After enjoying crosswords on and off for years, I really got into them again over the past eighteen months or so, doing the NYT puzzle over breakfast most mornings and solving several other daily and weekly puzzles online. Reading the comments on the main crosswording blogs, I grew curious about how I might measure up alongside other puzzle enthusiasts. So, I decided to head up to Brooklyn for this past weekend’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT) and see just how good (or bad) I really was.
If you’ve seen the documentary Wordplay, you know about the ACPT. It’s the biggest national competition for crossword solvers, now in its 35th year, and it takes place every March at the Marriott in downtown Brooklyn. Over the course of that weekend, the Marriott becomes Word Nerd Central, with contestants flocking to puzzle-publisher exhibits, exchanging stories of cruciverbalist triumphs, and showing off their crossword-patterned ties, hats, T-shirts, pajamas, slippers, tote bags, and Star Wars bounty-hunter uniforms. (Trust me.) Freelance word games spring up in the lobby during every break and last deep into the night at the hotel bar.
At 11:00 on Saturday morning, Will Shortz welcomed everyone into the main ballroom. Nearly 600 contestants seated themselves at long tables that filled the entire room; a huge digital countdown clock loomed in one corner. By chance, I happened to seat myself among several other academics, including a biomechanics professor from Minnesota, a political scientist from Indiana, and a librarian from Connecticut. Looking at the “occupation” column in the contestant roster, it appeared there were also disproportionate numbers of attorneys, IT specialists, and musicians.
The tournament proceeds through seven puzzles over two days (six on Saturday and one on Sunday, followed by a championship round). The scoring system for each puzzle is pretty simple: 10 points for each correct word (Across and Down), and 25 bonus points for each full minute remaining in the allotted time once you’re done (time limits range from 15 to 45 minutes, depending on the size and difficulty of the puzzle). Incorrect or missing letters cost you 25 points apiece, while a perfect puzzle earns a 150-point bonus. In other words, speed is important, but mistakes can really hurt, so it’s best to be careful and take the time to check your work.
Although I’d done a fair amount of speed-solving in the previous few weeks, nothing prepared me for the feeling of sitting among 600 people all solving the same puzzle at the same time, with no sound but the whisper of hundreds of pencils on paper. I’d also imagined that I’d be distracted by the sight of the top solvers waltzing out of the room long before everyone else, but when you’re focused on your own grid, you really don’t notice anything else around you, save for that ominously ticking clock. So, let’s get to the puzzles (each link will take you to a scan of my own filled-in grid, though without the clues):
Puzzle #1: A “Tuesday-level” puzzle by Lynn Lempel, “Plus Ten,” with a straightforward add-a-letter theme (SAINTANNEX, CAMEOROLEX) and smooth ‘n’ easy “fill” (the non-theme entries). I finish in under 5 minutes, gaining 10 minutes’ worth of bonus time. Although it takes a while for the adrenalin rush to settle down, I’m feeling pretty good about myself so far.
Puzzle #2: The second puzzle is typically the second-hardest in the tournament (next to #5). Patrick Merrell rises to the challenge with the theme of “Boustrophedon,” meaning, as the subtitle explains, “having alternate lines running from left to right and right to left.” Sure enough, on every other line, words must be entered backwards (e.g., AIPES for SEPIA). The longer theme entries include various things noted for their boustrophedon pattern (MOWINGTHELAWN, DOTMATRIXPRINTER), but again, some are entered forward and others backward. It takes me a while to get the hang of the gimmick, but I finish in about 16 minutes, and I think I’m still “clean” (no errors). In the lobby afterward, a fellow puzzler points out that the Greek root of “boustrophedon” means “ox-turning,” as the left-right/right-left pattern is like an ox plowing a field. Of course, I immediately picture a solver glaring at Puzzle #2 in frustration, bellowing, “My ox is broken!”
