The Tips And Tricks Of A 23-Year-Old Crossword-Solving Champion

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If you’ve ever tussled with our daily mini crossword puzzles, you can most likely blame Paolo Pasco. The good news is that the constructor who stumped you is now the champion of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament at the ripe old age of 23. The ACPT is the largest speed-solving tournament in the world, this year welcoming more than 800 competitors. The three finalists solve puzzles on a big whiteboard in front of a crowd; wins come down to literal seconds.

When I first met Paolo, he was 13 and already creating stellar grids as elegant as they were playful. These days, I rely on him as The Atlantic’s main crossword contributor. To put into perspective what a phenomenal speed-solver Paolo is: He solved the latest Inferno (our special magazine puzzle that gets more difficult as you descend into its depths) in one minute and 27 seconds. The average solve time for that puzzle is 16 minutes, 28 seconds. I spoke with Paolo recently about his win, his speed-solving tactics, and, inevitably, the 2024 Marvel masterpiece Madame Web.

Weaving the Web

Caleb Madison: Is this the big winner I’m speaking to?

Paolo Pasco: Well, look who said I would never become the big winner.

Madison: To be honest, that was to motivate you. Because if I hadn’t said that so many times when you were younger, you might not have worked as hard in defiance of me.

Pasco: That is true.

Madison: Okay, I have some serious questions, lest anyone think we’re taking this lightly. When did you start solving crosswords, and how did you transition to speed-solving?

Pasco: I think I’ve been solving puzzles in general for most of my life. I have a pretty early memory of solving Sudoku on the kitchen floor in crayon on a sheet my mom had printed out at work. That turned into those—you know those Dell puzzle magazines they have at airports and grocery stores?

Madison: Yes.

Pasco: I’d do a lot of those, but I would skip the ones that required you to know trivia. Because I was a kid; I didn’t know things. When I was in eighth grade, my family was taking a big road trip up to Stanford for my brother’s graduation, so I downloaded the iPad app of the New York Times crossword, just for something to do. I solved through some of the packs, and I realized: Whoa, these are pretty cool. And you didn’t even need to be a trivia god to make some progress on them. It’s a lot more fun than just a quiz in a box.

Shortly after that, I started getting a lot of those “Will Shortz’s favorite crosswords” kind of books. A lot of puzzles by this one young upstart named Caleb Madison.

Madison: Heard of him.

Pasco: I think it was a combination of the app and those books that made me realize that these puzzles were made by people, and there’s a human sense of fun behind them. At about that same time, I started making crosswords.

The speed-solving began in 2015 or 2016. In the summer of 2016, I was registered by my very kind parents for the indie tournament Lollapuzzoola. And I competed and won the lower division. That was kind of my first sense of, Oh, I can actually solve these on paper, and fast. I remember someone at the tournament said to me, “I remember seeing G. Paolo Pasco on the leaderboards on the website, and based on your times, I would have thought you’re one of those guys who sees the puzzle on someone else’s computer and just copies it.” Everything since then has been to prove to him that I am not one of those guys.

Madison: How did you train? Are there any tactics that you found particularly helpful in getting your time down?

Paolo Pasco during the speed-solving competition (Donald Christensen, courtesy of American Crossword Puzzle Tournament)

Pasco: The standard advice people give, which I think is good, is to print out a lot of puzzles and solve them on paper. It’s a different thing if you’re competing in an online tournament versus on paper, because with online navigation, if your cursor is on 14-Down, you don’t have to do any work to see the clue. So training your eye to move back and forth from clues to grid without losing your place, remembering clues when you can, really helps.

Madison: So when you look at the clues, you’re not only looking at the clue that you’re solving at the moment; you’re trying to get an impression of all the clues around it so that you don’t have to look back.

Pasco: Yeah, I think especially for big puzzles, where you’re navigating your eyes around the grid, that’s a really big time save, because you do it so many times. When I glance down, I try to just remember the next three across clues.

Madison: Oh, that’s interesting.

Pasco: As for less common tricks, downs-only solving was very helpful for intuiting word patterns—thinking, for example, if I have TH, blank, blank, E, then the first one’s probably a vowel, and the second is probably a consonant. If you have a big section where nothing inevitably jumps out as a toehold, there’s value in putting something in to have something in and just seeing if that works. Then if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work—but just to have the idea of something to go off. I think I feel the most comfortable solving one entry, seeing what crosses it, and building out from that, kind of like a web. Have you seen Madame Web?

Madison: I was going to say, that sounds kind of like some of the webs that Madame Web was dealing with in the film.

Pasco: Yeah. So eventually, I would want that web to connect them all.

Madison: Describe that last moment where you’re up there and you finish the puzzle. Do you check your grid really, really quickly?

Pasco: Oh gosh, I think I made a policy while I was solving it that when I was done with a section, I’d just check every clue in that section to make sure it makes sense.

Madison: So you’re checking as you go along?

Pasco: Yeah. I think that was a conscious decision, because I knew that the two people I was up against, Will Nediger and David Plotkin, are both very fast. So if I was spending a lot of time checking at the end, then that might be time for someone else to sneak in. Last year was kind of that scenario for me. One letter left, hesitated on it for too long, and Dan Feyer snuck one past the goalie.

Madison: Last year, you came in second place?

Pasco: I came in second place by a margin of one and a half seconds.

Madison: Wow.

Pasco: And if I had just gone with my gut and put in the letter I was guessing, I would have won. But I hesitated, and Dan pulled out a well-deserved win.

Madison: Have people started to treat you differently now that you’re the champion?

Pasco: I mean, I hope they don’t. I feel like it’s a very “big name in a small room” kind of thing.

Madison: Have you said it at any New York restaurants? Maybe you could get a better reservation, or free appetizers.

Pasco: I do want to pull out “Do you know who I am?” at least once.

Madison: Do you have anything else you want to say to the good people at home about your big win?

Pasco: I feel very fortunate. I truly did not expect for it to happen. Oh, I also want to say thank you so much to my family for everything. For being so gracious when their kid had one of the weirdest hobbies you could have, and not only encouraging it but also enrolling them in a crossword tournament to spend the whole day doing this weird hobby. I hope it paid off.

Madison: I think it did. I mean, it’s pretty exciting to be the best in the world at something. Not many people get to do that.

Pasco: The current best in the world. Until David Plotkin or Tyler Hinman or Dan Feyer or Andy Kravis compete again next year.

Madison: You get a year of being the best. Most people don’t even get an hour.

Pasco: True.

Madison: A hearty congrats. It’s very exciting. And you should be very proud. You deserve it.

Pasco: Thank you.


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