Guevera, Guevara. Tomayto, tomahto. Let's call the whole thing off. Can't do that. Just got started. Guevera/Guevara. I should know that, but, hell, if I were at work, I'd look it up. Maybe I should've thought about it more, but I went for time points, not accuracy. Lots of people are done now, sitting around looking into space, some gone out for cigs. One guy reading newspaper, the sports section, another doing newspaper crossword. Damn that Che.

Notes from a journal kept during the Long Island Crossword Open, November 1990

9:30 a.m.:I'm sitting at my desk in the Masonic Lodge in Bellmore, N.Y., waiting for the start of the Fourth Annual Dell Long Island Crossword Open. As a copy editor for The Washington Post Magazine, I help edit the Sunday crossword puzzle. But I've also been interested in puzzles since I was very small and watched my mother do them in the New York Times, so I've paid the $20 ($40 if you've been here before) to find out what a crossword competition is like. Plus my Aunt Harriet, a contest veteran, has been urging me to join her, and this is finally a chance for us to compete together.

My desk is actually one-fifth of a round wooden table. Separating me from my four tablemates are V-shaped walls of cardboard, giving each of us a pie-shaped space in which to huddle. The oblong room in the basement of the lodge is filled with similar tables, some square, some rectangular, all with carefully spaced cardboard dividers. Even though the contest isn't due to start for another hour, the room is more than half filled. As several people have told me, there is a cadre of regulars who attend this competition, the New Jersey Open and the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn., so it's like old home week as friendly (or occasionally not-so-friendly) rivals greet each other.

Jinny Jones, of Bethesda, is a six-year veteran of crossword competitions. Jinny has a laid-back attitude to go with her wide smile and throaty Tallulah Bankhead voice. "There are some people here to whom it is extremely important to win," she says. "To a strange degree. I think it's really too bad to be that involved in something, and to be that upset when you don't succeed."

I ask her whether she has any specific strategy she uses, and, again, she's quite matter-of-fact. She tells me she tries to put in only what she knows for sure and works both across and down, but adds modestly that "there are probably more efficient methods."

George Hiltz, a telecommunications manager from Falls Church, is a bit more direct about his plan for the day: "It's very simple: You work as fast as you can and don't make any mistakes. Not making mistakes is far more important than when you finish. And if you get hung up in a place, just look somewhere else."

Then there is Chevy Chase resident Doug Hoylman, a mild-mannered actuary for Geico and the fastest pencil in the East. Everyone here knows Doug, who has been competing for four years, has won two tournaments and has placed third twice, fifth once.

"So," I ask, "do you feel any pressure being a former champion?"

"Not really, no."

"Do you plan on doing anything special today, or are you just going to follow your normal routine?"

"That's right."

"What is your normal routine? Do you have a plan?"

"No, not really."

I feel like I'm stuck at 1 Across without any Down clues. Not only is he shy, but the man never seems to smile. I decide to go for the competitive angle.

"Do you come in with a goal, thinking 'I'd like to do "this well" '?"

Ah, a multi-sentence response. "Well, I'd like at least to be one of the top four who go up front and participate in the playoff. I was disappointed last year because I came in fifth, and that's unusual for me, not to be in the playoffs." There is not a trace of vanity or ego in his voice. He is stating simple facts.

Doug repeats what others have also said -- that the people who come to these tournaments are basically a friendly bunch, and the main reason they come is to see friends they've met "on the circuit." I can't help telling him he seems to have maintained a healthy attitude about the whole thing.

"Well, there's not much at stake," he says. "Unless I finish in first place, I'm going to come out with less money than it cost me to come up here to participate."

A born cynic, I generally can tell when someone's throwing me a line. But as I move on, all I can wonder is whether everyone here is as sincere and modest as Jinny and Doug and George seem to be.

Then I meet Jon Delfin, who has won the last four tournaments -- this one, New Jersey, Stamford and one sponsored by Channel 13, the PBS station in New York City. He's seated right up front, where the championship round will take place.

After I introduce myself, he briefly says hello, then glances at my cassette recorder. "You know," he can't keep from saying, "that comes off." He is gesturing at an insignificant little sticker that the manufacturer had stuck on the cassette compartment window.

