I spent the weekend in Brooklyn at the 33rd annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which you might know from the hit documentary Wordplay. I loved every minute of it. (The tournament, I mean, but for that matter also the movie.)
As many crossword solvers know, it was Jean-Paul Sartre who said "Hell is other people," but if he'd attended the ACPT, he might have felt that way about heaven. The 2010 tournament was, for me at least, 48 straight hours of pure enjoyment in the company of hundreds of insanely smart, seriously funny and ridiculously nice people. (It would have been nearly as fun without any crosswords at all.) Too bad Sartre's verre d'eau was à moitié vide rather than à moitié plein.
Side note: apparently punning puzzlemaker and superstar syntactician Merl Reagle has been rubbing off on me, because I keep mentally adding two letters to Sartre's name to get JEAN-PAUL STAR TREK.
I attended last year's tournament but traveled again immediately afterward and never did get the chance to write about it. I shall now overcompensate for that omission by writing more than anyone needs to hear about this year's go-round.
Many others have covered in detail the tournament's format, recent history and latest results. I myself wrote at length about crossword tournaments last spring in the wake of the first-ever such Chicago event. Rather than duplicate those efforts, I'll just link to this representative example (and also mine).
For those interested, there are links to much more blog and media reportage at the tournament website, even sound recordings of Will Shortz's opening remarks and contestants' post-puzzle chatter thanks to Onion AV Club and Ink Well crossword editor Ben Tausig.
Since I'm opting out of macro-ACPT coverage, I'll instead offer up some micro-, a prefix clued as "It has little meaning" by Manny Nosowsky in the Friday, August 27, 2004 New York Times crossword puzzle. Hey, I just noticed that Manny's surname can be broken into three consecutive words that might be clued as "Firmament until something very unlikely happens." (shakes fist) Reagle!
The crossword camaraderie started before I even got to New York. My trip began at Chicago O'Hare International Airport, whose airport code is ORD since it was originally called Orchard Field ("JFK : New York :: ___ : Chicago", Bill Zais, NYT Thu. 6/25/09).
In the security line I bumped into my neighbor and crossword constructor friend John Cunningham. We'd already made plans to split a hotel room but didn't know we were also on the same flight. (The airline anagrams to Untied and iTuned.) After so enjoying my first ACPT a year ago, I'd urged John to come along this year and he did.
Aboard the plane I saw a lady sitting on the aisle working that day's (Friday) New York Times puzzle, whose grid I instantly recognized from solving it at home the night before. I asked whether she was headed to the tournament, and she was. Turns out it was photographer-videographer-archivist Nancy Shack, whom I hadn't met in person at the 2009 ACPT.
Nancy, John and I split a cab to the tournament hotel in Brooklyn, where the reception staff awesomely puts a pile of that day's NYT puzzle on the front desk. Presumably they just do that during the tournament but until proven otherwise I shall assume they do it all year round because that is the world I want to live in. Nancy busted off this action shot of John and me poring over the puzzle (let's pretend I hadn't already solved it):
With a few hours to kill, John and I set out toward Montague Street in search of a late lunch. Walking by the Brooklyn Supreme Court I noticed a familiar face, that of Wall Street Journal crossword editor Mike Shenk, whom I'd met the year before. We nodded hello to Mike and his companion and erstwhile Games magazine colleague, Will Shortz. Clearly we'd found the right hotel.
Each year the crossword tournament itself begins on Saturday morning, but kicks off on Friday night with an informal evening of warmup games and socializing. Will Shortz started the festivities by reading a letter he'd received from someone whose Scrabble rack had included the letters E T C T D I Blank. After trying in vain to find a "bingo" (using all seven tiles and earning a 50-point bonus), the man put down a 5-letter word. He later wrote a computer program to determine whether he might have bingoed, crossing an open letter E. The program found that there was exactly one word he could have played, and it was a synonym of the word he did play. Will offered a prize to the first person who could determine the two words. Nearly instantaneously, someone shouted out the answer, which you can see by highlighting here: TICKETED and CITED.