Puzzle #3: With probably the most amusing theme of the tournament, Patrick Berry’s “Letterheads” takes existing phrases that begin with two initials (MXMISSILES), adds another initial at the beginning to make a three-letter expression, and then clues the resulting entry wackily (Explosive weapons launched from bicycles? BMXMISSILES; Story of Yogi's picnic basket find? PBJANDTHEBEAR). It’s a relatively smooth but larger-sized puzzle, so I take 15 minutes to finish, just barely catching an error on a crossing: SAVES/HOVE becomes SALES/HOLE when I realize that the “pitcher” in “Pitcher’s successes” refers to Ron Popeil, not Jonathan Papelbon.
We get a long lunch break before coming back for Puzzle #4. Just before the tournament resumes at 2:30, everyone frantically checks the online scoring site, but the judges haven’t uploaded the morning’s standings yet, so I have no idea where I stand. Still, I feel confident that I haven’t yet made an error, so the only question is how fast I’ve been relative to other solvers.
Puzzle #4: Another easier puzzle, Ian Livengood’s “Two for the Show” pairs movie titles into DOUBLEFEATURES to create non-wacky theme phrases (CHICAGOSEVEN, SPEEDUP). I’m getting into a good rhythm now, and again I’m done in less than 5 minutes with no mistakes.
Puzzle #5: The traditional “bastard” or “bitch-mother” puzzle slot, #5 is usually the one that bedevils even veteran solvers. Patrick Blindauer plays his role all too well here with “Going Underground.” (In fact, Patrick happens to hand out the puzzles to my row, and as he distributes the sheets he smiles and says, “Sorry.”) Not only is the cluing extremely difficult (“North, e.g.,” is LIEUTENANTCOLONEL), but the theme answers are entered in a mind-bogglingly complicated way: they begin in one too-short entry and end in another totally unclued entry, with the connecting letters A-N-T running diagonally between the two parts, like ants tunneling underground. (Look at the grid and you'll see how it works; the first two are VAC-ANT-LOT and THEDEFI-ANT-ONES.) Even the "fill" clues are so tough that it takes me a few minutes just to get a foothold on one corner. It's another several minutes before I gain even a partial understanding of the gimmick (in fact, I never did see the diagonal “ANTs”; I just assumed those letters had “gone underground” and disappeared, as the title suggested). I crawl to the end after 26 grueling minutes, with just 4 minutes to spare, but I’m comforted in knowing that I solved the bastard puzzle in full, and (I believe) without an error.
Before the last puzzle of the day begins, word spreads that some partial standings have finally been posted online. Borrowing a neighbor’s smartphone, I find my name – improbably, at #43 after the first two puzzles. I’m thrilled but dumbfounded. It seems that I’m actually pretty good at this crossword thing.
Puzzle #6: Another larger and challenging puzzle, but with (generally) more accessible clues and vocabulary and without bizarre tricks like backwards or diagonal entries. Liz Gorski’s “Foodie Film Festival” punnily retitles various movies with food-related terms (Oscar-winning film about a Georgia beauty pursued by a royal? THEKINGSPEACH; Psychological thriller about quahogs that won't come out of their shells, with "The"? SILENCEOFTHECLAMS). Buoyed by my unexpectedly high standing, I move steadily through the grid until, after 9 minutes, I have only one pesky crossing to fill:
- 37 Across: The “I” of I.M. Pei: I _ O H
- 34 Down: “Did I just step in … yuck!!”: E _ W
Working from the Down, it’s clear that the missing letter is either an E or a W (EEW or EWW), making the Across either IEOH or IWOH. For the life of me, though, I can’t recall ever even knowing I.M. Pei’s first name, and either option looks plausible. So I decide to go with my gut on the Down, and I know that whenever I find something nasty on my shoe, I always say EWW. So “W” it is. Done in 10 minutes, I head out to the lobby – and immediately learn that I.M. Pei’s first name is, in fact, IEOH. Damn – my first error. Many other puzzlers made the same mistake, and we’re all indignantly insisting that people just don’t say EEW. But obviously, if I’d known IEOH, I could have easily made my peace with EEW. Oh well, there goes my hope for a clean tournament.
