate the top ranks, and the gap never seems to close.

The premier tournament in the country is the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held annually in Stamford, Connecticut. It is organized and run by Will Shortz, crossword editor for the New York Times (and the only man in the country with a college degree in "enigmatology," a major he designed himself. He also wrote the riddles featured in the 1995 movie Batman Forever).

Although several hundred people enter each year, by the end of the second day of the competition, the field has been narrowed down to just three. Since 1988, four people -- the upstart whiz-kid constructor Trip Payne, Douglas "The Iceman" Hoylman, perennial second-place finisher Ellen Ripstein and cabaret musician Jon Delfin -- have claimed 35 of those 39 spots.

"The chance of someone waltzing into a major crossword tournament and winning the first time out is nil," says Shortz. In fact, the only other player who has cracked the finals more than once besides these four is Al Sanders -- although it always seems to come as something of a surprise when he does. In 1999, Al was in first place going into the finals, a place he'd been before. Still, it drew a big laugh from the audience when the announcer intoned, "And in the center, Al Sanders. Um, I don't know who he is."

Being a crossword genius is not like playing in the NBA, and the stereotype of what big-time gamers might look and behave like is not too far from the truth. Unathletic is a given. Socially peculiar can generally be assumed.

Iceman Hoylman has a mounding belly; his knees brush together as he lumbers along. John Delfin insists on using only No. 1 pencils. Trip Payne is slightly built, weak of chin, and arrogant enough to bring back uncomfortable memories of the straight-A nerd you knew in seventh grade and wanted to punch.

"It's an interesting crowd," Al says. "People are social; they'll stay up all night playing board games. But there are a couple of folks who are tough to strike up a conversation with."

Still, there are similarities. Like Tiger Woods, gifted puzzlers usually demonstrate an early aptitude. Trip Payne recalled that he began figuring out crosswords around the age of three by comparing week-old and current editions of TV Guide. He constructed his first puzzles for the elementary-school newspaper. Will Shortz started writing his own puzzle books when he was ten. In an eighth-grade social studies paper, he confidently announced that he would become a professional puzzlemaker.

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."

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.

As for Al, he failed to complete the final puzzle in the allotted time, having become hung up on the clue "A good job if you want to make a lot." (Answer = paver.) He had just finished filling in all the blanks and was about to make two small corrections when time ran out on him.

"It's hard to practice such difficult puzzles," he sighs. "You never really see one that hard except in the tournament finals. There just seems to be this final hump that I can't get over."

"Someday," he adds, "I'm going to win something."

Oh, well. Today there are real-life problems to work out. Al's attempts to fix his lawn's watering system have only made things worse. "I've never understood the mysteries of the vacuum breaker," he says. "The sprinkler guy is coming at noon."


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