John and I teamed up for puzzlemaker Eric Berlin's "Double Trouble," in which teams of two people tackled side-by-side pairs of identical grids. The clues were visual, projected in rotation onto a movie screen two at a time, and it was up to solvers to determine not just each answer, but in which grid it belonged. It was a lively, original format that Eric ran through, appropriately, twice. John and I managed to complete both mind-bending grid pairs before time ran out. We also met a schoolteacher from Massachusetts named Kelly Langan who would briefly become the talk of the tournament.
At the big Friday night reception afterward, contestants got their drink on and Will Shortz gave awards to the evening's top, and some randomly chosen, solvers. We later stopped by a small cocktail party in a genteel hotel suite to which we'd been invited by a friend of ours. John and I were among the few crossword non-big shots at the laid-back gathering, which was to the huge reception downstairs what a post-Oscars Beverly Hills poolside hang is to the Governor's Ball. The excellent company was well worth the added pre-tournament sleep deprivation.
The tournament kicked off on Saturday morning as 600-some contestants assembled, many bleary-eyed like myself, in the hotel ballroom. Will Shortz made some standard opening announcements and took questions. One older gentleman asked politely, "Will you be giving out large print for the visually impaired?" After Will said yes and waited for further questions, I mumbled to no one in particular, "Will you be giving out answers for the intellectually impaired?" Apparently I said it louder than I'd intended to because my section of the room cracked up.
The tournament proper consists of three puzzles Saturday morning, a midday lunch break, three more puzzles Saturday afternoon, a seventh puzzle on Sunday morning, then the finals live on stage midday Sunday. The puzzles range in size and difficulty, but by tradition the so-called "bitch mother of all crosswords" is the fifth puzzle, which routinely lays geniuses low.
GENIUSES, of course, are not to be confused with GENII, generally clued something like "Contents of special lanterns" (Bob Peoples, NYT Sat. 9/3/05) or "Bottled spirits" (David J. Kahn, NYT Thu. 4/22/99) but also on occasion synonymously clued as "Brains" (Elizabeth C. Gorski, NYT Sun. 2/20/05; she would know).
Spoiler alert: stop reading here if you plan to solve the tournament puzzles from home.
Since I didn't write up last year's tournament, here's a little history.
In 2009, my maiden voyage, I cruised through six of seven grids without too much difficulty, making only one forehead-slapping rookie mistake by frantically trying to save a minute on the clock. In my haste I fell for a trap in Merl Reagle's pig-pun-packed puzzle that crammed not one but two porcine puns into the theme answer FRAGRUNT OINKMENTS. By changing a correct letter to an incorrect one I ruined an otherwise perfect grid and gave away a lot more points with inaccuracy than I'd earned with speed. (shakes fist) Reagle!
But my real 2009 Waterloo was the dreaded fifth puzzle, a monster by Patrick Merrell entitled "SUB-MERGING" that kicked my "Jack or jenny" (Mark Diehl, NYT Fri. 10/21/94). The theme was straightforward enough but the puzzle in general was as hard as a diamond. I couldn't quite fill in the, uh, fill before time expired. Actually, I wouldn't have aced it since I didn't know a safecracker was a YEGG, but I would have just about finished it in few more minutes.
Where last year I ran out of time on Puzzle 5, this year I ran out of skill. Brendan Emmett Quigley's killer app entitled "YOU'RE SOLVING ... WITH WHAT?" duly dispatched me and almost everyone else. For five or ten minutes I was 41-Across, SAILing THROUGH the grid, or at least making steady progress, but I soon slowed down and eventually the momentum ball rolled to a stop. I spent the last five minutes staring dully at the grid without writing another letter until time ran out. That and looking up anxiously at the clock. Click here to see where I ended up.
I'll give you one example of how tricky this puzzle was. For 58-Across, the clue was "Sales pitch?" I had PI_. I knew the P and I were correct, but what the...? PIT? PIN? PIX? Nothing made sense. The correct answer turned out to be PIE, as in something thrown (pitched) by the late "comedian" Soupy Sales. The old "disguise an innocuous-looking proper name with the obligatory opening capital letter" trick. (shakes fist) Quigley!
