Thursday, March 24, 2011

The 2011 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

Last weekend I attended the 34th (and my third) American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Brooklyn, New York, still the fourth largest city in America according to the opening remarks by borough president Marty Markowitz. Here's how it all went down.

Note: My 2010 tournament trip report took about as long to read as the tournament took to attend. I was planning to be more concise this year, but I found I had a lot to say again. In fact, I have actually omitted numerous anecdotes and impressions from the tournament in order to keep this to a merely unreasonable length and get my life back after several evenings of typing.

Did I need to write at such length? Of course not. I did it as much as a journal entry for myself as for the entertainment of my literally tens of readers, and since I'll have forgotten a lot of these thoughts in a week or two, I thought I'd strike while the iron was hot. Anyway, this year's story is another monster, so pack a lunch.

As I wrote here the other day, the ACPT is a lot like a marathon. There are hundreds of participants including the world's fastest, and most people who enter have no chance of winning. However, everyone can still shoot for a personal best, and it's more about the experience than where you finish. It's less a competition than it is a convention, a lovefest, a gathering of the tribes, and everyone who attends is happy they did. You don't have to be a superstar solver; liking crossword puzzles is the only prerequisite to having a great time.

In fact, some see the tournament itself as superfluous to the tournament experience. On Friday evening, as some friends and I ate dinner at Morton's steakhouse next door to the host hotel, I mentioned to Connecticut cruciverbalist Dave Eckert that I got such a kick out of the puzzle crowd that I'd still enjoy the weekend if there weren't a tournament going on at all. After a moment's reflection he declared, "The worst thing about the tournament, is the tournament." And this is a guy who loves the tournament.

People at the ACPT like words. NYU musical theater professor Amanda Yesnowitz even sang a song she wrote called "A Way With Words," proving she has one with lyrics as lively as her voice is appealing. As Amanda pointed out, her own name goes from A to Z. (It's also got a yes next to a no, with some wit thrown in.)

Crossword people have favorite words. New York Times puzzle editor and tournament founder Will Shortz's is ucalegon, meaning "a neighbor whose house is on fire." Will also has a favorite crossword clue: "It turns into a different story." The answer: SPIRAL STAIRCASE.

Crossword people are well-read and well-rounded, clever and smart. They appreciate a good pun. Ten or fifteen people during the weekend looked down at the boldface contestant name badge around my neck and blurted, unprompted, "Ben Bass and Beyond." These were not regular readers of my blog. Presumably they just ran across the name at some point, maybe by following the link to last year's writeup from the ACPT website or hearing Will Shortz say it on the radio, and it stuck with them. They have long memories. These are people who know what an ESNE is.

Then there's Francis Heaney, an ace anagrammer who wrote a book entitled Holy Tango of Literature. The book's gimmick is, "holy tango" is an anagram of "anthology." Francis anagrammed the names of well-known writers into random phrases that inspired short parodies of the writers' most famous works, which he then wrote and collected into an anthology. Got that?

If this kind of thing appeals to you, consider entering the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, or if you're not into crosswords, at least do yourself the favor of joining the National Puzzlers' League.

When I told him I'd read his anagram book, Francis dropped a nifty NPR-style anagram puzzle on me involving the name of a famous movie director. He said he'd thought of it the night before while in bed trying to fall asleep. I won't share it here because it belongs on the radio, and I encouraged him to run it by Will Shortz.

Either Francis or someone next to him was one of those who called me Ben Bass and Beyond. I replied with another of my stock puns, "Formerly Ben Bass and Beyonce." Francis then pointed out that the words Beyond and Beyonce go together because D is the average of C and E.

It should come as little surprise that Francis generally finishes among the top 10 of the roughly 650 people in the tournament. Much like last year with Merl Reagle, I felt like an amateur talking to a professional.

I think I'll take a short detour from summing up the tournament to explain how I came to attend it.

Of course superstar solvers like Francis attend the ACPT, but why a dilettante like me? I don't do that many crosswords. I can solve the hard ones, but I'm not that fast on the easy ones, nor have I ever bothered to work on getting faster. I enjoy puzzles but don't spend that much time on them. In fact, I didn't look at a crossword for several years after my grandfather died because solving was a great pastime of his, and after he was gone my heart was no longer in it.

Before the movie "Wordplay" came out a few years ago, all I knew about the national tournament was that it existed, and then only because I'd hear Will Shortz mention it on the radio. But the movie did come out, on my birthday in fact. A girlfriend took me to see it after we played a game of Scrabble. I got a bingo that night. I also put down a Scrabble word using all seven tiles.

