It’s one of the first things millions of people around the world attempt each morning. The award-winning documentary “Wordplay” examined the passionately intense souls who invest their intellect and emotions into its tiny black and white squares. There are prestigious and nearly impossible-to-enter contests across the country that can be encouraging to the optimistic novice and devastating to the rugged veteran.
For decades, crossword puzzles have provided incredible satisfaction and debilitating frustration, often within minutes of each other, on a daily basis to anyone brave enough to fold their newspaper into quarters and place a pencil (or if you’re bold enough, pen) onto the easily torn, ink-smeared pages of their printed periodical.
On Oct. 30, the Mid-State Literacy Council will host an army of cruciverbalists at The Village at Penn State to take part in the agency’s third annual Crossword Contest benefiting adult literacy training in Centre County.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but participants will still have a good time and they can share in the camaraderie,” said event organizer and Mid-State Literacy Council executive director Amy Wilson.
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Using unpublished puzzles donated by the Chicago Tribune, contestants must complete their squares quickly and accurately before advancing to the next round. There are three rounds, with only the top three highest scorers advancing to the final round to compete against each other.
“It’s fun and exciting,” last year’s winner Mark Hayes said. “I look forward to having some stiff competition.”
Although this event probably won’t have the emotional peaks and valleys of a quadruple-overtime win at Beaver Stadium on Homecoming weekend, there is still quite the competitive atmosphere at the crossword contest.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s heated, but there is kind of a sense of tension in the air,” Hayes said. “There’s always some nervousness before you see that first puzzle and a sense of ‘Am I going to be stumped?’ But the environment is really just filled with goodwill and friendliness.”
“Since doing crosswords is usually a solitary endeavor, it’s pretty low key,” contest participant Bob Potter said. “In fact, the whole idea that they could make a competition out of crosswords was new to me.”
One of the biggest components behind the quest to fill up their entire square with the correct answers is pretty straightforward: self-satisfaction. Staring at an empty puzzle will always be daunting, but confidence is quickly gained with every clue the contestant is able to cross off.
“I like crosswords better than sudoku or other things because not only is it a challenge, it’s an opportunity to learn something,” Potter said. “They’re also a lot of fun.”
Like many hobbies and pastimes, there are often unwritten and universal rules that everyone abides by, a certain “respect for the game.” For example, exaggerating about your golf handicap is almost as tacky as inquiring about someone’s salary or weight. Naturally, crossword puzzlers also abide by a strict set of laws, taking the privacy and preferences of others into consideration. However, Hayes and Potter were happy to share and both agreed that, when it comes to crossword puzzles, the pen will always be mightier than the pencil.
“At home I use pen,” Hayes said with a laugh. “But in the competition, I’ll use pencil.”
“Oh, pen,” Potter said with confidence. “I think everyone who really does them does them in pen.”
For many, attempting a crossword puzzle is almost second nature and pairs perfectly with a rich cup of coffee and a golden piece of toast. These puzzles have an impressive staying power and there is a Norman Rockwell-esque charm behind the concept’s simplicity.
“It’s the combination of satisfaction and challenge,” Hayes said of the everlasting popularity of the puzzles. “I personally like exercising my mind on a regular basis, and they help me feel like I’m staying sharp mentally.”
“They’re a personal challenge and they’re fun” Potter added. “Some days I can’t knock one off, but other days I do and it’s satisfying to say ‘Well, I got that done.’ ”
“Words are very interesting; they add a lot of flavor and detail to our world,” Wilson said. “The people who do a lot of crossword puzzles are interested in all of the subtle nuances of words and with the pictures that you can paint with them and what they mean.”