June 13, 2005

Great Expectations

Going to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in March was a blast. When I arrived in Stamford, Connecticut, as a first-time competitor, few people had any expectations for me. I was hoping to finish in the top-30 based on my solving times on paper for the previous year's tournament puzzles. Long story short, I wound up at number 18 overall and had enough points to qualify for the B Division finals, which meant solving the finals puzzle with a fat marker on a giant board on stage. I managed to focus and pay no mind to the 500 or so people behind me, and finished the puzzle a few minutes before the other B finalists. A $200 check signed by Will Shortz and three trophies—for winning the B finals, being the top rookie, and being the top-ranked competitor from the Midwest—and a healthy degree of geek glory were mine.

With that, I was satisfied and set no expectations for the next tournament. No, wait. That's not quite right. With the 18th-place finish, I determined to shoot for the top 10 next year and the A Division finals at some point thereafter. Basically I need to speed up my solving times by one or two minutes per puzzle (the tournament involves solving seven crosswords). Past champions and contenders have generously shared their training tips, which basically means doing way more crosswords, solving them on paper rather than on the computer, and timing yourself. I've bought a bunch of crossword compilations and intend to finish every puzzle by next March. I could swear that I've gotten faster even just since March, so I just have to keep up this obsessive nonsense and I'll be well on my way.

The conventional wisdom is that it's frightfully difficult to move into the top ranks—that once you make it to 15th or 20th place, you're likely to plateau there. "Hogwash!" say I. I want to overturn that bit of conventional wisdom as well as that bit of hooey that women aren't as competitive as men. I'm out for blood (the blood cells are all square, and there are white blood cells and black blood cells, of course) and make no apologies. I may get some major comeuppance, or I just might meet my goals.