Karen Lazar can make it through the morning without a cup of coffee. But manage without the jolt of adrenaline she gets from her daily crossword? That's another story.
"I'm an addict," says the retired teacher, 57, from Oceanside. "My day is not complete without having to do my puzzle. And when I travel, I have two different apps on my iPhone that enable me to get the puzzle no matter where I am."
And just like a cup of Maxwell House, her morning crossword is good to the last drop of ink that hits every white square.
"It's just not acceptable to me not to finish. If I'm working on a hard puzzle, I will walk away from it and I'll come back. And it's pretty remarkable that when you put the puzzle down and then come back to it, suddenly answers jump off the page that you didn't see the first time."
Come March 16-18, Lazar will put her puzzle expertise to the test when she competes in the 35th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament at the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge (see box), along with roughly 650 others. Lazar was a tournament rookie last year and was among the 29 Long Island competitors -- 21 of whom were 50 and older.
"Normally crosswords are a solitary pastime. This is your one chance in the year to see how your solving skills stack up against everyone else's," says Will Shortz, New York Times puzzle editor and founder and director of the tournament. "There's also the camaraderie. Crossword people tend to be interesting, well-rounded, often have a good sense of humor."
Norma Mindell, 72, of West Hempstead, who has attended 25 tournaments with her best friend, couldn't agree more. "At first, we felt out of place because we did not know anyone. However, it didn't take long to become acquainted with many like-minded puzzlers," says Mindell, a retired finance investigator.
And it's not just the competitors who become friends, says Michael Alpern, 67, a teacher from Long Beach, who is an active participant on the New York Times puzzle's free online forum (wordplay.blogs.nytimes.com). "Lots of times the [crossword] constructors contribute to the online conversations. And then you go to the tournament, and here they are, and you sit down and you have dinner with them," he says. "It's like rock stars for those of us who are word lovers."
Next year marks the centennial of the crossword [the first one appeared in the New York World on Dec. 21, 1913]. It was at the puzzle's 65th birthday in 1978 that the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was created by Shortz as a chance for crossword lovers to get together. For an entry fee of just $20 (including a banquet), 149 contestants were asked to solve five puzzles. Points were awarded for correct letters (not words) in the grid, a difficult task for the judges, who stayed up all night grading entries.
Two years after "Wordplay," the award-winning 2006 documentary about the tournament was released, the contest was moved from Stamford, Conn., to a larger venue in Brooklyn to accommodate nearly 200 new players. Now, the competition is made up of seven puzzles (six on Saturday and one Sunday morning) that must be solved as quickly and accurately as possible. The three contestants with the fastest times and most correct words will earn a spot in the playoff round on Sunday afternoon.
The grand prize is just too marvelous for words -- $5,000. But you don't have to be the top dog to be rewarded: Cash prizes and trophies are also awarded to first-place solvers in various divisions including age, geographic regions (including Long Island) and even rookies.
Cruciverbalists, a fancy word for crossword puzzle creators (or someone who is adept at solving them), see to it that those prizes are well earned, especially with the second and fifth puzzles on Saturday, typically the most difficult of the weekend. "I remember numerous events, especially contestant reaction to tournament puzzles submitted by Henry Hook, a master cruciverbalist," says Mindell. "One of his puzzles had a theme which included the word 'thumb,' as in Tom Thumb and Northumberland. When the Hook puzzle was announced, everyone booed, lovingly, of course, and it was a killer."
For newbies like Lazar, it can also be nerve-racking to see veteran solvers handle the puzzles at lightning speed. "In two minutes you see hands going up around the room as the super-experienced puzzlers finish," she says. "And you can't believe that anybody could be finishing one of these puzzles that quickly."
Sara Blumenstein, 62, a teacher from Great Neck who last year finished just below the 300 mark, has learned to ignore the speedy players. "I think there's the normal people who do the puzzle and have a certain amount of intelligence and then there's the other people, and they're in a whole other category," says the five-time competitor. "They're not even in the human category."
Eugene Edelstein of Hicksville has no illusions that he'll be taking home a trophy this year, but that's OK. He already has one in his family, the cup that his father, Isidore, won for placing first in the final crossword contest held by the New York Herald Tribune in 1935.
"When I was a kid I couldn't even compete with him," said Edelstein, 72, a retired software engineering manager. It wasn't until about 10 years ago that Edelstein started making the New York Times crossword part of his daily routine; after seeing "Wordplay," he became eager to compete. "When they moved the tournament to Brooklyn, I said I'm going to go to that."
For his first tournament in 2008, he was accompanied by his son, Lawrence, now 45, who came in from San Francisco. The two regularly compete against each other, via computer, to see who can finish the New York Times puzzle faster. It's no contest -- Lawrence regularly beats his dad.
"The tournament was more difficult than we expected. I figured I would finish in the top 50 percent and my son figured he was good enough to finish in the top 25 percent," Edelstein said. "But he finished in the top 50, I finished in the top 75. The next year we did almost as well as what we expected the first time, and then the third year, we went back to what we did first year."
Timing is good preparation for anyone competing for the first time, says Stan Newman, Newsday's puzzle editor and the 1982 tournament winner. "You should definitely practice with a clock. That way you can notice if you're solving a puzzle a little too fast and [in the process] you leave squares blank," he says. "Leave yourself time to look the puzzle over and make sure it's all filled in. The way to optimize your score is by handing in a completely correct solution."
Noncompetitors who want to try solving the same puzzles as the competitors can register for a reduced entry fee, but their work is not scored or eligible for prizes.
While the tournament could be considered a sort of Super Bowl for crossword fanatics, spectators who buy a $30 ticket to watch the final games on Sunday should do their rooting as quietly as possible.
"I have some very good friends who said, 'We're gonna go to Stamford [when the tournament was held there] and we're going to carry banners with your name on it, and hats, and cheer for you,' " says Alpern. "And I said: 'You don't know what you're talking about.' People who don't know get goofy about it. They think it's like a sports contest with cheering and fans."
Doing crosswords is like jogging for your brain, experts say. "While there aren't any activities that have been conclusively shown to prevent Alzheimer's disease, evidence suggests that engaging in cognitively challenging activities can promote the interconnection of brain cells, which can have a positive effect on brain health," said Fred Jenny, executive director of the Long Island Alzheimer's Foundation in Port Washington.
"It makes sense," adds Shortz. "If you use your body to stay in good physical shape, then using your mind will keep it in good mental shape."
Blumenstein hasn't noticed any memory enhancement ("I still can't find my car keys"), but she says her vocabulary has improved.
The real reward is just being able to enter her own world. "It's the only thing I can do where I can really turn the rest of my brain off," Blumenstein says. "I can shut everything out and just do the puzzle. It's just nice and relaxing."
If you're a crossword puzzle whiz, there's still time to enter the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Hotel rooms are available at the event site; call 800-266-9432 for rates. Lodging is not included in the registration fees.
WHEN March 16-18
WHERE New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge, 333 Adams St., Brooklyn
REGISTRATION FEES Friday only, games, wine-and-cheese reception, $80
Competitors: $245, all Friday-Sunday events; $170, Saturday-Sunday only. Add $10 to either package after March 9.
Noncompetitors: $200, all Friday-Sunday events; $125, Saturday-Sunday only. Add $10 to either package after March 9. Noncompetitors solve the same puzzles as competitors but are not scored and are not eligible for prizes.
Spectators: Sunday talent show and playoffs, 11 a.m., $30.
To register and for detailed information about the tournament, go to