The Times Crossword Championship
­ Unofficial information

Introduction

Much of the information here is written as if you're pondering entering the championship and want to know what happens. I hope it's informative if you're just curious about the event. Some of it is still based on the "4 single puzzles with 30 minute time limit for each" format which was used up to 2000. If you have any additions or corrections (especially about what happened before 1989), use the 'mailto' link at the end of the page.

Contents
Overview History Past champions
How to enter What happens at Finals The Puzzles
The Contestants Should you enter? Helpful Hints
How I got on Other championships Miscellany

Legal note: The information on this page is provided without the assistance or official approval of Times Newspapers. When most of the page was written, I had no connection with The Times except for buying it and competing in this championship. I now work for the Sunday Times as their Crossword Editor, and stopped competing in the championship after 2010. I now assist the championship organisers, mainly by test-solving the puzzles used in the championship.


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Overview

The Times Crossword Championship is the best-known current competition for testing your ability to solve cryptic crosswords quickly and accurately. The championship is held annually. Since 2006, entrants have qualified for a finals day by being one of the quickest 50 solvers of one a series of four qualifying puzzles printed in the paper. The best 50 contestants on finals day (25 per preliminary heat) are exempted from this process the following year. At each of the three sessions on finals day, contestants tackle a set of three puzzles, with a time limit of one hour. Solvers are ranked first on the number of clues solved correctly. Among the solvers equal on clues solved, the ranking is determined by the time taken to complete the puzzles, so the slowest "all correct" solver ranks ahead of the fastest person with one mistake. 24 solvers, the first 12 from each of two preliminary heats, contest the Grand Final. To be in with a chance of qualifying for the Grand Final, you need to be able to complete most Times crosswords in less than fifteen minutes, and your personal best time is likely to be five minutes or less.

Up to 2000, the system was different. Competitors initially solved a puzzle printed in the Times. If correct, they went on to the next stage, usually one of about six Regional Finals. At each one, around 200 competitors competed for places in the National final - one place for every 60 competitors at the Regional final. If a particular Regional Final was oversubscribed, an Eliminator puzzle was set. This was printed in the paper, but deliberately made very difficult so that the number of correct solutions received was less than the number of places available.

In Regional and National finals, competitors attempted to solve four different puzzles, each one inside a 30 minute time limit. Each correct answer to a clue scored one 'puzzle point'. A correct solution inside the half-hour also scored a 'time bonus point' for each unused minute of the half-hour (e.g. 23 time bonus points for a correct solution in 6 and a half minutes). Competitors were ranked first by puzzle points, then by time bonus points.


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A History of the Championship

The Championship was first held in 1970. About 20,000 people completed the first stage - a correct solution to any one of five puzzles printed in May. Three eliminator puzzles were then used to cut the numbers down. Around 1000 people solved the first one, 302 managed the second as well; and the third was so hard that only 42 correct answers were received. The results of this third eliminator were ignored and the 302 were invited to finals spread over two days. After a set of eight puzzles on the first day, 36 people were invited to return to compete on the second day, tackling another four puzzles. The winner was Roy Dean, a Foreign Office diplomat, and regular finalist ever since. Roy later became a Times crossword setter.

All of the championships from 1971 to 1996 were organised in a more manageable way. Only one qualifying puzzle was used, and competitors chose one of six regional finals in various cities in the UK. Eliminator puzzles were used to ration places at popular regional finals - usually the two London ones. The qualifiers from the Regional Finals contested a National Final in London. Both types of final used four puzzles. At first, only the Regional champions qualified for the National final. At some time in the 1970s, the system of qualification changed to the current one - one National finalist for every 60 regional finalists.

The Times has not usually been willing to meet the cost of running the championship on its own, so the Championship has often had a sponsor. In the early years (1970-1981) this was Cutty Sark scotch whisky. After a one-year break in 1982 when no sponsor could be found, Collins Dictionaries took over from 1983 to 1991. Inter-City trains were the sponsors in 1992, and the distillers then returned. Knockando malt whisky was the sponsor from 1993 to 1995, and Aberlour took over in 1996. In 1997, the championship was unable to find a sponsor and was in danger of not taking place. It found a home when The Times became involved in the Mind Sports Olympiad. This event also hosted the 1998 and 1999 championships. The 1997 event had a similar format to that of 1970 - a qualifying puzzle of eliminator standard was used to reduce the field to the 300-odd who could be accommodated. These 300 contested a four-puzzle final. The 1998 and 1999 events were organised with more time to spare, but had fewer regional finals than usual.In 2000, the event found a new sponsor - wordcross.net, a crossword web-site. Unfortunately, they did not stay in business long enough to sponsor any more championships.

Famous contestants over the years include Alvar Liddell (war-time BBC radio newsreader), Tom Driberg M.P. (who wrote the first series of Private Eye puzzles), Sir David Hunt (a former Mastermind champion), and the chess grandmaster Jon Speelman.

