Crossword fanatic's daughter starts local tournament
August 1, 2010 4:00 AM
Dr. Frank Colangelo
By Anya Sostek Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Frank Colangelo sits in his Monroeville medical office, staring at a few blank squares on a New York Times Crossword Puzzle.
"I can't believe I'm falling apart here," he says.
He's been working on the puzzle for a whole four minutes. And has been carrying on a conversation the whole time.
But for a man who does an absolute minimum of four crossword puzzles a day -- sometimes striving to complete five crosswords as his kitchen timer ticks down 20 minutes -- that's a long time.
Dr. Colangelo, 48, who competes every year in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, is now doing his part to bring competitive crosswording to Pittsburgh.
His daughter, 18-year-old Rachel Colangelo, is organizing the first Pittsburgh Crossword Puzzle Tournament Saturday as part of her summer internship with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Ms. Colangelo, who will be a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh this fall, thought the idea seemed a little "nerdy" at first but quickly realized its potential to reach a bright, educated audience.
"In my head I was going to have a black-tie affair -- so glamorous," she said. "We were just joking around at home saying that I should do a crossword puzzle tournament, and it turned out when we broke it down that it would be really good. In reality, it's the best thing I could have done."
She is hoping to draw 40 to 50 participants. All proceeds from the event, which costs $25 to enter and will be held at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland, will be donated to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Ask Dr. Colangelo, an internist at Premier Medical Associates, how long he has been doing crossword puzzles and he'll tell you without hesitation: Jan. 2, 1997, when a blizzard left him patient-less and bored in his office.
A fellow doctor there did crosswords and urged Dr. Colangelo to give one a try. One month later he could finish a puzzle by himself. Within a year or two he was exploring the early Internet to find three or four puzzles a day. And within three years, he entered the national crossword puzzle tournament, dramatized in the 2006 documentary "Wordplay."
Out of about 700 competitors, he has finished as high as 37th. This year he was on track to finish in the top 15 -- had he not left a blank square on two different puzzles "out of stupidity."
Mr. Colangelo and his wife, Georgia, an oncology nurse, can be spotted in "Wordplay," he said, and over the years he has met "Jeopardy" champ Ken Jennings, talk show host Phil Donahue and New York Times Crossword Puzzle editor Will Shortz there, as well as all of The New York Times puzzle designers.
If Dr. Colangelo happens to wake up early -- before 6 a.m. -- he'll use those extra minutes to do a puzzle or two. If it's slow between patients, he'll delve into a stack he has printed out at his office. And he almost always does a few puzzles "to unwind" before bed.
Every day he does the puzzles from The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Houston Chronicle and Newsday. If he completes his four standard puzzles in a day, he'll often seek out edgier puzzles online from sites such as The Onion or from puzzle maker Brendan Emmett Quigley, who has a syndicated crossword for alt-weekly publications.
Although Dr. Colangelo usually completes the puzzles in pen -- "ballpoint pen glides over the page faster than pencil," he said -- he trains with a pencil for a few weeks prior to the tournament.
Demonstrating on a medium-level Wednesday New York Times puzzle in his office (the puzzles get harder as the week goes on), he shows off a few tricks he's picked up over the years. He starts with the puzzle's top left corner because the beginnings of words are more helpful than the endings, jumps to relatively easy fill-in-the-blank clues when he's stuck and writes the lowercase "e" because it uses fewer pen strokes than the capital letter.
For Dr. Colangelo, a good puzzle is one where "I laugh while I'm doing it," he said, noting that he prefers the modern crossword puzzles designed by Mr. Shortz to the old-school "crosswordese."
He believes that doing crossword puzzles has improved his vocabulary and bolstered his knowledge of general trivia and culture -- something that helps when he also competes in a monthly "pub trivia" contest at Mullaney's Harp & Fiddle Irish Pub in the Strip District.
And though he briefly tried sudoku, he lost interest relatively quickly. "You either like crosswords or you like sudoku," he said. "It's like a battle line."
Dr. Colangelo will not compete in the Pittsburgh Crossword Puzzle Tournament, but he did help design it. Competitors will have 20 minutes to try to complete three unpublished puzzles provided by Mr. Shortz. The puzzles will be about as difficult as the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday newspaper puzzles.
The top three finishers judged by speed and accuracy will solve a Thursday puzzle on an oversized crossword board in front of the crowd.
First prize will be a $100 Visa gift card, and second and third prizes will be $50 gift cards.
Contest officials will give prizes to the youngest competitor, the oldest, the competitor who has traveled the farthest for the event and the one with the neatest handwriting -- as determined by the judges.