March 04, 2009

ACPT roundup (no spoilers)

Who wants to hear about the non-crossword portions of my American Crossword Puzzle Tournament weekend? Can I get a show of hands? Great, it's unanimous! Here it comes, after the jump—

Friday a.m.:

As I've done for the last few years, I flew out from O'Hare with Nancy Shack. The craziest part of the flight is when approaching the runway at LaGuardia—you look out the window and think "gee, it's weird having a body of water so close to the runway on this side," and then you glance out a window on the other side and realize you're on a teeny isthmus. At least the geese stayed out of the engines, eh? Nancy and I split a cab to the Marriott, and man, is that a quick trip. I feel for the schmos who can't get direct flights to LaGuardia and use JFK or Newark instead.

Friday p.m.:

Byron Walden and I went out for lunch at Junior's upon my arrival. Grilled cheese and fries for nine bucks? Welcome to New York! There goes the Junior's cheesecake budget—and who has room for dessert at lunch when the judges' dinner is only about three hours later? Will Shortz kindly invited the blogging panelists to attend the judges' dinner at Eamonn's. There was surprisingly little in the way of arcane rituals—just dinner and conviviality. (Here are official photographer Don Christensen's photos from the event.) I got to know Ryan Hecht and Brian Cimmet (co-bloggers at Ryan and Brian Do Crosswords) and Michael Smith (genial blog commenter PhillySolver) better, as well as discovering that Irish soda bread is not something to be consumed in big bites without ample beverage. Good gravy, was that a dry, starchy hunk of bread. It looked like a soft wheat bread, but it lied.

It drizzled all the way back from dinner to the Marriott, so of course my umbrella was snugly tucked away in my luggage back at the hotel. Hello, blow dryer! How I missed you. Post-drying, I headed to the lobby bar to grab a drink with Michael Sharp (a.k.a. Rex Parker). After an exhaustive search of Wikipedia to identify an old-school cocktail I could call my own, I'd settled on the Tom Collins. It was tasty, but I fear it may have led to a migraine a few hours later. Clearly, more research into cause-and-effect is needed, as the sample size is too small to draw solid conclusions.

Michael and I and the other bloggers headed to the ballroom for the panel discussion, and I think it went well. The bloggers had a good time, and hopefully the audience enjoyed themselves as well. The aforementioned Nancy Shack videotaped the session (for posterity! posterity needs to know!) and you can watch the QuickTime video here. I didn't talk too much, but (a) there were five of us and (b) I was fighting a cold bug.

The KenKen creator had a droll speech, and when things looked to be heading towards the KenKen competition, I skedaddled. To the bar! To see people! The crossword tournament has become a big ol' class reunion, and there are so many people you adore but only see once a year. I could see staying in the ballroom for a team puzzle competition on Friday evening, but not for doing puzzles quietly alone. I can do that at home.

Michael Sharp and Angela Halsted (a.k.a. PuzzleGirl) were hosting a small party with good wine, but I got whacked with a migraine once I began sipping the wine. Maybe it was the wine and not the Tom Collins? I don't know. After the party, I was abjectly miserable thanks to the headache, and got about four hours of interrupted sleep. Awesome! On top of the cough and cold, I would be well-positioned to have a lousy tournament.

Saturday a.m.:

Saturday morning, I loaded up on food and caffeine over breakfast with women constructors Nancy Schuster, Andrea Michaels, Bonnie Gentry, Sarah Keller, Karen Tracey, and Deb Amlen. We talked about shoes and shopping and cooed over babies, of course. No, actually, we talked about the role of women in the crossword construction business and speculated on the societal reasons that about 80% of constructors are male. At last year's women's breakfast we were seated in the front of the restaurant, and poor Randy Ross tried to join us. ("Without estrogen? As if!") This year, our table was in the back so no menfolks passed by looking for familiar faces to sit with.

I wound up sitting next to Trip Payne for the Saturday solving sessions. Felt like crap in the morning, but made it through the puzzles not too far behind the lead pack and without mistakes. Big surprise: Easy-peasy puzzle #1 was by Byron Walden. Boo! Hiss! I am one of those who appreciates a tough Byron puzzle to separate the puppies from the big dogs. But now the ACPT crowd might no longer boo when Byron's name is mentioned because their last experience with him was a gentle one. Puzzle #2 was by Brendan Quigley, and...I erased a lot along the way. It wasn't easy but I made it through without errors. Puzzle #3 came from Merl Reagle and—this really isn't a spoiler if you've ever done a Merl puzzle—it had a pun theme.

During the many interim periods after finishing puzzles, I talked to people in the hallway (a key activity for the top 10 contingent—you need to know who finished in what minute and how many minutes behind the leader you are) and also wandered about the vendor tables. One had puzzler Steve Smith showing the board game he created, Word Sweep. Looks cool. Emily Jo Cureton was selling prints, original drawings, and tote bags featuring her awesomely macabre Daily Crossword Drawings.

