Today we have a special post- an interview with Dan Feyer, who last month was crowned the champion of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT), which is sort of like the Academy Awards of the crossword world. Dan, 32, is a professional musician who started doing crosswords seriously only a few years ago. He records his times daily on his blog- and amazingly, can do a New York Times Sunday puzzle in around 5-8 minutes. We asked the crossword champ some questions about how he got so good at them, what he thinks about crosswords and the brain, and more.
For more on crosswords, you can read about the research behind crossword puzzles and brain fitness.
An Interview with Crossword Champion Dan Feyer
Karen Merzenich: How did you get so great at crossword puzzles?
Dan Feyer: Three words: practice, practice, practice. I’ve been solving an average of 20-25 crosswords a day for the last couple of years, so I’ve internalized just about all the obscure words and cluing tricks that the constructors and editors use.
KM: Wow- 25 crosswords a day! As you got better and better at crossword puzzles, did you notice an improvement in other aspects of your cognition? Like, your memory, your overall sharpness, your ability to remember phone numbers, trivia, Sudoku, etc?
DF: Hard to say. I’ve certainly learned a lot of trivia and increased my vocabulary, but I haven’t seen any significant change in things like memory. And I’ve never been very good at Sudoku.
KM: What was your motivation to reach that level of expertise in crosswords?
DF: I didn’t start solving regularly until I saw the documentary Wordplay, but once I did, it quickly turned into an addiction (fortunately, a healthy one!). I found myself getting better and faster very quickly, which only encouraged me to keep at it.
KM: So, if you stopped practicing crosswords for a year, do you think you would still be competitive at the highest levels, or would you have to retrain?
DF: I’m sure I would lose a step of two if I took a break from solving, but it wouldn’t take too much re-training to get back up to speed. If I can ever break this addiction, I’ll see what happens…
KM: You’re a professional musician. Do you think your musical abilities and habits helped you master crosswords, or do you think the two are totally separate?
DF: There’s definitely a connection between music and crosswords (and math, which was my best subject in school). It has something to do with pattern recognition — the same part of the brain that helps me sight-read a piece of piano music also helps me see where the words are going to fit into the puzzle grid. Many of the top solvers, constructors, and editors are musicians and/or math, science, or computer people.
KM: If someone wants to get really good at crosswords, what advice would you give them?
DF: The one proven technique for getting good at crosswords is to solve a lot of them. It’s also important to work on hard puzzles even if you can’t finish them, and look up any clues and answers you don’t understand. When I was starting out, I learned a lot from the blogs that write about the New York Times and other daily crosswords.
KM: Contrary to popular belief, recent research suggests that doing crosswords casually (ie, one or two a day) is unlikely to improve your overall brain performance or stave off mental decline as you age. What do you think?
DF: I would think that any kind of mental exercise helps strengthen the brain, whether it’s crosswords, games, or Posit’s programs. But I’m not a scientist!
KM: Now that you’re the best crossword solver in the world, what’s the next challenge for you?
DF: I’m not a very ambitious person, but I plan to defend my title next year. I’d love to create a crossword that’s published in the New York Times, and to do more work as a proofreader and test solver for puzzle publishers.
KM: What’s the best thing about being the crossword champ?
DF: I’m now a celebrity to a small population of puzzle people, but I’m a little uncomfortable with attention, so I’m glad that the wider world doesn’t care about the crossword tournament! My non-puzzle friends are impressed, though. And the $5000 prize was nice.
KM: Congratulations again, Dan, and thanks for answering my questions. I look forward to seeing one of your crosswords in the NYTimes soon, and seeing how long it takes me to solve it!