What Happens in the Biggest Crossword Puzzle Tournament?

by Max Fragar
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An Inside Story of American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

Hey, I’m Christine, and I have been lucky enough to take part in the ACPT tournament. 

Heard about ACPT before?

Well, American Crossword Puzzle Tournament or ACPT is the biggest crossword championship held globally in Feb, March or April every year (Marriott in Stamford).

Started in 1978 by Will Shortz, this is the oldest tournament in the United States. Contestants from different places take part in the competition enthusiastically. 

I received my first American Crossword Puzzle Tournament packet which marked me as – Contestant Number 15”

I screamed at the top of my voice while jumping on my bed. I know that is super crazy, but I was on cloud nine. 

I have been a crossword lover since grade five, and for me participating in the biggest crossword tournament of the world was like a dream coming true.

The Prep Was On

It was the year 2018 and the competition was to take place between 23rd to 25th March. 

The time was less so I sat down to pre-plan my strategy.

The to-do list was:

The crossword fever was so high that I made my boyfriend watch “WordPlay”. 

Indeed, it was worth it. 

This 2006 documentary depicted how words hold so much importance.

Then, solving crosswords became a part of my daily routine. 

You can say my life was all about black and white squares.

And My Crossword Journey Began

The day finally arrived.

I packed my bags, booked a cab, arrived at the airport and flew down to Stamford.

All geared up and ready to give my best shot.

The next day I was in the lobby and witnessed the huge crowd of crossword aficionados. 

All around, everyone was hunched over puzzles on paper or on their smartphones. 

There were so many puzzlers wearing crossword tees, puzzle sweaters, skirts, shoes, hats, ties, bags, and whatnot. 

I had never been so awestruck in my life. Honestly, watching crossword grids everywhere was making me nervous.

I could sense the nervousness in the air. 

I could hear the ticking of the clock and the time was running. 

I was closely studying individuals in the competition to understand what’s going on. 

There were a total of 575 contestants. All I wanted was a decent score in every puzzle to qualify for the next level. 

Now, the biggest challenge was to solve the puzzles in time. As puzzles had built-in clocks and everything, so the only goal was to manage the time. 

That Awestruck Moment

I joined the crowd of the participants that was flowing into the grand ballroom and packed end to end with tables lined with chairs for the perfect fit. 

Few people were already seated, and I observed there were more male contestants than females.

The well-prepared ones were carrying sharp pencils, magnifying glasses, tiny trolls, etc. 

I had interaction with some contestants and one of them named Mathew advised me to maintain speed and accuracy. 

In his words, “Every puzzle had a time limit from fifteen to forty-five minutes as per the difficulty level. Points are given as per the correct score plus more if you successfully manage to complete the puzzle.”

Well, this is the advantage of being an ex-contestant. You are already aware of what’s coming up to you.

Mathew wished me luck and pointed at an elderly man.

There he was, Will Shortz. 

The “God of Crossword,” and my role model was sitting just twenty feet away. 

The head editor of NYTimes, whose name I read every day while solving puzzles, was sitting in front of me. 

I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Although I knew it was his tournament, and it was obvious that he would be there, still it was thrilling to catch a sight of him.

And the Race Begins

Before I could find my table, I saw ‘Ellen Ripstein‘, the winner of ACPT 2001, who was featured in “Wordplay”. 

I couldn’t resist and went to meet her. 

What a genuine person she was. That charm on her face, I can never forget.

After figuring out my table number, I sat down on the chair. 

I had a habit of solving the crossword grid with a pen, but I realized there were two well-sharpened pencils on the table and the scores were supposed to be given with a green pen.

Most players were addressing Will Shortz Will instead of Mr.Shortz.

Will took the name of the constructor of each puzzle that was supposed to be solved and the crowd applauded. There were many crossword makers I was familiar with, as I have read a bit about them already.

The first-ever puzzle was getting distributed among the candidates. 

The sheets were handed over to us upside down, and we were instructed not to sneak peek. 

I received a packet from which I peeled off a sticker with my name. 

I looked at the well-sharpened pencil. Wiping the glasses from the hem of my shirt and looking at my wristwatch, I was making myself ready for the race.

Get Set Go!

Then Will Shortz said, “Begin.”

Like the flock cranes taking a flight together all of a sudden, all 575 participants started working on the puzzle. There was pin-drop silence in the room.

 For the first time, I felt I was a part of something huge.

I started reading my crossword clues from ‘1 Across’. Thank God that I had this habit of solving newspaper and online puzzles every day.  I knew most of the answers to the first puzzle.   

Survival of the Fittest

To my surprise, I completed the puzzle in less than 15 minutes. Woohoo! That adrenaline rush that went through my nerves was unstoppable.

Well, it was short-lived when I realized more than 30 people had completed it in 2 minutes.

Wait, what, seriously? Are they humans or robots?

‘I have come here with the purpose of winning and taking back home a great experience’, I reminded myself. 

I did pat my back for solving the first puzzle of ACPT in less than fifteen minutes and celebrated that small accomplishment. This helped in boosting my morale. 

From then onwards, I decided to only observe the solvers but not compare my accuracy with them.

For a short break, I came out and had a glass of water. I washed my face and made myself ready for the next round. 

