March 11, 2009

2009 ACPT Puzzle #1

Puzzle #1 3:10

If you're planning to do this year's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament puzzles at home, either by mail or online, don't read on! There will be ACPT SPOILERS in this post. (I highly recommend doing either at-home option. Only $20! And fun! These terrific crosswords won't be showing up in the New York Times, and you can get an idea of how you'd stack up at the ACPT.)

When I arrived at the Brooklyn Marriott on February 27 and picked up my registration folder, I checked out the list of tournament constructors. Why, look! Byron Walden is on the list. I began hoping for a wicked puzzle #5 by Byron, because I like his really challenging crosswords, and I especially like it when those puzzles give other people fits.

The next morning, when the crowd of nearly 700 contestants heard that easy puzzle #1 was the one by Byron, there were two sounds: gasps of relief for those who dread a Walden #5, and groans of dismay from tough-crossword fans who were hoping for a repeat of Byron's #5 in '06.

Puzzle #1 was called "Arms Race: Starting off with a bang!" The theme was a fairly basic one: three phrases that include firearm-related words. [Really on a roll] clued GOING GREAT GUNS, which is not the sort of phrase I've ever used. [Extremely nervous] clued SWEATING BULLETS, an apt description of many ACPT entrants' state of mind that Saturday morning. ["Without a doubt!"] and "SURE AS SHOOTING," another phrase I don't say.

The fill started off with a bang at 1-Across: [44th U.S. president], 5 letters. Like many people, my first impulse was HAYES. I imagine others were thinking GRANT or maybe NIXON. But then we saw the number: 44? Oh, yes! That'd be OBAMA. 13-Down featured a puzzling luminary, [Liane of NPR]. Ms. HANSEN hosts the Sunday morning puzzle on NPR with Puzzlemaster Will Shortz. Liane's husband Neal Conan did color commentary on the A and B finals on Sunday, as he so often has done, and this year Liane was at the ACPT too. Byron showed me a copy of puzzle #1, autographed by HANSEN herself. (I think Trip Payne got an autograph from Phil Donahue at another recent ACPT, having had PHILDONAHUE as a theme entry in his academic-degrees puzzle. Donahue, of course, was the Ph.D. answer.)

None of the clues were too hard, this being puzzle #1, but there was some high-test fill:

  • BAGGY PANTS were clued as [Hip-hopper's getup].
  • [Almost runs out of juice, as a battery] clues the unusual entry GETS LOW. That form of the verb phrase maybe isn't so common, but "my battery's getting low" is probably heard far and wide.
  • ORANGE! My pen name is also the [California county whose seat is Santa Ana]. Okay, so maybe that's not such an impressive word to find in a crossword, but you know me—I always like a shout-out whether it's intentional or not.
  • Chicago is known for having a lot of BUNGALOWs. A BUNGALOW is a [Small house with a porch].
  • [Knightly activity] is ERRANTRY, which is perhaps a little fancy for an easy #1, but its crossings were all gettable.