In 1996 a "pairs" competition was tried (at the suggestion of the sponsor, I believe), to give those who solve the puzzle "in tandem" a way of taking part. Not many pairs entered, to the relief of the organisers. No recent national finalists competed in this event, and the fastest pairs didn't turn out to be any quicker than the best "solo" solvers. You may think this says something about the ability of successful cryptic crossword solvers to work well in teams or to consider the possibility. I couldn't possibly comment! The pairs event returned in 2000, when there was also an internet-based version of the championship.

After the 2000 championship's sponsors were unable to sponsor further championships, there was a period of five years with no championships. After the Times held a Su Doku championship in 2005, they decided to revive the crossword one in 2006, using a different qualifying process, so that the 'live' part of the championship could be completed in one day.


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Past Champions

Year Name Remarks
1970 Roy Dean See History section above. Roy is was the first Times champion to change sides and join the Times setting team.
1971 James Atkins Professional singer and singing instructor - also won a national crossword competition run by the Daily Express in the 1950s.
1972,73,74,75 John Sykes See below
1976 James Atkins  
1977 John Sykes  
1978 Eric Rodick Civilian tutor at the Police College, Bramshill
1979 Roy Dean  
1980 John Sykes  
1981 Tony Sever Computer system designer and programmer. The youngest-ever winner at the time.
1982 [No championship]  
1983 John Sykes  
1984 Terry Girdlestone Technical Officer
1985 John Sykes  
1986 Michael Wareham School headmaster
1987 William Pilkington Local government finance officer
1988 William Pilkington  
1989,90 John Sykes  
1991 Michael MacDonald-Cooper Retired Education Administrator
1992 Guy Haslam Editor, The Puzzler magazine. The youngest-ever winner.
1993 Peter Mayo Lecturer in Russian & Slavonic Studies.
1994 William Pilkington  
1995 Helen Ougham First female winner - a scientist.
1996 John Henderson Psychology lecturer (a former Times crossword editor, Brian Greer, is also a Psych. lecturer). John became a Times Crossword setter after the 2010 championship.
1997 David Howell Mathematics teacher
1998 Alastair Sutherland Doctor
1999 Mark Goodliffe Finance Director
2000 Peter Biddlecombe Computer Programmer
2001-2005 [No championship]  
2006 Helen Ougham  
2007 Peter Biddlecombe  
2008 Mark Goodliffe  
2009 Mark Goodliffe  
2010 Mark Goodliffe  
2011 Mark Goodliffe  
2012 Mark Goodliffe  

Multiple winners:

John Sykes (10); Mark Goodliffe (6); William Pilkington (3); Roy Dean, James Atkins, Helen Ougham, Peter Biddlecombe (2)

John Sykes

John Sykes was the winner of the Championship on ten occasions, and would probably have won about fifteen times if he had not had an informal agreement with the Crossword Editor to skip the championship several times to give other solvers a chance.

When I first attended a National Final, and discovered that the same John Sykes spent part of his life working for Oxford University Press on the production of dictionaries (he's the J.B. Sykes who may be shown as the editor of your old Concise Oxford), I thought he had a rather unfair advantage. It was only when I read his obituary in 1993 that I realised he would have been just as formidable a competitor if he had stayed in any of his previous jobs. I'm pretty sure the obituary included the phrase "one of the cleverest young men in England", and told a story of a meeting between Russian and British scientists, one of whom was John Sykes. On discovering that the papers for discussion had not been translated, John Sykes, who had taught himself Russian, did the necessary translation overnight and gave copies to some astonished Russians in the morning.


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How to Enter

Watch out for a statement printed with the puzzle, giving the dates of the qualifying puzzles and possibly other details. When the qualifying puzzles are printed, they will be accompanied by complete instructions.


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What happens on finals day

In each session, you get 3 puzzles to solve, with an hour to complete all three. No dictionaries or other solving cribs are allowed. If you finish the puzzles inside the time limit, you put your hand up (after you've checked your work).

If you have a different answer to a clue which you think can be justified, tell the crossword editor as soon as possible. You will need to be able to convince him that your answer is at least as good as the official one, so try to check your facts before presenting your case. Alternative answers are sometimes accepted, but not often - I've only known it to happen once in 20-odd regional and national finals, which means once in about 2,500 clues.

Usually, more than 12 competitors in each preliminary will solve all three puzzles correctly. This means potential qualifiers for the Grand Final have to tread a very fine line between writing in answers which "feel right" without wasting time working out exactly why they are right, and making sure that wrong answers don't get handed in.

The average solving time required to qualify for the Grand Final is usually between 9 and 15 minutes. Occasionally, a few people with one wrong answer will qualify for the grand final if the puzzles are more difficult than intended.

Grand final

This works the same way except that there are only 24 competitors. Competitors sit for all to see in their solving (or not) agony, and are introduced to the audience before the competition starts. The fact that you're being intently watched by your friends and family, and also by various other solvers just as good as you, adds a substantial element of stage fright. In 2007, there will apparently be space for spectators at the Grand Final, as there used to be at National Finals. I don't know yet whether spectators will get the chance to solve the same set of puzzles as the finalists or win any audience prizes.


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The puzzles

How difficult are they?

