Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Rookie's Report from 2014 ACPT Part III: After Quigley

Puzzle #6: Uh... Like... You Know? by Anna Schechtman

Anna, Will told us, is a recent Swarthmore graduate who deferred her year at the Sorbonne so that she might work as an intern with Mr. Shortz and has her choice of Princeton, Yale and Harvard awaiting her next move. It makes me very happy to learn that brilliant young people who have choices and opportunities galore are interested in constructing crossword puzzles, ensuring us years of stellar puzzles to come. 

27 Down is clued "Ones famous for overusing the words 'like' and 'totally'" and the answer is, of course,  VALLEYGIRLS but on Sunday morning our illustrious host read out a selection of the best wrong answers from the tournament and Anna's 27 Down had been answered by one wag as VASSAR GIRLS. Priceless. I wish I could remember more of these slips. Crossword humour can be brutally funny.

Anna's 30-minute puzzle was fair and entertaining but not hard and meant I finished the day feeling not smug (BEQ saw to that), but satisfied. As we left the auditorium we were advised to remember to turn our clocks ahead. Sometime later that evening I was able to see online that my Puzzle 6 was clean and we set out to find some grub.

With cell phones, iPads and even my Fitbit automatically recalibrating for Daylight Saving Time, it wasn't really necessary to remember, but with Puzzle 7 slated to kick off at 9 a.m. there wasn't a whole lot of sleep-in time and I suppose nerves too had me awake and looking for coffee at 5:45. As solvers began to take their seats I heard one ask "How many people do you think will be an hour late?". None, I thought. Not this crowd. Crossword types are methodical. They are meticulous. Conscientious. Punctilious. Thorough. Painstaking. They also know how to follow instructions. I opine that as a group we are punctual perfectionists. Correct me if you know different, but this is a fastidious community. If anyone was late to the party Sunday morning I don't know about it.

Sunday morning before Puzzle #7 I spied Ellen Ripstein. I told her how dismayed I was that she was in my age group. She told me that she had just changed age groups and it was an advantage for her as she was leaving her major competitor behind and the fellow who had previously dominated "our" category had aged out as it were, so she was free to reign over the sixties. And she did just that and finished 10th overall. All that and baton twirling too!

By now I was accustomed to checking the ACPT website for standings and scans of completed puzzles and I was pleased with my performance. The final puzzle was my chance to wrap up the competition with a SWEEP MINUS BEQ which was now as high as I could aim. Forget speed. Perfection was the aim. And that is just what happened. 

Puzzle #7: It All Adds Up by David J. Kahn

We were warned there was trick. The subtitle said "To complete this puzzle you'll need to think inside the box." Ooh. Tantalizing. What will it be?

My heart was pumping before this last kick at the can. Really. I was buzzing. Bring it on! Visions of Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart in Wordplay (the movie) danced before my eyes! Put me in coach, I'm ready to play!

Turns out a little number play was at work here. There were nine squares in the middle of the grid outlined in their own little box. And these nine squares each contained a number. That's right: digits. They formed something called a magic square in which each row, column and diagonal adds up to the same number. In this case, fifteen. The outer numbers attach neatly to clued words and phrases such as Dinner at 8 and Motel 6 and Page 1 and Game 7. Fair enough. Neat, tidy and not too tricky, but wait a sec... the very middle square stands alone and can only be identified by doing the math. 5! Phew! Done. Clean in 23 minutes.

What a tournament! Great, great fun for me, a rookie, old enough to travel on a senior's discount. If I can have so much fun here, any crossword enthusiast would have a blast. When I solve at home I compete against myself or maybe the clock. It was completely novel to find out how I measure up against the community. I had no idea. I thought there would be nothing but Dan Feyers, Tyler Hinmans, Howard Barkins and Ellen Ripsteins. Not so. There are people of all ages, all abilities and all walks of life. And there were Canadians. 14 I believe. Still waiting for our "Team Canada" photo. I'll post it when I receive it.

I met Will Shortz, Deb Amlen, Vic Fleming, Mike Alpern, Roy Leban, Ben Bass, Dave and Bob Mackey. Danell Zeavin and her husband Ron Stovitz from San Francisco sat beside me throughout. I talked at some length to Paul Smirnoff and Fiona Newman. I spoke to Brendan Emmett Quigley, Anna Schechtman, Merl Reagle, Patrick Merrell, David Steinberg, Fred Piscop, David Kahn, Joon Pahk and Trip Payne. I chatted with several other solvers whose names I don't remember or didn't catch. Not bad for a solitary introvert in 36 hours.