Saturday p.m.:

Dave Sullivan and I walked down to Heights Café on Montague for lunch for the second year in a row, again just barely making it back to the Marriott in time for the afternoon session. I violated my Pancake Prime Directive: Do not order pancakes that aren't IHOP. I paid the price. (This was avenged today when I had a short stack for Second Breakfast at my local IHOP.)

The afternoon session featured another easy one for puzzle #4, by Andrea Carla Michaels and the not-in-attendance Myles Callum. The "bastard" puzzle, #5, was by Patrick Merrell, who is the sweetest, funniest guy—until now. It's possible that he and Byron have switched ACPT reputations, with Byron being that sweet guy with that fun puzzle and Pat turning into the constructor whose puzzle vexed so many. (Check out Pat's website for a cartoon about the finals but don't click that link if you're playing by mail because there are spoilers.) Saturday's competition drew to a close with #6, by Maura Jacobson—she's had a puzzle in all 32 tournaments.

Late Saturday afternoon, I killed some time doing a teeny bit of blogging and checking the internet in the hotel lobby with Dave Sullivan and Visual Thesaurus's lexicographer Ben Zimmer (access to his post may require a VT subscription). I'd written a rambling post about how I thought I was doing and what the standings probably looked like—and then the preliminary standings for the first four puzzles got posted and I had to scrap pretty much everything I'd said and start over. Blurgh!

Dinner at The Grocery was superb. Thanks to the efforts of Penny and Janie (following up on Harris Ruben's raves about having the best meal of his life there), we lined up a reservation back in December, and I'm so glad because the food was fantastic. Penny, Janie, Brian, Dave, Linda, Pamela, Chris, Dan, Monica, and I all received a teeny conical dish of parsnip soup with a wee spoon. I felt like a giantess—a giantess with delicious soup. Then came the teeny butter and egg croquettes, which explode in one's mouth with lightness and The Deliciousness. I wanted to snack on a whole bowl of them...but we were given one apiece, about the size of a big gumball. I ordered a salad labeled as "teenaged greens" (that's like mixed baby greens, only the leaves had grown bigger) with a bed of mystery grains (the menu says "wheatberry pilaf"). I followed that with the perfect, tender, flavorful chicken with farro grains. I found out only later than the "hen of the woods" ingredient was mushroom and not hen, and I hate mushrooms, but appear to tolerate expensive fancy mushrooms. For afters, the Bonny Doon Vin de Glaciere Riesling dessert wine paired perfectly with a few bites of Janie's chocolate/fig cake (crunchy fig seeds?). If you're a foodie heading to the tournament next year, call The Grocery this December to book your table. Tiny restaurant, but excellent service and food to die for.

The official ACPT Saturday evening event was Game Show Night. I know nothing about it because it was nearly over by the time we got back from The Grocery. Outside the hotel bar, Patrick Blindauer and Peter Gordon were showing off a beautiful little hardcover Patrick Berry variety puzzle book, Puzzle Masterpieces. I requested a review copy and will write it up this spring. Berry's introduction says the puzzles are of medium difficulty—but I'll try not to hold that against them. There may also be a book of his Rows Garden puzzles, which always challenge me in Games Magazine.

Once again I stayed up later than I'd planned to, but I was feeling much better (crosswords have miraculous healing powers!) and got a solid five hours of sleep rather than the fitful four of the night before.

Sunday a.m.:

Last year, I shared a breakfast table with a random person from the breakfast line. That guy, Jerry Cordaro, was in the C finals this year. This year, my Sunday breakfast companion was Bruce Fleischer. Hey, maybe he'll be in the finals next year! Bruce's son is Ari Fleischer. (No, not that Ari Fleischer.) My first year at the tournament, I had room-service breakfast by myself. You know what? Everyone at the ACPT is so nice, you can just join a random person for breakfast and find plenty to talk about. Don't be shy about trying this yourself if you've come to the tournament alone. Really. Strike up conversations with plenty of strangers all weekend, in fact—everybody digs crosswords, so right there you've got something in common.

Heading into puzzle #7, I knew I'd be squashed out of the top 10 with a mistake, and I knew I needed to go fast enough not to get nudged out of the way by someone ranked below me going 3 minutes faster. It worked! I remained in the top 10, though not by much. Number 9! Anyone else remember the Saturday Night Live skit with fake John and Paul operating some sort of Beatles fried chicken restaurant? They called order "#9...#9...#9?" (No response.) "#10?" Ah, that slays me every time I think of it. (Nobody else seems as amused.)

The A finals were super exciting and others have written about that so well already. The luncheon was a Food Network thing and—hey! Why did we all pay money for that banquet? Shouldn't the Food Network have treated us? I want to get this up now since it's already three days after the fact and my kid's calling for me.

I'll post separately about the individual puzzles from this year's ACPT...soonish.