Jeanne Sager | Democrat
RETIRED FALLSBURG HIGH School teacher Jay Kasofsky of Woodridge has a perfect attendance record at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
Fancy word for Kasofsky? He's a 'cruciverbalist'
By Jeanne Sager
WOODRIDGE For 31 years, there have been two constants at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
Will Shortz, creator of the tournament and famous editor of the New York Times crossword puzzles, is one of them.
The other? Retired Fallsburg history teacher Jay Kasofsky.
Kasofsky’s trip to Brooklyn today for the 32nd annual tournament will continue his reign as the longest-attending contestant.
The Woodridge resident is a pure crossword junkie.
He does the New York Times puzzle every day even Friday and Saturday, which are exponentially more difficult than the more celebrated Sunday puzzle.
He completes them all in pen the color, red, a throwback to his teaching days.
In fact everything about his constant puzzling can be tied back to Fallsburg High School, where Kasofsky was a student when an English teacher suggested the kids pick up the puzzle to improve their vocabulary.
The Times was delivered daily to the school for history classes, but soon Kasofsky and his classmates laid claim, challenging one another to see who could finish the crossword.
Still a true gentleman competitor, Kasofsky admits he “fared nicely” back then.
He stuck with the crosswords through undergraduate school at Syracuse University, through graduate school at New York University.
It was always the New York Times, accept no substitutions.
He switched to pen when he began teaching, following the lead of a fellow teacher one who had been his teacher when he was still a student at Fallsburg.
“With a red pen, you tend to be a little more careful, make fewer mistakes,” he explained.
In 1978, Kasofsky noted an advertisement above the puzzle. Shortz wasn’t yet the Times’ editor, but he’d earned attention for crafting his own degree in “enigmatology” at the University of Indiana. Editor of Games Magazine at the time, Shortz had put together a tournament for puzzlers.
He was calling for entries.
“I just showed up, I didn’t call, I didn’t write,” Kasofsky recalled. “I knew I always was good at crossword puzzles, but I wanted to see how I did.”
In those days there was no registration via the Internet, no need to plan for the hordes of contestants. In the years since, the tournament has grown thanks largely to a documentary about the tournament and Shortz, “Wordplay. “
Kasofsky was interviewed for the film, but says he ended up on the cutting room floor although friends say they’ve seen him in the periphery in certain shots of the film.
That first year, there were just 149 contestants. Kasofsky finished ninth in the field.
“I was absolutely thrilled, it blew me away,” he recalled with a grin. He was hooked.
He returned the next year with 153 other contestants and placed sixth his best showing to date.
For Kasofsky, winning the tournament isn’t the point. He’s in the B category of players out of A, B, and C.
The categories are assigned by the competition based on past performance. Newbies are automatically As. Champions are Cs.
Kasofsky is comfortable in the middle.
“It’s a challenge to me; it’s ‘Can I finish it? Can I learn anything new?’” he explained. “Especially with this age of computers, I’m constantly learning new words.
“What’s that word for a colon and parenthesis, the smiling face?”
When the word “emoticon” is supplied, Kasofsky’s face lights up.
“That’s it, something like that I am learning.”
Pop culture challenges him. He knows the bands of the ’50s and ’60s, the athletes of his school days. He was befuddled the first time he saw “ALer” in reference to American Leaguer.
But he’s a quick study. He found that a knowledge of high fashion wasn’t necessary once he grasped a four-letter word for a model in the eighties was “Iman.”
He’s quick with answers although he says few people pester him with “what’s an eight-letter word for . . .” type questions.
There was one colleague who liked to quiz him “Quick, Jay, what’s a three-letter word for freezing water?”
“Fog,” he explained with a devilish grin.
Instead Kasofsky has found a connection with his fellow puzzle enthusiasts at the tournament. Wife Sue now joins him in Brooklyn the tournament was moved there from Stamford, CT, to accommodate the larger crowds post-Wordplay and they dine with other couples and make a weekend of it.
Until a few years ago, Kasofsky shared his longest-attending contestant with a woman he’d met at the very first tournament. He struck up a friendship with Marilyn Munroe that lasted nearly 30 years, a friendship that extended to dinner with their spouses and contact throughout the year.
Munroe passed away a few years ago, but Kasofsky still attends every year.
“It’s a big source of enjoyment,” he noted. “You meet a lot of interesting people, you have fun.
“Usually, what I try to do is forget about the timer and just complete the puzzle,” he said.
People often confess to Kasofsky that they’re intimidated by the puzzles.
“They say, ‘I can’t do one of those,’ and I say ‘Give it a try,’” he said. “You might surprise yourself.”