For most people, solving a crossword puzzle is a leisurely way to spend a lunch break or kill time on a long flight.
Howard Barkin isn’t one of those people.
Last week, Barkin beat out nearly 600 other contestants to win the 39th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut.
Directed by New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, the competition pits the best crossword solvers in the country against one another in a gauntlet of seven puzzles over the course of the weekend. Competitors are judged on speed and accuracy.
In the championship round, Barkin dethroned six-time winner Dan Feyer in a stunning upset that delighted the audience:
The final puzzle was equivalent in difficulty to those offered by the New York Times on Saturdays, which are considered the hardest puzzles to solve.
Barkin finished it in seven minutes and 49 seconds to claim the victory. His celebration made it clear how much it meant to him:
— Ben Zimmer (@bgzimmer) April 5, 2016
“I was very surprised. I did not at all expect to beat Dan,” Barkin told Business Insider. “It was kind of a cathartic moment there at the end, and I let out a yell.”
Feyer completed the grid less than a minute later to claim second place. The last finalist, David Plotkin, could not finish the puzzle in the allotted 20 minutes.
Top competitors usually complete the first puzzle of the tournament, of the “Monday”-level variety, in less than three minutes, and occasionally break the two-minute mark. The puzzles progressively get more difficult as the tournament progresses.
The clues for the final puzzle are the most difficult.
Barkin got tripped up trying to come up with a seven-letter answer for the intentionally unspecific clue “Boards.”
- ACPT/Don Christensen
“They’re very vague. They’re ambiguous. ‘Boards’ could be a verb, a noun, you don’t know what it is,” one of the commentators can be heard saying during the championship round.
Eventually, Barkin deduced the answer: “STEPS ON,” as one would do an airplane.
(An easier version of the puzzle designed for nonexperts cleared things up a bit. The clue for the same answer was “Squashes, as a bug.”)
Perhaps the most difficult clue required solvers to come up with a six-letter word for “Muscovite, for example.”
Barkin initially filled in the spaces with “SOVIET,” knowing a Muscovite is what someone from Moscow is called.
However, the clue relied on an obscure double meaning – muscovite also happens to be the name of a flaky, metamorphic rock. Barkin quickly recognized his mistake and erased it in favor of the correct answer: “SCHIST.”
“There’s a certain mental flexibility that goes into it,” Shortz told Business Insider. “Keeping your mind limber, and if your first answer doesn’t work, try your second. And if that doesn’t work out, try your third.”
Barkin, a New Jersey resident who manages quality assurance for a software company, has competed in the tournament 11 times. He finished third place in 2014 and 2015, finishing both times behind Feyer and Tyler Hinman, another multiple-time champion.