I was otherwise good this year, solving the other six tournament puzzles error-free and reasonably quickly, if not blazingly. I would have loved to be one of the 60 people who finished all seven tournament puzzles with no mistakes, and felt pretty close after I almost got through Puzzle 5, but then again, dozens if not hundreds of other solvers could say the same thing.
After polishing off Maura Jacobson's entertaining Puzzle 6, I enjoyed a nice chat with one of my tournament friends from 2009, a quiet, likeable guy named Kevin Der. He and I were "Crossword Clued Family Feud" teammates at last year's Saturday game night.
Barely out of college, Kevin is not only a respected New York Times puzzle constructor, but a sophisticated, cutting-edge one. His grids aren't just crosswords, they're feats of engineering. He sets out to do remarkable things and ends up proving theorems that few others knew existed.
Kevin became the talk of the crossword world in 2008 when he broke the record for fewest black squares in a crossword puzzle (see right). What's more, he pulled this off in just his fifth New York Times puzzle, a feat roughly analogous to Kerry Wood's record-tying 20 strikeouts in just his fifth major league start.
Kevin's latest masterpiece is the puzzle he published in the New York Times two weeks ago. It featured two quadruple stacks of grid-spanning 15-letter entries. And a ninth 15 running across the middle.
Look at this thing. It's not a crossword puzzle, it's a challah twist. It's a tablecloth. It's a standing wave. It's an EKG chart.
What it really is is amazing. In 100 years of crosswords, no one had successfully built a "double quad" before. Even a "double triple" is a reasonably rare feat. I thought a triple toe loop was hard.
Also worth mentioning is that the quad-quad isn't just a parlor trick, it's a completely respectable and entertaining crossword puzzle. Some triple stacks rely on weak or iffy crossings to make the improbable possible. A fortiori, you might think, with quadruple stacks. Not so here. Kevin Der, take a bow.
I briefly left the tournament's gravitational pull to meet a few New Yorker friends for dinner at Noodle Pudding, a popular Italian restaurant in Brooklyn Heights. Check it out some time, but please not during next year's tournament because the place is small and I wouldn't mind going back.
Back at the hotel, Saturday night's entertainment consisted of casual games and contests. Will Shortz opened the evening by sharing some amusing wrong answers that misguided solvers had written in the day's six tournament puzzles:
- For the clue "B'way buys", the intended answer was TKTS. Someone wrote TITS.
- "It's often put on the bottom" was the clue for TALCUM. Someone wrote TATTOO. Someone else wrote BARIUM. (Remind me to party with that guy.)
- One puzzle's theme involved dropping the letters IT from the end of each long answer. For the clue "Untying the knot in Vegas?", the correct answer was MAKINGAQUICKEX. Someone wrote MAKINGAQUICKIE.
The featured game of the evening was a group trivia event in which solvers formed teams of four people. John and I teamed up with our lunch companions, Kelly Langan and Peter Gwinn, an old friend of mine from the Chicago comedy scene. Peter was a top-ten ACPT rookie last year. He's also a writer for "The Colbert Report" and skipped a Writers Guild of America dinner to join us at the tournament, which his TV friends kidded was an even nerdier way of spending the evening than theirs.
We thought we had a pretty fair team:
- A Harvard graduate;
- A leading writer for the popular trivia site Sporcle.com;
- A College Bowl and three-time "Jeopardy!" champion; and
- A guy who knows everything.
Much like the crossword tournament itself, though, playing trivia in this crowd was an exercise in comeuppance. As strong as our team was, the competition was stronger. We ended up finishing 5th out of maybe 100 teams, which was respectable, but only the top 4 teams moved on to the finals. And the team that won, led by 3-time ACPT champion Trip Payne, had only three people on it.
Watching Trip and co. casually eat up the competition brings me to a thought that constantly recurs to anyone at the tournament who is paying the barest attention: the realization that you are surrounded by people who are stunningly, brutally good at what they do. The phrase "the best in the world" gets thrown around a lot, but in this case it is entirely merited. The fastest solvers at this event are straining the limits of the possible.
Take Tyler Hinman, the wunderkind whose 5-year championship streak was broken on Sunday. There's a video of Tyler on the Internet solving a Monday New York Times crossword puzzle in something like 90 seconds. I can barely tie a necktie in 90 seconds.