Jon, a Manhattan pianist who accompanies singers and plays for rehearsals and auditions, is full of theories about why he's done so well, and he's not shy about offering very specific advice on how to compete. He doesn't feel any pressure, he says, because "I'm accustomed to performing. One of the aspects of what I do is that very often I'm sitting at a piano waiting to do something, and when I have to do it, I have to concentrate for three minutes, and then when I'm finished playing, something else is going to happen. Now, if I tried to maintain that level of concentration when I'm not actually doing anything, I'd burn out. So I've had to learn how to focus instantly, and so that helps me. It's not a strategy that'll help anybody else probably in the general population, but I'm generally a calm person anyway."

So concentration is the most important skill?

"You have to have knowledge, you've got to write fast. You're graded on speed and accuracy, so the quicker you can identify the information you need and get it written down . . . Even just writing fast helps."

Aha. So playing the piano helps you write faster?

"A little bit," he acknowledges, then adds, "It's probably more being left-handed and having a certain independence between left and right brain." He must notice the hyperdilation of my eyes because he hastily continues: "This is going to sound very pompous, I know, but I mean the fact is that I'm left-handed, so I can be writing an answer and while I'm writing it I'll look at the next clue."

I slink away, pen hotly clutched in my right hand. 10:23 a.m. Back at my desk, I try to relax before the first puzzle, but I'm feeling nervous. I'm afraid I can't write fast enough, though as I scribble what I'm thinking, I figure that simply writing is helping me. But it's pen, not pencil. I pull out the two carefully sharpened No. 2 pencils I brought wrapped in an envelope, and roll one between my fingers to get the feel of it. Why I have brought two I do not know. In all my years of standardized test-taking -- IQ, Regents, PSAT, SAT, GRE -- I have always had two pencils on my desk, and I have never broken a point. I guess a long history of compulsiveness is the answer.

Around me, the 134 other contestants are busily solving practice puzzles. Doug Hoylman happens to be sitting to my left, and I hope that won't psych me out. Aunt Harriet, to my right, is a calming influence. The atmosphere is good-natured but intense. The room is getting warm.

Finally, Stan Newman, the president of the American Crossword Federation and the organizer of the tournament, booms out a good morning and goes through the rules. There will be five puzzles between now and 3:30, plus a break for lunch. Each one will have a time limit, and points are awarded based on the number of minutes under the limit you finish and how accurately you solve the puzzle. Stan emphasizes that in the long run accuracy is more important than speed, the lure being 150 bonus points for a perfectly completed puzzle. When you're done, he says, raise your hand and a judge will collect the puzzle and note the time remaining. After the five rounds are over, there will be a 1 1/2-hour break, and then the top four finishers will compete in the championship round -- one timed puzzle to be solved in front of the entire group.

The oversize puzzle grids that will be used in the final round are already propped up on easels at the front of the room. The judges are introduced, the first puzzle is distributed, the time clock is set, my hand begins to shake, and, at 10:45 a.m., we begin. 10:50 a.m. My hand is still shaking, but I'm done. I finished the first puzzle in five minutes, the same time as Doug Hoylman, much to my astonishment. I wonder what he thought when our hands went up at the same time. One thing that helped me was that as I wrote in one answer, I unconsciously found myself reading ahead to the next clue. Wait a minute. Didn't Jon Delfin say that could only be done by left-handers? The daily-size puzzle wasn't as hard as I thought it would be, but I had struggled mightily over one Across answer. Guevera, Guevara. The clue going down from the pesky square-in-question was "Cub scout leader." Was it "akela" or "ekela"? I had absolutely no idea. I decided my best strategy was just to guess and at least get the time points since it wasn't the type of answer that would come to me. So I threw an E into the square and raised my hand. 11:05 a.m. Time is called. I immediately turn to my aunt. "Did you know that Cub Scout thing?" I ask.

"Akela!" she cries. "I remember the boys would yell that out when they were Cub Scouts." Well, I think, my cousins never yelled it in my presence. But I don't feel too bad. It's frustrating, but it's just the first puzzle, and I merely lost a 50-50 chance. And, while I don't want to totally humiliate myself, I'm glad to discover that my basic feeling is that I have nothing at stake.

