The Westport Library was quieter than usual today — some of the time.
The 21st annual Crossword Puzzle Contest drew a record 130-plus cruciverbalists, from as far as Pittsburgh and Illinois.
A small portion of the 130-plus puzzlers.
Led by New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz — the host and grandmaster for all 21 years — the contestants tackled 3 crosswords.
That was the quiet part. During breaks, there were loud, animated conversations — about puzzles, the genius of Will Shortz, and life.
The judges at work.
After those preliminary rounds, the finalists took the stage. Glenn Ryan of Norwich dethroned defending champion Ken Stern, finishing a “Friday puzzle” without a mistake in a blazing 4 minutes, 50 seconds.
Finalists,just minutes after the championship round began.
He won a book about the origins of words — and an hour test drive in a Maserati, courtesy of the Westport dealer.
From left: finalists Ken Stern, Jesse Lansner and champion Glenn Ryan, with Westport Library executive director Bill Harmer and New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz.
That may the only thing faster than Glenn.
Not to brag, but — well, okay, a little. (Photos/Dan Woog)
There are 2 ways to do the New York Times crossword puzzle:
In a room with a couple hundred other people, racing the clock and all those other geniuses who know that frybread is a “Naan-like Native American food,” epee is a “sword’s name with two accents,” and that shandy is a “beer and lemonade drink.” They also know who Danny Ainge, Joni Ernst and Gotye are, plus tons of other random stuff.
All those people who enjoy option #2 gathered this afternoon at the Saugatuck Congregational Church. They competed — good-naturedly, but fiercely — in the Westport Library’s 20th annual Crossword Puzzle Contest.
Solving crossword puzzles takes concentration.
For the 20th year, it was puzzle-master-minded — and presided over joyfully and cruciverbally — by Times crossword editor (and NPR star) Will Shortz.
New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz and Westport Library director Bill Harmer entertain the crowd. The countdown clock is at right.
Contestants came from as far as North Carolina and Illinois. Ages skewed older, though there were enough younger faces to make Gotye a legit question.
After 3 rounds of increasing-in-difficulty Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday puzzles, the top 3 contestants (based on speed and accuracy) faced off for the title. They stood on stage, solving a tough Thursday crossword as the crowd watched.
The finalists (from left): Glen Ryan, Jesse Lansner and Ken Stern.
Glen Ryan finished in 6:50. However, he got one answer wrong.
Jesse Lansner was 2nd, in 7:30. But he got one wrong too.
So Ken Stern — slow, steady and perfect, in 11:37 — was declared the winner.
It was a fast, fun day. I know, because I was one of those solvers
I did not make the finals. But I was one of a few dozen to complete all 3 Monday through Wednesday puzzles perfectly.
Westporters have a special relationship with the New York Times crossword puzzle.
Every year, puzzle editor Will Shortz hosts a competition at the library. (The upcoming 19th annual event is February 3.)
When library director Maxine Bleiweis retired in 2015, Shortz showed up — and presented her with a specially created, “MB”-themed puzzle.
Two months ago, “Westport” was even the answer to a clue — “Affluent Connecticut town” — in a Times crossword puzzle.
But our special relationship goes only so far. To be published by the paper, a puzzle must be good. Very good.
Alan Southworth’s is. Which is why — ta-da! — the 2010 Staples High School graduate makes his debut today as a New York Times puzzle constructor.
Alan Southworth (left) and Will Shortz, at last year’s Westport Library crossword puzzle contest.
The best constructors know a lot, about a lot of things. They have varied interests. Southworth definitely does.
At Staples he sang with the Orphenians, joined the jazz band, competed on the math team, and played freshman basketball.
At Princeton he majored in geosciences (and was certified in sustainable energy and environmental studies). He works now as an energy market consultant, in a Manhattan firm run by 2001 Staples grads Gabe Phillips and Jonathan Spivak. In his spare time, he plays singer-songwriter gigs around the city.
Southworth always loved words. He grew up playing Scrabble and Boggle with his mom, and relaxed before bed with Sudoku and KenKen.
In college, he discovered crosswords. He and his friends challenged themselves with the Times puzzle in the dining hall.
After graduation, he commuted nearly 2 hours each way. Vowing to be as productive as possible, he spent his train rides writing song lyrics. That soon morphed into crossword theme ideas.
His college friend Ryan McCarty had a couple of puzzles accepted by the Times. He wanted to collaborate. So Southworth devised themes. McCarty did most of the grid construction. Together they wrote clues.
They’ve kept a Google Doc of puzzle ideas ever since.
Their first 2 puzzles were rejected. This one was accepted, Southworth thinks, because the theme answers were a bit “cleaner,” and the grid more open (fewer black squares in the middle).
