Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Spent a memorable weekend in Seattle at the National Puzzlers' League convention, my first, the organization's 171st. See right for historical precedent, published in the New York Times on February 22, 1936.

Regular readers of this space may recall that I solve the occasional crossword. I also like other kinds of baffling puzzles, your cryptics, your KenKens, your diagramlesses, the Chicago Cubs.

Thus, after hearing its praises sung last winter at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, I decided to join the NPL, and last week made the somewhat spur-of-the-moment decision to check out its annual throwdown.

I'm so glad I did. It was three days of entirely indulgent and highly enjoyable puzzle solving, trivia playing, cryptic decoding, megapuzzle-team-competing, people-meeting, elbow-rubbing, M&M-eating, drunk-getting, sleep-not-getting. In short, fun.

National Puzzlers' League members see puzzles everywhere, and where none exist, create them for their own amusement. For example, everyone in the NPL goes by a nom de plume, or "nom," of their own choosing. These can be anything, but tend to be puns or wordplay on the person's own name.

New York Times puzzle editor and NPR puzzlemaster Will Shortz, for example, goes by WILLz. ("Will short Z," get it?) A game industry veteran named Mike Selinker is known as Slik, since those letters appear in order in his last name; a statistician goes by Witz, the last four letters of his surname.

Other noms reflect attitudes (Rock*), interests (Expelliarmus), appearances (there's a toweringly tall Titan), talents (an actress named Lorinne spells her name backward, Ennirol; she'll play "any role"), professions (a music critic goes by Trazom; his is backward too) or simply insouciance (Fuldu, pronounced "fooled you"). For my part, I thought about last-name puns like Profundo or Treble, but ultimately had to go with Beyond.

The nom thing levels the social playing field (you'd call a distinguished professor "Zigzag" rather than "Professor Friedman"), reveals a bit of personality, gives you something to talk about with people you've just met, and adds yet another note of creative levity to the already lighthearted proceedings.

Like any convention, this one was all about the people who were there. In this case, we're talking about 150 of the brightest, most interesting people on the planet, and for some reason, also me.

The NPL rank and file includes neurosurgeons, puzzle editors, software savants, NSA codebreakers, linguists, game designers, and more PhDs than you can shake a dissertation at. There are also plenty of just plain folks, armchair puzzle solvers whose attendance at the convention takes their love for word games and trivia from the two-dimensional television screen or NYT arts section out into the real world. Whichever camp they fell into, I found my fellow NPL members deeply nice and invariably fascinating.

Talented too. Because I decided to attend the convention at the last minute, I'd registered too late to receive an official nametag (or in this case, nomtag). They were handsome badges with the noms printed in white on a dark red background. I grabbed a blank one and was about to write "Beyond" in black ink, which would have looked pretty terrible between the minimal contrast and my handwriting, but still, better than nothing.

Before I could deface it, someone suggested that I find a guy called Dart, which I did, whereupon he coolly produced a white-ink pen and summarily inscribed the word Beyond, same size as everyone else's, in matching font complete with serifs. Not to get too excited about a nametag (gateman spelled backward, by the way) but this thing was gorgeous. It also gave me a story to tell here.

Not only did Dart save the day, he also apologized for not making two of them, for a double-sided nametag, since he was running out of ink. Au contraire, Dart, one was plenty and thanks again. You're a true artist.

And smart? Oh, are the NPL people smart. Having spent several days as a Jeopardy! champion (he said modestly), I found winning on that show to be a cakewalk compared to playing Jeopardy!-type games against any randomly chosen handful of NPL members.

For one thing, the NPLers know their trivia cold, certainly better than some of my TV opponents. Plus, unlike J! and more like College Bowl, you don't have to wait for the moderator to finish reading the question before you're allowed to buzz in.

I knew my share of answers but was just too slow, constantly ringing in a fraction of a second too late. These folks were so fast it was ridiculous. "This well-known American--" Bzzzt! "Who is Amelia Earhart?" "Correct." I felt like guessing, "Chocolate Babies?"

It took me several games to finish somewhere other than dead last with a negative score. I did however get to make productive use, for the first and presumably last time, of the important knowledge that Tori Spelling starred in a melodramatic TV movie with the somewhat amazing title Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?