The movie was terrific, and seeing all the crosswords was like being reunited with an old friend. I found myself keeping an eye out for stray copies of the Chicago Sun-Times on my commuter train because it ran the syndicated New York Times crossword. I would look extra hard for a copy on Fridays, then on Saturdays I'd walk over to Starbucks to get that puzzle too. The two most difficult New York Times crosswords of the week were and are my two favorites.

The syndicated NYT puzzle appears five weeks after it runs in the paper of record, so I found myself with a dilemma every time I'd take a weekend trip to New York: do the puzzle in the Times and ruin it for five weeks hence? Or steer clear all weekend and save it for later? I was rarely able to resist the temptation.

I soon simplified my life by subscribing to the puzzle on the computer—eliminating the travel dilemma, mooting the need to support Rupert Murdoch, and synching my timing with the puzzle blog scene—and accidentally discovered the appeal of solving in the popular Across Lite software: no messy newsprint, no need for a pencil (or in my cocksure case, pen), no hunting for clues because you always see the clue for whatever word is highlighted. Plus I type fast.

After the late, great HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo. ended its run, I decided to take a trip to the ACPT. It became my replacement winter festival getaway, nicely balancing my frequent jaunts to the tennis U.S. Open and the New Yorker Festival at the antipodal end of the calendar. Thus does a guy who sometimes only solves three or four crosswords a week travel 800 miles once a year to do seven in a weekend.

OK, back to the tournament. This year's was a lot like the other two I attended, but there are always new wrinkles. It was nice to meet Matt Gaffney, a puzzle maestro who runs a weekly crossword contest I like. My roommate this year was a tournament friend from last year, Joon Pahk, a superstar solver who as a rookie ran away with the "B" division at the 2010 ACPT. When he's not teaching in a physics lab, Joon also constructs crosswords—he just wrote the Saturday New York Times puzzle two weeks ago—and blogs about Matt's contest every week.

I also caught up with another tournament friend from last year, the linguist and (until recently) New York Times Magazine "On Language" columnist Ben Zimmer. He's a tall, thin guy named Ben, born in June of a certain year, who went to grad school in Chicago, wears glasses, writes a lot and solves crossword puzzles. What's not to like?

The Friday and Saturday evening programs vary at every tournament. Last Friday evening featured a crossword magic show by David Kwong, a crossword constructor and professional magician who works with Ricky Jay. From my seat in the last row of a large ballroom it was hard to appreciate the close-up magic he was doing, but I caught some of his card work at the party afterward and it was first-rate.

There was also a U.S. vs. U.K. cryptic crossword showdown on Friday (cryptics are a far bigger deal in Great Britain, so it came as little surprise when the U.K.'s best solver beat ours) and on Saturday, a crossword-themed play entitled Life is Shortz and an elaborate, challenging team puzzle hunt by John Chaneski and Greg Pliska.

As for the tournament itself, others have already written at length about the elite solvers' race for the 2011 ACPT crown. You can find links to their reports at the tournament website. Rather than duplicate their work, I'll sum up my own ride.

Two years ago, I attended my first ACPT. As I mentioned, I was only doing the New York Times puzzle on Fridays and Saturdays at that point after several years of doing no crosswords at all. Given that I had to be one of the most infrequent crossword solvers at the 2009 event, I surprised myself by finishing a respectable 160th out of 650 or so participants.

In the ensuing months I started doing more daily New York Times puzzles. I'd never bothered to time myself before my first ACPT, but after the tournament experience of solving while a huge red clock counted down the seconds, I found myself using the built-in Across Lite timer to measure my speed. I became an armchair Roger Bannister, trying to finish early-week puzzles in under four minutes (faster than five I could do most of the time, but four, virtually never). I also added Matt Gaffney's contest and Peter Gordon's super-tough Fireball Crosswords into the weekly mix.

Still, I was doing them all on a computer, and never did cultivate the pencil-paper solving skills the tournament rewards—writing an answer while reading the next clue; memorizing three or four answers and writing them all at once; others I haven't figured out yet—plus I wasn't doing enough puzzles to know many of the obscure words that the top solvers know by heart.

So the surprising thing about my ranking at the 2010 ACPT was not that I finished around where I had the year before, but that I finished in exactly the same spot. Incredibly, I was 160 again. (It was adjusted downward to 162 a day or two later as the judges double-checked their work, but for the sake of a good story, as the tournament ended, I was 160 again.)