The talent show and the playoffs are still to come. I'm not sure if I can do them justice here so I'll give it some thought. My photos of the talent show and playoffs were a tad blurry as I had to zoom so I'll decide whether I have anything worth sharing. In the meantime, I did get an okay shot of our top three finishers, Tyler Hinman (2nd), Dan Feyer (1st) and Howard Barkin (3rd) showing off their hardware:

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Rookie's Report from ACPT Part II: Saturday afternoon.

Puzzle #3: Silence of the Lampreys by Merl Reagle

This sweetheart of a puzzle from Merl entailed omitting the "eel" sound from several words and phrases. To wit: F(el)IXTHECAT, W(heel)INGWESTVIRGINIA and THECAPTAINANDTEN(ille). It was a 30-minute puzzle and there were 9 minutes and 45 seconds remaining when I surrendered my paper. Just like sitting an exam in the 1960s, there is that choice to make before raising a hand: do I reread the grid, checking for errors and omissions or do I trust my first go-through and submit immediately hoping to gain precious seconds? I opted for a quick scan to ensure there were no blank squares before I thrust up my hand. My instincts proved reliable.  

We were warned about Puzzle Five. Each year this is the puzzle that separates the good from the great; the wheat from the chaff; the men from the boys and evidently the likes of me from the Ellen Ripsteins of this world. There were only 43 of the 588 competitors who had all puzzles correct and I suspect Puzzle Five was the great divide.  Before the puzzle was distributed to us by the invigilators (haven't used that word since 1973), who by the way were mostly constructors, Will Shortz gave us a little backstory to this year's Numero Cinco.

It seems Trip Payne was commissioned to create the stumper for the 2014 competition. Sometime after it was set, Will was being interviewed in his office on camera by During the interview, the videographer panned the office and there was ACPT Puzzle Number 5 by Trip Payne on camera for three seconds. A sharp-eyed solver noticed the puzzle while viewing the interview online and contacted Will. Naturally Will chose to shelve the puzzle. Trip was unavailable to construct a replacement and Brendan Emmett Quigley was asked to step in and do the deed.

Finishing up Rich Silvestri's cryptic in my cubicle between competition puzzles:

And just in case you need it, at the back of the auditorium:

I was surprisingly comforted that BEQ was standing in my row throughout much of the thirty minutes we had to chip away at his oeuvre. I have new respect for him and have come to enjoy his puzzles now after wanting to wave a fist at him on Saturday afternoon!

Puzzle #5: Send in the Clones by Brendan Emmett Quigley

I haven't yet finished the puzzle. I have 19 squares to go. I'll do it now... Done. Now I can talk about the mistake that was my undoing. Sometimes one puts a word in a puzzle tentatively, thinking it is probably wrong but it's a kind of place holder until something better becomes obvious. That's what I did in the top right corner, the clue was "Raw ___" (five letters). I had a firm R at the end and  entered SUGAR because I had nothing else. The word below it was clued "Spoken in French?". The question mark likely meant a pun and although I thought dire, or some form thereof (dites?) I was stuck and moved on with that SUGAR nagging at me. I was pretty sure I'd need to correct it but just when I headed back after the rest was complete, time expired. Well it turns out PARLE is spoken in French and Raw UMBER the pigment was my Waterloo. The shame. 

The theme of the puzzle, or rather the complete theme of the puzzle was not actually necessary to its solution. It was complicated and a little devious but certainly not beyond our reach. Here's an example of a theme entry. The clue for 13 down is: "Richard III co-star/Fattening?" The answer is BROADENING. Broadening means fattening and on the outside edges of broadening you find BENING who was in Richard III. Left over, as it were, is ROAD in the middle of the word which crosses its clone ROAD at 28 across. I know. It seems overly complicated. The clone part wasn't necessary to the solve though and I wasn't even aware of it until I overheard BEQ explaining it to a solver after the fact.

An example of the subconscious at work proves my theory that I know more than I think I know: the clue was "Pirate known for charity" and with a few letters filled in I entered CLEMENTE while my conscious mind was scanning... Lafitte... Bluebeard... Blackbeard. CLEMENTE never proved wrong so it stayed while part of me wondered "Is San Clemente named for a buccaneer, privateer, corsair...?". After I handed my paper in, I said to BEQ "The pirate...?". He replied "Roberto Clemente.". Head slap. "Pittsburgh Pirate!". Subconscious at work.