The one area where I could dominate was sports trivia, not that I know that much, but this was a sports-anodyne crowd. At one point I was seated at an eight-person table for an excellent trivia game in which I had to play both offense and defense in a round robin series of head-to-head matchups. One question asked which player was involved in the notorious 1980s baseball "pine tar" incident. As many casual baseball fans know, it was George Brett, but maybe half of the people at my table guessed Pete Rose.

Another question asked which college basketball team Pete Carril had coached to longtime success with his motion offense and unselfish team concept. Harder than the pine tar question but pretty well known; I'm not a big basketball guy but I knew it. The NPLers wildly guessed all the usual suspects of college hoops -- Duke, UCLA, North Carolina, even Notre Dame -- but only a couple of them knew the correct answer, Princeton. It wouldn't surprise me if a few of the wrong guessers were alums.

Someone jokingly said to me at one point, "Baseball. That's the one with the bat, right?"

Of course, there was a lot more to the convention than trivia, although Jeopardy! virtuoso Ken Jennings did give an after-dinner speech. We feasted on all sorts of live-action games and paper puzzles to solve individually or with a partner. Will Shortz hosted something called Team Hangman, in which at least 15 players from either half of the hotel ballroom had to solve one of his NPR-type brain teasers to earn the right to guess a hangman letter.

There was a cryptic crossword tournament, a Shakespeare-themed poetry puzzle competition, a hidden contest, umpteen informal games and puzzles, and on Saturday night, the big culmination: an all-star-written, multifaceted team puzzle race called simply "the extravaganza." It was breathtaking in its complexity and its elegance.

On Sunday morning, I had time for a quick bite from the breakfast buffet before heading to the airport. I grabbed a seat at a mostly empty round table with two gentlemen whose work I have long enjoyed and admired, former New Yorker cryptic crossword editor (and talented magician) Fraser Simpson and Wall Street Journal puzzle editor Mike Shenk. As we ate and chatted, another puzzler asked whether the seat on my other side was taken. By all means, join us, Will Shortz.

Being surrounded by these luminaries of the puzzle world reminded me of the first time I reviewed a Second City comedy show at an opening night, when I was seated for some reason between the theater critics of the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune. In each case it was a "Why am I sitting here exactly?" moment, not to mention a pretty interesting place to sit. But in the NPL, as at Second City, everyone is treated as an equal with something to contribute.

Speaking of which, Will occasionally uses my puzzle contributions as NPR Weekend Edition Sunday listener challenges. As we ate I quietly handed him my latest submission so I wouldn't have to email it to him later. By then the table was full of our fellow puzzlers. Someone noticed me handing Will the piece of paper, which I'd folded in half since he hadn't solved the puzzle yet, and asked what it was.

The next thing I knew, the whole table was working on my puzzle, just the latest and possibly last in a weekend full of them. Here it was at 9:45am on a Sunday, a time when I have happily puzzled along with Will Shortz for the last 15 years, but now I was puzzlemaster to the puzzlemaster, plus a table full of his fellow puzzle geniuses.

Watching (and helping) America's leading puzzle pros work through my brain teaser, seeing how their minds worked, was a rare treat. If I may drop yet another pair of names, it reminded me of the time I was lucky enough to sit in front of Jerry Seinfeld and Matthew Broderick at the Broadway opening night of a new David Mamet comedy. Listening to which jokes made those two guys laugh, and which ones didn't, was so interesting that it distracted me from watching the play.

As for Will, ace editor that he is, he found a shrewd way to improve my puzzle moments after the group had solved it. And it sounds like he might use this one on the radio next weekend, so for now I won't repeat it.

Serving as puzzlemaster to Will Shortz provided a satisfying sense of closure, that and the fact that the first puzzle I ever sent him ten years ago, via snail mail to the New York Times, involved wordplay on the word "Seattle." When I walked down the aisle of my plane two hours later and saw a lady with a Will Shortz sudoku book in her lap, I knew I was back in the real world.

Still, my banishment from puzzle heaven is merely temporary, because I intend to see Will and everyone else next year at the NPL convention in Providence.


Anne E said...

Oooh... you met Chris Jones??? I'm jealous!

Nice writeup, Ben, and maybe someday I'll join NPL and go to one of these too, though it sounds kind of ... intimidating.

