Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A puzzling weekend

I spent the weekend in Providence, Rhode Island at the 172nd convention of the National Puzzlers' League, the country's oldest puzzle organization (founded 1883).

Having written a fairly comprehensive report after last year's convention, and with fellow attendees such as puzzlemaker and author Eric Berlin having already neatly summarized this year's model, I'll dispense with an exhaustive writeup of this year's throwdown in favor of a few personal highlights. Spoiler alert: I discuss various convention, NPR, and upcoming New York Times puzzles below.

Every summer the NPL convenes in a different city to spend a weekend solving word puzzles, staging Jeopardy-type trivia games, ferreting out hidden contests, and conducting de facto experiments on the combined effects of sleep deprivation and pretzel M&Ms on the human body. I had more than enough fun at my first NPL convention in Seattle last year to return for another go-round.

There was one more thing I was thinking about doing in Rhode Island this weekend: hitting Newport to visit the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum. I enjoyed the fine museum on the grounds of the Wimbledon tournament two years ago and had heard good things about the American version, plus I only get to Rhode Island once every twenty years, so this seemed like the time to check it out.

Friday was a free day at the convention. Some people visited the Providence Zoo; others tackled group puzzle hunts at the Rhode Island School of Design art museum (which I did on Thursday) or around the Brown University campus; many hung around the hotel catching up with their friends and working on the dozens of cryptic crosswords and other puzzles that fellow NPL members had composed for the convention.

Although there had been some pre-convention talk of a group excursion to Newport 30 miles away, I found only faint interest among NPLers in braving the iffy weather to head down there as I walked around the Providence Downtown Marriott on Friday morning. Even fewer people seemed curious about the Tennis Hall of Fame.

The latter came as little surprise. In my experience the average NPLer is profoundly well-informed about most subjects, with particular strength in scholarly areas. (Although I was lucky enough to attend a private law school on a "Trebek scholarship," I've grown accustomed to my fellow members' frequent ability to trounce me in trivia games. Puzzle people know their stuff.)

Many puzzlers are equally omniscient about popular culture and sports, but some emphatically aren't. I was the only player in a 12-person Jeopardy game able to identify the NBA Hall of Fame center known as "the Admiral" who starred for the San Antonio Spurs in the early 1990s. I later found myself fruitlessly babbling hints at a Celebrity Get A Clue partner who, while clearly exceptionally bright, did not know who Matt Damon was. I found this gap in his knowledge base surprising, endearing, and generally kind of awesome.

I didn't feel like going down to Newport by myself so I had just about abandoned the idea when, during my final spin around the place, I walked out the front door of the hotel and ran into NPL historian and New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz sitting alone reading his iPad. I know Will from attending his crossword tournaments in Brooklyn and Westchester, plus over the past few years I've contributed to his weekly puzzle segment on Weekend Edition Sunday.

By coincidence, "the Puzzlemaster" was about to head over to the local National Public Radio affiliate to record his radio quiz game, which he tapes each Friday for broadcast the following Sunday morning. He generously agreed to let me tag along and we embarked on foot across downtown Providence.

We got to station WRNI about 30 minutes before the taping, too late to grab lunch beforehand but in plenty of time for Will to playtest this week's on-air puzzle on me. Given the roughly one thousand correct respondents each week it's nearly impossible to get chosen to play with Will on the air, so this was probably as close as I'll ever get. Then again, playing along with the Puzzlemaster off the air in a radio studio was, as an Irish poet said, even better than the real thing.

This week's puzzle required the player (and radio audience) to add the letter F to given words and phrases and anagram the results into new words ending in F. After cruising through the simpler examples like FLUB + F = BLUFF and ACED + F = DECAF and keeping pace on longer items like TILES + F = ITSELF and FAT SLOB + F = BLASTOFF, I eventually had to swallow my pride and grab a pen to solve the final two, HELICES + F = ICE SHELF and BARE TOES + F = ROAST BEEF.

The playtesting proved beneficial because at one point Will gave me what sounded like ASH + F, but he meant it in the Arthur ASHE sense, with the intended answer SHEAF. (Will did spell ASHE to me, but I was so busy trying solve with ASH that I didn't catch it at first.) He made it clearer for the on-air contestant by saying something like "ASHE as in Arthur Ashe, A-S-H-E." This turned out to be as close as I would get to visiting the Tennis Hall of Fame.

