Sunday, April 4, 2010

Winning isn't everything

...but it beats losing. Just ask West Virginia and Michigan State, who were excused from the Final Four last night without playing in the championship game.

I got a brush with the victory laurels this week when I was among ten people randomly chosen as March 2010 winners over at the MGWCC. You say you don't know what that is? Why, it's Matt Gaffney's Weekly Crossword Contest.

The MGWCC got its start when its creator decided to start a new website and name it "MGWCC." He then did the best he could to figure out some content that would fit that name. By a series of happy coincidences,
  • this person happens to be named Matt Gaffney. He is
  • a professional crossword puzzle constructor,
  • a creative and prolific one to boot, with both
  • the inclination to administer a crossword contest and
  • the talent to create a new grid and embedded puzzle ("metapuzzle") every week.
Thus was Matt Gaffney's Weekly Crossword Contest born.

I learned about it last April at the first annual Chicago crossword puzzle tournament. (The second annual is around the corner, by the way: 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 17 at Marbles the Brain Store, 55 E. Grand Ave., Chicago. More information here.)

Matt Gaffney started the MGWCC in mid-2008 and it's grown steadily ever since. People like me hear about it via word of mouth and stop by to check out the latest puzzle and read about other people's misadventures in solving the most recent challenge. There's a new puzzle every Friday; you can subscribe to a free weekly email reminder.

Then we mention it to friends and they get into it too. Thus has Matt amassed, in under two years, over a thousand participants. It's sort of like the way I started this site in late 2007 and have built my readership up to nearly five people.

The challenge in each week's contest isn't exactly to solve the crossword correctly, though of course that helps. I mentioned a "metapuzzle" above; this is the brain-teaser puzzle that Matt builds into the crossword, a separate bonus question whose answer is informed by the crossword and its clues. So first you solve the crossword, then you work on the "meta." If you can figure that out, you email Matt the answer and you're entered in the contest.

As you may know, the New York Times crossword is easiest on Mondays and gets progressively harder through the week, culminating in many people's personal Everest, the Saturday puzzle (which was more like a Thursday this week, but I digress).

Matt structures the MGWCC with a similar progressive buildup, starting the month with a Monday-level crossword and ending the month with a Saturday-type grid. The metas get commensurately tougher too: each month starts with a gimme and ends with an often brutal test. The numbers bear out Matt's skill in spreading it around, as each month generally sees a steady drop in correct answers from week to week.

As a frequently published author of puzzle books, Matt is in an excellent position to give out prizes. Each week he gives one randomly chosen correct solver their choice of his bookshelf full of titles. He also rewards consistency at the end of each month by randomly choosing ten players who ran the table and sending them a MGWCC pen, pencil and notepad set. These are functional trophies akin to green jackets from Augusta: you have to earn 'em.

I don't think I've gotten through too many months with a perfect record because the last week or two often knocks me out. Some of those things are crazy hard. As for March 2010, there were a few tricky moments but I was one of 52 people who managed to cross the finish line unblemished. From that group I was among the ten randomly chosen winners. I was happy to see that another of the ten was FOBB&B, New York Times crossword constructor and man-about-Boston Joon Pahk.

Click here to read Matt's writeup of the March 2010 contest, where you'll also find the latest crossword and meta. Put on your thinking cap and who knows, maybe you'll be the next person Matt sends a prize.


Elaine said...

Okay, I got on board here as a 'Follower' and now you are up to 11 readers! woo, woo, eh?

Okay, I just did Matt G's puzzle and sent in an answer for the meta. But if the puzzle/meta is just a platform for another sort of commentary, I may exit the scene. BP too high as it is. (It's not true that anyone is entitled to an opinion; people have a right to an INFORMED opinion...quite a different thing.)

Ben said...

No, unlike the lively comments section of Rex Parker's New York Times puzzle blog, with Matt's site you just solve it, email him, and move on. Plus Rex writes every day and Matt once a week.

Elaine said...

Matt swears there was no political undercurrent in his, great--now I'm exhibiting paranoia (or maybe it's Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome from the health care reform brouhaha.)

Ben said...

Not getting the political undercurrent. I had SNOWSTORM as the meta answer and don't see anything too political in the puzzle. What do you mean?