Ben said...

You, intimidated by elite puzzle solvers?

Now that is the extremely black pot calling the kettle black.

Ben said...

p.s. There's really little to worry about, so if that's the only thing keeping you from checking it out, have no fear. Unlike the ACPT, it's a very noncompetitive environment (there's no scoreboard on the wall), though even the ACPT is easily enjoyed by people like me who have no chance to win it. The NPL Con is far more varied, there are dilettantes aplenty, and all are welcome to (and do) enjoy it regardless of experience or skill level. With little at stake and nothing of consequence to win, it's just nonstop fun.

Anne E said...

"I knew my share of answers but was just too slow, constantly ringing in a fraction of a second too late. These folks were so fast it was ridiculous. "This well-known American--" Bzzzt! "Who is Amelia Earhart?" "Correct." I felt like guessing, "Chocolate Babies?""

I rest my case!

It sounds plenty competitive to me, actually... just in a different way. No?

Ben said...

I see what you mean. Maybe I found it less intimidating because I am relatively tougher in trivia than I am in crosswords. But in my mind, those casual opt-in Jeopardy games didn't even count since they weren't part of the official event program; you only played them if you wanted to. In that self-selected field, those not interested in racing to a buzzer didn't even play.

Less aggressive triviaphiles could also play other trivia events. The one where you had to play defense didn't test reaction time, it was just filling in blanks on paper like at the ACPT. Another trivia game involved guessing answers to popular Sporcle quizzes, then predicting which of those answers were more or less frequently guessed by the population. Again, no buzzer or split-second distinctions.

In short, there were so many different formats that there was room for all personality types, even noncompetitive or shy ones, to enjoy themselves.

Ben said...

Forgot to mention, the best example of the convention's inclusive ethos was the extravaganza. You could sign up to participate as either a runner or a stroller. Runners were trying to win and get through it fast even if they missed some of the sights; strollers were the more laid-back types who wanted to smell the roses and solve all the puzzles no matter how long it took. (Many of the runner teams ended up needing a long time to finish because the puzzles were so involved, but you get the point.)

Ellen said...

Glad you enjoyed it! (was there any doubt?) Great write-up, much better than the Seattle newspaper column which talked about Will Shortz and not the convention.

Ann, really, the NPL con is all the fun and camaraderie of the ACPT without the icky competition and pressure.

Howard B said...

Thanks to your article, I was able to (sort of) live the convention vicariously through your experience. Despite being a member for a few years, those pesky cosmic Venn diagram circles of geography, vacation days, and finances have never quite met at convention time. One of these years I'd like to attend, so this was all great information.
By the way, you had me at the "Chocolate Babies" reference.

Incidentally, I've never excelled at bar trivia and similar games (mostly due to my pop culture deficiency), so it is good to know this doesn't take away from the experience. Also a cryptic dilettante; seems I'm mostly a crossword and cryptogram specialist, much like a late-career pinch hitter who only bats against lefties in day games. I think that's the most strained sports analogy I can give.

All the best.
- Howard

dj said...

sounds like fun. and dude, you are a great writer.

acme said...

really sounds like fun...thanks for the vivid right up!
Of course I love love love reading about the noms! I don't think I'd need any other puzzle than trying to figure out what the real names might be...SLIK! Now that's smoooooth.

Hooligan said...

"three days of entirely indulgent and highly enjoyable puzzle solving, trivia playing, cryptic decoding, megapuzzle-team-competing, people-meeting, elbow-rubbing, M&M-eating, drunk-getting, sleep-not-getting"

That is possibly the best description of con I have ever heard. M&M-spinning, too, at three in the morning when no one's brain was working. There's video on YouTube. :P

Veep said...

Great writeup, Beyond.

This is now the post I'll point people to when I am unable to explain exactly what I did that weekend and why I came home so happy.

Navin Johnson said...

Great meeting you! It was really fun solving the extravaganza with you and I look forward to doing more co-solving next year.

Very much enjoyed the writeup... well done.


Myles said...

For 2 years now I've vowed to attend PuzzleCon and for 2 years I've failed so I'm very grateful for your write-up, the most comprehensive I've yet read. Thanks for this and for your puzzle contributions to NPR and beyond, Beyond, and I hope to meet you in Providence. -Owler