The Examiner

Top Talent on Hand for Shortz’s P’ville Crossword Fundraiser Tourney

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Norwich, Conn. resident Glen Ryan, foreground, took first place Friday while Ken Stern finished third in the Westchester Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Pleasantville.
Norwich, Conn. resident Glen Ryan, foreground, took first place Friday while Ken Stern finished third in the Westchester Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Pleasantville.

By Andrew Vitelli

Three years after New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz moved to Pleasantville he hosted the first Westchester Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

The event has become a nearly annual tradition, and after missing last year, Shortz was back last weekend for the 19th annual tournament at St. John’s Episcopal Church. It raised money for The Pleasantville Fund for Learning.

“There are a lot of crossword contests around the country. This is one of only two local ones that I attend,” Shortz said after handing out the trophies. “The talent is great. The top players will finish in the top 5 to 10 percent in the national championships, so they’re good solvers.”

Close to 50 crossword enthusiasts participated, with Norwich, Conn. resident Glen Ryan capturing the title. The tournament was held in four rounds, with the winners of the first three rounds facing off on giant poster board puzzles on stage for the finale.

In the championship round, Ryan topped New York City’s Ken Stern and Connecticut resident Jan O’Sullivan to win his first Westchester tournament.

For each round, players were given 20 minutes to solve the puzzle, with the puzzles increasing in difficulty. While awards were given based on how quickly contestants finished the puzzles, accuracy was paramount. A perfect puzzle trumped one with a single mistake regardless of the time taken to finish.

“It’s a long drive to get here, but it’s nice,” said Ryan, who finished first in each of the four rounds and completed the final puzzle in 8 minutes, 53 seconds. “It’s a small crowd. It’s not like ACPT (American Crossword Puzzle Tournament), where you have 500 people in a room.”

Many of the contestants, like Ryan, were veterans of competitive tournaments such as ACPT, the oldest and largest puzzle tournament in the country that was founded by Shortz in 1978. Others were Westchester residents whose only competitive crossword puzzling comes at the Pleasantville tournament.

“It’s just a local event that’s so much fun, and it’s something special that we do every year,” said Pleasantville’s Liz Mahaffey, who teamed up with her stepfather, Bill Glass, to win the award for top Pleasantville resident. “You get all the best people here. To watch these people do this at this level and to have a local element to it too is a lot of fun.”

Pleasantville resident and orthopedic surgeon Ben Roye said he began doing crossword puzzles regularly during his first year in practice while on breaks between patients. He attended his first Westchester tournament five or six years ago.

“Even in something small and very informal like this, there’s definitely a bit of adrenaline that you get,” Roye said. “It’s the competition.”

The tournament’s four judges represented some of the most accomplished members of the crossword puzzle world. Rye Brook resident Miriam Raphael, the winner of the 1979 ACPT who captured the 90-and-over category in that tournament, was joined by 2016 ACPT winner Howard Barkin, Cold Spring resident Casey Julia and crossword constructor Mike Nothnagel, the head judge at ACPT.

“It’s fun. It’s a different vibe,” Nothnagel said of Friday’s tournament.

The talent, though, was strong and competitive.

“People are fast,” he said.

For many, the tournament’s host was a big part of the draw. Shortz, a ping pong enthusiast who owns the Westchester Table Tennis Center, was the subject of the 2006 documentary “Wordplay” and is the puzzle master for National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition Sunday.”

“It’s Will Shortz, who is like the Mick Jagger of crossword puzzles,” said Mahaffey. “I moved into Pleasantville (six years ago) and my stepfather is a huge crossword fan. We were thrilled that Will Shortz lived in this town and that this was happening here.”

Shortz was originally asked to host the tournament by The Pleasantville Fund for Learning, which supports children’s education through grants for teachers and students.

“One thing that’s nice about this fundraiser is that almost all the other fundraisers for the fund tap Pleasantville people, so it’s the same people again and again being asked to give money,” Shortz said. “Here we bring in people from all over.”

Winners Saturday also included Finn Vigeland in the 25-and-under category, Brian MacDonald in the Rookie category and Keith Kitchen and Emily Zocchi in the doubles category.

Shortz has only missed two Pleasantville tournaments in 20 years. Last year he was working on a project at Indiana University, while in 2000 he was busy hosting the World Puzzle Championship. He plans to keep the tradition going in future years.

“We’ll do this as long as I’m around,” Shortz said.

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