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Susan Lucci of Crosswords

Famed crossword puzzler Ellen Ripstein was among the competitors in final round of 1988's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (the largest gathering of puzzlers in the world). Though she was the first to finish her puzzle, Ripstein made one fatal error: she had written "senseleseness" instead of "senselessness."

Over the next 13 years, Ripstein extended her streak of top-5 finishes to eighteen without a win, earning her an embarrassing nickname: "The Susan Lucci of crosswords." (Lucci won an Emmy award on her nineteenth nomination.)

In the run-up to the tournament in 2001, Ripstein spent several weeks solving ten to fifteen puzzles a day, at one point completing a Saturday Times puzzle in 4:46... Could she win?

"Ripstein got off to an early lead, and managed to dash off 'aristas' ('Some beards') and 'bhang' ('Hallucinogenic drink made from Indian hemp'). But her strategy was unorthodox. Instead of starting at the upper left corner and working her way around the puzzle, she jumped immediately to the right side. That left her stranded without 1 across ('What sots don't do?'), a ten-letter answer on which much depended.

"

[Patrick] Jordan took the standard path, built on previously placed letters, and soon surged ahead. He filled in 'at bats' ('Denominator in some stats') and 'coigns' ('Wedge-shaped pieces of wood'), and hesitated only briefly before writing 'bard' ('Avon calling?'). When he bent down to fill in the final square, to a scattering of applause, all the air seemed to go out of the room. Even without the Ice Man around, Ripstein couldn't win.

"Or could she? A murmur of protest rippled across the ballroom. At the lower right corner of the puzzle, in response to 'Bonaventure, e.g.,' Jordan had written 'past' instead of 'mast.' Like Ripstein in 1988, he had made a single, senseless error.

"Afterward, when Ripstein had finally figured out what sots don't do ('pass the bar') and Al Sanders had limped in for a distant third, the crowd erupted almost as explosively as had been predicted. The TV cameramen raced down the aisles for startling closeups of unusual words (it's hard to make a puzzle seem dramatic), and Ripstein took off her headphones so that she could, at last, hear her acclaim. 'Is that your lucky dress?' a reporter shouted. 'How did you prepare?'

"Ripstein smiled, her face incandescent above the cloud of reporters and klieg lights. Then she calmly gave the answers that she'd been preparing for nineteen years."

[When Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz (the only person on Earth with a degree, from Indiana University, in "enigmatology") told the Wall Street Journal that the crowd would "blow the roof off the hotel" if Ripstein won, the Marriott management greeted Ripstein with a fruit basket -- and a welcome letter: "Best of luck this weekend," it read. "We will have the roofers stand by."]

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