Having a crossword accepted is quite an accomplishment. Having your first one run on a Thursday is remarkable. That’s the toughest day for a themed puzzle. (Monday is the easiest; Tuesday and Wednesday are a bit harder. Friday and Saturday are reserved for themeless — but more difficult — puzzles.)
Southworth has a digital subscription to the Times. But today he’ll buy a dead-tree copy of the paper — and make copies for his co-workers.
Here in Westport, his parents have promised to save their copy for him too.
It wasn’t quite curling up with the New York Times crossword.
More like racing through it, trying to beat dozens of other crossword aficionados. The grand prize: A book (about words) donated in your name to the Westport Library.
Your name on a new plaque.
And — 24 hours before the Super Bowl — the knowledge that you’re a champion in a competition using (instead of destroying) brain cells.
It happened this afternoon: the Library’s 18th annual Crossword Puzzle Contest.
Jeff Wieser was ready for the Crossword Puzzle Contest. The countdown clock is in the background. There were 3 preliminary rounds, of 20 minutes each.
I was there for the 1st time. The McManus Room was filled with fellow puzzlers. Many had come to previous contests. A few had been to every one.
Eric Maddy came all the way from Huntington Beach, California (and wore shorts). He seemed to know a lot of folks. Crossword solvers have created quite a community.
But there were plenty of familiar faces. Sitting across from me was Jeff Wieser, CEO of Homes With Hope. On my right was Alan Southworth, the 2010 Staples High grad/musician/marathon runner/crossword creator (he hopes Will Shortz will select one of his puzzles for the Times).
Will Shortz: New York Times puzzle editor, Westport Library contest host, all-around cool guy.
Shortz himself — the Times puzzle editor/NPR host/Indiana University enigmatology major — was at today’s contest too. He served as the genial, wisecracking, challenging host.
The diverse, high-energy crowd was perfect for Shortz. And he had 3 strong puzzles — a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday (in ascending order of difficulty) for us.
I did not win. I did not make the cut as one of 3 finalists. I am, however, extremely proud to say that I did receive a perfect score on all 3 puzzles.
I earned a certificate for that, signed by Will Shortz himself.
A couple dozen others got certificates too. It was that kind of group.
And that kind of only-in-Westport afternoon.
PS: The 3 puzzles will be published in upcoming Times editions. Will gave us the back stories about them. One is by the youngest creator in Times history. When we heard that, no one in the room felt smart at all.
You might even call us clueless.
The 3 finalists. Andy Kravis (right) of New York City won, finishing a Friday puzzle in a blazing 4:50. Eric Maddy (center) was 2nd. He came all the way from California — and received a Westport Library tote bag in appreciation.
From now on, the winner’s name will be etched on a plaque honoring longtime puzzle fan Howard Brody. As the award notes, he “never had a cross word for anyone.”
The New York Times is the gold standard of crossword puzzles. If you can solve one, you feel pretty good.
If you can actually create and sell one to Times puzzle editor Will Shortz, you feel even better.
Ryan Milligan did just that. His crossword puzzle was published today. Not too shabby for a 25-year-old.
Then again, while at Staples High School he was already making crosswords. He got the bug helping his dad, Marty, solve the Times puzzle before school each morning (Ryan’s specialty was French clues). Soon, he was solving them on his own — on the bus, or during free periods.
Starting as a junior, the Class of 2008 member created one crossword a week. He’d print 150 copies, and leave them in the lobby. By lunchtime, they’d be gone.
His first puzzles, he admits, were “truly terrible.” Over the years, he honed his craft. He learned to fit the Times standard: 180-degree symmetry, fewer than 40 black squares, fewer than 78 words, no 2-letter entries, etc.
Ryan submitted his 1st puzzle to Shortz as a senior. It was rejected. So were the 10 or so that followed.
But the puzzle editor has been “an incredible mentor” over the past 8 years, Ryan says.
Shortz always gave full explanations for the rejection. Usually the theme was tired, or had been used before.
This time, Ryan hit paydirt. (Actually it was a year ago. Shortz has a long waiting list for publication.)
SPOILER ALERT: Today’s theme is “Hidden in plain sight.” The word “hidden” is hidden in the 1st long across row. The words “in plain” are hidden in the 2nd long row; the word “sight” is hidden in the 3rd one. The 4th long across row reveals the overall theme.
Ryan thinks Shortz liked it because it was “really different. Constructors often take standard phrases and change a letter or 2 around to make them wacky. But this is something that has really not been tried before.”
Shortz is a hands-on editor. He changed some of the long across answers, then pulled in Frank Longo to rework the puzzle a bit more.
Ryan is not resting on his laurels. He creates a crossword every couple of weeks, submitting those he feels are print-worthy.