Contestants in the ACPT solve three crosswords starting Saturday morning, then after a lunch break, three more Saturday afternoon. There's an appropriately Sunday-sized puzzle on Sunday morning and then, after all the puzzles are graded according to a complex scoring system in which accuracy is important but speed is paramount, the top three finishers in each of three skill divisions play out a final puzzle live on stage.

By tradition, the fifth puzzle in the tournament is a beast. People find it grindingly difficult for a very good reason: it is. Its purpose is to spread out the field widely over the range of possible scores, separating the great from the merely good. Among the elite contenders, it's not enough to finish Puzzle 5 without an error; they have to do it fast.

At my first ACPT I got most of the way through Patrick Merrell's Puzzle 5, "Sub-Merging," with about 25 blank squares in the upper right (or "northeast") corner when time ran out. I felt like I would have gotten closer with a few more minutes, though I was already struggling at that point. It didn't help that I had no idea YEGG was an obscure word for safecracker.

Last year I got closer to the mark on the fifth puzzle, my fellow Pavement fan Brendan Emmett Quigley's torture chamber called "You're Solving... With What?" I cruised through most of the grid in 15 or 20 minutes, but eventually ground to a halt and quietly stared at 12 or 14 empty squares until time ran out. I was so frantic under the time pressure, I never really did understand the theme even after I filled in most of the theme answers.

I know I'm gradually getting better at hard puzzles because when I started doing Friday and Saturday puzzles a few years ago, the easier ones used to take me maybe 20 minutes, and the harder ones an hour or more. Now I'm in more like the 10 to 25 minute range. (Of course, using Across Lite is faster than solving on paper.)

Sure enough, this year's Puzzle 5 by Wall Street Journal puzzle editor and "Crossword Jesus" Mike Shenk might have been the toughest yet of the three tournaments I've attended—it absolutely obliterated people—and yet I not only solved it cleanly, I did so with over eight minutes to spare. This was probably my greatest accomplishment as a crossword solver, albeit one of my very few (second place, inaugural Chicago tournament, 2009, mostly because so few elite solvers live anywhere near Chicago).

My only goal this year was to get through the entire weekend without making a single error, thereby earning a spot on the tournament website's "dean's list." It was all about cracking the dreaded Puzzle 5. In my first two tournaments I only made one error on a non-Puzzle 5, and then only because I made the rookie mistake of racing to save a minute on the clock; the several hundred points that gaffe cost me weren't worth the extra 25 I got for finishing sooner. So getting through Puzzle 5 without a mistake seemed like the ticket to the plate cleaners club.

Sure enough, I managed to get through the first four puzzles unblemished. There was some tricky fill in there, particularly on Puzzle 2, but I felt like I was on top of things, plus I took the time to read every clue and double-check everything before turning in each puzzle. My caution paid off when I narrowly avoided turning in a blank square on Puzzle 3. And yet I was racing at my personal top speed, which as usual wasn't very fast.

Spoiler alert: if you plan to solve the tournament puzzles online or by mail, stop reading here.

Given my improved solve times and comfort with Friday and Saturday NYTs and Fireballs over the past year, I felt a little less intimidated as I went into this year's fifth puzzle. Still, I surprised myself by turning in a solution I knew was right with so much time left on the clock.

The theme of Mike's puzzle was titles of hit songs through the decades, which is pretty much in my wheelhouse. The problem was that none of the clearly correct answers fit into the grid. [1967 hit for the Turtles] was definitely HAPPY TOGETHER, or maybe SO HAPPY TOGETHER, but neither of those fit into the grid. Likewise, I felt pretty confident that [1980 hit for Bette Midler] was THE ROSE, but that didn't fit either.

For [2004 hit for Green Day] I wanted BOULEVARD OF BROKEN DREAMS since that's my favorite song from that record, but that title was obviously too long. I ground my way through the tough crossings until I had _______DIOT and knew Mike was going for AMERICAN IDIOT, but again, there were too few squares to write it in.

I thought maybe the puzzle was a so-called "rebus" with multiple letters in a single square, but couldn't find a shorter word in AMERICAN that looked promising.

What was going on here? The puzzle's title, CROSSOVER HITS, offered a hint, as did the subtitle, "And the place is jumping!"

The breakthrough moment was when I realized that four entire rows each had two song titles separated by a single black square, or block, and that the titles shared four letters, two on either side of the block.

Thus: HAPPYTOGETH[]EROSE, with THER appearing in both titles. The hits "jumped" and "crossed over" the blocks. The other song pairs were IMABELIEV[]ERGREEN, LAZYBON[]ESWEETDAY and DREAM[]ERICANIDIOT.