Another head slap moment happened in the elevator after the morning session. There were about eight of us riding up and one  woman asked, "Puzzle Three... 3 down... Sinew House... what is that?" There was much murmuring of "I know... I had that too... what/who is that?... Strange...". Then a fellow who was a better parser than the rest of us broke the news, "It's S.I. Newhouse!" Duh. The clue had been "Billionaire publisher of Vogue and Vanity Fair". Much laughter and slapping of heads ensued. The gentleman who enlightened us got off at the next stop saying "My work here is done!". Great exit. I wonder if it was his floor?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A rookie's report from ACPT 2014 in Brooklyn

Friday evening through Saturday lunch break, or puzzles 1-3.

The first thing I noticed was the theme clothing. Crossword grids worn in some new and imaginative ways. I thought it was hokey at first, but I realized my crossword-themed cookies were exactly the same: a badge to identify me as a member of this club.

Friday evening we found Mike Alpern who organized the CRU dinner for which we had tickets. We met Roy Leban then too and talked about Puzzazz. 

It is a great app and I use it often. I have downloaded a few BEQ crossword collections on Puzzazz and that might have helped me a bit with Brendan's notoriously tricky Puzzle 5 Saturday afternoon. I talked to nobody at the dinner and left early. I am hopelessly introverted by nature and find it difficult to make an effort especially at the end of the day.

Later in the evening I stopped by the variety puzzle event. There were 10 areas, each hosted by a constructor and featuring a variety (weird) puzzle. We were invited to sample four. I tried Fred Piscop's "Split decisions". Having never seen such a puzzle, I stared stupidly at the page for 10 of the 15 minutes until I understood what was expected of me. Next up was Rich Silvestri's cryptic crossword puzzle. I consider myself the "Cryptic Queen" and have conquered the London Sunday Times on many occasions so I figured I stood a chance. Nope. Completed half. Defeated and humbled I hung my head and headed to bed.

Saturday morning I woke up feeling excited and raring to go. I had found some robust coffee finally and although I don't usually care about having a morning cup of joe, I was feeling the need for good strong dark roast. Thus fortified, I headed for the lobby. The place was buzzing with folks wearing their ACPT credentials, sitting in every available chair and doing crosswords. iPads were popular and smartphones. Many had clipboards with printed puzzles (this was my choice too). I found myself looking at and identifying with folks and feeling more and more at home.

Then something magical happened. Vic Fleming, constructor and all around nice guy, extended a hand and we started talking. He introduced me to every single person who happened by, including young David Steinberg (I bet he's tired of being called young). I was feeling bold and requested a photo!

You can see by the grin that crossword puzzle fever has trumped introversion now and that grin stayed on my mug for the rest of the tournament.

Then Deb found me and graciously accepted some cookies that were well-traveled and a tad dry by now, but remember the cookies were my crossword calling card!

By now I was getting the hang of this picture-as-proof thing and posed with a few more celebs:

The first three puzzles began at 11 a.m. Saturday and I was cheered to discover that the nerves/excitement I felt helped me focus. I had feared a kind of deer-in-the-headlights stagefright. Or the anxiety of performing in a room with 587 other people. I was afraid the clock would distract me. I thought the early finishers would cause me to lose heart. But Will's words to the rookies were a big help. He told us to solve just as we would at home. Not to race. I did just that. And I found a groove and a pace and really began to enjoy myself. It was hard not to sigh or gasp or call out "Aha!" or "You bastard!" but apart from the occasional grunt I was mum. I did not look up. Not at the clock. Not at the people leaving.

I felt confident after the first three puzzles. I had written down my own times so I could measure something (I'm not sure what) because the times aren't really posted on line. What are posted are scans of one's own actual grids. I still can't get over this. It's fabulous to see your puzzle with no yellow highlighter (indicating omissions and errors)! Thrilling. And I'm happy to report all three of those puzzles were "clean". My ranking was 145th after 3 puzzles. All this was available on the ACPT website. I didn't know about it at first, but my neighbours in the auditorium looked me up and so did our own Karma Sartre who sent me an encouraging word! I was really getting enthusiastic now!