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New York man wins fourth straight American Crossword Tournament

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Dan Feyer is a crosswords king (Credit: Don Christensen, Courtesy of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament)

“Spinning wheel operator.”

“Poetic time of day.”

“Drop down?”

Any guesses? If you went for “HAMPSTER,” “EEN,” and “MOLT,” respectively, you might have what it takes to enter next year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. This year’s model wrapped up Sunday in Brooklyn, New York City.

But be forewarned: even if you make it past the first cut, chances are you’ll eventually fall to Dan Feyer. The New York City resident is a crossword beast, this year beating back a strongly-favored challenger in the form of California native Anne Erdmann to take home his fourth straight trophy and a hefty $5,000 first-place prize.

The tournament is the brainchild of a familiar name to New York Times readers and NPR listeners: Will Shortz, who edits the Times’ crossword puzzles and is a regular guest on Weekend Edition Sunday. It’s organized by best-selling childrens’ puzzle author Helene Hovanec, who took us through the ABCs of this year’s event.

“Crossword puzzle solving is typically a solitary activity,” Hovanec said. “Here it becomes a group event.”

A sizable group, too. This year the contest attracted nearly 600 entrants seeded into three tiers. All the participants tackled the same puzzle at the same time (“It’s a bit like taking an SAT test,” said Hovanec) and against the clock. Contestants were docked points for incorrect answers and could earn bonus marks for speedy finishes.

The puzzles start off easy enough, with the first being about on par with an average Monday New York Times crossword, and go from there.

And the hardest? Traditionally that’s round five, which Hovanec called the “killer round.” This year it hinged on contestants realizing that several of the longer answers had to be inserted into the grid without their vowels. So “Group with primates” -- to which the answer was “EPISCOPAL CHURCH” -- had to be entered “PSCPLCHRCH.” That’s a hdscrtchr.

In the final round, the top three scorers went head-to-head on a specially designed puzzle. “A very, very, very difficult puzzle,” Hovanec said -- and the pressure-inducing circumstances didn’t help. The trio were solving the crossword on large boards in front of an audience, hardly a familiar situation for a crossword fan, and they even had to wear headphones in order to block out the crowd noise.

Despite the awkward scenario, Feyer -- who's something of a legend in crosswords circles -- managed to solve it in a quicker time than both Erdmann and third-place contestant Tyler Hinman. He was also one of 61 contestants to solve all seven puzzles featured in the tournament with zero mistakes.

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