2022 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament champion Tyler Hinman (left) poses for a photo with tournament founder Will Shortz and Wyna Liu, creator of the tournament’s final puzzle. (DON CHRISTENSEN PHOTO)
We are at the edge of our seats, my husband and I, as we watch the final scenes of the documentary. Stakes are high, pressure mounts. There are hushed silences and bursts of applause. Are we watching a high-stakes poker game? An international chess match?
No. It’s the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, an event that was founded in 1978 by Will Shortz, editor of The New York Times crossword puzzle.
And in the end, the winner is Tyler Hinman, then just 20 years old and the youngest winner in the tournament’s history. Tyler’s parents are Lew and Krista Hinman, of Harpswell. Tyler and his dad created the two crosswords that have run in the Harpswell Anchor.
When Lew approached the paper to offer us a Harpswell-themed crossword, we had no idea we had such a star in our midst.
The documentary we watched is called “Wordplay,” and it features interviews with an eclectic mix of luminaries, such as Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Ken Burns, the Indigo Girls and Jon Stewart, all fans of the game. The subject is the 2005 tournament, an annual gathering that is usually held at a Marriott hotel in Stamford, Connecticut.
What we learned from the documentary: Crosswords are always symmetrical, so the black boxes are in the same place when you turn the page around. Crossword creators typically do not use words that are “unpleasant,” such as words for bodily functions. Winners tend to be musicians or mathematicians. During the tournament, everyone solves the same crossword, accumulating points for timing and accuracy. The top scorers in three divisions qualify for the finals, with each division using different sets of clues for the final round, varying by difficulty.
And the annual gathering looks like a whole lot of fun: old friends coming together to celebrate a common passion.
“It’s very, very competitive,” Lew says. “It’s like any big national sports event.”
That said, it’s also collegial. The documentary depicts a situation where Tyler is shorted by a minute. The mistake is discovered by his rival, who wants to make sure the situation is corrected.
Tyler, who is now 37 and working as a software engineer in San Francisco, has been doing crosswords since he was 13 and living outside of London with his family. He was inspired by some high school teachers who loved puzzles. After dabbling in puzzle building, he started solving. “I’m the winner of seven consecutive national tournaments, provided you ignore the entire decade of the 2010s,” Tyler says, chuckling. “That just wasn’t my decade.”
Back in 2005 when he first won, his competitors were amazed. “How he knows so much, we have no idea,” one of the contestants says on film. Usually it takes age and experience to get so good at the puzzles.
That particular gathering started a five-tournament winning streak, making Tyler a celebrity on the crossword puzzle circuit. When asked if he lists the prizes on his resume, Tyler laughs and says, “Oh yeah. I milk it for all it’s worth.”
Out of the roughly 500 people who compete in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, only 10 or 12 have a realistic chance of winning. If you make one mistake, it is almost impossible to be a frontrunner. Tyler’s last mistake was in 2017; it was during the final round and cost him the win.
The final round especially is a white-knuckle event. The three finalists wear earphones with white noise so they can’t hear the commentary. And there is a lot of commentary, just like in any sports competition. The contestants stand in front of whiteboards and fill out the puzzles by hand.
Tyler likes the in-person aspect of the whole thing. The tournament was held online for the past two years because of COVID-19. But the Saturday night talent show, the impromptu music breaking out between games, and the hugs and greetings were lost during those years.
The documentary was entered in the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Although it didn’t win any prizes, Tyler remembers the trip fondly. “I can honestly tell people,” he says with a grin, “that I shared a bunk bed with Will Shortz.”
Although Tyler Hinman might not be a household name — yet — Will Shortz is. He has been a guest on TV shows such as “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” He guest-starred on an episode of “The Simpsons” in 2008; the episode was called “Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words.” He is a regular on NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday” and has edited The New York Times crossword puzzle since 1993.
Tyler and Lew created crossword puzzles for the Anchor’s August 2021 and December 2021 editions. This month, we are doing something different: This crossword features the 2022 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament final-round puzzle, constructed by Wyna Liu and won by Tyler. Shortz has given us permission to reproduce the puzzle here. We are publishing the puzzle online with three sets of clues – ranging from the “medium difficulty” Set C to the “most difficult” Set A — just like they do in the final round of the tournament. For reference, Tyler solved the most difficult puzzle in six minutes, 31 seconds, so no pressure!
As for my husband and me? After watching the “Wordplay” documentary, we immediately signed up for a New York Times Games subscription. We haven’t yet solved a puzzle. I got close with a Monday crossword, but it took me 49 minutes. I don’t think we’ll be heading to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament anytime soon. That might be better left to our hometown celebrity, Tyler Hinman.
Click here to play the crossword “Wyna Takes All!” by Wyna Liu.