Inside the Fervid Mind of a Professional Crossword Puzzler

Professional Puzzle Man Repeller

Stella Zawistowski is a Brooklyn-based copywriter at a pharmaceutical advertising agency. She’s also one of the best crossword puzzle solvers in the United States. (In fact, this year, she was the highest-placing woman at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, though she’d rather that not be a gender-based thing.) Man Repeller talked to Stella about her meteoric rise in the competitive crossword community, sexism in puzzling, and how much she can deadlift. Hint: It’s seven letters across, starts with “fuck” and ends with “ton.”

I’ve always been a puzzler of some kind, even when I was a little kid. My parents bought me Mensa books and stuff like that—I loved brainteasers. But I started solving crossword puzzles specifically when I was a junior in college. This one friend of mine and I would get together on Sunday afternoons and do the New York Times puzzle together, as a way of avoiding doing my schoolwork, frankly. Back then I needed someone to solve the puzzle with. Now, I don’t solve with other people—it’s a solitary activity for me. It would just stress me out having someone else around. I’d be like, “No, that’s wrong. That’s wrong. That’s wrong. Just erase that. That’s wrong. Just give me the puzzle.”

After I graduated, I heard about the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament—I was living in Connecticut at the time and it takes place in Stamford every year. This was in 2001. I looked up the tournament website and it said something like, ‘If you can finish this puzzle in 15 minutes or less you would be competitive. If your time is under 10 minutes you’ll do excellent.’ I finished that puzzle in, I think, nine minutes and 45 seconds. I thought that was great. So I went to the tournament and I did not do very well at all. Turns out the puzzle they’d put on the website was [about the same difficulty as] the easiest one in the tournament—and there are seven puzzles total!

Professional Puzzle Man Repeller

I was so angry that I had done so poorly that I started to solve more puzzles. There are plenty of people who place in the bottom half at the tournament and they don’t care that they’re not good. They just like being around other people who love solving crossword puzzles as much as they do. But I cared a lot, and I decided that I was going to get better. The amount by which I was able to get better still amazes me. After my first tournament, I solved the Times puzzle every day. Then I went from the Times puzzle every day to two puzzles a day. It snowballed.

The best way to get better at crossword puzzles is to do more puzzles.

Getting that first foothold is difficult, but after that things fall down like dominoes—you’ll find short words, words with lots of vowels in them, and certain words with letter patterns of common consonants that show up over and over again. I know everything there is to know about Oreo cookies, the director Elia Kazan, things like that. I wouldn’t call the way I solve crosswords fun. It’s more of a compulsion at this point—more like an addict getting her fix for 20 minutes a day. I have a steady diet of four puzzles a day. Then on certain days, like Fridays or Saturdays I get an extra or two—I love the hardest puzzles of the week, and traditionally that’s Fridays and Saturdays.

I really want to fight with my puzzles a little bit. It’s getting harder to do. My favorite hard puzzle is the Saturday Stumper, which is in the Long Island newspaper Newsday. That’s run by Stanley Newman who’s been a crossword writer for a very long time and he’s still committed to running a really, really hard puzzle. Weekly, then, I do more than 30 puzzles. Actually, it’s more than 40. I just counted: it’s 43.

Maybe in my twenties [I was self-conscious about the hobby], but now that I’m older I don’t really care if people think I’m weird. I mean, mostly people are admiring. I do feel like sometimes I get the same comments over and over again—like when people hear about how well I can do a crossword puzzle, almost always the first thing out of their mouth is, “Wow, I can’t even read the first clue in that amount of time that you can do this.” I know this is true of a lot of the top solvers; it’s kind of why we liked hanging out together so much at the tournament and we’re all friends even though we like to compete with each other.

Professional Puzzle Man Repeller

The way tournament works is, well… think of it like scoring under par in golf.

