Eyes bloodshot and bleary, the three U.S. Open finalists slumped on stage, their battle over at long last. Applause from the gallery washed over them.

Actually, it covered them with a fine mist. You see, this was the U.S. Open Crossword Championship, held last August in New York University's Loeb Student Center. The applause seemed somehow to have been imported from a cello recital.

How richly deserved it was, nonetheless. The finalists, a tall man, a short man and a woman, had each just plundered their extraordinary rattrap minds and completed the day's sixth, most difficult, puzzle.

As the tournament director, Will Shortz, approached the podium with the name of the new national champ on his lips, so did the moment of truth. The assembled throng, 247 beaten qualifiers and two or three dozen crossword fans, held its collective breath....

But rather than spoil the surprise, let's first chart the course of the day's events and briefly acquaint ourselves with the finalists.

Gracing stage left is Rebecca Kornbluh, a weaver of tapestries and rugs out of Mundelein, Ill. Widely read—"I own several large dictionaries and spend many evenings studying them"—and possessing a master's in German literature, she's an accomplished puzzler who finished third at last year's open and was runner-up in '82. She's whispered, however, to suffer from Bud Grantitis—can't win the big one.

Pacing stage right is John McNeil, a computer salesman from Austin, Texas and the defending champ. McNeil is a "money solver," at his best in the big competitions, performing for crowds. He was a strong favorite to repeat, and happy to confirm that when asked.

If anyone could depose McNeil, the cognoscenti agree, it would be the redoubtable Massapequa Park, N.Y. bond analyst, Stanley Newman. Standing at center stage in purple sneakers, black socks and plaid Bermuda shorts, Newman looks like a crossword whiz. A versatile mental athlete, he was the open champ in 1982.

In the lounge before the puzzling began, McNeil and Newman exchanged a barb or two vaguely—very vaguely—reminiscent of an Ali-Frazier weigh-in. "John is at a psychological disadvantage," said Newman. "He carries the onus of having won last year."

"Whatever you say, Stan," replied McNeil. He would have been Frazier.

But McNeil and Newman were just two of 250 competitors from 22 states and the District of Columbia. The solvers were as curious a cross section of citizens as that day's assortment of hustlers and homeless in Washington Square, across the street. The contestants' ages ranged from 16 to 74; their professions varied widely. There were actors and actuaries, a psychiatrist, a surveyor and the former U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh. They'd been culled from more than 10,000 applicants, a number pared by tiebreakers administered by Games Magazine, which along with Merriam-Webster, the dictionary folks, sponsored the open.

Once seated, six to a partitioned table, the competitors listened as Shortz reviewed the rules: No reference materials could be used; puzzlers would be rewarded for speed and accuracy. "A minute checking your work when you're finished will be a minute wisely spent," he advised. The three fastest finishers with the fewest errors after five puzzles would solve a sixth for the crown—plus $1,500, a dictionary and a six-foot pencil.

Then they were off, ratiocinating furiously against the clock, a digital Seiko the size of a portable TV. It ticked loudly, punctuating a tense silence that harked back to school days and standardized tests. Occasional guffaws and groans arose at particularly good and bad clues. The puzzle getting the most laughs was the afternoon's fifth, Loaded Questions by Maura Jacobson. Swill skater of fiction? asked 69 down. This was Hans Drinker, of course. Snort-order cook? Betty Crocked. And the solution to 23 across. Star of 40 Clarets, was Lynn Red-grape. Contestant Jim McCoy ad-libbed Gynn Redgrape and was duly penalized for mixing his drinks.

Jacobson's puzzle was a welcome lift to the spirits after Merl Reagle's Bank On It, the day's third. And what a bear it was, short on gimmes like 64 across—Hockey Hall of Famer? (Orr)—and long on French feelings (emoi), medieval work guilds (hansas) and other obscurities.

Bank On It had McNeil in a dour mood by lunch. "I'm sitting on a bad letter," he said, referring to an error he'd discovered too late, though he looked disturbed enough to be speaking literally. Newman, in contrast, was all optimism after a tuna melt. "According to my own unofficial calculations, I'm either in or tied for first place," he said. It was noted, out of his earshot, that he'd finished fifth last year after saying the same thing.

Mark Ryder, one of seven Californians competing, also welcomed the lunch break. "Around 11 my brain ran out of sugar and oxygen and started dying," said Ryder, a teacher of periodontology. He took a lunch of souvlaki and felt better, saying, "Everything will be all right now." He finished 102nd.

While volunteers worked frantically through lunch-and beyond, correcting the 1,250 puzzles, guest speaker Jonathan Crowther, puzzle editor of the London Observer, lectured on the differences between American and British crossword traditions. Crowther's work appears in Britain under the name Azed, which is derived from Diego de Deza, a Spanish Grand Inquisitor of the late 15th century. A zealous, thorough Christian soldier, Deza is said to have had 2,600 heretics tortured to death while meting out crippling penances to another 35,000. Since "a" and "zed" are the first and last letters of the British alphabet, Crowther flip-flopped Deza's name and made it his own "for obvious and highly appropriate reasons."

Before his lecture, Azed could be seen in the balcony, solving contentedly along with the contestants. "The clues are very pithy," he said. "They manage to pack quite a lot of humor and wit and subtlety. Mine are much longer."

So that the audience could see their work as they solved Puzzle No. 6, the three finalists worked at chalkboard-sized clear plastic grids with their backs to the crowd.

Four minutes into the final, with Kornbluh holding a commanding lead, McNeil engaged his cerebral afterburners. By the 5½-minute mark he'd pulled even and was beginning to look unbeatable, synapses flashing, grease pencil flying in a frenzied, transcendent state of solvation, the letters on his grid multiplying like bacteria in a square petri dish. Seven minutes, 41 seconds after he'd begun, McNeil turned to the audience, placed his pencil on the floor and said "finished," ruining at least one bond analyst's day.

Kornbluh had a strong stretch run of her own, arriving home just a minute behind McNeil. Her printing was easily the neatest of the three. Newman, pacing the stage like a doomed man in a labyrinth, required 14 minutes to finish. When he did, all three received sincere, if undeafening, applause.

Shortz announced that Newman was third. No news there. Then things got interesting. "In second place," said Shortz, pausing to wring every teaspoonful of drama from the moment, "with one error, finishing in seven minutes, 41 seconds"—there were shocked gasps all around—"John McNeil."

Forgetting itself, the crowd went wild. Kornbluh the underdog had carried the day! McNeil, it turned out, had lost 25 points and his title for misidentifying an 1885 Maupassant novel as Ben-Ami instead of Bel-Ami.

"When John said 'finished' I just relaxed and said, 'O.K., it's out of my hands,' " said Kornbluh between drags on a Camel no-filter. Sitting cross-legged, smoothing wrinkles in her peasant skirt, she also spoke of possible retirement from crossword competitions. "It's becoming harder for me to enjoy them," she said. "I'm always keeping track of my time, always competing against myself or a clock—either that or they're too easy."

Whenever she retires, Kornbluh will have the memories of the prolonged, lusty applause that followed her win at the '84 open. It was lusty because, whether the event is a Super Bowl or a spelling bee or a crossword championship, humankind loves an upset.