Having listened to Will's puzzle segment hundreds of times over the years, I observed the radio taping with great interest. The station engineer gave me a headset to listen in and after some minutes of backstage chatter among radio production staffers, eventually Weekend Edition Sunday interim host Linda Wertheimer and the on-air contestant joined Will over NPR's satellite and/or ISDN links.

As usual the show was recorded "live on tape" from several locations as if the participants were in the same room. Will conducted his conversation with the host from a typed script, supplementing it with handwritten notes for the puzzle itself and his explanation about being in Providence for the NPL convention.

The taping took maybe 15 minutes but after various retakes, tangents and long pauses during solving were edited out, the on-air version was a lean six-plus minutes. You can listen to it here or read a transcript here.

From time to time Will uses puzzles I submit as his weekly listener challenges. As it happened I'd just given him my latest puzzle a week earlier and he'd emailed me that he liked it. Of course, this wasn't a guarantee of anything; some puzzles he's praised haven't made it to the air. Others have taken a few weeks to see the light of day, an inevitability given the many puzzles he receives.

During the walk over to the station I'd asked Will whether this week's listener challenge was his creation or a listener submission, and he'd replied that it was a submitted puzzle. I didn't have the temerity to ask whether it was mine, so I was pleasantly surprised during the taping when Will announced that this week's challenge came from listener Ben Bass of Chicago. He knew I'd just had a big birthday and by keeping it secret he gave me a cool present in typically smooth Shortz style.

Once the taping was completed, two young WRNI reporters named Megan Hall and Bradley Campbell entered the studio to say hello and take photos with Will. Megan ended up interviewing him about his trip to Providence and later aired a short piece inviting interested locals to check out the NPL convention. He also gave Megan and her listeners two puzzles to solve.

When Will gave Bradley and Megan copies of the convention program, they were understandably confused by its listing nicknames rather than full names for the people involved. Will explained the use of noms de plume or "noms" in the National Puzzlers' League, a longstanding tradition that adds an air of playfulness to the group and levels the social playing field among distinguished older members and younger recruits.

NPLers choose their own noms, often using wordplay or lighthearted humor to select a handle. Will's is WILLz because it's literally a rewrite of his name: "Will short z." For obvious reasons, mine is Beyond. Will explained that one NPLer was Manx because he's a mysterious figure ("man x"); Megan correctly guessed that Sue++ works with computers.

I told Bradley Campbell that because his surname divided into two parts, it could provide a basis for an NPL nom. One member named Dave Shukan is known as Tinhorn because of compound terms that include the syllables in his last name (tin can, shoehorn). I came up with an example for Campbell, "Liberty Fire," not as good as Tinhorn because the nom doesn't make a familiar phrase. "Summer Weather" works better (summer camp, bellwether) but it's still cumbersome.

Megan Hall asked us to suggest a nom for her. Despite our best efforts, Will and I struggled to rearrange the letters in her name into something memorable; she had good vowels but a tough mix of letters. Over lunch afterward at the brewpub around the corner, we used an anagramming website to come up with a decent nom for Megan Hall, "Hang 'Em All," which Will emailed to her.

Saturday afternoon at NPL conventions is pencil-and-paper puzzle time. The first was an entertaining game by Brooklyn's Adam Cohen in which we filled consonants into blanks to form familiar words and phrases. The vowels were provided, each used exactly once with no Ys involved. (Adam later told me phrases of this type are known as "supervocalics," not to be confused with "univocalics" such as BANANARAMA and PETER SELLERS.)

Thus _ U _ _ A _ _ I O E _ became MUSTACHIOED, _ U _ _ A _ O    _ I _ _ E _ became BUFFALO NICKEL, _ U _ _ O E _ A I _ _ became SUBPOENAING, etc. To help solvers along, there were clue definitions in random order at the bottom of the page.

I happened to be seated next to a brilliant young puzzle solver from Connecticut named Jeffrey Harris. He and I had thrown around a few NPR-style puzzles over breakfast that morning with Dave Shukan, Todd Etter and others. (I won't repeat their nifty stuff here because some of it might end up on the radio.)

At last year's convention Jeffrey had made such quick work of a different Adam Cohen puzzle that Will had included his improbably fast time in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks later when he ran it as a variety puzzle accompanying the Sunday crossword. Newspaper readers wrote in to Will protesting that it was impossible for anyone to solve the puzzle that fast, but they were wrong.

