Movie Review: Wordplay

The opening scene of Wordplay (2006) shows the Marriott Hotel in Stamford, CT.  The same Stamford that was my hometown for 15 developmental years of my life.  The same Marriott where my family had a pool membership one summer.  And all throughout this documentary, people speak of Stamford in reverent tones as the Valhalla of the nation’s greatest crossword puzzle solvers.  Founded by New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament has met in Stamford every year since 1978.  In Stamford, wow!  My only disappointment is that they don’t show anything in Stamford other than the drab interiors of the Marriott.

I enjoy a crossword puzzle now and again, but I’m not big into them, however I do really enjoy documentaries about geeky people with obsessions.  Wordplay did not disappoint.  The first half of the film profiles Shortz, some of the crossword constructors who submit puzzles to the Times, and several of the country’s top puzzle solvers.  They all appear to be affable people, all with talents in other areas (one’s a pianist, another twirls baton), but with an underlying current of arrogance.  A number of celebrity crossword fans are featured as well including comic Jon Stewart, filmmaker Ken Burns, and former Orioles pitching ace Mike Mussina.  The Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray compares puzzle-solving to songwriting and has great line about writer’s block.  Bill Clinton and Bob Dole both appear to talk about the 1996 election crossword in the Times that worked with either one of their names.

The second part of the film follows the action at the 2005 tournament in Stamford.  It turns out to be surprisingly compelling drama to watch the contestants solving puzzles with the clock ticking.  SPOILER ALERT: An affable Coloradan named Al Sanders is a perpetual runner-up who’s never won the tournament.  He manages a great come-from-behind effort to get himself into the finals only to muck it up big time.  Worse, a snot-nosed frat boy named Tyler Hinman ends up winning the whole thing. END SPOILER ALERT.

The DVD includes some fun extras including short features on some of the Times most memorable puzzles (which one can download from the DVD-ROM).

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 21: Stirling/Inverness

I left Glasgow on the Great Northen Railways “In the Path of the Flying Scotsman” on 10 February 1998. The plan was to travel to Inverness stopping at Stirling en route. I’d seen Braveheart and read about William Wallace and the Battle of Stirling so I figured it was worth a day trip. From the train station I made a bee line toward the distant stone tower I assumed was Stirling Castle. The walk was longer than it looked and I had to wend my way through streets lined with those ever present British suburban duplex houses.

I made it to the big stone building, paid my admission, and climbed to the top of the tower. It was only when I read the plaque identifying buildings one could see from the top that I realized I was an eejit and not in Stirling Castle at all but in The National Wallace Monument. It was quite possibly the dumbest tourist moment in the entire six weeks. However, I got a good walk out of it and on the way to the real Stirling Castle I crossed the bridge that marks the site of the actual Battle of Stirling Bridge.

Stirling Castle made my day. It’s just a big old castle built atop craggy outcroppings and fun to wander around and explore. Great audiovisual displays interpreted the site and there are great views from the battlements. The castles was (and probably still is) undergoing some serious renovation, but even this was fascinating as signs explained how the castle would be restored to its former glory.

Arriving in Inverness, I checked into Eastgate Backpackers Hostel. For supper I got some Chinese take-away which inexplicably came with a side of chips. Hey why not have all of one’s greasy, sodium-filled foods at once? I stopped in at a couple of pubs – The Phoenix and Johnny Foxes – and tried some Scottish ales. Tuesday night in Inverness is pretty quiet though so I retired early.

Stirling Castle

On the walls of Stirling Castle.


This lion with its tongue sticking out cracks me up.