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To your list of important American inventions --- baseball, the
electric light, polio vaccine, the electoral college --- please add
the crossword puzzle. Since its invention by a New York City
newspaperman in 1913, it has, with equal ease, entertained us and
driven us utterly crazy.

Marc Romano, a former Wall Street worker bee and newspaper
reporter, himself got stung rather late in life by the crossword
bug --- but being a resourceful fellow he has turned that fact to
his advantage in this entertaining if lightweight book. CROSSWORLD
chronicles his adventures among the Babe Ruths of puzzledom --- the
contestants in the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament held
each year in Stamford, CT.

(Full disclosure: I share Romano's obsession. I have reached the
finals in three of those tournaments and cherish one fourth-place
trophy as a memento.)

Romano attended one Stamford tournament as a reporter, then came
back a second year as a contestant. A gregarious fellow, he kept
eyes and ears open, got to know some of the right people, did some
research, and has turned the whole experience into an enjoyable
book. His writing has some of the breeziness of the experienced
newspaper feature writer, though it can occasionally turn a tad
smart-alecky. The tournament-day atmosphere of manic tense
concentration relieved by bouts of shoptalk and hotel bar patronage
is nicely captured.

The main thing that differentiates these tournaments from your
casual daily tussle with the crossword in your morning paper is, of
course, the ticking clock. Most recreational solvers don't worry
about how many minutes and seconds it takes them to fill in that
grid, but at Stamford that is a major factor. Romano's advice,
learned the hard way: worry first about accuracy, only then about
the clock.

The quirky personalities who turn up at these offbeat events are
laid out in colorful detail. The reader gets an intimate look at
Will Shortz, tournament director and the only man in the world, so
far as anyone knows, who holds a college degree in "enigmatology"
(his day job is editing the New York Times crosswords). Some
of the more interesting characters among high-speed solvers make
cameo appearances, but Romano's real interest appears to be in the
people who create crosswords. This seems an odd move from the
marketing standpoint, considering the millions of us who do the
puzzles versus the couple of hundred who create them.

Superior solvers, Romano finds, tend to be introverts,
"introspective, solitary creatures" whose minds soak up and retain
all sorts of trivia. Yet when they get together at the hotel bar in
Stamford they somehow become a jolly crowd of fun-loving friends.
He never quite explains how or why this transformation happens. My
own experience at three of these events is that there are also a
lot of very big egos on display and a good deal of one-upmanship in
the shoptalk.

These days, alas, even the humble crossword puzzle must take its
turn on the analyst's couch and Romano goes out of his way to put
it there. He strives to find something elevated, virtuous and
philosophical about the act of filling in a crossword grid. Do
these little brain-teasers really fulfill some higher moral
purpose? Are they really an unconscious attempt to "create order by
proxy?" Are solvers really, as his final sentence has it, "putting
back together, word by word, the pieces of our broken world?"

All this strikes me as dubious. Crossword puzzles are, first, last
and always, fun and nothing more. If you don't enjoy them, why do
them? During my own tournament trips I was constantly haunted by
the thought that I was wasting time, money and energy on something
totally frivolous. That was true, and I knew it. But I went anyway,
and enjoyed myself hugely.

Marc Romano seems to have enjoyed himself too at Stamford. That's
what makes his book a fun read. Leave the philosophical musings to
those unenlightened souls who solve grimly without taking any real
pleasure in doing so.


Reviewed by Robert Finn ( on January 5, 2011

by Marc Romano

  • Publication Date: June 14, 2005
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway
  • ISBN-10: 076791757X
  • ISBN-13: 9780767917575