Thursday, March 31, 2011

JFL looks A-OK


Regular readers of this space may recall my enthusiasm for cultural festivals in general and comedy festivals in particular. During its run I annually attended America's leading comedy throwdown, the HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo., and now cover the annual Just For Laughs Chicago festival for the going-out guide Flavorpill.

This year's JFL Chicago once again features a promising lineup, with performers including Louis C.K., Demetri Martin, Dave Attell, Whitney Cummings, Jeffrey Ross and Joel McHale. Further shows will be announced as the festival week (June 14 to 18) approaches.

Tickets go on sale this Saturday at 10 a.m. Chicago time. Jump in there if you're interested; many shows will sell out.

You can find more information at the festival website or in the edited press release and venue guide I've posted after the jump.

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.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

ACPT writeup forthcoming

I will post my trip report from the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in the next few days.

Meanwhile, enjoy this:

Friday, March 18, 2011

Blog closed

I'm headed to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in New York, so there won't be much happening here for the next few days. Talk amongst yourselves.

Like Linda Richman, I'll give you a suggested topic: The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire. Discuss.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

God of Carnage

I recently attended the opening of Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage at the Goodman Theatre and enjoyed the show as I did in New York City.

As I wrote for Flavorpill Chicago:

The Broadway premiere of God of Carnage delivered both Yasmina Reza's anticipated follow-up to the hit play Art and James Gandolfini's first major role after playing a racketeer of some renown. Neither represented a particularly grand departure from its predecent, but then, there's something to giving the people what they want. In God of Carnage, Reza again displays the gradually cracking veneer over polite society's underlying resentments, this time stopping just short of the brutality that two neighbor couples hope to correct between their offspring. It's a heady mashup of Lord of the Flies and "The Honeymooners," and a generally entertaining downward ride.

God of Carnage runs through April 17th at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago.

My Flavorpill preview includes a ticket link and further information.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Joravsky to 47th Ward: Maybe you're not dumb

Intrepid Chicago Reader political columnist Ben Joravsky pretty much conceded the recent 47th Ward aldermanic race to Tom O'Donnell, the handpicked successor of 35-year incumbent Gene Schulter.

Like many, he figured the low turnout and patronage machine would combine to install another party hack in office, with the voters of the Fighting 47th too ovine to stand in the way.

But occasionally David beats Goliath, and Joravsky was only too happy to eat crow when fresh-faced upstart Ameya Pawar came out of nowhere to win the City Council seat outright. As a 47th Ward resident, I second that emotion.

So how did the unknown, underfunded Pawar get an office in City Hall? Apparently with the help of a libertarian bowling alley owner and a 14-year-old political junkie.

It's a remarkable tale, the kind Ben Joravsky was born to tell. Check it out here.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Puzzle Week: The answers

For the past week — OK, closer to two weeks at this point — I've been writing about puzzle people, puzzle companies, puzzle events and puzzle television.

But I've also posted a few actual puzzles: three NPR Will Shortz-style brain teasers that a friend and I wrote, plus two logic crosswords from the Seattle startup Puzzazz.

To wrap up Puzzle "Week", I now present the answers.

In case you haven't finished solving yet — or haven't started — I'll repost the puzzles here, with the solutions in white text like I do with past weeks' NPR answers at right. Highlight the text to reveal the answers. But try to figure them out first.

Happy solving!

Where in the World?

Think of a world capital in two syllables. Change the fourth letter to the next letter of the alphabet and rearrange the letters to spell another world capital. What cities are they?


Hail to the Chief

Take the last name of a U.S. president and remove one letter. The remaining letters, read in reverse order, spell a word that describes the president. Who is it?

Answer:  TAFT, FAT  (partial credit for BUSH, SUBPAR)

Same and Different

Think of two synonyms that name a particular type of institution. Add the suffix "-er" to each and you'll spell two words that are effectively antonyms.


4x4 Logic Crossword

The following clues define eight 4-letter words. 

Figure them out and fit them into the square below.

Computer music protocol
It's not quite teal
Joke of sorts
Kennedy's Secretary of State
Like (with to)
National milk org.

5 & 3 Logic Crossword

The following clues define four 3-letter words and four 5-letter words. Each of the 3-letter words fits into the middle of one of the 5-letter words. Figure out the words and fit them into the square below.

Explorer John or Sebastian
He played with Joe, Waite, Lefty, and Babe
Louis-Philippe I was the last one
R2, for one
Type system for some donations
You might be under one or on one
Logic crossword puzzles reprinted with permission of Puzzazz.

Starting tomorrow... Turnip Week!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Puzzle Week: Props for my peeps

Big ups to FOBB&B Joon Pahk, who wrote today's (quite good) Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle.

Joon is a crossword rock star who ran away with the "B" division last year during his first trip to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT), only two years after first taking an interest in crossword puzzles. That's more or less like winning the MVP in your first NFL season after not playing in college.

He also created the popular "Guess My Word" game in which players try to, well, you know. There is a standing link to the game in the sidebar at right, which I suppose could more accurately be labeled "Guess Joon's word! Then guess his friend Mike's word!"

Joon happens to be my roommate at this year's ACPT next weekend, so unless I snore, look for him to turn in another huge performance.