Over the dinner break, the standings are gradually updated, so it’s like reliving the afternoon session one puzzle at a time. After 4 puzzles, I’m still ranked in the 40s. As expected, my slow solve on Puzzle 5 and my error on Puzzle 6 both cost me, and I dip into the 50s and 60s. Finally, after all 6 puzzles have been scored, I sit at #70 overall, #3 among Rookies, and #5 among “C” division solvers (those who haven’t finished in the top 20% in the last three tournaments).
Saturday night’s events include a fascinating talk and demonstration by Matt Ginsberg, the man behind “Dr. Fill,” the crossword-solving computer program featured on the front page of that morning’s Times. On most of the puzzles, the program races through solving in just a few minutes, drawing on a huge database of older puzzles and clues and an extensive collection of reference sources. As many of us predicted, though, Dr. Fill has major problems with Puzzles #2 and #5, since it just can’t make sense of backward, incomplete, or diagonal entries. While Matt is somewhat chagrined by Dr. Fill’s fallibility, the presentation sparks a stimulating discussion about intelligence, creativity, and cleverness. For the time being, though, we need not welcome our new computer overlords, and Dr. Fill winds up finishing 141st.
Sunday morning, some minor adjustments to the scoring ranks have dropped me to #73, but I’m still the #3 Rookie and #7 in division “C.” The top three finalists in each division participate in onstage championship finals. Incredibly, I have a slim chance at making the C finals – though part of me doesn’t want that pressure.
Puzzle #7: A “Sunday-size” puzzle (21x21) by Mike Shenk, and the title, “At Last,” neatly points to the gimmick: add AT to the end of real phrases to make wacky ones (“Stay clear of the tusks when spearing,” say? MAMMOTHCAVEAT; Flying a sleigh or fitting down a narrow chimney? SANTAFEAT). Puzzle 7 is typically more fun than brutal, and I finish cleanly in 15 minutes – perfectly fine, but probably not enough to get me into the C finals, unless someone ranked above me is slow or careless.
After a break for the annual talent show, which gives the judges time to compile the final standings, the tournament heads toward its conclusion with the awards ceremony. There are honors for top solvers in various age cohorts, geographic regions, and skill levels, as well as a prize for best handwriting (presented with a standing ovation from the judges). And … [drum roll] … I wind up #3 among Rookies, #7 in “C,” and #71 overall. The top-three Rookie finish entitles me to a cute little trophy, a $50 check, a free NYT puzzle book, and handshakes from Will Shortz and Liane Hansen. As the stage is reset for the C, B, and A finals, I do the math and confirm that my single error on Puzzle 6 cost me 195 points: I lost 25 points for that freakin’ W, and I failed to gain 20 points for two more correct words and 150 points for a clean puzzle. With those 195 points, I would have moved up enough to make the C finals. Curse you, Ieoh Ming Pei!
The finals, by the way, are incredibly exciting to watch live. Wordplay gives you some sense of the atmosphere, but actually being there in the room is almost unbearably tense. Despite having almost missed the “A” finals because of two sloppy errors on Puzzle 3, Dan Feyer won his third straight title, making up his early deficit through sheer speed in the later rounds and then once again blowing away the competition in the final.
Before I finish up, I should emphasize that most solvers come to the ACPT not to try to beat Dan Feyer (because no one can, not even Dr. Fill), but to enjoy the experience of challenging themselves, meeting fellow word nerds, and marveling at the constructors’ ingenuity. It’s a fantastic event, and I met a whole bunch of smart, creative, quirky people -- not unlike the folks who write and comment on this blog. So, if you’re even a moderate fan of crosswords, I’d urge you to consider joining me back in Brooklyn in March 2013. Who knows -- maybe you'll discover that you're a Word Nerd, too. (EWW!)