Gainesville’s Plotkin snags second in national crossword competition 

David Plotkin races through the final puzzle of the 46th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in April 2024, finishing in 6 minutes and 26 seconds.
David Plotkin races through the final puzzle of the 46th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in April 2024, finishing in 6 minutes and 26 seconds.
Photo by Donald Christensen/American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

Number 21 Down: Berry popular since the late 90s.   

Gainesville’s David Plotkin first thought the clue could reference a berry-flavored dessert or snack, giving a lot of possibilities like blackberry, strawberry, blueberry or elderberry. 

Realizing the deception, he quickly shifted gears to fill in the five empty squares that formed one of the answers for the final stage of the 46th American Crossword Puzzle Tournament—a mecca to crossword solvers around the world. 

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In the past 13 years, Plotkin has made a name at the tournament, winning the junior category four times and earning an overall finalist position six times. He’s taken home bronze each year as a finalist until securing second place at this year’s tournament in early April.  

“I expected to get third place, and again, just luck of the puzzle,” Plotkin said in an interview. “A lot of the things in the puzzle were things that were more in my wheelhouse . . . science related terms that are things I’ve learned in grad school at UF—clues about neural nets and amino acids and sciency things.” 

After graduating from UF’s grad school, Plotkin began working as an entomologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History. But he makes sure to carve time out of the year to attend the crossword tournament in Connecticut.  

A record number 805 participants were at the 46th American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in early April.
Photo by Donald Christensen/American Crossword Puzzle Tournament A record number 805 participants were at the 46th American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in early April.

Plotkin said the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT) brings stiff competition, but it’s also like a crossword convention, with solvers and constructors, people who make the puzzles, gathering to discuss their shared passion.  

He said the community aspect of the event draws him to return just as much as the competition. Being one of the fastest crossword solvers in the country, Plotkin said the resulting irony is that he spends very little time doing crosswords at these tournaments. Instead, he ends up talking about the puzzles with the other attendees.  

The tournament drew in 805 participants this year, a record. Plotkin said the majority have no intention of winning, estimating a couple dozen players are serious speed solvers. But the ACPT is still worth attending because of the camaraderie and quality of puzzles—and trying to improve on your personal best. 

Plotkin said the editors and constructors work hard to bring a top-quality product to the tournament—better than something you’d find in a typical newspaper or airport puzzle rack. 

“As solvers, we try to recognize that and acknowledge that,” Plotkin said. “It can make the experience a lot more fun. So, we’ll talk about ‘Oh, that was a really fun clue for a word that I’ve seen before but never seen that clue before.’”  

How it all started 

David Plotkin learned about the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT) through several coincidences at the end of high school.  

He was applying for colleges and read a school article about a student, Tyler Hinman, who won the 2006 tournament and became the youngest champion in ACPT history. The article referenced a documentary called “Wordplay” that filmed the tournament and would premier a little later. 

Soon after, Plotkin saw the documentary, but he said he had no thoughts of attending or competing as a speed solver. He just did the crosswords for fun during easier classes.  

Plotkin said his school offered free copies of newspapers like The New York Times. He’d pick up a copy and work on the crossword during class. 

“I could take notes and do a puzzle at the same time,” Plotkin said. “And over the course of months, I got faster and ‘Oh, I have time to finish two puzzles during the lecture, not just one.’ And two became three and three became four.” 

Plotkin attended Carnegie Mellon University at the time and grew up in Buffalo, New York. Both are fairly close to the ACPT in Connecticut, so Plotkin decided to attend a tournament.  

He said he had no illusions about winning, but he wanted to meet fellow crossword enthusiasts and see how he stacked up. Plus, he could discuss the complexities of the puzzles with people who fully understood. 

That first tournament in 2010, Plotkin found that conversations were easy as solvers discussed the previous puzzles and compared notes.  

He ended up placing 28th that first year—the second highest junior competitor. But the top finishers, Plotkin said, still awed him. 

“The people that were above me were just so many levels ahead,” Plotkin recalled. “At the time, I thought, ‘Oh, I mean, I’m good. But I’ve seen what greatness is, and there’s just no way I can ever get that close. It just doesn’t seem possible.’ I was very happy, over a decade later, to be proven wrong. But at the time, that’s what it felt like.” 

The tournament has eight rounds with a new puzzle for each. The first six puzzles happen on Saturday and the final two on Sunday. Each puzzle has a time limit, and players get points for speed and accuracy.  

For each minute of spare time before the timer runs out, players get bonus points. While the goal is speed, Plotkin notes that it never benefits to risk accuracy. One error in a puzzle will result in negative points that erase the equivalent of six or seven minutes of the speed bonus. 