This year Jeffrey put on another virtuoso performance, blowing through the puzzle at lightning speed. Sitting next to him I wasn't looking at his paper, but I could hear his pencil moving so fast that it sounded like he was going to start a fire. (He later told me, only because I asked, that he'd solved 27 of the 30 phrases without even using the hints.) Jeffrey wrapped it up in a ridiculous three and a half minutes.

There might be no one alive who could have solved it sooner, not just because Jeffrey was going about as fast as humanly possible, but because many of the leading contenders were already present. In any other room MIT math professor Kiran Kedlaya, one of the leading minds of his generation, would have finished in a strong first place, but he was positively poky by comparison at an also dazzling four minutes and change.

Adam's word game was entitled "Genius At Work," which not only fit the theme of the puzzle but more than applied to this gathering. And this one's also headed for the New York Times Magazine, so Will should expect more mail.

Jeffrey's blitzkrieg inadvertently helped me get through the puzzle. It was so obvious from his pace that he wasn't bothering to match the clues to the answers that I stopped trying to do that, instead filling in whichever ones I could and then using the clues to wrap things up.

When time ran out I still had two blanks unfilled including SUBPOENAING; despite my legal career I don't issue subpoenas and rarely hear the verb form of the word. Staying up until dawn the night before hadn't helped much either; I felt like I was in first gear the whole time. But it was worth it because the impromptu after-hours trivia contests and untelevised game shows at an NPL convention are so good.

The next event was a pairs crossword solving competition written by Will Shortz. Jeffrey politely turned to me and asked whether I would like to work together. I was flattered by the invitation but knew I was outclassed; although I've solved a crossword puzzle or two, Jeffrey is in another league. My only goal was not to slow him up too badly.

Will's puzzle was a twist on a traditional crossword requiring solvers to find the two halves of each clue on a lengthy list, then write in the answer in the square whose number was the sum of the two clues' numbers. Thus "17. Daughter of a" and "56. King" might combine to clue answer 73, PRINCESS.

Jeffrey once again destroyed everything in front of him and I tried to keep up. I did get my share of answers but it generally felt like I was holding onto Superman's cape as he flew around. The biggest mistake I made was to spend a lot of time transcribing his many correct answers onto my copy of the puzzle; it would have been more efficient to work on the same sheets. Jeffrey and I finished in a respectable second place, but considering how fast he'd finished the first puzzle I felt like my nom should be changed to something like "Albatross" or "The Anvil."

Every Saturday evening program at an NPL convention is a team puzzle hunt known as "the extravaganza." This interconnected suite of puzzles is generally written by one or more rock stars in the profession; none is more esteemed than this year's solo constructor, the aforementioned Manx, better known as Wall Street Journal puzzle editor and Puzzability co-founder Mike Shenk.

The theme of this year's extravaganza was board games. Entitled "Big Game Hunt," it featured puzzles based on Monopoly, Clue, Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble, Boggle, Battleship, Connect Four, and a few dozen other old favorites. Mike's work was gorgeous in every way that mattered: presentation, playability, variety, overall elegance. It was a privilege to take part.

Incredibly, not only did Mike write the whole thing himself, he was only asked to do so about two months ago. He finished it in six weeks, then recruited some fellow puzzlers to playtest it and work out the kinks before he printed and hand-cornered the full-color, beautifully designed materials. Did I mention this thing was amazing?

After opting into either "runner" (trying to finish fast, might not get to do all the puzzles) or "stroller" (just want to see the sights) status, participants were randomly separated into four-person teams. Even the selection mechanism fit the theme: each of us chose a folded-up Risk territory out of a cup, then found our teammates at our territory's designated table somewhere in the hotel ballroom.

My squad was a murderer's row of puzzle geniuses, plus for some reason myself. In no particular order, beyond Beyond, Team China included Will Shortz (the guy is everywhere); three-time American Crossword Puzzle Tournament champion, world-class Scrabble player, and professional puzzlemaker Trip Payne; and a gentleman by the name of Noam Elkies.

