The thirty-fourth annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was held this past weekend in Brooklyn. I would have entered, but my approach to crosswords follows cartoon logic:
However, my friend and colleague Roz Chast was there to present the awards to the winners. She told the contestants,
I have to tell you that I was not the first choice for being the presenter. Alan Alda was, but he was on vacation, climbing an arête in the Ural Mountains. They tried to get Eero Saarinen, but he had fallen on his épée, and got a stoma. Luckily his amah had some aloe with her in an etui. Erle Stanley Gardner fell down an adit. And Esai Morales broke his ulna and his tibia while he was in China researching the Chen, Qin, Zhou, Ming, Song, Tang, Qing, Qi, Sui, and Yin dynasties for an epic opera in which he’s going to sing an aria.
Even though I wasn’t the first choice, I’m not at all irate, because I get to stand up here and tell you a little bit about myself. I love Nature. Recently I was on safari and I saw an ecru and onyx oryx, although it may have been an eland or an okapi. I’m not sure. I don’t want to err, or I’d have to atone. I also saw an egret, an emu, and an erne who was building an aerie. The food was a little eerie. We had an olio of dal, agar, eel, and taro. An emir on the trip complained because the poi had been in the oast too long, and an imam cried because he missed his esnes. Afterwards, we traveled to the Aral Sea and took a proa to Etna. I wore a boa. The tsar upped the sartorial ante with his Eton collar. It was aces, but by the end, I couldn’t wait to get home, put some Edam on crackers, eat Oreos, and play Atari. Well, I think that’s enough sharing. Please forgive me for any mispronunciations. I’ve never really heard any of these words before. And now I’d like to announce the winners.
You can watch Roz’s speech and the final round of the tournament. Roz’s solution to one of the early rounds set a record for speed, but was penalized for a few minor errors:
It’s election season, which means pundits are busy discussing — and pollsters busy polling — key voter groups. Will the college crowd turn out for Barack Obama like it did in 2008? Can Mitt Romney appeal to enough blacks, Hispanics and unmarried women? Who will seniors and small-business owners vote for on Nov. 6?
The question no one’s asking: Are crossword-puzzle writers pulling for Obama or Romney?
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Like any group, we have our own interests to look out for, but it’s not the deficit, drone strikes or the Dow Jones Industrial Average that concerns us. Instead, we’re simply looking for a candidate who will appoint usefully named people to high positions, expanding our pool of usable crossword entries.
A name is especially useful to us if it:
1) Is three, four or five letters long, since those lengths dominate crossword grids.
2) Contains mostly common letters — think 1-pointers in Scrabble — since they’re easier to mesh with crossing words.
3) Is novel to the general public.
For example, ANN (as in Ann Romney) meets the first two criteria but not the third, since there are already many ANNs to clue with. MALIA (as in Malia Obama), on the other hand, is more useful since it meets the first two criteria and there’s no other famous person with that name (apologies to Massachusetts state Rep. Liz Malia).
Just as there are “crossword famous” celebrities whose puzzle prominence outweighs their real-life fame, such as actors UTA Hagen and ESAI Morales, so too are there political figures whose usefulness to crossword writers exaggerates their importance on the world stage. Not to disparage mid-20th-century Burmese Prime Minister U NU, late Israeli statesman Abba EBAN or 1980s Attorney General Edwin MEESE, but if you got your worldview only from crosswords, you’d think these three were Napoleon, Churchill and FDR in terms of geopolitical impact.
Through this narrow lens, then, let’s rate how well Obama’s first term has gone, beginning with his two Supreme Court appointments, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Two solid choices: Sotomayor is too long and Kagan too high scoring in Scrabble to be of much use, but it’s nice to have another option besides the well-worn “Actress Braga” for SONIA, and ELENA is an outstanding crossword entry we’ve been forced to clue in middling ways until recently (“1941 hit song ‘Maria ___’” or “Tennis player Dementieva,” for instance).
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The crossword writer's candidates
By MATT GAFFNEY