The competitors gather along rows of tables, and when the time starts, they flip over the puzzle and start filling in the words. When the puzzle is finished, the contestant raises their hand and tournament staff come to record the time and take the puzzle. 

Plotkin said some top solvers have finished in under two minutes, but a three-minute puzzle is his personal best. The first puzzle is the easiest to get the engines started, and Plotkin said the fifth puzzle is always the hardest, separating the leaders from the rest. 

This year’s fifth puzzle had a particular theme that took Plotkin several minutes to figure out. Many of the clues had a “C” in it that needed to be eliminated in order to get the real clue.  

For example, one clue was the word “crush.” The answer to the clue was “spate.”  

The two words seem to have no connection. Plotkin explained that when you remove the “C” from “crush,” you’re left with the word “rush,” a dictionary definition of “spate.”  

“When they say puzzle five is really hard, it’s not because the trivia is obscure. It’s not because the definitions are obscure,” Plotkin said. “It’s because they’re breaking the conventions of a traditional crossword and not telling you how they’re breaking it and making you figure it out for yourself.” 

He said it’s the type of trickery and out-of-the-box thinking that many other puzzles lack—misleading clues that point the solver one direction or force the solver to look past the red herring staring at you.  

That’s why something “Berry popular since the late 90s” has nothing to do with fruits. Instead, the answer was the actress Halle Berry. 

It’s this mental misdirection that slows down contestants, even if they eventually finish the puzzle without errors. This year, 130 contestants finished the first seven rounds with perfect puzzles. But only the fastest three compete in the final round.   

Despite his past success, Plotkin said he doubted if he could make the final round this year.  

A new solver, Will Nediger, had joined the ACPT, and while classified as a rookie, Plotkin said Nediger was already known in crossword circles as a constructor. Nediger has competed in online tournaments with scores that indicated a top three finish.  

David Plotkin (right) and Paolo Pasco walk off stage after completing the final crossword puzzle.
Photo by Donald Christensen/American Crossword Puzzle Tournament David Plotkin (right) and Paolo Pasco walk off stage after completing the final crossword puzzle.

But Plotkin made the final because of a mistake by a nine-time ACPT champion— Dan Feyer. 

When speed solvers rush through a puzzle, they don’t always read every clue. If you fill in a section and the last answer you entered creates real words for the clues that cross it, solvers risk saving seconds by not checking the clue.   

Plotkin said Feyer rarely makes mistakes and will continue to be a faster solver than him.  

“I know, in my heart, that he had a better tournament as far as speed goes. That one bad bounce, in a way, changed the fortunes of the tournament,” Plotkin said. 

For the last puzzle, the finalists from the top divisions (A, B and C) must solve the puzzle on stage in front of hundreds of attendees, and the puzzle transforms from a piece of paper to a large whiteboard sitting on an easel.  

Everyone can see the board, and commentators give play-by-plays and keep track of the players’ progress. The finalists wear headphones with white noise to drown out the commentary and any shouts from the audience.  

All three divisions solve the same puzzle in the finale, but the set of clues differs, going from easy to hard and then very hard. Commentators at this year’s tournament noted that Sid Sivakumar, the constructor for the championship puzzle, created 70 drafts before submitting the final version. 

The final puzzle lacks a theme to increase the difficulty, and answers ranged from “Casserole dish” to “mope” and “amino acid.” 

Paolo Pasco finished the puzzle in 5 minutes and 42 seconds, and Plotkin solved the puzzle in six minutes and 26 seconds, beating third place by 12 seconds. He said it was a game of inches to finally rise above third place. 

Finalists David Plotkin, Paolo Pasco and Will Nediger hug after completing the championship round of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
Photo by Donald Christensen/American Crossword Puzzle Tournament Finalists David Plotkin, Paolo Pasco and Will Nediger hug after completing the championship round of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

Plotkin has several techniques he plans to practice with this year. One will be to solve a crossword using only the down clues.  

Using just the down clues increases the difficulty and simulates a harder puzzle. Finding quality puzzles can be difficult, Plotkin said, especially when you’ve solved thousands of puzzles. 

Plotkin said he also has to practice finding the clues and corresponding spots on the puzzle, especially for larger 21-by-21 grids.  

“If you’re under time pressure, there’s the stress of competing, it can take a few seconds to find that clue—just to locate it,” Plotkin said. “That sort of thing, at my level, is what I have to practice because I can know the answer to the clue immediately.”  

Plotkin said he’s not sure how he’ll do in future years, but the tournament and puzzles remain an enjoyment. As long as the fun lasts, he plans to keep solving.    

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