Shy Marylander is nation’s top teen crossword puzzle solver

Erik Agard once grew an awesome ’fro.

It was so impossibly thick and so impossibly tall and so impossibly cool that it was impossible to ignore. Random people — on the street, in the hallway, at the ballgame — felt inexorably drawn to it.

They’d beg to pose for photos next to the awesome pile of awesomeness on top of his head. They’d say, “Can I touch your hair?” his mother, Beth Agard, recalls with a sense of pride and whimsy. Sometimes they touched without bothering to ask.

“You say that like it’s the greatest thing ever,” groans the son, slumped there in plaid shorts and bare feet in the cramped and cluttered living room of their Gaithersburg home.

Agard, who is 19 and about to start his junior year at the University of Maryland, cut the awesome ’fro not long ago. He doesn’t want the attention. Attention makes him uneasy. Not his style.

But Agard has a habit of drawing attention without necessarily trying. And he’s gained himself a bit of notoriety of late for a singular talent he has obsessively nurtured since his days at Montgomery Blair High School: He is a scorchingly fast crossword puzzle solver.

No teenager finished higher than Agard in this year’s national crossword competition directed by the New York Times crossword editor, Will Shortz. Agard is “the future of speed solving,” declared Michael Sharp, who writes the popular Rex Parker crossword blog.

Being a scorchingly fast crossword puzzle solver doesn’t make you a big shot on campus. But it does make you a somebody in the realm of crossword puzzle enthusiasts, and this is a not insubstantial universe. Hundreds of solvers gather for annual competitions that test the speed and accuracy of competitors — not just Shortz’s get-togethers, but other, shall we say, cleverly named events. Lollapuzzoola, anyone? A kaleidoscope of blogs ruminate on each day’s major puzzles and track the standings in each competition, and, what’s more, there’s a real community of elite solvers.

Agard is one of them. He belongs — on his merits, not because he’s a self-promoter. “Don’t follow me on Twitter,” he pleads.

Still, Agard worries that he might sound like a showoff. “Let’s say, ‘I’m shy,’ ” he proposes during a looooong phone conversation after a long interview. No photographs, he insists — even now that the ’fro is gone. Shouldn’t we be focusing, he posits, on his mastery of constructing puzzles — his crosswords have been published in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register, as well as on the iPhone app, the Daily Celebrity Crossword — instead of his knack for solving at supersonic speeds?

Agard, an African American studies major at U-Md., is tall and slender. He oozes a kind of ethereal external mellowness, even as his mind races. He’s prone to lengthy silences in the midst of conversation while he searches for just the right word. His voice comes out in a low purr. He answers questions with questions. He makes short, Zen-like observations. A crossword, he says, is “as easy or as hard as it’s supposed to be.”

“The word ‘one’ has a great letter pattern,” he says a few moments later.

Why?

“It has two vowels.”

How does he solve puzzles so quickly?

“I just do it.”

Agard has been known to solve 40 crosswords in a single day, clocking each from start to finish, but usually he limits himself to “seven-ish,” he says. He has blazed through an early-week New York Times crossword (the puzzles get progressively harder from Monday through Saturday) in as little as two minutes and 17 seconds, which bothers him to no end because he’s fixated on getting down to two minutes. He typically conquers the fiendishly challenging Saturday puzzle in five to 10 minutes.

“I get kind of a crossword high,” he says. Then he considers that statement for a moment. “Metaphorically,” he adds.

Before crosswords, there were chess competitions. “He was very good at the ‘blitz chess,’ ” his mother says, referring to a timed, high-speed form of the board game. “At some point he decided trophies were meaningless; he’d go only if they gave money as prizes.” Agard lets out a low groan.

A few minutes later, his father, retired schoolteacher John T. Agard, strolls into the room and starts riffling through a stack of DVDs that teeters nearby. Almost every inch of the small home is covered with objects of various family obsessions. Plastic tubs are stacked three and four tall in the living room and dining room. Thousands of paperback books, CDs, DVDs, crocheting supplies, teddy bears, a Beanie Baby collection, maps of the solar system.

Agard’s father, who is originally from British Guyana, fishes out a DVD about tai-chi sword maneuvers and demonstrates with two swords. Now his father is modeling the ankle-length crocheted robe — the one with the red flames on it — that Agard’s mother made. Young Agard passed on a robe, but says he likes to slide around the dorms in the crocheted slippers his mother made for him.

Agard’s mother so enjoyed volunteering at the schools her two sons attended (Agard’s brother, Vince, is studying severe weather patterns at MIT) that she continued even after Erik graduated. She speaks fluent German, Italian, French and Spanish, as well as near-fluent Russian, Hebrew and Mandarin Chinese. Her son is very good at languages, too, she says.

“I’m not,” Agard says.

He’s very musical, too, she says.

“I’m not,” he says.

He’s a very fast reader, she says.

“I’m not,” he says.

One night this week, the family found itself engaged — as they often are — in a conversation about words. “We were just talking about the words ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ last night,” Agard’s mother says. The meaning of those words has evolved, they concluded. Once they meant social misfits. Now they mean someone who is really into something, someone who might “geek out” or “nerd out” on one of their passions.

“Erik is very cool,” his mother says.

Erik’s mother is very right.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.

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