Sunday, Dan Feyer of New York City was crowned the reigning American Crossword Tournament Champ after a weekend-long event of wordplay. The 32-year-old pianist records his speed while solving day’s most prominent puzzles – he finishes the heralded New York Times puzzle in about an average of 3.5 minutes – and logs his daily progress online. Techland chats with the puzzle world’s newest champ about his technique, why the NYT was not always the top dog and how his Scrabble game just might not be as strong as you’d think.
Allie Townsend: Tell me a little about the competition. How did you feel going into the last day?
Dan Feyer: Well, I felt pretty confident that I was going to win because I finished in fourth place last year, and only a tie-breaker kept me out of the final round. So, I was pretty confident that I had a good chance. I got lucky and did really well on the hardest puzzle, which gave me a lead going into the finals. I had another good solve on the final puzzle and that was enough to beat the other two.
AT: Where did your interest in puzzles begin?
DF: I did kids’ puzzles and games when I was a kid. I was in the National Spelling Bee, so I’ve always had a facility with words, but I didn’t really get hooked on crosswords until about three years ago when the movie Worldplay came out. Before that I would get my hands on a NYT Magazine and work on that, or the big Sunday puzzle. But aside from a couple NYT Crossword Collections that I had, I didn’t really solve everyday. But then I discovered how many great puzzles were coming out online for free – and I subscribe to the online NYT puzzle – and discovered the crossword blogosphere and a whole community of puzzle people who are just as obsessed as I was. That got me into doing (puzzles) everyday and learning from all the other solvers out there. And of course, when I went to my first tournament I really enjoyed meeting all the nice, smart, funny people.
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AT: How did you prepare?
DF: Well, I’ve probably done more crosswords over the past 2 to 3 years than anybody in the country. I haven’t done that in order to win the tournament. I got hooked and started doing puzzles in my spare time and on the subway and during breaks at work and pretty much anywhere else. I found that I was getting faster and faster and I figured that if I was going to have a shot at winning the tournament, I should step it up a little bit and practice speed solving a little bit more.
AT: What was the last word you solved for the win?
DF: I’m not sure what the last thing I got was. There was a particularly hard clue for “air quotes,” which once I figured it out and had a “Q” that allowed me to fill in the last few boxes. There wasn’t one part that really stumped me. It was just slow and steady going like the hard puzzles usually are.