Monday, April 20, 2009

Never a cross word

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending what I believe was Chicago's first-ever public crossword puzzle tournament, held at Marbles the Brain Store in River North.

If "crossword tournament" sounds slightly odd, it's because most people consider solving crossword puzzles a solitary pursuit, an armchair pastime, a battle of wits between the constructor and solver, a chance to learn new words or sharpen their skills. And indeed it is all those things.

At first blush, competing in a quiet pleasure activity might sound slightly odd, akin to competitive napping, movie-watching or flower-smelling. But since current New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz founded the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT) in 1978, the first major crossword tournament since the 1930s, enthusiasts have gathered each year to compete in a format not unlike an open golf tournament. Anyone can enter, everyone plays the same course, and the best score wins. Thus has the competitive offshoot of the crossword experience evolved.

Most people know about crossword tournaments, if at all, from the hit documentary "Wordplay." An entertaining look at the 2005 ACPT, the movie also profiled the New York Times crossword and its many adherents: beloved guru Will Shortz, puzzle constructors such as anagramming punster Merl Reagle, celebrity enthusiasts like Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, the Indigo Girls and Mike Mussina, and the elite solvers who vie for the tournament title.

"Wordplay" was released in Chicago on my birthday, which I appreciated. A friend took me to see it after we warmed up with a game of Scrabble, dropping a bingo or two on the board (using all seven tiles, which earns a 50 point bonus) before taking in the enjoyable movie. Good birthday.

As you know if you've seen "Wordplay," the best solvers can finish a crossword puzzle faster than the person who wrote it. They're not even looking at their pencils as they write because they're working ahead, reading other clues. An elite solver can finish a puzzle of ordinary difficulty in well under two minutes. If that sounds easy, try it some time.

It happens that some crossword savants live in the greater Chicago area. This weekend's tournament was run by Amy Reynaldo, author of How to Conquer the New York Times Crossword Puzzle and the 9th-place finisher in the 2009 ACPT, and Bob Petitto, a 20-year ACPT veteran and member of the National Puzzlers League.

I attended with my buddy John Cunningham, not just a good solver but a puzzle constructor in his own right. Also in attendance was Kent Brody, an attorney from Wilmette whom I recently met in Brooklyn during my first visit to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, along with a number of ace solvers I'd never met before. Twenty-some people participated, plus spectators.

It turns out we were all playing for second place, as ACPT superstar Anne Erdmann made the trip from Champaign, Illinois. Anne finished 8th at this year's Brooklyn tournament in a field of almost 700. She is some kind of crossword puzzle solver. The amazing kind.

To say she was the Tiger Woods of the Chicago tournament actually understates the case. Woods is the world's best, but he averages one or two of the possible four major titles a year, and on any given weekend he can be beaten. Last week at the Masters, for example, Chad Campbell, Kenny Perry and Angel Cabrera were tied in the lead after 72 holes, with Woods a few strokes behind.

Anne is so good at crosswords that, in the Chicago tournament field, she was effectively unbeatable unless she made enough careless errors to give it away. A more apt metaphor would be that Anne was the fastest runner in a footrace, or perhaps she was Tiger Woods taking on a bunch of talented 8th graders who'd only been playing golf for a few years.

Like its older cousin, the Chicago tournament consisted of a series of rounds in which everyone simultaneously worked on the same crossword puzzle, but our local version was more streamlined. The ACPT's elaborate, computer-scored format awards points for correct words and letters, plus bonuses for speed and complete accuracy. In Chicago, the first correct finisher in each of three rounds became a finalist, and the first correct finalist would be the winner.

The puzzles in the Chicago event consisted of unpublished New York Times crosswords, specifically the Monday through Thursday puzzles from this week's newspaper, generously provided by Will Shortz. (If you need a hint, email me.) Apparently Mr. Shortz only provides advance puzzles to tournaments that are charity events; in our case, proceeds benefited the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

As you may know, the New York Times crossword puzzle is easiest on Monday and gets progressively more difficult throughout the week until the dreaded Saturday grid, which the actor Paul Sorvino calls "the bitch mother of all crosswords." The Sunday puzzle is larger but averages Thursday-plus in difficulty. It plays to a wider audience and includes easy, medium and difficult clues so there's something for everyone.

The Chicago tournament was just a bite-size version of the hotel ballroom full of people at the ACPT, but still, the field was tough. Knowing there were speedsters like Anne in the room, my strategy was to flat-out sprint through the grid. I figured spending the time to check my work could take me out of the running for a finals spot. In fact, I mostly just used the Down clues, only looking at Across clues when I wasn't fairly sure of an answer. I've done my share of crosswords and I was pretty confident that on a Monday or Tuesday puzzle my first guess would generally be good.

The bet-it-all strategy worked. I finished the first puzzle in 4:25, which was good enough for second place. Luckily for me Anne, who'd finished about a minute ahead of me, made a careless error, so my correct solution earned me a finals spot. On the Tuesday puzzle I finished third behind Anne and Kent Brody, who would have become a finalist in that round if Anne hadn't still been eligible. The unfortunate timing of her error cost him the second spot.

Before the third round, Amy Reynaldo announced that its puzzle was particularly tricky for a Wednesday, and that only by correctly following its unusual instructions would a solution be considered complete. Knowing I was already a finalist, I saw no point in racing through that puzzle, preferring to make sure I had it right. I finished in fifth place in six or seven minutes, catching an error at the last minute only by virtue of the fact that I wasn't rushing. A young guy named Jonathon Brown earned the last seat in the finals.

During the break after the third round, the room was rearranged into rows of seats with three tables at the front of the room for the finalists. Everyone reëntered, the staff distributed the Thursday puzzle to finalists and audience alike, and we were off and running.