Figuring this out blew a hole in the puzzle since four out of seventeen rows were pairs of titles. Boom! I was done with almost a quarter of the grid just like that.

And I needed the help too. After three or four minutes I'd hardly written down a thing. In most puzzles you can start with the fill-in-the-blank clues to get a toehold, but not this one. The two blanks looked like this: ["Cold, ungenial is the __...": Shelley] and [Pack : wolf :: bloat : __]. Um, right.

Even the stuff I knew I couldn't always work with. [Etta James portrayer in "Cadillac Records"] I knew was the aforementioned Beyonce, but her last name is Knowles (assuming it isn't Carter or Z) and on a puzzle this hard, there was no guarantee that her familiar first name was the answer. Plus 1-Across ended with the first letter of the actress, and I liked ____K better than ____B.

However, it was BEYONCE after all and the B turned out to be right, [Colonial address] cluing SAHIB. There were several answers that recurred in the tournament including two SAHIBs.

Little by little I made my way into the grid thanks to a handful of gimmes:
  • [She "made a fool of everyone," in a Beatles song], I know that in my sleep. She also broke the rules and laid it down for all to see.
  • [Cabinet resignee of 1988] felt like it had to be Edwin MEESE since the answer was five letters, plus James WATT resigned earlier in the 1980s.
  • [Cal Neva Resort setting], never heard of it, but at five letters it could only be TAHOE.

I did some guessing too:
  • [Winner of the 2003 Cooper-Hewitt Lifetime Achievement Award] in five letters felt like maybe crossword usual suspect I. M. PEI—extra likely since his name begins and ends with vowels—because I vaguely remembered from a long-ago visit to the Frick Collection that the nearby Cooper-Hewitt Museum was about architecture.
  • [Famous foundling] in five letters, all I could think of was MOSES hiding in the reeds, and lo, it was good.
  • [His horse was Babieca]: I must have seen this somewhere before, because with a letter or two I knew it was EL CID, even though I couldn't tell you the first thing about EL CID other than that it was the nickname of baseball pitcher Sid Fernandez.
  • (I also guessed answers that were not five letters long.)

Soon enough I didn't have to make too many guesses. Once I got the song titles sorted out I had partial answers all over the place, then it was "Wheel of Fortune" on steroids. My steady diet of Fireball and weekend NYT puzzles got me home.

I guess I'm biased now that I passed the test, but I thought Mike's puzzle was extraordinarily good, like masterpiece good. The trick was original and hard to figure out, the title hints helped just enough, the rest of the fill was quite tough, and the cluing was excellent.

I also appreciated Mike's artistry in unearthing pairs of hit song titles that shared four overlapping letters, added up to 16 letters with the overlap, and spanned so many eras of popular music. Few people who know Ted Lewis' LAZYBONES (1933) also know Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men's ONE SWEET DAY (1995), and vice versa.

I heard that Mike made the puzzle extra-hard assuming Will Shortz would make it easier, but Will pretty much left it alone and Mike's original was the one we solved. I emailed Will after the tournament to ask whether this was accurate, and he replied:

Hi Ben,

That's pretty much true.

Mike writes terrific clues, and I wanted Puzzle #5 to be hard. So I didn't do much editing.

I love when that happens. :-)


[email quoted with permission of the puzzlemaster]

As the tournament wears on, the judges are busily grading papers and posting updated rankings on both the hotel wall and the tournament website. Throughout the day, people are on iPhones and BlackBerries learning their own fates.

Like I said, I'm a decent solver but not that fast. After Puzzle 4 I was ranked about 150. After scoring among the top 50 in the tournament on Puzzle 5, I rocketed up the Billboard charts to number 81 with a bullet (but only one).

Even though I made no errors on Puzzle 6, I still slid down to 92 because everyone in my weight class is faster than I am. Adding insult to injury, I woke up Sunday morning to find I had dropped to 96. People's rankings get tweaked throughout the tournament as the judges catch their own grading errors, but I only ever seem to move downward. Maybe my handwriting is good enough that I don't get judgment calls after the first pass, or maybe I've just been bribing the wrong judges.

So my long march toward perfection, plus my newfound opportunity to finish in the top 100, all came down to Puzzle 7, a tougher-than-I-expected Sunday grid by Ashish Vengsarkar and Narayan Venkatasubramanyan. I smiled as I started the solve and saw the clue at 1-Across: "Language maven Zimmer." My fellow Ben is an excellent writer and an excellent guy, and I was happy to see him get the glamor treatment.

