March 4: America’s First and Oldest Crossword Puzzle Tournament Begins

 

Will Shortz, crossword puzzle editor of The New York Times, founded and still runs the tournament, now in its fifth decade.

Today in 1978, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the first competition of its kind ever held in the United States, kicked off a weekend of fierce competition at the Marriott Hotel in Stamford, Connecticut. Founded by New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz, the only person in the country known to hold a college degree (Indiana University) in enigmatology – the study of puzzles –the tournament attracted over 100 enthusiasts. They  battled  two days over a set of five increasingly difficult crossword puzzles for points judges awarded based on accuracy and speed. In that initial competition,  contestants were judged on the number of letters they got correct, not the number of words, a scoring detail that kept the judges grading entries all night. In that initial national crossing of wits, the first and second place tournament winners were both women: Nancy Shuster of Queens, New York, and Eleanor Cassidy of Fairfield, Connecticut. They took home bragging rights and cash prizes of $125 and $50, respectively.

The official logo of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

What began as a convention of hobbyists on March 4, 1978 quickly grew into a serious international competition so popular tournament organizers had to limit the number of in-person participants to “only” several hundred people. During its first thirty years, the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was held at the same hotel in Stamford, Connecticut. But after a 2006 PBS documentary about the tournament titled “Wordplay” caused a huge spike in national interest, the tournament was moved to Brooklyn, New York — but returned to Stamford eight years later.

In 2012, the competition received it’s first non-human competitor, the computer program Dr. Fill, developed by software engineer and Oxford Ph. D. M. L. Ginsberg.  With a score of just over 10,000 points, Dr. Fill finished 141st among the tournament’s 650 entrants. The next year, Dr. FIll’s score increased to 10,550 points (92nd place), and continued to improve annually until, in 2021 – ironically, a virtual competition due to COVID -19, the program achieved the tournament’s highest score ,12, 825 points. It bested the human winner of the tournament Tyler Hinman’s score by 65 points. Following the victory, both Dr. FIll and programmer Ginsberg announced their retirement  from crossword competitions.

AI-competitor and computer program Dr. Fill’s 2012 entry into the tournament sparked a front page New York Times article March 17, 2012.

Now in its fifth decade, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament has expanded to include live play-by-play commentary, streaming video, game-show style events for attendees, and a grand prize numbering in the thousands of dollars. The oldest and largest crossword tournament in the United States First matched wits in Stamford, today in Connecticut history.

Today, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, still hosted by Shortz , attracts hundreds of competitors from around the globe. ( “Real Sports” with Bryant Gumble)

Further Reading

Deb Amlen, “Puzzle Lovers Find Their Tribe at at Crossword Tournament,New York Times

Wordplay: The Documentary,” Documentary Trailer

American Crossword Puzzle Tournament official website