Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I AM JUST AN ORDINARY CITIZEN WHO RELIES ON THE TIMES CROSSWORD FOR STIMULATION: Hey, everyone, I’m Professor Jeff. You may remember me from such guest posts as THE EXHIBITION OF MOVING PICTURES IS A BUSINESS, PURE AND SIMPLE and 57 CHANNELS (AND NOTHIN' ON). As I mentioned in a comment a few weeks ago, I’d been preparing to compete in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which took place last weekend. Adam has been kind enough to let me borrow the keys to the blog again, so that I can offer a report on my experiences. Be warned: this is a really long post with lots of geeky detail. I kept trying to make it shorter, but then I realized that if any blog’s audience would be interested in the arcana of a word-related contest, it’s this one. So, if you’d like a peek inside the world of cruciverbalist competition, then follow me across the jump and into the grid…

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!)


  1. The Pathetic Earthling8:13 AM

    Well done, Professor Jeff, well done!

  2. Jenn.8:48 AM

    Congratulations, and thank you for a great read.

  3. Watts8:50 AM

    I'm terrible at solving them, but I find the whole crossword thing fascinating.  Congratulations on such a strong finish your first time out. 

    And you're right: It's totally eww more than eew.

  4. Steph9:40 AM

    Congrats on what sounds like a great time. Thanks for sharing with the class!

  5. Professor Jeff9:48 AM

    Exactly! Thank you!

  6. Adam C.10:24 AM

    Outstanding report, to go with the outstanding performance. Great job!

  7. littleredyarn10:32 AM

    Congrats, Professor Jeff!

    I'll probably never be good enough to compete at this level so I'll just live vicariously through you for this one.

  8. Heather k10:38 AM

    That's awesome!

  9. Congratulations on your great finish, Professor Jeff!  Thanks for sharing your story - this was such a fun post to read.

  10. Genevieve10:43 AM

    Mazel tov!  Very very cool to come in third in Rookies.  And thanks so much for the detailed description.

    I've been reading this a little at a time (mostly when I'm passenger on a long drive).  Should get back to it - very helpful and interesting for someone who likes crosswords but isn't at a higher level solving as yet.

  11. Professor Jeff10:51 AM

    Amy Reynaldo, author of that book, also runs the blog Diary of a Crossword Fiend, one of the best sites for crossword lovers.

  12. Jim Bell10:53 AM

    I wonder if Magdalen Braden's Henry competed?

  13. Have you read Herbert Resnikow's crossword myteries? You might really enjoy them (out of print, but fun). 

  14. Oh nuts!!  I totally missed your post a couple months ago, Jeff -- would have loved to meet you.  I told Adam once that I'd like to do a guest post on the ACPT, but I have enough trouble getting something written for my own site.  Excellent wrap-up, and I sympathize with your IEOH problem.  I'm told that was the most common mistake in the entire tournament.  (I thought it was also borderline unfair in Puzzle 5 where Pablo Picasso's middle name (RUIZ) crosses sci-fi writer Timothy (ZAHN) at the "Z", but at least that's the only letter that makes sense both ways...)

    Definitely would urge crossword fans to come to the ACPT!  There's also a one-day, much less expensive, scruffier but no less fun, tournament in August in Manhattan: Lollapuzzoola.

  15. Professor Jeff11:23 AM

    Thanks for the kind words, Dan, and congratulations on your stunning victory! I did briefly consider introducing myself over the weekend, but you seemed understandably preoccupied. And yes, the RUIZ/ZAHN crossing flummoxed me, too (RUIS/SAHN, maybe?), but Z ultimately seemed the best fit.

    If other folks haven't seen Dan at work, check out this 2010 feature from the Times, complete with a video of him demolishing a Saturday puzzle.

  16. Professor Jeff11:46 AM

    One other great detail that I forgot to include regarding that brutal Puzzle #5: When Will Shortz had the answer keys printed up, he wanted to have the diagonal ANTs italicized, but a mixup at the printers led to a key with only the ANTs appearing in the grid, and everything else blank. So, before grading the contestants' work, the judges, including Patrick Blindauer himself, had to complete Puzzle #5 themselves. How hard was it? Patrick -- the constructor of the puzzle -- made two mistakes.

  17. Zahn's pretty well-known because he wrote the first "official/canon" Star Wars sequel novels which introduced a number of characters to the Expanded Universe (Mara Jade and Admiral Thrawn being the big two).

  18. Congrats, Professor Jeff!

    This post was a great read -- thanks for sharing! (Although apparently I've been misspelling "eew" for years.)

  19. I just want to point out that Google automatically corrects the search for "eew gross" to "eww gross," so you win the populist vote at least.  

    Thanks for a wonderful read, Professor Jeff!

  20. What a great read -- thanks Jeff!  I love crosswords, though I'm definitely not a competition-level solver.

  21. klew archer8:16 PM

    That was a really great write-up, Professor Jeff, you really described exactly what it was like to solve those puzzles. I too was a victim of IEOH Ming Pei - I had seen it before, but the cross threw me off.  I just have one question for you, that I have to ask since I was deputized by Peter Gordon at the tournament- are you a Fireball subscriber?

  22. Marsha12:23 AM

    Congratulations, Professor Jeff! Fantastic performance, and fantastic write up. I am so impressed!!

    (Frankly, I'd go to a puzzle tourney just to gaze at Will Shortz, on whom I've had a crush since I was 9 years old and got my first subscription to GAMES magazine.)

  23. Professor Jeff8:41 AM

    I am indeed a Fireball subscriber -- in fact, I've already told Peter that I credit Fireball for helping me improve my solving skills over the past few months. Highly recommended for those looking for really challenging puzzles!

  24. PhillySolver2:37 PM

    Thanks for the write up form one of the judges. 

  25. Amy Reynaldo8:58 AM

    Really enjoyed your write-up, Professor Jeff, and told my puzzly Facebook friends to come read it. IPlease introduce yourself next year! I'm usually in the Marriott lounge/bar area late in the evening during ACPT.

    In Puzzle 5, I saw that the words jumped diagonally a few rows but assumed the ANT bit was tunneling below the grid and never saw the letters diagonally in the grid. Luckily, there's no requirement that a solver actually grasp the theme in its entirety--just fill in the squares and hope for the best.

    The other day, I saw an "Euww" that made me wonder if anyone had IUOH Pei. It's not any less plausible to a non-Chinese speaker than E or W!