In each round, you’re given a certain number of minutes to solve a puzzle, and for each whole minute you come in under that time you get extra points. But if you make a mistake, your score will be reduced—your first mistake costs you eight minutes worth of points. Getting the puzzle right matters more than speed, but if you want to be in the top group, you need to be both fast and accurate. By 2005, I was in the top 10 solvers for the first time. That was a shock. Most people don’t have that sort of trajectory. After my first four placements, I’d have never thought that being an ‘elite’ solver was something I could do. Then all of a sudden I was in sixth place and I suddenly felt like, “Hey, I could win this thing one day. This is crazy.”

This year was my 19th time entering the tournament, and my best placement—fourth place overall. Honestly, there were a couple of top competitors who weren’t able to come, and I realize that part of the reason I was able to make fourth place is that they weren’t there. I would love to be able to just get a little bit better and unequivocally make the top three [who compete in a final, live puzzle, on-stage] against the very best of the best. Or, I mean, win the whole thing! And that’s a very, very ambitious goal because every step on that ladder [to first place] is enormous at this point. The people who are better than I am are just better than I am. I’m not sure how to get past that because there’s nobody to teach me how to do it. I’m just sort of figuring it out, and I have to keep reminding myself in that situation that I’m one of the best in the country. There is no such thing as a crossword puzzle I can’t solve. If there’s a crossword puzzle I can’t solve, there is no market for that puzzle.

A woman hasn’t won the tournament since 2001, by the way—the year I started competing. That bugs me.

Not that anybody is actually pressuring me to win, but I feel like a lot of people are looking at me and hoping that I will. I don’t really want to represent a whole gender like that—I mean, I don’t want it to be a conversation about me being the best woman. I would like to be the best person. But I can’t escape the fact that it’s just been way too long. There is another woman who is a little bit faster than I am, but she quit competing a couple of years ago. There’s another who is pretty close to me in ability, but I generally tend to come in a little bit ahead of her [in terms of speed].

[My other hobby is Crossfit, which] I started, like, eight years ago. I love it. But my favorite part about it is the lifting heavy weights part; cardio can go fuck itself. I love putting something really heavy on my back and squatting down and standing up. It’s really cool to be able to say that my best deadlift is 325 pounds. People at the crossword tournament keep saying, ‘Oh my God, if there were a crossword crossfit tournament…’ I’m like, ‘Yes, I would be the best in the world at that, male or female.’ Because most of the other people at the crossword tournament are… well, I’m a nerd too, but I’m a brainy meathead. And I’m the only one.

Professional Puzzle Man Repeller

I think the reason women don’t win, or don’t place in the top spots as often, is in part because we’re not making enough puzzles.

Part of being able to solve a crossword fastest [is about getting] in the same mindset as the constructor; sometimes I think that if puzzles as a whole were a little less ‘bro’ then we would see more women champions. There’s actually been a lot of attention paid lately to the lack of diversity in construction, whether by race or gender. Last year, this project called The Inkubator ran a Kickstarter to raise funding to encourage women to make puzzles. They raised $30,000! So there are a lot of allies out there who will help [women and people of color] if you want to construct. There’s a Facebook group called the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory, for example. If you join that and put your hand up and say you want help, there will be someone who reaches out to you.

And that’s part of why I’ve decided I really need to be making puzzles again myself—I have been extremely successful as a solving competitor, but you have to make the world you want to live in, right? There aren’t puzzles out there right now that are full of fashion clues, drag-queen clues, classical-music clues. I’m a very eclectic person. I know I seem really obsessed with this one thing, but on the other hand, I also lift weights and I sing in a choir. I think I have a pretty well-rounded life. I work as a pharmaceutical copywriter; I studied chemistry in college and I always liked writing, so it suits me pretty well but I would give it up in a hot second if I were able to make as much money writing puzzles as I do making ads! What I would consider a success for me moving forward is creating puzzles and getting them published, so there are more out there in the world like the ones I want to solve.

Graphics by Madeline Montoya

More from Archive