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How a Shared Love for Crossword Puzzles Boosts More Than Brain Power

One family finds connection and challenges in competing in a tournament together


spinner image Illustration of man and woman on top of giant crossword puzzle writing answers
Dave Urban

Think fast! What’s a five-letter word for “multipurpose utensil”?

I drew a blank. My pencil was sharp, my brain not so much. Finally, with the clock ticking down at the 2024 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the answer came to me: SPORK!

It came to me because my daughter wrote it into the puzzle we were sharing. Lily Lady, a filmmaker and poet who is smarter than I am, turned her mom and me into empty nesters when she grew up. Today, we live far apart but often text back and forth about the New York Times crossword, a shared passion that helps us keep in touch. A quick text—“Can u believe that clue?”—can be another way to say “Hi—I love you.” Crosswords are good mental exercise. A 2023 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that “brain-challenging activities” like crosswords “are associated with a lower risk of developing dementia among older adults.” Better yet, they’re fun. My favorite recent Times clue asked solvers to name a “writer’s reference” that’s also what’s missing after “stego,” “bronto,” “allo” and “tyranno.” Answer: THESAURUS.

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Lily, who is 26, dared me — I mean “invited” me — to join her for my first ever (gulp) crossword competition. We were part of the inaugural pairs competition at the 46th annual tournament, a festive three-day event in Stamford, Connecticut with almost a thousand competitors jamming the Marriott for puzzle-themed events leading up to the finals on Sunday. One skinny contestant came dressed as a pencil. A popular young woman wore a crosshatched crossword halter top, but nobody could match the skin Lily had in the game: a crossword tattoo on her upper thigh. “Anyone who wants to see it will have to pay,” she said.

We schmoozed with Lynn Lempel, a veteran puzzle constructor who designed the first crossword we would all try to solve. “I’ve been offered bribes” for inside info, she confided, only half joking, “but they weren’t big enough. It’s not a wealthy crowd.”

During opening ceremonies, Will Shortz, the legendary New York Times puzzle editor, got a standing ovation. Shortz, 71, suffered a stroke in February. After two months of rehab, he was back to run the tournament he founded in 1978, rising from a wheelchair to wish us luck.

Dreaming of the tournament’s first prize of $7,500, we convened in a ballroom that smelled of pencil-sharpener shavings and flop sweat. Lily zoomed through most of Lynn Lempel’s Broadway-themed puzzle, including a female taxi driver (MYFARELADY) and a dishonest monarch (THELYINKING). We coulda been contenders, but I got gridlocked in my corner of the puzzle, which featured a taxi queue (CABARRAY). I was holding us up, with Lily filling squares while I sat there like a lump, until she reached a Gen Z stumper: perennial presidential candidate Harold.

I knew that one. “Stassen!”

She wrote STASSEN and gave me a tactical tip: “You don’t have to shout.”

We improved as we went along, with Lily filling in most of our answers while I whispered the occasional rock ’n’ roll title or ballplayer’s name. The famously difficult fifth puzzle, as fun as a sharp stick in the IRIS, beat us up, but we aced the sixth, filling in our quadrants and meeting in the middle, Lily raising her hand to signal that we were done with time to spare.

That night I checked our place in the standings and spewed a few four-letter words. “Calm down,” Lily said. “We’re having fun.”

On the last day, we cheered fellow puzzlers at the annual variety show before the main event: the final puzzle. We tried to solve it along with the finalists, who used Sharpies to fill in giant puzzles mounted on easels. A jumbo digital clock gave them 20 minutes to finish.

I had a few answers filled in when Paolo Pasco, a young crossword pro from San Diego, completed the week’s most punishing puzzle in 5 minutes and 42 seconds and got a well-deserved ovation.

Lily and I finished in the back of the pack. I said I was sorry for messing up on CABARRAY.

“It’s OK,” she said graciously. “I liked working together and meeting in the middle. We’ll get ’em next year.”

 

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