Everyone around us is now engaged in second-guessing. George Hiltz says he felt it was pretty fair for the first puzzle, which is usually on the easy side. One woman, a computer operator from New York City, says, "Everyone's talking about 'akela.' " Doug Hoylman says quietly, "I didn't finish as fast as I should have." Puzzle No. 2 is over. Did it in 13 min. out of 25. Not very good, I guess -- lots finished way before me. Feeling cool at least, fan running, hand doesn't hurt. "Mare humonum," I finally got. {Wrong -- I later found out it was supposed to be "mare humorum."} But what was the answer to "Soup slogan"? Perhaps it was "mmmm good" going across. But then who was that "Ethel" in the Down clue ending on the second "m"? Can't have been "la merm." Don't like "la mere" and "memm good" but "mmmm good" didn't work with Ethel. Oh, I dunno. 11:32 a.m. As the 17-minute mark of the second puzzle approaches, a steady stream of hands are raised, and the judges are kept hopping from table to table, gathering and scribbling. I feel more relaxed, calmer. I'm having fun, but I can't imagine coming to another competition. When I first heard about them from my aunt a couple of years ago, my reaction was, "But it just doesn't make sense to me to have to do puzzles quickly. It kills the fun. What kind of skill is that?"

"But, Emily," she replied, "it is a skill. Speed is the whole point."

I couldn't see it then, and I can't see it now. Or perhaps, yes, it's a skill, but what's the point of having it? I guess the point is that if there are going to be competitions, speed must be one of the factors, or else there is no basis for comparison, and then there would be no competitions. And competitions are, uh, necessary, right? 11:40 a.m. It's so quiet, I can't tell who's still working and who's done. Certainly many fewer people have left the room than on the first puzzle. Some people have their glasses on, some have them off. Many hands are grasping many foreheads. As time is called, a collective "phew" fills the room. I see Jinny Jones roll her eyes. The puzzle, constructed by tournament organizer Stan Newman, was definitely a toughie. "Opus 1000," it was called, a clue to the presence of many M's. I was aware of that while I was doing it, but until Harriet tells me, it still hadn't been enough to make me realize that the answer to 7 Down was "La Merm" after all, as in Ethel Merman. How I, a lover of musicals, managed to think of Ethel Kennedy and Ethel Barrymore but not Ethel Merman is beyond me. The pressures of the competitive arena are taking their toll.

Doug finished the puzzle in seven minutes. He then had 18 minutes to read his Ngaio Marsh mystery, and he tells me he felt pretty confident at the end, though there were some letters he wasn't sure of.

As I discuss the puzzle with Jinny, Jon Delfin feels obliged to come over. "I guess it kind of messes up your story," he says, "but I had two mistakes in that one." 11:55 a.m. As the third puzzle is about to begin, the room is still filled with second-guessing on number two. Stan reassures the group that the normal tournament rhythm is for the second puzzle to be the hardest. He then announces that the constructor of the third one is using a pseudonym -- Eugene T. Molluska, a play on the name of the crossword editor of the New York Times, Eugene T. Maleska -- but after we're done, he will reveal the true name. "That's not fair, Stan!" a woman shouts from the back. True puzzle connoisseurs know the tricks and rhythms of the top constructors and use that knowledge in their solving. The serious competitors are beginning to emerge. When I receive my puzzle, I note the title, "All at Sea," and figure this one is going to be fun. Did No. 3 in 12 minutes. Feel I got it 100% right. Lots done early! Feel calm, don't really want a break now, at least don't feel like total dodo. Good puns in this one -- had lots of holes in long ones, but then kind of stepped back and looked at whole thing and it all clicked. Getting cool in here. Feel I could have been faster -- found myself slowing down, not looking at next clue while writing one in, then would do a quick spurt. Hand hurts a little but feels good. 12:26 p.m. The fan goes off, and, boy, is it quiet. I can hear every rustle, chair creak, footstep in the hall, but not so many pencil scratchings. A fair amount of people are still at work, but not much is being written down. 12:31 p.m. Time is called, and Stan reveals that the mystery constructor is Merl Reagle, a master punster. A number of people had guessed correctly. For them, between the title and the pseudonym and such clue/answer combinations as "Gauge of mollusk opinion?"/"scallop poll" and "Have beers with mollusks?"/"oyster few," it was obvious. 1:30 p.m. During the lunch break, I talk with one of the judges, David Rosen, winner of six past tournaments, puzzle editor and a programmer/analyst at Metropolitan Life in New York City. I want to find out if there is a pattern to who is good at doing crossword puzzles, and the answer is surprising.