Take Dan Feyer, who won this year's tournament by dominating the field from wire to wire, and who was only excluded from last year's level-A finals by a harsh tiebreaker scoring rule. (He has now won the C finals, B finals and A finals in successive years.) There's another online video in which Dan solves a puzzle on a computer using Across Lite. The red cursor square flies around so blindingly fast that his performance is nearly as impressive a display of typing as it is of solving.
Dan reportedly prepared for this year's tournament by solving upwards of 25 crossword puzzles a day. You could tell. He tore through the super-hard final puzzle like a hot knife through butter. Like a nuclear warhead through butter. Like Bo Jackson through defenders in the original Tecmo Bowl.
The A clues were specifically designed to mislead, but all they did to Dan was lead. 1-Across, five letters: "Flower's bud." Dan immediately wrote the correct answer, BAMBI. (Flower the skunk and Thumper the rabbit were Bambi's buddies.) Neither was Dan slowed by such indirect clues as "Punctuation with four digits" (AIRQUOTES) and "Topic for actors working as waiters" (GODOT). The guy is so fast, and so undeterred by even the toughest clues, that he is a legitimate threat to equal or exceed Tyler's impressive run. He has built himself into an unstoppable speed-solving machine.
As long as we're talking about rock star solvers, I should also mention the expertise of my fellow Illinois delegates to the tournament. Chicagoan Amy Reynaldo, a leading crossword blogger and the author of How to Conquer the New York Times Crossword Puzzle, finished 13th this year. Her fellow savant Anne Erdmann, from downstate Champaign-Urbana, bested a host of elite solvers to make the A finals. Anne is a super-speedster who finished 8th last year, when Amy was 9th.
It feels blasphemous to discuss my own performance in the wake of those of the above virtuosi, but here goes. Last year I came to the tournament for the first time having spent less than a year doing crosswords more than occasionally. In a field of 600-some solvers, I finished 160th, and was pleasantly surprised to do that well. This year, with the Brooklyn and Chicago tournaments under my belt, plus 12 more months of solving hard crosswords, I returned to the ACPT, where in another field of 600-some solvers, I again finished 160th.
I am both bemused and amused by my own consistency. I would have liked to move up the ladder, but since I did literally nothing to prepare for this year's tournament, I couldn't much expect to.
Quite the contrary, mine was a textbook example of how not to prepare. I solve on a computer and never bother solving on paper. There's a whole set of speed skills (reading clues while writing answers; memorizing then writing several answers at once; writing with a pencil) that I could have cultivated but did not.
I enjoy difficult puzzles the most and usually just do the NYT puzzle on Fridays and Saturdays, plus Matt Gaffney's metapuzzle contest. There are thus big LACUNAE in my crosswordese vocabulary (UTAHN, ARETE, ANTA) that are liabilities at tournament time.
Plus, I just don't get the reps in. Not that I could ever be Dan Feyer, but doing 3 puzzles a week to his 30 a day is not the breakfast of champions.
Once at the tournament, I again did nothing to improve my chances. I stayed up past 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights having a blast. I had an Ambien on me but didn't even bother to take it. I felt sluggish during every tournament round and didn't really care. These are not excuses, they are the opposite of excuses. They are the way I chose to experience the tournament and the reason why I finished where I deserved to.
Ultimately, I'm a dilettante. That's OK. You don't have to contend for the title to get a lot out of the tournament experience. Dan, Anne, Tyler, Trip, et al. are in it to win it. I'm in it to have fun being in it. I'm like a four-hour finisher in a marathon whose experience has little in common with that of the Kenyans at the front of the pack. There's room for everyone.
Then again, I've had my moments. I was lucky enough to finish second in the Chicago tournament last spring. Of course, that had a lot to do with the fact that Amy Reynaldo and Bob Petitto (ACPT finisher #79 last year) ran the tournament so they didn't compete. Francis Heaney and Kiran Kedlaya live nowhere near Chicago, which didn't hurt either. Anne came up from downstate Illinois and won it so handily that it's a little impudent to say I finished second. Going against Anne was like playing one-on-one against Michael Jordan when you have a broken leg and also you are three years old and also you are taking a nap while MJ keeps dunking on you.