The Dartmouth graduate works in marketing for Wayfair.com, an online furniture retailer. He lives in Boston.
Today he’ll walk around the city. Perhaps he’ll see someone trying to solve the puzzle he made. Few people read the constructors’ names; even those who do won’t know they’re working on “his” puzzle.
Ryan Milligan will be hidden in plain sight.
(To read what the New York Times crossword community is saying about Ryan Milligan’s puzzle, click here.)
Today’s puzzle, by Ryan Milligan. (Copyright/New York Times)
More than 400 of Maxine Bleiweis’s closest friends packed the Westport Library tonight, to bid a fond farewell to their favorite library director.
From the Maker Space (“people thought I’d lost my mind when I brought that in,” Maxine joked) to the tables where puzzles and chess sets often entice users, boldface names and “regular” patrons sat together — as they always do there. All were united in their love of the library, and the leader who is leaving after 17 years.
Like Beyoncé or Pele, Maxine needs only one name. And like those superstars, she is one of a kind.
Maxine does it all.
Dianne Wildman expressed the sentiments of many in the crowd.
Tech guru David Pogue — who joked that Maxine got him involved in the Westport Library even before he moved from Stamford — performed an original (and never-to-be-heard again) number: “The Bleiweis Zone.”
A small part of the large crowd tonight. Some stood on the balcony above.
New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz presented Maxine with a special gift (see below).
Shortz’s gift was a word game, in which every 2-word answer starts with the letters “MB.” Each includes a circled letter. When read in order, you’ll never guess what they spell!
Westport’s state legislators Jonathan Steinberg, Tony Hwang and Gail Lavielle were in the house (Toni Boucher was also there, meeting a constituent). Steinberg presented Maxine with a proclamation signed by “a governor who tried to cut library funding.” Hwang praised her for educating him on the vital importance of public libraries.
Maxine said that she was almost speechless — in English. So instead she pronounced herself “verklempt.”
When asked what the title of his autobiography might be, he replied: Times Square.
If that pun falls a bit flat, you’re 1 of the 3 Westporters who haven’t at least tried the New York Times crossword puzzle.
Will Shortz at the Westport Public Library tonight.
The rest of the town flocked to the Westport Public Library last night to honor Will Shortz at the 12th annual Booked for the Evening celebration.
They were not disappointed.
After music by the Doughboys; a Shortz-themed crossword puzzle by Times constructor Patrick Merrell; introductions by Phil Donohue and library director Maxine Bleiweis (battling pneumonia), and praise from Bill Clinton (via letter), the Times crossword editor/NPR puzzlemeister/Indiana University enigmatology major took the stage.
He led an audience participation word game whose rules are too complex to repeat here. The key point is that — after some solid brain-twisting — the answer emerged: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
If I was half as clever as Will Shortz, I’d be a very happy man.
Tom Brokaw, E.L. Doctorow, Calvin Trillin, Wendy Wasserstein, Pete Hamill, Martin Scorsese, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Halberstam and Will Shortz.
If that was a clue — a long one — in a New York Times crossword puzzle, the answer would be:
Westport Library honorees.
The list is broad and diverse: authors, historians, a TV newsman, a playwright, a film director.
On Thursday, May 27, the Library adds “crossword puzzle editor” to the list.
Like previous “Booked for the Evening” honorees, Shortz loves words and language. His forte is unique — games — but he is adored by millions of Americans for the joy he takes in puns, puzzles and wordplay.
He is sui generis — the only person in the world with a degree in enigmatology (“the study of puzzles”). He also earned a law degree from the University of Virginia, a factoid that must delight hard-core fans (and puzzle his parents).
Shortz — who in his spare time is puzzlemaster for NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday” — has a long relationship with libraries in general, and Westport’s in particular.
Though he amassed many reference works in his Pleasantville, NY home — from the OED to specialized works covering opera, poetry, art, baseball, whatever — and he now uses the internet for most research, Shortz still frequents his local library. He considers it “a friend, a place I can use whenever I want.”
In 2001 he agreed to provide puzzles for the Westport Library’s 1st crossword championship. Ten years later, he’s still at it. The “great time and great people” keep drawing him back.
On May 27, Shortz will talk a bit, then play interactive word games with the Westporters honoring him. “We’ll test people,” he says. “We’ll have fun.”
And if he were to clue “Westport” into a puzzle?
On a Monday, he says, it might be basic: “Connecticut town on Long Island Sound.”
For a Saturday, though, he’d “find a fact that would be interesting to many people, but not well known. You’d need a lot of crossing letters to solve it.”
Sort of like: Town whose library honored a puzzlemaster in 2010.
(Click here for tickets to the Westport Public Library’s “Booked for the Evening” benefit event.)
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