"I think you'll find that there are an awful lot of people who are in either math or statistics or computers," he says. "In fact, a lot of people at first are rather surprised to see that there aren't more people who are, say, writers or newspaper people. Obviously puzzles require an awful lot of knowledge of words, but they also require a certain analytical knowledge, almost looking at words one at a time or just looking at phrases and being able to look at them in different ways, in isolation, that is not unlike working on a math problem or writing a proof. It's an analytical ability as opposed to a literary creative ability."

David, a former high school math and computer programming teacher, recalls that he constructed his first puzzle when he was 9, and when he was 10 he received "one of the best birthday presents" he's ever gotten, a collegiate dictionary. This would seem to support the oft-repeated belief that people who are into crossword puzzles tend to be nerdy, but after only a brief conversation, I realize that David is far from that.

Seeking expert guidance, I explain my mixture of nerves and not caring, then can't help asking if I did the right thing in the case of "akela."

"If it's the sort of thing that you have a feeling that if you take another minute that you might get it, and that's the difference between completely correct and one wrong, it's probably worth the minute," he advises. But, in my case, since the answer was something I simply did not know, "then it was probably better just to take your best shot."

I now feel prepared for the afternoon rounds. 2:15 p.m. I am done with the fourth puzzle, an enjoyable daily size that we were given 25 minutes to solve. It was constructed by one of the judges, Will Shortz, the editor of Games magazine, and amusingly featured "crossword puzzle" in both English and Hungarian. I finished it in six minutes. I know I'm working fast, but I think I'm being sloppy. The biggest fear of competitors is to solve the entire puzzle correctly and early but leave one square blank, thus losing the 150 bonus points. I am convinced I have left a blank. Lots of people finished this one quickly, and I realize that while I may not care how I place, I don't want to have blown it through carelessness. 2:50 p.m. The last puzzle is about to start. I'm eager for the championship round, the most exciting part of the day. The fan is whirring again, and the room is cooling down. Most people seemed to have finished the previous one quickly, and I wonder if the last two puzzles really separated the field as much as people told me they would. ALL DONE. 11 min. Checked it over to see that there were no holes. Again, may've been sloppy, but I hope not. Sure is a polite bunch. About a minute into the puzzle, someone sneezed, and "Bless yous" came from all over the room. How do I feel now that it's all over? It was fun, a little nerve-racking. I think I did okay for a first time -- it's just so hard to tell against the other people. I think my mistake was going for speed over accuracy. 3:45 p.m. Up in the judges' room, heads are bent over stacks of puzzles. Each judge has a master solution and compares it with each entry. Whenever a letter is wrong, a red X is placed over that box, and the words that the letter appears in are marked incorrect. As David Rosen explained to me earlier, the number of X's and wrong words is totaled, and the sheets are then passed on to the computer experts. The computer has been programmed to generate a score for each contestant based on the number of wrong letters, wrong words and the time of solving. The scores for each puzzle are then added together to come up with the final point total. The judges recheck the puzzles of the top 20 contestants, and the top four then compete in the championship round. The computer also sorts the entrants into three skill categories -- Grand Master, Expert and Puzzler -- based on last year's performance at the tournament, as well as two age continued on page 27 CROSSWORD continued from page 24 categories and a special category for rookies.

"We bend over backwards to try to give people the benefit of the doubt," David says. "If there's a letter that's ambiguous, we'll try to compare it with other in- stances of the same letter within the same puzzle. We also have a standing rule that if a letter is correct but was erased, and the square was left blank and we can see the erasure, we generally give them credit."