Inclusion in a tournament puzzle is flattering enough, but I also heard that Ashish and Narayan originally submitted this grid to Will for publication in the New York Times, so Ben might have ALIT on an even loftier AERIE. All in due time, I trust.

A lot of people were not only unaware that Ben was at the tournament in their very midst, they remarked to my great surprise that they didn't know whether it was BEN, LEN or KEN Zimmer. Doesn't anyone read the Sunday Times?

The crossing didn't help some of them either. [D.C.-area arrival point] is BWI, airport code for Baltimore-Washington International—not "Beltway International" as one person surmised—but not everyone's heard of it.

It was mind over matter time. I'd had a cup of coffee a few minutes earlier with Howard Barkin, a warm, gentle soul when he isn't destroying people in crossword tournaments with his super speed. (You can tell what kind of guy he is by the supportive, generous comments he often leaves on crossword blogs.) I told Howard I was teetering on the brink of the top 100. His good advice was to ignore the people around me and just focus on the piece of paper.

I ended up applying that advice to Howard himself, since our conversation had continued as we walked into the tournament room and sat down next to each other for Puzzle 7. I know objectively how good the top people are, but was still stunned at how fast he was. I had barely started filling in answers before he left the room.

As for the puzzle, there were a lot of long theme answers with indirect clues, which made it that much harder to get started, and some difficult shorter stuff, but eventually I got things sorted out and was cruising along toward a happy conclusion when disaster struck.

I had just about finished the puzzle when I came to the crossing of E_ALEN [Big Sur retreat] and _AL [__ soda]. Um... what? I did drive down the coast from Oakland to Los Angeles through Big Sur in 1995, but I didn't memorize the towns or resorts there. Emalen, Evalen, Edalen, Etalen, Exalen, they all sounded plausible enough. And what on earth was "__ soda?"  Was Pal a brand of soda? Hal?

Yet again, the old I-don't-do-that-many-crosswords thing cost me. It was a dreaded "Natick crossing," so named by the crossword blogger Rex Parker when he was angry that something obscure in a puzzle crossed the equally obscure NATICK, Massachusetts. Rex's point was that it wasn't fair to have two super-hard words cross each other in a puzzle. Of course, one solver's "what the hell is this" is another solver's "I've seen this in puzzles repeatedly over the years because I do so many of them."

Not only did I not know these words, I knew I wasn't going to be able to figure them out. But I was so married to the idea of finishing without an error that I compounded the problem by staring at the empty crossing for like 12 minutes, giving away maybe 14 spots on the ladder by letting time tick fruitlessly away. In trying to save the limb, I killed the patient. Put another way, I was the rigid football coach who failed to adjust a losing game plan at halftime.

I guessed wrong, going with C for CAL soda in the hope that it was an alternative to LO-CAL soda despite the fact that ECALEN seemed so not like a place name. The answer turned out to be ESALEN and SAL soda, which is apparently a sodium salt of carbonic acid. As soon as I find out what a sodium salt and carbonic acid are, I'm all set.

Still, I ranked 108 when it was all over, a jump of over 50 spots from last year...

...until a few days later, when Mr. 1-Across, Ben Zimmer, posted congratulations on my Facebook wall for finishing the tournament error-free. He saw it on the tournament website, where for some reason I had been added to the dean's list after all. Didn't they know I only got a B+ on the final?

Although the tournament judges do a yeomanlike job under pressure, the unfortunate fact is that mistakes do happen in the judging room from time to time. Scans of solvers' grids are available for viewing, and although you can't look at a given player's handiwork unless you know her contestant number, what you can do is click around and look at grids at random. Before long you'll see an example or two of where the judges overlooked an error, and that's what seemed to have happened in my case. (My Puzzle 5 and 7 scans hadn't yet been posted online when Ben congratulated me, so this was my first notice that the judges hadn't dinged me for my miscue.)

Speaking of contestant numbers, you're welcome to check out my puzzles, but please don't spend too much time looking at square 35 in Puzzle 7. I'm sensitive.

I had no choice but to email Will Shortz to correct the error. With that Puzzle 7 scan still unavailable I couldn't confirm it, but I felt sure that I had written a C instead of an S. (I was literally writing the letter as the judge took the paper out of my hand, but I knew I had to have guessed wrong because S wasn't even on my short list of possible guesses.)

As I told Will, last year I think I was actually docked points improperly, but with so little at stake, I didn't bother emailing in a grievance. This year, though, wrongly being held up so prominently on the short list of perfect solvers required me to say something.

