March 03, 2008

ACPT Wrapup, Part I

Note: Absolutely no ACPT puzzle spoilers appear in this post, and please please please don’t add any in the comments on this post. We don’t want to ruin the fun for the at-home solvers who haven’t seen the crosswords yet. I will write another post about the tournament puzzles, and that'll be the place to write comments that touch on puzzle specifics.)

I will sacrifice organization at the altar of expediency (XPDNC, Ashish!) and post something incomplete. And then I need to get back to daily puzzle blogging! Sheesh, I haven't done that since Thursday night, and I've heard that the Newsday Saturday Stumper was a killer, and Tuesday will bring the Onion and Tausig puzzles, so time's a-wastin'.

It was wonderful to meet so many readers (some of whom, I think, are Rex readers who know me from my comments there more than from Crossword Fiend) at the tournament in Brooklyn, and to see old friends. And by "old," I mean that I've known them since, oh, 2005 or after. But if you've been to the tournament and you're not terribly shy, you know how it is—you're among your crossword-loving tribe, a hotel full of congenial kindred spirits.

By now, you probably know how everything ended. Tyler Hinman won a grueling A final with a gnarly Bob Klahn puzzle. Neither Trip Payne nor Howard Barkin (making an impressive A-finals debut—congrats, Howard! I think Howard will have to concede that his crossword skills kick butt and quit being so darned modest and self-effacing) managed to complete the puzzle correctly, while Tyler had a perfect solution after about 16 minutes. Usually the time limit for the finals puzzle is 15 minutes, but this year’s tough nut was granted 20. I couldn’t have been more proud of Tyler, quite honestly. Hometown Boy does good! I got all misty-eyed when he won.

At the start of the weekend, I sensed that a top-10 finish wasn’t in the cards for me this year, but I hoped the top 15 was achievable. I almost blew my shot at that with an error in puzzle 3, but managed to eke out exactly a 15th-place finish. (Which is good for…exactly nothing. No trophies. Not even the 2nd place regional prize for the Midwest—that went to Anne Erdmann, who blazed to a victory in the B final and placed 13th overall.) But yay! I eked.

During the C finals, I worked on the finals puzzle with the set of tough A clues. I think it took me about 12 minutes or so to finish, though I had no accurate timer to rely on. (My shiny new Merv Griffin’s Crosswords watch lacks numbers or any markings at all between 12, 3, 6, and 9, so….) I thought it was a great crossword, harder than about 98% of Saturday New York Times puzzles and packed with clever and devious clues. (Those aren't spoilers. It's a Klahn—it has to be devious.)

Seeing that my performance on the finals puzzle, sitting in a chair while the C finalists strutted their stuff on stage, would’ve been pretty competitive puts a little fire in my belly for next year. Must train harder! Must get faster! Must qualify for A finals one of these years! It remains to be seen if I’ll still feel that way come next winter, but right now, I'm craving competitive crossword glory in '09.

At one point during the weekend, Will Shortz wore a pair of glasses. I suspect he doesn't need to wear them all the time, but they looked great. Some people had their doubts about the tournament's move to Brooklyn—Would it be too expensive for too many people? Would the hotel accommodate the ACPT as well as the Stamford Marriott? How would everything work? Would we all miss Stamford?—but Will and the heroic Helene Hovanec did manage to pull it off with style. It's a logistically complex event, what with the 700 people who need to sit together, the 4900 papers that need scoring, the database that needs to accept those scores, the efficient movement of crowds. The only real woes, I thought, were the waits outside the ballroom for the finals and the awards luncheon, but given the massive amount of furniture that needed moving, I suppose we should all have gone elsewhere for 20 minutes instead of milling obsessively in a herd. And the Marriott could improve by keeping the bar or other social areas open a little later. The hotel rooms were nicer, though, and the restaurant options were expanded beyond the Marriott—and the elevator service was faster, and the location was so much closer to LaGuardia. I will definitely return next year. (Though the awards banquet food could've been better, the conversation was top-notch.) Ideally, the tournament could move to springtime—maybe April—to cut down on the risk of snowy or icy weather interfering with people's travel. (The 2009 tournament will be February 27–March 1.)

There was a woman from Crosswords milling about during the weekend, asking people if they had suggestions for improving the game show. Boy, did we ever! I believe Tyler had a few small ideas.

Let's take it chronologically for a bit: Saturday morning: The wake-up call roused me at 7, and without it, I might well have slept 'til 10. I'd invited a bunch of women constructors to breakfast at 8, so I had to get a move on. Alphabetically, the attendees were Deb Amlen, Stella Daily, Paula Gamache, Bonnie Gentry, Sarah Keller, Andrea Carla Michaels, Nancy Schuster, and Karen Tracey. (Yes, I recognize that I don't belong in the same category as these seasoned constructors, but hey, the estrogenic fiesta was my idea.) It would be a lovely annual tradition, though maybe 9:00 would be better if it doesn't interfere with judges' duties. Poor Randy Ross. He came into the hotel restaurant and tried to join Nancy at the end of the table, but his Y chromosome barred him. Why have a women-only get-together? Well, the elite levels of crossworddom tend to be weighted heavily toward a boys' club—in general, most crossword editors, constructors, and top solvers are male. So it's nice to carve out a little space every so often.

Then came the morning puzzle-solving competition, with an easy puzzle 1 by Andrea Carla Michaels, a twisty puzzle 2 by Mike Shenk, and a fun puzzle 3 by Merl Reagle, which I mucked up with a dim error (more on the puzzles in a subsequent post). Saturday afternoon, I took Dave Sullivan (aka "Evad") to lunch at Heights Cafe on Montague Street. Super-cute restaurant, good food, and a pleasant walk from the Marriott. We barely made it back in time for the afternoon competition because the restaurant was bustling—so don't all go there next year and make it too crowded, all right? Before puzzle 4 was handed out, Will introduced all the bloggers in attendance who pay attention to the Times puzzle every day—me, Michael Sharp aka Rex Parker, and Jim Horne. He also introduced Emily Cureton, the adorable artist behind the Daily Crossword Drawings blog, but Emily was out in the hallway selling her wares. (Funky-fresh crossword-themed t-shirts! Cards!)

Saturday evening: Had a casual dinner with Ben Tausig and Michael Sharp at Junior's, famous for its cheesecake. The dessert menu includes "diabetic friendly" cheesecake, with that phrase in quotation marks (scroll to the last page of the PDF to see for yourself). Is it ironic? Is it actually hostile to diabetics? Inquiring minds wanted to know. I believe Michael and his wife Penelope returned there later for second dinner, a meal Michael invented. (I am a fan of second breakfast myself.)

After dinner, I checked out the beginning of Ed Stein's Wordploy, a short parodic film. Then I realized that, unlike the original Wordplay, I surely did not appear in the movie. As a raging egomaniac, I debarked for the hotel bar, where Dean Olsher made good on his debt by buying me a drink. He owed me for the 10 minutes of research I'd done for his book...which is about crosswords, in some fashion or another, but I don't know its title. Hopefully it will be published before the 2009 ACPT so we can all buy it there and get our copies signed by Dean. Before I knew it, there was so much convivial socializing going on at the bar, I completely forgot to go back to the ballroom for the 1 Vs. 100 game (with 700 instead of 100 in the mob). Too bad—I hear it was a ton of fun. But so was the chitchat and gossip in the bar, and the people are a huge reason I go to the tournament. At the bar, a party, the lounge, the lobby, and the hallway, the chitchat took me right up to about 3 a.m. and bedtime.

Sunday: In short, puzzle 7, finals, awards luncheon, airport, home.

More tomorrow on the ACPT crosswords!