For many of us, should the list of possible answers become overwhelming or the right word escape us altogether, when we put down an incomplete crossword puzzle, it’s down for good. But for the dedicated crossword player, where there’s a blank, there’s a will to put a word in it.
That’s the philosophy that the chair of the Annual Finger Lakes Crossword Competition Gary Weissbrot took to address the coronavirus-enforced postponement that pushed this year’s Eighth Annual competition from March to September.
The FLCC is a fundraiser which provides all its proceeds to Tompkins Learning Partners and consists of individuals or teams competing at three levels of difficulty to complete crossword puzzles in an event which last year drew over 300 participants. It is supported by businesses and organizations, including the Ithaca Times, as well as participant fees which are “pay-what-you can.”
Like nearly everyone, Weissbot assumed that the pandemic would be over by summer, he said, but as Summer came and the rate continued to increase, in many cases spiking in July, he knew they would never be able to meet in person. He was left with two options: officially cancel the event or find another way to get people their crosswords.
“When we first canceled and moved it to September, of course many people had already registered, we offered to refund tickets to anyone who wanted even though we planned to reschedule the event,” Weissbrot said, who said he was surprised by the number of people still wanting to participate regardless of where. “Surprisingly, only two registrants requested a refund. Everyone else either said ‘We’ll be there in September’ or ‘Keep the money; it’s a worthwhile organization and we’ll see you next year.” The two participants were Cornell graduates who were returning home in May, Weisbrot said.
So, he decided to move the competition from the crowded cafeteria of Boynton Middle School to the kitchen tables, living rooms and park benches of participants' own homes and local parks in the competition’s first-ever “Honor” event.
“Instead of canceling this event, we have come up with another way to keep the tradition alive. On your own timeline, we will all participate in the Eighth Annual FLCC and “Honor” Event. (Only in Ithaca!)” the website states.
As an “Honor” competition, each participant will be responsible for recording and reporting their own times directly to Weissbrot. A mark of a dedicated crossword player is the commitment to completing the crossword without cheating, he said.
“Obviously, there are no cash prizes, so you can cheat all you want but you’ll have to live with that,” he said. “All you get is bragging rights and it’s not really worth it if you cheated at all.”
Two weeks before Sept. 26, registrants should expect to receive an envelope mailed directly by Weissbrot. Inside each envelope will be a program for the event, the crossword puzzle they’ve selected and other games usually enjoyed at the event.
This year’s crosswords will still be created by Adam Pearl, who has created crossword puzzles for the New York Times and other FLCCs in the past; and registrants will still be able to participate in groups. All puzzles are due to Weissbrot on September 26 by 5 p.m. via text or email.
But the competition is larger than the competition itself, said Weisbrot. Every year the event is hosted as a fundraiser that donates all of its proceeds to promoting adult literacy in Tompkins County. In the past, funds have increased year after year; last year it cleared around $10,000. Since rescheduling the event, and extending registration, Weissbot said the event has seen registrants apply from around the country to take part in this year’s competition.
Ken Harris, who has attended the event for the past four years, said he has no plan of missing this year. “I commend their efforts to make sure we still have a fun competition this year. I think it’s going to be exciting. I’m doing it with a partner this year and we’re going to meet somewhere with a couple of pencils, open the envelope, start the clock and it’ll be just like we’re sitting in the big room at the school.”
There’s also something particularly special about crosswords— a test of knowledge or of endurance, perhaps, because players know the right word is not on the tip of the tongue but just beyond the next Brobdingnagian second. Weissbrot compared the event to the World Series Poker Competition; Harris compared it to a model train convention.
“It’s incredibly comforting to be in a large room of other like-minded people who share this activity,” Harris said. He attributed his love of crosswords to an indescribable love of language and words.