STAMFORD, Conn. — In the 1970s, the marketing director at the then-new Stamford Marriott Hotel wanted to fill rooms on a slow winter weekend by starting a crossword puzzle contest.
He turned to Will Shortz, a young crossword puzzle editor living in Stamford to organize the event. Hence, the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was born.
“It was the first crossword tournament in the United States in over 50 years,” said Shortz, who now lives in Pleasantville, N.Y., and is the crossword puzzle editor for the New York Times. “It was a huge success. It was on TV, The Associated Press, UPI (and) Sports Illustrated."
The contest, which returns next month for the 39th annual event, consists of eight rounds and brings 500 to 600 contestants. All the competitors take part in the first seven rounds, while the top three competitors square off in the final round on stage.
The puzzles run the gamut from easy to hard and from daily newspaper size to Sunday newspaper size. Contestants score points for both accuracy and speed.
The puzzles are created by the top puzzle writers in the country, whose names may be familiar to attendees who read the bylines on the New York Times crossword puzzles, Shortz said.
Contestants compete in 22 solving divisions, and five skill levels. And contestants can win in more difficult skill divisions than their own. "You can always compete up, you can’t compete down,” Shortz said.
Divisions entail geographical and age categories as well. This year, the tournament will add a category for those in their 90s since the 1979 champion, who is competing and turned 90 this year.
Shortz said attendees this year will be able to participate in a unique "escape-the-room" scenario. In cities across the country, participants in those scenarios try to work together to physically escape an oddly designed room.
But at the crossword tournament, attendees will attempt an intellectual rather than a physical escape. Participants will work in teams to solve crossword puzzles and other word puzzles to leave the Marriott’s ballroom, Shortz said.
The tournament will also include a tribute to the great late crossword puzzle creator Merl Reagle.
Patrick Creadon, director of the film “Wordplay,” which documented the crossword tournament in 1996, will present the tribute in film.
The tournament is scheduled for April 1-3 at the Stamford Marriott at 243 Tresser Blvd. in Stamford. For more information or to register, click here .