Will immediately emailed me back and told me that I was the fifth person to report a scoring error that the judges hadn't caught. He told me it said a lot about me and my character as well as that of the tournament contestants in general.

I appreciated the compliment, but like so many things in life, there are shades of gray. How many people didn't report their own mulligans? Would I have reported my own error had I not told so many people how I'd tried to run the table and, to mix more metaphors, fumbled on the one-yard line? I hadn't earned Will's compliment because I hadn't been put to that test.

Speaking of undeserved compliments, my puzzle pal Ken Lauterbach paid me two more. He emailed that I should get the George Washington Cherry Tree Award for reporting my own error and posted on Facebook, "my two greatest achievements in the contest were doing well on Puzzle 5 and being tied with Ben Bass for a while." This was as flattering as it was inaccurate. Not only am I the walking definition of Nothing Special by ACPT standards, but Ken finished two spots higher than me in the final standings! He and I did share one distinction this year: of the people who rocked out on Puzzle 5, we were by far the slowest on everything else.

By the way, I can honestly say I think I would have reported the error anyway. I won the citizenship award from my classmates when I graduated from law school (he said modestly) and I try to live up to it. My whole thing was to earn a spot on the perfect solvers list, not get handed one due to a clerical error. Ashish and Narayan took me out fair and square. Even if no one else knew about it, I would have known about it.

Oh well, it makes for a more interesting story this way, and I can still chase perfection next year along with a spot in the top 100. The only problem is, I don't do that many crosswords and there are a lot more words I don't know than there are years I have left to live.

The scoring error brouhaha reminded me of something that happened last year. When the standings were posted Saturday night, my tournament friend and fellow Northwestern alum Kelly Langan, alone among all contestants, was improperly credited with a score on Sunday morning's Puzzle 7, which would not even occur for 12 more hours. This catapulted Kelly to 5th in the standings from the three-digit range and briefly made her the talk of the tournament.

Being an honorable lady, Kelly brought the error to the tournament officials' attention, but not before calling her boyfriend in Boston and having him print the standings for posterity. In a like fashion, here's a screen grab of me crashing the genius party, since corrected in real life:

The best part is that getting onto the list is catching a fish, but for the first time, I feel like I have the ability to fish. I might finally be good enough to have a shot at getting onto that list in any given ACPT.

When I reported the scoring error to Will, all I was thinking was that the officials were going to remove me from my cherished perfect solvers list. It never occurred to me that my paper had initially been scored as completely correct, so I was going to give up a slew of points too. That is exactly what happened, dropping me from 108 to 120. Between the 12-minute oxygen leak, the bad guess at the Natick crossing, and my pesky honesty, I managed to plummet 30 or 35 spots from where I nearly finished.

I also inadvertently finished in the top 20% of the field—not that I was trying not to, but after two years around 160 I wasn't expecting to—which means I'm now a B player instead of a C. I finished among the top 10 C players this year and might have liked to take a shot at the C finals next year to try my luck onstage against other mere mortals. (Then again, would I really have quit solving on a computer and put in the time over the next year to try to become a rock star solver on paper? Realistically, no.)

On the plus side, I jumped over 40 spots from last year, and out of over 2000 squares in the tournament (including blocks) I was correct on all but one of them. With a modicum of work on my currently atrocious and therefore quite improveable solving speed, the dean's list and the top 100 are reachable goals.

Of course, if I don't get there, who cares? The best part of the tournament is the people, who are going to be there ready to play Celebrity in the hotel bar regardless of how well or poorly I do. And having won enough money on "Jeopardy!" to pay for law school, I've already taken home more than my share.

I am quite aware how little any of this stuff matters; there's exactly nothing of importance at stake. But I find it interesting nonetheless, so before I wrap this all up, let's take a quick look at how the tournament values speed versus accuracy.

There were 35 solvers who finished the tournament error-free. I was in the silver medal group of 33 solvers who made one error. (Another measure of my slowness is that I finished 28th out of the 33.)

Six of the silver medalists finished in the top 16 in the tournament, and they're big names. Even though I just missed the perfection list, the group I'm in also turns out to be a glittering constellation of crossword stars. It feels good to know that I was as accurate as these top players, just way slower.

Only 8 of our 33 made their mistake on Puzzle 5. At first I'd have guessed that Mike Shenk's puzzle did most of the damage, but upon reflection this makes sense. These are people who are strong enough to shoot par for the tournament, so whether it was a Natick crossing personal to them or the dreaded blank square on an easy puzzle due to haste, they were equally vulnerable at every stage. Even a strong solver can make an error almost anywhere. Just ask this New York Times editor.