Traditionally, when championship puzzles were printed in the newspaper, the percentage of correct solutions inside the time limit was stated. This often looked horrifyingly low, but the pressure of competition undoubtedly played a part in this.

The puzzles used for preliminary heats on finals day are a fair sample of Times puzzles as far as difficulty is concerned, but sometimes rather harder than average. The puzzles used for the 2006 Grand Final were quite difficult. There will always be traps (intentional or not) into which the quick but careless solver can easily fall, and crucial bits of 'general knowledge' not familiar to all solvers.

As with other Times puzzles, the grids are symmetrical in the usual way and all the words have at least half the letters checked by other words.


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The contestants

Who are they?

The programmes for National Finals used to show each competitor's profession and age. From this and observation at regional finals:

How good are they?

As a rough guide to standards, here's a summary of the overall results of the preliminary heats on the 2006 finals day.

No. of Competitors: 173
All correct (90 puzzle points): 47 people
One mistake: 22 people
25th percentile: 90 puzzle points
50th percentile: 84 puzzle points
75th percentile: 70 puzzle points


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Should you enter?

This depends on your objectives.


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Helpful hints on quick solving

If you expect me to reveal everything I know about speedy solving here, you'll be disappointed. You'll have to work some of it out for yourselves!

Check your answers (I mean it)

As you will be told before hostilities commence, it is always worth checking that the answer sheet is filled in completely and legibly, and contains the solutions you intended to write down. You are about twenty times more likely to let a mistake slip through by not checking than to miss a prize by losing the time which this checking takes.

On the day of competition

On other days


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How I got on in past years

It's up to you whether you view this section as bragging or as encouragement to those who have finished in the top 50-odd of a London regional final. Some of these positions are approximate. 2 London Regional finals, each with around 220 competitors, were held each year except 1997.

1989 33rd, London Regional Final
1990 13th, London Regional Final
1991 22nd, London Regional Final, Audience Prize at National Final
1992 2nd, London Regional Final, 11th (of 22) at National Final
1993 42nd, London Regional Final, Audience Prize at National Final
1994 55th, London Regional Final. Audience Prize at National Final
1995 Equal 5th, London Regional Final (lost tie-break for last qualifying place in National Final to Bryan Sylvester), Audience Prize at National Final
1996 1st, Birmingham Regional Final, 17th (of 18) at National Final
1997 5th of about 320 at National Final
1998 1st, London 'A' Regional Final, 9th (of 15) at National Final
1999 2nd, (only) Semi-Final, 4th (of 21) at National Final
2000 1st, London Regional Final, Winner of National Final
2006 2nd, Preliminary round A, 15th in Grand Final
2007 7th, Preliminary round A, 1st in Grand Final
2008 6th equal, Preliminary round A, 5th in Grand Final
2009 5th, Preliminary round A, 5th in Grand Final
2010 3rd, Preliminary round A, 5th in Grand Final
2011 Non-combatant! See above.


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Other championships

Some other competitions were held in the years between the 2000 and 2006 Times championships:

American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

Based on non-cryptic puzzles, but a successful event over there, and gets pretty good press coverage. Held annually since 1978. The final stage - the three top solvers filling in grids on whiteboards while the audience watch and listen to a commentary, is a bit different to the reverential silence of the Times event. More at their Web-site

Azed Competition

I'm indebted to 1991 champion Michael Macdonald-Cooper for details of a competition held by the Observer in 1984. In an e-mail message he reports that:

If I remember rightly, there were three consecutive qualifying puzzles on the second, third and fourth Sundays of September 1984. When it emerged that several hundred solvers had managed correct entries to all three, a further qualifying puzzle was set, and competitors were asked to provide a cryptic clue to Superbrain (the name of the competition being the Observer/Oxford Crossword Superbrain contest) to be used as an eliminator if necessary. I believe about four hundred correct entries were whittled down by this means to the sixty people invited to attend the final, held in the Examination Schools in Oxford.

The final puzzle was a 15 x 15 barred-grid advanced cryptic of fifty-seven lights, based in considerable measure on OUP reference sources. Contestants were provided with reference books, each person being supplied with the full (then 13-volume) OED, the ODQ, and three or four of the Oxford "Companions"; all other reference books were banned.

Contestants were allowed two hours for solving, and the rules resembled those of The Times competition in that the person with the quickest all-correct solution would be the victor. One contestant finished the puzzle in a little under fifty minutes, followed at intervals by a handful of others. It turned out, however, that the fastest finisher and most of those finishing a little later had a mistake of just one letter.

The time bonus system was thus relied upon only for awarding the places from second to fifth, and the person with the only all-correct solution was declared the winner, in a rather exciting prize-giving session in which most of the contestants were unaware of the outcome until the very last (i.e the first) prize was awarded.

Appropriately, in view of his connection with OUP, the sponsors of the event, and his own illustrious record as a crossword solver, the late Dr John Sykes made the after-lunch speech at the prize-giving ceremony. It was a wonderfully informed and informative survey of crossword puzzles and language use. I wish now I had asked for a copy of it subsequent to the event.


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Miscellaneous Information

Stuff that fits nowhere else...


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Author: Peter Biddlecombe
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