Wordplay

I thought I'd be bored stiff watching a bunch of word geeks gather in Stamford, Connecticut, for the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Boy, was I wrong. There's more palm-sweating suspense in one minute of this baby than in all of The Omen. The tournament, begun in 1978, is the brainchild of Will Shortz, puzzle editor of The New York Times. The documentary, directed with speed and high spirits by Patrick Creadon, indulges in more than its share of Times ass-kissing, but Shortz makes an amiable focus for the brain-spinning fun on display. We meet puzzle constructors, such as Merl Reagle; celeb solvers, like Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns and the Indigo Girls; and best of all, the word-mad contestants who flock to Stamford every March to test their wits against the clock and their own gifts for instant recall and pattern recognition. Ellen Ripstein, the Susan Lucci of solvers — it took her eighteen years to win the prize, in 2001 — is wonderfully appealing. As is Jon Delfin, the musician who holds the record with seven wins. But keep your eye on Trip Payne, Al Sanders and twenty-year-old Tyler Hinman, who take the 2005 tournament down to the wire in a finish that helps make Wordplay a heartfelt and hilarious surprise.

From The Archives Issue 448: May 23, 1985