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Pittsburgh crossword tournament more than a puzzle

| Monday, Aug. 2, 2010

Rachel Colangelo is 18, an age when most of her peers have trouble arranging their class schedules. But the University of Pittsburgh student is responsible for an event that's the first of its kind in Pittsburgh.

On Saturday, the Pittsburgh Crossword Puzzle Tournament will be held at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, Oakland.

Colangelo, a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh, is organizing the event as the part of an internship with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

"I'd gone to a tournament two years ago and saw how exciting everything was," says Colangelo, who lives in Murrysville. "It was very intense, and I was very surprised. I thought it would be a great idea to do something that had never been done in Pittsburgh before."

Colangelo herself isn't a cruciverbalist (a fan of crosswords or word games) but her father, Frank, is. He took her to the tournament in New York, and he had been trying to hold a similar event in Pittsburgh for about 10 years.

When Colangelo was charged with coming up with an event to raise funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, she decided to wed her father's vision with the fundraising needs of the agency.

"I can finally make his plans actually happen," she says.

But not without a lot of work. Colangelo admits she had no idea what she was getting into when she proposed the idea. From arranging for a venue to soliciting sponsors to getting word out to local crossword-puzzle enthusiasts, Colangelo's summer has been challenging. But one of her easiest tasks was getting the puzzles for the tournament.

Colangelo contacted Will Shortz, the editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, the acknowledged gold standard for cruciverbalists. Shortz agreed to construct four puzzles for use in the tournament.

"He's been very helpful, very nice,' Colangelo says, noting the four puzzles being supplied will be used the following week in the Times.

While the Leukeumia and Lymphoma Society holds various fundraisers throughout the year, the crossword puzzle tournament is unlike anything the organization has attempted.

"We couldn't have expected anything better out of Rachel," says Therese Marszalek, coordinator of school and youth programs. "She has taken the project and really ran with it. ...(It's) just so original. It's going to bring a lot of attention to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society."

by REGE BEHE

TRIBUNE-REVIEW

Will Shortz is to cruciverbalists (crossword and word puzzle enthusiasts) what Mick Jagger is fans of rock music, or Robert DeNiro is to film buffs.

The esteemed editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, and the puzzlemaster on NPR's "Weekend Edition," Shortz will provide four puzzles for the Pittsburgh Crossword Puzzle Tournament, to be held Saturday at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.

Such an event might seem to have all the appeal of pencil-sharpening contest. But Shortz points to the documentary "Wordplay" as evidence to the contrary, especially during the final round, when contestants fill out puzzles on a large, oversized display.

"I've seen that movie 15, 20 times, and it still makes my palms sweat," Shortz says.

The individual practice of solving crosswords might not be so dramatic, but it's still popular; it's estimated that 50 million Americans attempt at least one crossword puzzle per week. Filmmaker Ken Burns, musicians the Indigo Girls, comedian Jon Stewart, former president Bill Clinton and ex-senator Bob Dole are among the form's enthusiasts.

Shortz thinks part of the appeal of crosswords is a natural inclination to fill in empty white squares.

"There's the saying that nature abhors a vacuum,'" he says, "and when some people see an empty crossword grid, there's a desire to complete it."

The first crossword appeared in the New York World in 1913. While it might be natural to think the form has stayed relatively the same over the years -- what could change about the basic layout of black-and-white squares• -- crosswords have undergone a transformation since 1990.

"If you looked at puzzles from 20 years ago, they'd be quite different," Shortz says. "They're a little bookish, straightforward, unhumorous. The hard puzzles are not tricky, they're hard by obscurity rather than deceptiveness. Modern puzzles have more references to modern culture, whereas older crosswords didn't.

"I don't think modern puzzlers would be happy with the puzzles from 20 years ago, and if you go back 50 years ago, they were quite differentl" he says. "They basically didn't allow phrases in the grids. Nowadays, it seems like phrases and multiword answers are not only acceptable, but encouraged."

But not all crosswords are created equally, especially during an age when computers can create a puzzle in "a split second," according to Shortz.

Machine-generated puzzles are limited by their input -- they can create crosswords, but not the humor or slyness that are part of so many contemporary puzzles.

Computers also increasingly play a role the way puzzles are solved. Shortz points out that because more people are constantly connected to the Internet, they prefer to do crosswords online. But, while it might be faster, Shortz still prefers to solve puzzles the traditional way.

"That's one thing the print newspaper has an advantage over online versions," he says, "and I think a significant portion of print circulation is achieved by crossword, Sudoku and other pencil puzzles."

Additional Information:

Pittsburgh Crossword Puzzle Tournament

Benefits: The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society

When: 1 p.m. Saturday

Admission: $30; $25 in advance

Where : Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, Gettysburg Room, Oakland

Details: 412-395-2873, ext. 2864, or website

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