March 27, 2006

ACPT wrap-up, part 1

Most of the people reading this blog probably have never attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. If that’s true of you, I encourage you to take advantage of the “Play by Mail” option—send in this form with $20, and they’ll mail you a set of tournament puzzles. You time yourself while solving and mail the completed puzzles back with your solving times noted. Then Will Shortz’s people score your performance by Stamford rules and return your graded papers with a sheet that tells you how you would have ranked in each category you’re eligible for. I Played by Mail two years ago, and would have been 33rd; that was all the encouragement I needed to fly to Stamford last year. Because it was a fantastic batch of puzzles this year, I think everyone should try their hand at them—they’re worth the $20. So I’ll try to avoid writing about specific entries or clues for the time being—but I don’t know how long I can hold off. It could be mere hours…

Here’s an overlong recap of the tournament itself:

Friday, I flew to New York and served as Nancy Shack’s trusty navigator on the drive from LaGuardia to the Marriott. (I was trusty until we reached downtown Stamford, anyway.) I checked into the hotel, tossed my luggage in my room, and essentially abandoned the hotel room for the next 11 hours. Mingling in the lobby, attending the NYT crossword forum’s annual Cru dinner, playing the preliminary part of the Quiz Bowl trivia game written and emceed by “Jeopardy!”immortal Ken Jennings (about a dozen Stamford contestants have also appeared on the show over the years—bright group of people, eh?), and then abandoning the sudoku contest in lieu of checking out the scene in the hotel bar. (Apparently there’s some interest in college basketball these days?) We quit paying for drinks and went over to the ACPT reception, and then returned to the bar and the lobby for more conviviality.

Saturday morning, I woke up far too early despite having stayed up far too late. A crossword tournament sounds like such a placid, low-key thing, but I must’ve been absolutely wired. I tried to perk up by solving Byron Walden’s Saturday NYT puzzle, which seemed unusually difficult. (Cue dramatic music to foreshadow events to come.) I finished it, handed it to the constructor himself, and learned I had one letter wrong—though you have no proof of that, since I didn’t use the NYT’s timed applet and it wasn’t a tournament puzzle. (Phew!)

Next, on with the tournament!

Puzzle 1, by one of my personal faves, Harvey Estes: It took me just over 3 minutes, but there were eight solvers who finished in under 3 minutes (leaving me 25 points behind the lead).

Puzzle 2, by Cathy Millhauser: Stella Daily tore through this puzzle in (I think) under 7 minutes, with about seven of us turning in correct papers in the minute after Stella.

Puzzle 3, by Patrick Merrell: Surprisingly dastardly for a supposed-to-be-easyish puzzle 3. I finished within 8 minutes, 2 minutes behind Trip Payne and 1 minute behind several other speed demons. This puzzle vexed a lot of folks.

Puzzle 4, by the legendary Manny Nosowsky: Finished in under 4 minutes, in a pack of people 1 minute behind Tyler Hinman, Trip, and Francis Heaney.

Puzzle 5, by the widely feared and ferociously talented Byron Walden (“I’m your number 1 fan”—cue music from Misery): You’ve heard of “Brokeback Mountain”? This was Brokeheart Crossword. Roughly 95% of the competitors were unable to finish it correctly within the 30 minutes allotted. Byron and Will Shortz laid many traps in this puzzle, and each of those traps left the tangled wreckage of many thwarted solvers in its wake. It took me nearly 16 minutes, if I’m doing the arithmetic correctly, with no errors. Katherine Bryant blazed through it 5 minutes faster than me, and another five people finished correctly 1, 2, or 3 minutes before me. This was the rare puzzle that trips up multiple top contenders with errors, shuffling the standings dramatically. One reason Byron’s my favorite constructor is that while his puzzles are uncommonly challenging, I almost always finish them perfectly—and I managed to do that on this one.

Puzzle 6, by Maura Jacobson: Whew, time to relax with a breezy puzzle. At the moment, I’m trying to figure out if my posted score is actually correct—I may have jotted down the wrong time limit for Maura’s puzzle (was it increased from 30 minutes to 35?). According to my notes, I finished the puzzle with exactly 25:00 left on the clock; either it took me a fast 5 minutes and I was shorted some points (inconsequentially—tack on another 100 points to my score, and all that happens is Al Sanders and I swap places), or the time limit was longer and I meandered through it in 10 minutes, trailing the leaders by 5 minutes. But I’m not sure that 50+ people finished ahead of me, as the scores would indicate; was I really such an outlier on puzzle 6?. So…I’m confused. The fog will lift eventually.

Puzzle 7, by Merl Reagle, another one of my perennial favorites: I so enjoyed meeting Merl at Sundance, I bought a copy of Volume 1 of his collected crosswords. Actually, I ordered it as a gift for a friend, but Merl autographed it, so I had to keep it for myself and order another copy for the friend. So in addition to the one Merl puzzle a week in my routine, I’ve solved an extra 13 (lucky 13!) of his puzzles in the past two months. Excellent practice for puzzle 7, which Al and Kiran Kedlaya finished 2 minutes ahead of me and another peloton finished 1 minute before me. I moved fairly deliberately on this puzzle, making sure I wasn’t writing sloppy or incorrect letters, checking the crossing clues, and protecting against an error that would make me plummet out of the top 10. I also took the time to chuckle at the funny theme entries—I wonder if Trip and I bothered our tablemates by laughing so often.

I want to write more, and have drafted a bunch of paragraphs, but I’m losing my focus here (sleep deprivation), so I’ll post this portion and finish the rest later.