As easily as I'd coasted through the first three puzzles, I struggled through the Thursday puzzle from the get-go. I started off on the wrong foot, filling in unfortunately plausible wrong answers and one pretty stupid guess, and eventually had to erase what felt like a square foot of pencil lead. I generally find Thursday puzzles pretty straightforward—I prefer the tough Friday and Saturday NYT puzzles, badass that I am, and usually skip the easier ones altogether—but in this case I never got out of second gear.

After what felt like forever, I eventually got it all sorted out and completed the grid in a distant third place on the clock. It turned out that Jonathon Brown's solution had a few mistakes, so just as I'd backed into the finals thanks to someone else's error, I backed into a second place finish the same way. Despite my slowness, turning in the second correct solution was good for the silver medal. Anne won it and deserved to.

Finishing the tournament error-free was a moral victory after being punched in the face by that last puzzle; coming in second was a happy surprise. Even making the finals was a bit of a fluke, but that's the way the game is played.

I knew I wasn't the toughest solver in the room and I was content that the best player won. For that matter, even though I enjoy the novelty of the tournament experience and was humbled to do well, competing in a frantic race through the grid strikes me as kind of a silly way to do crosswords. I didn't even get to read some of the clues until after the tournament was over.

I'd rather kick back on the couch or my commuter train with a difficult Saturday puzzle, take my time, dodge the traps in the tricky clues, make a breakthrough or two and eventually feel the satisfaction of cracking the thing wide open. The ideal solving experience is being pushed to the limit but emerging triumphant. Many solvers agree, remembering the first time they finished a Wednesday or a Friday unassisted as fondly as a golfer recalls a hole in one.

That to me is what it's about, enjoying a nice tough solve without using Google or a dictionary. I choose not to use any outside help, not that there's anything wrong with that. As Will Shortz says, quoting his NYT predecessor Will Weng, "It's your puzzle; solve it any way you want."

But I suppose they'd have a hard time setting up a tournament that way. What would they give prizes for, "most leisurely"?

Speaking of which, the first-place prize was a $50 Marbles gift certificate; second and third place were good for $25. Prizes also went to the eight non-finalists who'd correctly completed the Wednesday puzzle and to the participant with the best handwriting (I love that one), who each got to pick an item from a table full of Marbles merchandise. Congratulations to Anne, Jonathon, and for that matter everyone else who participated.

More meaningful than the competitive element was the camaraderie with the other participants. I enjoyed talking about solving experiences, crossword blogs and constructing resources with a room full of simpatico spirits, many of whom knew a lot more about crossword puzzles than I do. As a group, crossword enthusiasts tend to be smart, curious, well-informed, laid-back people whose company I thoroughly enjoy. That was certainly the case this weekend.

I hung around after the tournament, chatting with the staff and fellow participants and browsing Marbles' very cool assortment of brainy toys, games and puzzles. I ended up putting my winnings toward a couple of word games and an elegant brain-teaser puzzle with two interlocking metal parts.

Thanks to Amy Reynaldo, Bob Petitto and the Marbles staff for organizing such a fun afternoon of competitive cruciverbalism, and to Will for the puzzles. Everyone had a terrific time and I was happy to get a little midwestern taste of what has been mostly an Atlantic seaboard phenomenon.

p.s. Speaking of puzzle blogs, Amy writes a popular site breaking down the New York Times and other crosswords. You can find her take on the Chicago tournament here, along with comment posts from participants including yours truly.


Orange said...

Hey, nice write-up, Ben! Love the blog title, too.

I think the tournament money went to the Rush Center for Rehabilitation—the Marbles folks mentioned RIC too, so I wasn't sure which group was actually the beneficiary until the end of the tournament.

Rosario said...

Let me know when the napping and movie-watching tournaments are played. I'm pretty good. But, I too only give up the goods for charity.

Unknown said...

dude you were in the final, that is crazy! way to go

Ben said...

All my Stanford boys are checking in.

Anne E said...

Hey, nice writeup, Ben, and thanks not only for the nice words but for kindly not pointing out that a mistake like the one I made in puzzle #1 here would have likely knocked me out of the finals in ACPT-style competition! If I'd done that in the finals (unfortunately all too possible), the title would have been yours. Next time! Great job by you, Jonathon, Kent, et al., and it was lots of fun meeting new crossword people. Hope to see y'all in Brooklyn!

Anne E.

PuzzleGirl said...

Hey, Ben. I've had this bookmarked for a couple days and finally had a chance to read it. Thanks for the awesome summary! And this is really bizarre, but do you know my cousin Eric Ziegenhagen? I assume your buddy John Cunningham is the same John Cunningham that Eric describes as one of his "friends who's into crosswords."

Ben said...

Hey PuzzleGirl, thanks for checking in.

Eric's your cousin? What a small world. I believe I've met him briefly over the years through the circle of friends I share with John. Some of them went to college together and more recently we all belong to the same restaurant club, which I wrote about here:

In fact, John's on the left in the photo with then-Sen. Obama.

That you and I share a link in Eric is the kind of hidden commonality the Internet excels at unearthing. When I met you in Brooklyn I didn't say, "Nice to meet you. Incidentally, are you related to Eric Ziegenhagen?"

Jonathon Brown said...

Really enjoyed the write-up Ben. Your lucky I was nice enough to screw up that last puzzle so you could get second. haha, jk. I totally screwed up my roman numerals in that last one which led to failure. But that's besides the point because I still had a great time hanging out with fellow puzzle-people. Hopefully, Marbles will host the tournament again next year as I'd love to go again. I'd like to get up to Brooklyn in 2010 if my budget will allow it.

Nice meeting you (and your blog),
Jonathon Brown