As for the 17 people who finished the tournament with two errors (more than I made!), four of them finished in the top 30, and 15 of the 17 finished ahead of me. Looking over their names, I'm kind of stunned. I had fewer errors than him? And her?

The conclusion is obvious: it's nice to have the right answers, but speed kills.

Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote an interesting New Yorker article about the U.S. News college rankings, arguing that any list of statistical rankings is merely a reflection of the factors that its creator chose to emphasize or minimize. The U.S. News ranking "favors the Yale model over the Penn State model, which means that the Yales of the world will always succeed at the U.S. News rankings because the U.S. News system is designed to reward Yale-ness."

Likewise, in setting up the tournament scoring system, the officials had to make some arbitrary judgment calls. I think it's fair to say that of the two most obvious measures of a crossword solver's ability, crossword tournaments happen to value one (being insanely fast on easy crossword puzzles) higher than the other (being able to solve difficult crossword puzzles).

There are practical reasons for this, chief among them that if you were to throw a crossword puzzle tournament that primarily tested people's ability to solve super-hard crossword puzzles, not too many people would show up, and/or many of those who did wouldn't have a very good time. At the end of the day, the greater enjoyment for the greater number of people is what it's all about. It just doesn't happen to benefit the Fireball-solving slowpokes like me.

Of course, even though I finished in the top 50 on the hardest puzzle, I was still nowhere close to the truly great solvers. They finished that thing a year before I did.

One more excellent puzzle deserves a mention, Mike Nothnagel's gorgeous open-construction grid that the three sets of finalists solved during the C, B and A finals. I didn't look up during the C finals so I could solve the puzzle in silence with the super-difficult A clues.  I relished the challenge and was about two-thirds done when the B finals started, at which point I started hearing answers during the live commentary. I found myself looking around in vain for a TiVo remote.

As the tournament ended, this year's celebrity guest trophy presenter was New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, who once drew this gem for the magazine:

She also delivered these humorous remarks, a copy of which I received in an email from New Yorker cartoon editor and friend of this blog Bob Mankoff:

I have to tell you that I was not the first choice for being the presenter. Alan Alda was, but he was on vacation, climbing an arete in the Ural Mountains. They tried to get Eero Saarinen, but he had fallen on his epee, and got a stoma. Luckily his amah had some aloe with her in an etui. Erle Stanley Gardner fell down an adit. And Esai Morales broke his ulna and his tibia while he was in China researching the Chen, Qin, Zhou, Ming, Song, Tang, Qing, Qi, Sui, and Yin dynasties for an epic opera in which he's going to sing an aria.

Even though I wasn't the first choice, I'm not at all irate, because I get to stand up here and tell you a little bit about myself. I love Nature. Recently I was on safari and I saw an ecru and onyx oryx, although it may have been an eland or an okapi. I'm not sure. I don't want to err, or I'd have to atone. I also saw an egret, an emu, and an erne who was building an aerie. The food was a little eerie. We had an olio of dal, agar, eel, and taro. An emir on the trip complained because the poi had been in the oast too long, and an imam cried because he missed his esnes. Afterwards, we traveled to the Aral Sea and took a proa to Etna. I wore a boa. The tsar upped the sartorial ante with his Eton collar. It was aces, but by the end, I couldn't wait to get home, put some Edam on crackers, eat Oreos, and play Atari.

Well, I think that's enough sharing. Please forgive me for any mispronunciations. I've never really heard any of these words before. And now I'd like to announce the winners.

Thanks to tournament director Will Shortz, tournament coordinator Helene Hovanec and their all-star team of constructors and volunteers for another well-run and entirely enjoyable ACPT, and if you've read along with me this far, thanks to you too.


Elaine said...

Great write-up! I've been checking your blog daily waiting for it. Maybe next year our lives will be simpler, and we'll be able to make the leap from Darkest Arkansas to the ACPT. Sara Kaplan provided a few pictures of WordPlay blog regulars, which I posted on my blog--but maybe you've already met KarmaSartre! Thanks for putting in the time, and congratulations on your performance.

Andrew Snyder said...

You really captured it well--this was my first ACPT and I'm already planning to go back next year. I'm still reliving it in my mind--ignoring the fact that I really should be working. Thanks!

Ric Q said...

