Becoming skilled at solving crosswords is almost like learning a new language, according to University of Minnesota professor and expert crossword maker Victor Barocas. “You might have to learn, for example, that ‘Brazilian flower’ might mean AMAZON—because the Amazon River flows—or that the state bird of Hawaii is the NENE. And things like that take time to learn.”
Minnesotans will have the chance to put their own skills to the test on June 11 at the sixth annual Minnesota Crossword Competition, held at the Landmark Center in St. Paul. The event is a yearly fundraiser put on by the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library, and it draws people of all skill levels to compete for prizes and awards in the expert, amateur, or team category. Competitors will attempt to solve three original crossword puzzles within 15 minutes, with points for speed and accuracy. Those with the highest scores will move on to the championship-level puzzles, which are solved in front of an audience.
Participants come from a variety of walks of life. St. Paul resident Carl Voss, who has placed among the top three for the last several years, comes from a musical background. He says that “speed and absolute accuracy” are the most useful skills in a competition such as this one, but it’s not all about the glory. “As long as you don’t mind not winning, it is enjoyable no matter your skill level,” he says. “The puzzles are clever, often Minnesota themed, and edited to the highest standard, and the entry fee goes to a good cause.”
Amy Bemis, a part-time program evaluation consultant from Bloomington, has also placed high in the past few years’ competitions, in both the amateur and team categories. For those interested in enhancing their crossword skills, she offered a few words of advice.
“Solve as many crosswords as you can,” she said. “Figure out which day of the week you currently solve at—the New York Times crossword is easiest on Mondays and gets progressively more difficult throughout the week, with Saturdays being the hardest. That way, you won’t feel discouraged, and you can gradually work your way up in difficulty level. When I started, I was a Monday solver, but now I can usually complete the Saturday puzzle.”
Bemis, like many in the crossword community, was inspired by the 2006 documentary Wordplay, which features the editor of the New York Times crosswords and other notable puzzle solvers and constructors. Both she and Voss say that they feel lucky to have this type of event right in their own backyard—some competitors have to travel across the country to put their skills to the test.
In the process of honing their skills, solvers and creators alike have picked up some unusual bits of trivia along the way. Voss says he’d like to one day go on Jeopardy!, but Bemis and Barocas say their expertise lies more with facts about three-letter words: the keys to the crossword kingdom. “I can tell you a lot about Mel Ott, for example, because his name has such nice crossword letters,” says Barocas. “He hit more home runs in the city of New York than Babe Ruth did. There’s a lot of cool stuff that one picks up like that.”
Inspired by a type of crossword called a metapuzzle—which involves an extra step to yield a final answer after the puzzle has been solved—Barocas has also been working on a series of crossword-based crime novels. He raised funds for Ada Cross: Crossword Detective on Kickstarter, and the book should be available on Amazon in a few months.
Barocas encourages competitors of all levels to participate and also support the library through the tournament. He said that the amateur puzzles should be accessible to most solvers, and the expert puzzles will offer a more rigorous challenge to advanced competitors.
“Solving a crossword is fun because you’re battling with your own ignorance,” Barocas says. “Some days you win the battle, but even if you lose, the battle itself can be a pleasure.”
You can learn more or register for the Minnesota Crossword Tournament here.