Michael Holland only dabbles in crossword puzzles, so at Skidmore College’s crossword puzzle competition Saturday, he came solely to support his wife, the family’s best chance to win.
“She’s the real crossword puzzle whiz in the family,” the Saratoga Springs resident said of his wife, Christy. “I’m her cheerleading squad.”
He’s no slouch when it comes to The New York Times crossword puzzle, though. “I can do Monday and Tuesday pretty regularly, but I get frustrated and abandon them later in the week,” he said.
The competition, which featured four soon-to-be published Times puzzles, was a collaboration between professor Michael Arnush and sophomore Sarah Nelson. Arnush, who has been doing crossword puzzles for 34 years, had the idea for the competition when he saw Nelson doing a puzzle on campus. “I had a flash,” he said.
That inspiration was helped along by the fact Will Shortz, crossword puzzle editor for the Times, had visited the campus last spring and the college still had contact information for him. After exchanging emails, Nelson and Arnush eventually had a conference call with Shortz, who agreed to provide puzzles for a competition.
Arnush said the puzzles that were used will most likely be in print this week.
The competition consisted of three rounds, where faculty, staff, members of the community and students tried Monday-, Tuesday- and Wednesday-equivalent puzzles. Crossword puzzles in the Times get harder each day, starting with Monday. Saturday’s is the hardest, and Sunday’s is equivalent to a late weekday. Winners were decided by correctly completing a puzzle the fastest.
The fourth and final round involved a Thursday puzzle, with winners from the first three rounds competing.
In the first round, the first person completed the Monday-equivalent puzzle in about 5 minutes, 30 seconds. Within a minute after that, four more people had finished.
It was right about the 6-minute mark when students began to giggle, as none of them had finished.
It wasn’t until after 10 minutes into the competition that one handed in a puzzle, albeit with at least one error. Eventually, 25 minutes passed and the competition moved to the second round, because no students had submitted a perfect puzzle.
Ultimately, the winner, and recipient of an iPad donated by the Saratoga Springs marketing firm McMurry, was city resident Bill Hammond. He was able to finish a Thursday-equivalent puzzle in just less than 10 minutes.
Nelson, 19, said they’re hoping to make the tournament an annual event. And next year could be better for some of the students, as she noted that it is easy to improve if you keep trying them over and over again.
That definitely was proved true with Arnush. He’s been doing puzzles for more than 34 years and starts each morning with a puzzle. He said the hard puzzles can take up to an hour and as little as 10 minutes, if the clues really click with him.
“I love words, and I love solving problems. I’m a classics professor, so I deal with words every day of my life,” Arnush said.