Meanwhile, congrats on the puzzle, Joon. I liked all the trivia clues, my favorite clue-answer combo was 40D ("It's solid yellow"), I had a Natick problem where the "Turandot" king crossed the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir since I only know the most prominent Poe-ms, and I briefly had HEADSNAP for "Brake-slamming result." But I got there in 16 fun-filled minutes.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Puzzle Week: Puzzazz

Just as DVDs augment the movie-watching experience — good luck pausing, adding subtitles or enjoying commentary tracks in a movie theater — so is a Seattle startup company using emerging technology to improve the experience of solving puzzles.

It's called Puzzazz, and the name says it all: puzzles with pizzazz.

Software engineer and longtime puzzlemaker Roy Leban founded Puzzazz on the theory that, like so much else, puzzle delivery and enjoyment will be an increasingly electronic rather than paper-based phenomenon. He's a true puzzle lover whose first priority is to provide high-quality puzzles, using technology to make the experience that much better.

For example, Puzzazz is pioneering the publication of puzzle books for devices like the Amazon Kindle. E-books offer numerous advantages over traditional books: electronic puzzles can be wiped clean and re-solved where paper puzzles can't; built-in tools can enrich the solving experience for logic puzzles like sudoku; hinting and error correction are more fluid; solvers don't have to draw the unusual symbols that some puzzles require; and the books themselves are more portable.

Puzzazz is a puzzle publisher, not a gamemaker, as this article from TechFlash makes clear. Its thoughtful incorporation of technology may be an early glimpse of where textbooks and other traditional print media are headed.

The company also generates content for non-Kindle people like me. posts a new word puzzle every day, which they also distribute by email and RSS feed.

I particularly like their "logic crosswords," small crossword puzzles in which you have to figure out not only the answers, but where they fit into the grid.

For example here's a 4x4:

The following clues define eight 4-letter words. Figure them out and fit them into the square below.

Computer music protocol
It's not quite teal
Joke of sorts
Kennedy's Secretary of State
Like (with to)
National milk org.

And a "5&3":

The following clues define four 3-letter words and four 5-letter words. Each of the 3-letter words fits into the middle of one of the 5-letter words. Figure out the words and fit them into the square below.

Explorer John or Sebastian
He played with Joe, Waite, Lefty, and Babe
Louis-Philippe I was the last one
R2, for one
Type system for some donations
You might be under one or on one

Both puzzles reprinted with permission of Puzzazz.

There are a couple of 4x8 logic crosswords in the March Puzzazz newsletter. They're harder than these. Can you finish them?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Puzzle Week: Name that Hall of Famer

Although the primary purpose of baseball spring training is to get players warmed up for the season and audition minor league prospects for roster spots — and maybe make a few bucks along the way — a nice side benefit is the many former players who also come around.

From Yogi Berra working with young prospects at Yankees camp in Tampa to Willie Mays greeting fans at Don & Charlie's restaurant in Scottsdale, there's a baseball legend everywhere you go.

And so it was that I happened upon one of them today during the Giants-White Sox game at Scottsdale Stadium, one of my all-time favorite players to boot:

Recognize him? The greatest leadoff man of all time?

OK, I'll give you a few hints. He hit a record 81 leadoff home runs among his 3000+ hits, and drew a record 2190 walks to break Babe Ruth's all-time record. Career .401 on-base percentage, not too shabby.

Once aboard he'd run on you all day, and even though you knew he was going to, there wasn't much you could do about it. The "Man of Steal" swiped 100 bases in his first full major league season and a ridiculous 130 bases two years later, more than nine entire teams that year. He led the big leagues in steals for 12 years in a row except for one injury-shortened season and ended up with 1406 stolen bases, not only an all-time record but 50% more than the guy in second place.

Add it all up and he scored more runs than anyone else, breaking Ty Cobb's record en route to a remarkable 2295 runs scored, another all-time record.

So who is this guy? Why, it's Marvell Wynne. Just kidding. It's the great Rickey Henderson.

As dynamic and exciting as Rickey was on the field, he was equally entertaining off it. Not unlike the aforementioned Mr. Berra, he was a true character who generated reams of copy for sportswriters with the offbeat things he would do and say.

In fact, some people were disappointed last summer by his Hall of Fame induction speech. It was straightforward, humble and sincere, a perfectly acceptable and respectable oration, but somehow not exactly Rickeyish.

Rickey was a first-ballot Hall of Fame shoo-in who received 94.7% of the vote. As I wrote at the time, "Excuse me? Who didn't vote for Rickey? That's like not voting for jelly in the 'what else should I put in my peanut butter sandwich?' vote."

The only explanation for leaving Rickey Henderson off a Hall of Fame ballot is that he was a bit of a showboat on the field, considered by some people to be cocky or conceited. A handful of baseball writers, though surely well aware of his Hall of Fame credentials, presumably left him off his first of a potential 15 Hall of Fame ballots to put him in his place, just as they punished Roberto Alomar for spitting in the face of an umpire. Alomar got in a year later on his second ballot.

I told Rickey that I enjoyed his Hall of Fame speech and asked how anyone could leave him off a Hall of Fame ballot.

He smiled and replied with a characteristic gem: "I guess those guys never saw me play."