The tournament experience is bizarre when you're used to doing crosswords on your commuter train or couch. I'm not the fastest solver in the world, but I can usually solve a Saturday puzzle in 20 or 30 minutes, or if it's really hard, 45 minutes or an hour. Many tricky spots look a lot easier when you walk away and come back to them later, but that's not an option at the tournament. When they give you 25 minutes, and a clock is ticking, and proctors Ashish Vengsarkar and Byron Walden are gliding up the aisle, and look, it's Ashish Vengsarkar and Byron Walden, and you're stuck with a clumsy pencil in your hand for the first time in months, good luck.
Wrapping up my experience at the 2010 tournament, the aforementioned Kelly Langan briefly shocked the field when the overall standings were posted on Saturday evening and rookie Kelly was in 5th place. "Who is this Kelly Langan?" an irritated former champion or two were heard to mutter. What they didn't notice at first was that Kelly, alone among all contestants, had been credited with a score on Sunday's Puzzle 7, which would not occur for 12 more hours. Being a good sport, she brought this glitch to the attention of tournament organizers, but not before printing a keepsake copy of the erroneous standings for posterity.
I stayed up late Saturday night in the tournament lounge enjoying the company of my fellow cruciverbalists. I sat for a while with Rex Parker, a leading crossword blogger whose tenure (in the non-tenure-track sense) overlapped with mine when we were students, me undergrad and he grad, in the University of Michigan English Department. I regularly comment on Rex's site and he generously gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of his burgeoning blog empire.
I also performed a few card tricks for Merl Reagle, an endlessly entertaining guy to be around. He is a wordplay maven par excellence and I take his appreciation for the name of this blog as the highest compliment. Who else would (or could) tell someone named BASS that there is another fish, CARP, that is spelled with the same four numbers on the telephone keypad? His mind just works differently from yours and mine, examining and reëxamining every word. One of my friends remarked in passing, and he said it with sincere admiration, "It's amazing that Merl can read."
Knowing he appreciates word games in their many forms, I told Merl about a puzzle I recently wrote for Will Shortz in which every answer used only one vowel, repeated as many times as necessary. E.g., "1980s British girl group" would be BANANARAMA, "Newhart's sitcom sidekick" would be TOM POSTON, etc. As I learned from Will, such unitarily voweled phrases are known as "univocalics." When I gave Merl the clue "Comedian with a daytime talk show," he not only instantly gave the correct answer, ELLEN DEGENERES, but pointed out that Ellen is the only six-E univocalic on television, and RENEE ZELLWEGER is the only one in the movies. Merl Reagle's name nearly anagrams to something he in fact is: A REAL GEM.
Between his professorial mien, his neatly trimmed beard, and his nuanced appreciation of card sleights, Merl reminded me a great deal of Ricky Jay even before he mentioned the name Ricky Jay. He locked in on my prestidigitation, coming closer to figuring out my secrets than I might have preferred, though I was hardly surprised. Crossword constructor Matt Ginsberg then stopped by to perform one of my favorite tricks, the old red-or-black mind-reading routine.
I also played some Celebrity Password, aka "Pass the Chicken," with a friendly group led, appropriately enough, by professional puzzlemaker Amy Goldstein. I found myself particularly mind-melding with one teammate, Joon Pahk, who until this weekend was just a name I knew from the crossword blog scene.
At one point, trying to clue the baseball pitcher Bob Gibson, I blurted a few facts that I knew would immediately identify the hurler. "Baseball pitcher, black, St. Louis, low ERA 1968." Joon instantly shot back, "Bob Gibson, one point one two." I also happened to know Gibson's ERA from that year and it was surprising and satisfying to find I had a teammate who knew it too. Incidentally, Gibson and other pitchers were so dominating in 1968 (Denny McLain won 31 games for Detroit; he and Gibson were AL and NL MVPs) that pitcher's mounds around the majors were lowered before the next season, which I'm sure Joon also knew. He is a guy you want on your Pass the Chicken team.