All he ever did, according to Wikipedia, was graduate Columbia University with a degree in music and mathematics (summa, valedictorian) at age 18, earn a Harvard Ph.D. at 20, then become a tenured Harvard professor at the age of 26. This broke the record formerly held by Larry Summers and Alan Dershowitz, who were made full professors at 28. He also writes wordplay-based poetry puzzles for the NPL even though it's not clear that English is his first language. What a slacker.

Even on such an all-star team, collaboration is not only possible but at times necessary. At one point I was co-solving a 15-by-15 Scrabble-themed diagramless crossword with Trip, which probably made him feel like Secretariat pulling a small child in a hay cart. It wasn't long before I let him do his thing unencumbered and turned to my personal catnip, a series of Trivial Pursuit cards packed with mostly batting practice-level questions.

The beauty part was that we needed each other's help to finish our puzzles. Not only did Trip (who is also a nuclear weapon on a trivia team) know some of the trivia answers I didn't, he explained to me that the correct answers formed overlapping letter chains that would fill in blanks below each Trivial Pursuit card. Sure enough, it worked perfectly once I reworded several answers to conform to Mike Shenk's intended response.

Likewise, after Trip had blown through the Scrabble diagramless, he had trouble finding the puzzle's overall meta answer. The eight letters in the red Triple Word Score squares around the perimeter, TSKNACIP, almost spelled the word SNAKEPIT, but they didn't. And even if they did, every meta answer was a well-known game and none of us had ever heard of that one. I looked at the twelve blue Triple Letter Score squares and found a game I'd never heard of, SCOTLAND YARD, hiding in plain sight.

Despite its firepower, our team didn't exactly set the curve. In fact, we made a few stroller teams look like runners. We did move pretty quickly though, finishing in about two and a half hours. As in so many other NPL convention activities, three things held true: there was no shame in losing to such skilled competition, the results were secondary to the fact that everyone had an excellent time, and the game itself was exemplary.

There's no concise way to give props to all the good stuff packed into a National Puzzlers' League convention. The Jeopardy games alone were like a fireworks show:
  • Greg Pliska and Guy Jacobson's brilliantly written Providence Jeopardy, not just a highly entertaining game centered in every conceivable way (wordplay, history, literature, geography) around Providence and Rhode Island but one they cohosted in character as famous locals Roger Williams and  H.P. Lovecraft in a hilarious two-man comedy attack?
  • Jeffrey Schwartz's Jeopardy game, once again intelligently crafted, packed with great trivia and professional-looking to boot?
  • Adam Cohen's coolly authoritative model, a straight-up trivia test for the serious player?
  • Thomas Gazzola's Doubles Jeopardy, played in pairs and won with shared trivia knowledge (both partners had to contribute) and wacky stunts; for example, players had to answer a category full of trivia questions, find the answers on a colorful diagram of Jelly Belly jellybeans, find the proper bean in a plastic baggie, put said bean in their partner's mouths, then the partners raced to ring a buzzer and correctly identify the flavor?
Played 'em all, loved 'em all.

It was a lot of that. And if it sounds like something you might enjoy, join the NPL (the cost is nominal) and head out to Portland, Oregon next summer for the 2012 convention.


zadok said...

great writeup, Ben.....makes me want to go next year....

Jon88 said...

Footnote to the SCOTLAND YARD puzzle: The four theme answers in the crossword grid contained a letter repeated twice, as in CALL LETTERS; hence, you were meant to look at the triple letter squares.

Ben said...

We noticed the triple letters but they didn't spell anything useful and we didn't connect them to the triple letter squares. Man, that thing was even better than I realized.

vraal said...

Hey roomie, while you certainly give the power-players suitable credit, I don't think you ever give yourself enough credit. :)


Kid Beyond said...

Fantastic write-up! Captures the exhilaration, the serendipity, the humility, the pretzel-M&M-fueled sleeplessness...

Couldn't Bradley Campbell's nom be BRAMBLE?

-- Murdoch

Ben said...

Well played, namesake.

Vroo said...

For Megan Hall, perhaps a less dark nom like Mnano (Mega = M & n = nano; I like the symmetry there) or maybe Nhall (mega-N hall).

MylesNye said...

Thanks so much for posting this! I wish like the dickens I had been there, but your charming recapitulation will have to sustain me til next year when I attend in Portland. Course I say that every year: turns out I'm all talk. But next year will be different! Probably! -Owler

Cougars said...

Yeah nice post i must say.