Ben, first: I'm glad to have met you face-to-face! I'm fairly astonished at how similar our experiences were at the ACPT. I had three errors, not two; I am slower than most expert solvers; I completed #5 with nine+ minutes remaining; and I turned myself in for an error the judges missed in #7! (Not the same one; I got caught up in the double letters and entered LATENIGHTVVHOST.)
Now, if were just faster...

Bob Kerfuffle said...

Ben, I'm a little slow on the uptake, so please answer in short, simple words the question I posted on Rex Parker's blog: Was the speech given by Roz Chast written by her, or was she rerading Bob Mankoff's words?

I could read your intro to mean either "the remarks were written by Bob Mankoff" or "Thanks to Bob for passing along this transcript of Roz's remarks."

Ben said...

Bob, I assume Roz wrote her speech. I got a copy in an email that Bob sent around, which I'm guessing he did because he found Roz's remarks amusing. I'll adjust the ambiguous language above.

For the trivia file, Bob is a regular table tennis opponent of Will Shortz.

MylesNye said...

Thanks for this great write-up Ben. Very generous for those of us who are interested in the tournament, but not enough so to compete. Hope to meet you in person some day.

chaneski said...

Nice write-up! Thanks for spelling my name correctly. Dean's list!

Amy Goldstein said...

You should give yourself a big pat on the back. Mike Shenk has been my business partner for 15 years, and we worked together for several years before that. You'd think that would've helped me on Puzzle 5, but I nearly didn't finish, turning it in with just one minute to spare. And I felt pretty smart later, when a perpetually faster solver who wasn't there said he couldn't finish it in the 30 minutes. But you beat me by a fat 7-minute margin. Kudos! My little regimen: Just solve for speed for a month before the tournament, and you'll be faster next time.

Karen from the Cape said...

Hey Ben, it was nice meeting you this year. (I was in Dave's group at Morton's.) I turned myself in for an error in last year's puzzle, and talked the guy behind me this year into doing the same for a morning puzzle. Re dropping in rank over Saturday night, it was probably not so much people challenging answers as much as puzzles that hadn't been graded the night before. Like my puzzle #1, which apparently disappeared in to the black hole of the Marshall Islands. I enjoyed your writeup (thanks for the link, Bob.)

Joon said...

nice write-up, ben! now that i've finished it, i can tackle war and peace next.

if you guys haven't seen it, the video of roz chast's speech is here:

funny stuff.

Todd G said...

I've read several accounts now, and I'm surprised no one mentioned the excellent bonus puzzle created by Pete Muller. Alas, I don't remember the title, and I don't want to give anything away, but it had lots of circled squares and more than one trick up its sleeve.

My first ACPT (I was a non-competitor), and I'm convinced that if/when I come back...I'll volunteer. You guys are scary good at solving.

mac said...

Thanks, Ben, for the write-up. I too am already looking forward to next year!

Roz's funny speech was on the New Yorker website, in Mankoff's column. He gives full credit to her.

@Todd G: Pete Muller's puzzle is called "Once Upon a Time". It was a fun one!

Anonymous said...

Was trimming my nails as I started the read. By the time I finished, they needed trimming again. Nice job, Ben! Hope to meet you next year. Glad you aced Puzzle 4. Too bad about that Sal Soda thing.


Brendan Emmett Quigley said...

I'll take "fellow Pavement fan."

Martin said...

Ben -- truly tremendous post, and I don't mean just word count. Shortz was dead right about you and your moral fiber -- just accept it!

Ben said...

Thanks for the nice feedback, everyone.

My personal Competing Against Insanely Great People Week continued yesterday when I got a call from a friend who played on the men's tennis team at the University of Miami (Fla.), not merely a Division I school but a national college tennis power. I was happy to sub into his game at the last minute.

Ordinarily with a doubles partner that tough I'd be in good shape, but we had our hands full playing against a young woman who grew up playing with Roger Federer on the Swiss national junior team before coming to the U.S. to play college tennis (her partner was a mere mortal at my level). Meanwhile, I didn't even play in high school. I did my best to keep up with these rock stars during two of the most enjoyable hours of tennis I've ever played.

Anonymous said...

Rupert Murdoch hasn't owned the Chicago Sun-Times for almost 25 years now; he bought it in 1984 and sold it in 1986.

Ben said...

Oops, you're right. Forget everything I said.

Anonymous said...

Like others, I knew your name from listening to Will Shortz. Wondered if you were the same Ben Bass I've admired on Canadian and US TV, so thanks for incuding photos on your site. I should've known being a puzzlemaster was a full-time job, not conducive to being an employed actor. Glad I found you online. I've enjoyed reading about your adventures and observations.
Jennifer in the Desert