Some people are talkers. I am a talker. Joon is a polite, self-effacing guy who lets his pencil do the talking. He finished 16th overall in his first tournament, earning the Rookie of the Year title. If that distinction were awarded by vote rather than points, he would have been a unanimous selection. Rookies start in the C division by default, but Joon also outscored everyone in the B division. Thus he ended up in the B final and won it handily. I guess he's an A now. Joon is already about as good as you can get and he's only been doing crosswords for two years.
As Smoove B would say:
Speaking of the finals, John and I sat in the audience with an acquaintance of mine, the longtime "Simpsons" writer Mike Reiss. Mike was on the comedy-writing equivalent of the 1927 Yankees, the original "Simpsons" writing staff from the show's early-1990s golden age. (Visiting "Simpsons" headquarters on the 20th Century Fox lot around that time was one of the more memorable experiences I've had.)
Mike and I are also stablemates on Will Shortz's team of NPR Sunday Puzzle contributors. He just had a nice one on a few weeks ago.
Knowing his work as I do, and having seen him appear live on a number of occasions, and as a hardcore comedy enthusiast of good standing, I would submit that Mike is one of the six or eight funniest people alive. It was a privilege to sit with him for the crossword finals, where between rounds he generously and patiently answered my questions about his day job.
For example, I hadn't seen Mike since The Simpsons Movie came out and I knew he was part of the handpicked dream team that had collaborated on the script, so I asked him about it. He told me, "We did 15 drafts of one scene in a day. We printed up 10 copies of each draft, then shredded them all at the end of the day. I remember thinking, for a film with a strong environmental message, we sure are killing a lot of trees."
Mike wasn't the only funny guy at the finals. Merl Reagle again teamed up with NPR's Neal Conan to offer his funny, expert color commentary of the crossword action unfolding before him. His usual groaners and anagrams flew fast and furious. At one point, he and Neal were discussing the answer HI THERE. Merl offhandedly pointed out that it could have been clued as an instruction to Mike Tyson: HIT HERE.
When all was said and done, Wordplay director Patrick Creadon handed out trophies to the various skill-level, regional, age-group and rookie winners and finalists. He also told of visiting a Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute fraternity house to interview a then-unknown undergraduate named Tyler who opined, "I think I could win the whole thing this year."
Patrick also presented the tournament judges' Handwriting Award to the apparently Tom Swiftian Tom Strait. On behalf of my Saturday night trivia teammates, despite not having seen Tom's handwriting, we humbly submit that Kelly Langan's immaculate third-grade teacher penmanship was robbed.
And that was it. I gave my latest NPR puzzle to Will Shortz, thanked him and tournament coordinator Helene Hovanec for the leisurely weekend and headed back to Chicago with a big smile on my face.
As you might have inferred from this anecdotal and somewhat sentimental writeup, I don't even really think of the crossword tournament as a crossword tournament. To me it's a chance to spend a weekend in the company of a slew of interesting and entertaining people who happen to share a hobby of mine.
It's Andrea Carla Michaels, San Francisco belle of the CrossWorld ball, as welcome a sight as the Golden Gate Bridge. It's "the Olson twins": PuzzleGirl, the Batgirl to Rex Parker's Batman, and her similarly super-smart sister Elizabeth (Go U Northwestern!). It's A finalists Howard Barkin and Anne Erdmann, gracious in defeat and really winners too. It's Dan Feyer, a worthy new champion, and Tyler Hinman, whose record-breaking run earned him a well-deserved standing ovation. It's Bob Kerfuffle, singlehandedly refuting the case "Jersey Shore" makes against the Garden State. It's charming Ellen Ripstein, a baton-twirling New York original. It's Tony Orbach, as nice as the day is long. It's the puzzling Patricks, Merrell and Berry and Blindauer. It's coolly elegant Paula Gamache and warmly friendly Fred Piscop. It's all the other people I haven't met yet but already like.
Some have quibbled with the tiebreaker rules, others with the minute-by-minute scoring. They may be right. Still, my biggest problem with the ACPT is that since next year's is in March 2011, we have to wait 13 long months to do it all again.