I was happy for the fact that there were many in the room still struggling with the first puzzle. Peeking outside the window, I said to myself, Christine, you might not be first in the race, but you are at least not the last one. 

The Beginning of Round Two

With round one under my belt, many butterflies had subsided. I knew the second one would be harder, but I was all set, mentally as well as physically.

There is always a difference when you are into daily crossword puzzles and in a tournament. 

When I’m doing puzzles regularly, there is self-criticism and applaud. I’m never worried about being wrong. I like the moments when I correct my mistakes because that is the time when I learn the most from my errs.

Coming back, round two was smooth enough. 

There were 15 across and down in the grid. Everything fell in place nicely until I got stuck at the 14th across a clue.

“Oldest driver to win the Indianapolis 500”, it read.

I was absolutely clueless. OMG! Will this be the end of the tournament for me? 

Keeping all the negative thoughts aside, I concentrated on the puzzle.

I tried to recall the name of even one of the drivers. Wait, Mario Andretti. I remember this as my younger brother used to shout out to me whenever my driving was rash.  

Alas ‘ANDRETTI’ fell one letter short. I decided to fill it and move to the next part of the crossword without wasting any time on this clue. Later I filled the right answer, which was ‘Al Unser Sr’.

Sometimes you keep staring and staring at the white squares, thinking you will get the answer, but that is not the case. 

However, I managed to wrap up the second puzzle with one wrong answer. I knew this would cost me fifty or a hundred positions down, but I couldn’t do anything.

After that, a bell rang, and that was a declaration for lunch. 

The Yummy Lunch Break

It’s true that food is something that binds us together.

The contestants, after the two hectic rounds, started discussing their answers with each other and where they got stuck.

When everybody was busy discussing answers, I felt that there is no sincere love than the love for food. So diverse and so delicious!

However, the one hour break finished quickly.

Round Three, Four and Five

Another wrong answer in round three, however, I managed to recover in round four. 

I completed the fourth crossword puzzle within 5 minutes that too, without any mistake. 

And then everyone moved to the fifth one.

Puzzle five as every else termed it was considered as the:

  • Waterloo puzzle
  • Carnage on a grid
  • Lord Voldemort of Harry Potter

In short, everyone felt ‘Puzzle Five’ was the most difficult one.

Will Shortz said this year’s fifth crossword is not as challenging as the previous years.

This came as a relief for a newbie like me.

I then turned the puzzle over.

I completed the fifth puzzle in 13 minutes, making my score in 1505.

This was decent on the first day.

The Bright Sunday Morning

One last puzzle before reaching the finals.

Tyler Hinman was 20 when he first won ACPT way back in 2005 and won the title for five consecutive years. 

This man was unstoppable till Dan Feyer won in 2010. He is winning ever since.

Here is the list of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament winners (2005-2017):




Tyler Hinman


Tyler Hinman


Tyler Hinman


Tyler Hinman


Tyler Hinman


Dan Feyer


Dan Feyer


Dan Feyer


Dan Feyer


Dan Feyer


Dan Feyer


Howard Barkin


Dan Feyer

Puzzle seven was the biggest and the longest having a 21-by-21 grid, having the longest time limit i.e., 45 minutes. 

Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it to the next level. But the excitement was still there. 

Excitement to watch who will win the championship. 

The Final Moment

We were ready to see the best stuff.

The top three, A, B, C solvers, will get a chance to solve the eighth and last puzzle on the white dry-erase board.

I managed to pull it off till the second last. And this made me happy, of course.

Well, the tweak in the final game was, the answers were the same, but the clues were different.

Tyler, Dan, and Howard Barkin were the top three.

The nervousness could be depicted in the ambiance, but all the three were surprisingly very calm. 

This is what makes them ‘toppers’.

Would Dan win the title?.

Tyler can also reclaim it. 

Will Howard make history?

This was a big moment.

All eyes in front. Everyone knew how quickly all the three were.

Wearing headphones, all of them were ready. 

Tyler, Dan, and Howard held crossword clues in one hand and markers in the other. They could smudge the mistake with another hand.

‘Begin Dan’, came the voice from behind. After 5 seconds, ‘Begin Tyler’ and then ‘Begin Howard’ said, Shortz.

Dan started with the right answer, whereas Tyler wrote the wrong one. Tyler may have then thought to fix this will take a lot of time, so he kept it to last maybe. Howard got that right.

After 4 minutes, Tyler fixed it.

After a few minutes, DAN has completed more than half of the puzzle with perfection. And Tyler was also very close.

Oh My God!

They both completed the puzzle correctly, with half a second difference.

This was the sixth win for DAN FEYER.

Tyler was in shock because it was only a second difference. Someone from the crowd shouted, how many trophies does one person need, Dan? 

Howard was still solving while Dan was celebrating his win.

Dan finishes first, Tyler Hinman second and then Howard Barker third.

Wow. I loved the complete crossword journey.

I can never forget what I learned throughout my experience of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.  

All in all, it was something incredible to witness. Till that day I have been working on difficult puzzles, setting up a time limit for me.

Key Takeaways from ACPT :

  1. Winning isn’t everything, being in the race matters.
  2. Celebrate small accomplishments and self motivate yourself.
  3. You might not win, but you do not lose either.
  4. Learn from your competitors.
  5. Solve, Solve, Solve and Repeat!

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