There is much camaraderie in the judges' room, as they read aloud funny wrong answers and exclaim when they think they have a top contender. I leave the room when they are ready to mark my final puzzle. 4:50 p.m. While the judges are making their final computations, Will Shortz organizes various word games, for fun, not prizes. I am stunned at how quickly the group arrives at the answers.

But this is merely filling time before the big moment. Stan finally announces the top finishers: No. 4, Carol Barboni, of Seaford, N.Y.; No. 3, Howard Gross, of New York City; No. 2, Ellen Ripstein, also of New York City; and No. 1, Doug Hoylman. All four have been to a final before.

As they take their places at the front of the room, the audience settles in to watch. The four boards are evenly spaced with standing blackboards serving as dividers, and each solver is given a copy of the clues. The No. 4 contestant, Carol, has 20 minutes to solve the puzzle, and each succeeding solver has 15 more seconds, ending with Doug, who gets 20 minutes and 45 seconds. At 4:55, Doug begins, and by 4:55:45, they are all off and running. 5 p.m. Well, not running, actually. Doug has entered nothing by the time it is Ellen's turn to start, and by the two-minute mark, Carol is already erasing, and it looks like Howard has given up on a four-letter word for "Knot constituent" (toad) in the upper left corner and is trying to move across the bottom. As the audience members try to solve their own copies of the puzzle, I watch the action up front, as mesmerizing as a horse race. At 3 1/2 minutes, Ellen is erasing, Doug has moved to a six-letter word for "Grain car" (hopper) in the middle, Howard has left the bottom and gone to the upper right, and Carol is hovering over "Castor and Pollux" (stars) in a lower corner . . . Two minutes later, no one is near halfway done, and it is Howard erasing, Ellen at the top middle and Doug moving up the right flank. Carol, I notice, is the only one who is left-handed . . . At 7 1/2 minutes, Ellen pops down to a squat, Doug, who hasn't erased yet, calmly stares at the upper right corner, Carol redoes some squares on the left, and Howard is stuck in the lower left . . . Rounding the 10-minute turn, Carol still has nothing in the upper and lower right, Ellen has the middle filled in but the corners -- including "Like flip-flops" (thonged) and "Checked out" (tallied) -- are empty, Howard is scratching away at the bottom, and Doug is going back over a trouble spot.

At 11:06, Doug quietly says "Done." A couple of people clap, but there is an insistent "SSSSHHH!" I haven't had a chance to gauge the puzzle's difficulty, but I know his performance has been remarkable. (Several people will later tell me that this was a harder-than-ordinary championship puzzle.)

The others continue without missing a beat, Carol filling in more rapidly than before. Doug studies his puzzle, looking calm.

At 13 minutes and 40 seconds, Howard erases the upper right corner, and fills it in again. A minute and a half later, Carol stands back and scratches her head as she stares at the puzzle's center. At 15:33, she says "Done," then nervously plays with her hair as she continues to gaze at the grid. At 17 minutes, Ellen erases the upper middle, then just looks at it without moving. Howard is filling in the middle, his upper right once again empty. When time is called, both Howard and Ellen have most of the puzzle done, with just that troublesome upper right unsolved. It is obvious that unless they have made mistakes, Doug and Carol will finish first and second. 5:30 p.m. The prize-giving begins. Applause greets many familiar names -- contestants who have improved greatly since last year, old favorites the crowd is happy to see win again. Books are given to the top finishers in the skill, age and rookie categories, with trophies and checks also going to the top three in each skill grouping. There is also an award for best handwriting. I am thrilled that Jinny Jones placed third in the Senior division. I'm also amazed -- and embarrassed -- to discover I have won the lowest skill category, which automatically means I have won the Rookie division as well.

The climax of the day, however, comes in the awarding of the top trophies. Behind the four finalists, in fifth place, is Jon Delfin. Ellen has edged Howard out for third place, each finishing with some mistakes. Second-place Carol had no mistakes. Doug also had no mistakes, and as he goes up to receive his trophy and $400 check, his smile finally breaks through, reaching from here to Long Island City.

He has earned his fare home.