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fauxklore
27 March 2019 @ 05:05 pm
The 42nd American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was this past weekend. I spent Friday morning at my office, trying to get through a couple of annoying tasks, but left in plenty of time to take an afternoon train up to Stamford, Connecticut. The travel went smoothly and I had a pleasant but windy walk from the train station to the Stamford Marriott. Last year, they’d left a decorated sugar cookie in my room. This year, it was a black and white cookie, which is even better. I suppose a ginger-lemon cookie would be too much to hope for next year.

Friday night’s puzzles started with a fun group game called "Hear Here" by Mike Shenk. The idea was that each team got a crossword grid and Mike read clues in random order. The trick was that the clues was auditorily ambiguous. For example, did he mean "seas" or "cease" or "seize?" Due to the random order, we sometimes had to wait a while to find crossings to resolve which of several possible answers to fill in. This was a lot of fun and we had reasonable teamwork. That was followed by the usual "Pick Your Poison," in which you chose which variety puzzles to do. The first round offered Cryptic, Puns and Anagrams, or Acrostic. I went with the Puns and Anagrams, largely because I figured more people would do the Cryptic. The second round had Marching Bands, Spiral, and Split Decisions. I’m not a big fan of the latter, and figured the Marching Bands would be my best bet. I did finish both puzzles I chose, though not fast enough to win a prize.

Then came the wine and cheese reception. It was very crowded and loud, so I settled for one glass of rose, said hello to several people (including meeting some who were new to me), but went up to my room earlyish.

The main event started Saturday at 11 in the morning. With a record attendance of 741 competitors, there were two ballrooms in use. I went to the downstairs one, which has better lighting and slightly more elbow room. Note that I will refrain from spoilers here, though I did put one in rot13 in the comments.

Puzzle 1 was by Kathy Weinberg, who was a new ACPT constructor. The first puzzle is, basically, a warm-up and I solved it easily enough in just about a typical time for me. The theme was straightforward and, frankly, I think one could easily have solved it without paying any attention to the theme. But that is also typical of Puzzle 1. As a couch potato of my acquaintance says, "Sofa, so good."

Puzzle 2 was by Joel Fagliano. As it was handed out, Will Shortz said something suggesting it would be particularly difficult. I know Joel is capable of diabolical puzzles (he wrote last year’s Puzzle 5, which killed me), so I was concerned. As it happened, there was fill in the northwest corner that was easy for me and, once I had the first few letters of 25A, I immediately knew what the revealer was. So I grasped the theme fairly quickly and zoomed through the puzzle. Zoomed is, of course, relative, as I was a good 9 minutes slower than Dan Feyer and Joon Park. Still, I was happy with how it went.

Puzzle 3 was by Patrick Berry. The theme was straightforward – at least for a human solver, as Dr. Fill stumbled with it. I did have some hesitation over 37D, which I had never heard of before, but I was confident in the crossings. As we broke for lunch, I felt good about how the tournament was going.

I felt less good about the long wait for the elevator, but I wasn’t up to walking to the 14th floor to get my jacket. Warm clothing retrieved, [personal profile] bugsybanana and I walked over to the mall food court and caught up on both puzzles and life in general over lunch. I should probably note that they’ve closed off half the food court (presumably for renovation) which did make things a bit slower. But there was still more than enough time.

Puzzle 4 by Jeff Stillman was interesting. There was some difficult fill. A lot of people had trouble with 23A. I’d seen that word before, at least – unlike 44A. I will admit to not having completely understood one aspect of the theme, but I was confident in the crossings. I thought this was a good challenge, but admit I didn’t love this puzzle, largely because I didn’t think 3 of the 4 theme answers were all that interesting. Still, I was glad to have solved cleanly – and psyching myself up for the dreaded Puzzle 5.

I was rather relieved to see that Puzzle 5 was by Evan Birnholz. He writes the puzzle for the Sunday Washington Post, so I do his puzzles a lot. While he is capable of being diabolical and this puzzle was tricky, I thought it was the easiest Puzzle 5 in my ACPT experience. I finished it with a little over 5 minutes to spare. I didn’t completely grasp the theme until after I had completely filled it in, but I had an "aha" moment, sussed it out, and successfully double checked my answers. I was past the worst of it and solving cleanly, so I felt good. I was in 162nd place (out of 741) at that point.

I should also note that the clock stopped working some time during Puzzle 5. They had a clock display on the screen that they’d used to project the main ballroom, but it was a lot harder to read. It was a minor glitch, but an annoying one.

And then I blew it with a dumb error on Puzzle 6. That was a straightforward puzzle by Lynn Lempel. I didn’t have a problem with knowing the answers – I just couldn’t write! Imagine writing a four letter word. Let’s make this more interesting and use FUCK as an example (which was not, of course, the actual word in question). If you are me, it is all too easy to get ahead of yourself and accidentally write FUKK. I should have caught that via the crossings – especially since I had caught myself doing more or less the same thing a couple of rows above. But, no. Maybe I was just tired. Maybe it was my frustration over not being able to see the clock easily. Maybe it was gremlins or the New York Yankees (more or less the same thing in my book). But, whatever, I ended up with an incorrect square. I blew the clean solving and dropped 60 or so places in the standings.

I was, in fact, very tired and opted for resting versus eating dinner (though I did chitchat with some folks before going up to my room to collapse). I made it downstairs for the Saturday evening program, which started with the MEmoRiaL award, which is given for lifetime achievement in puzzle construction. (It is spelled that way in memory of Merl Reagle.) This year it went to the highly deserving Mike Shenk. Not only is he prolific, but he has invented excellent forms of variety puzzles.

That was followed by Matt Ginsberg’s annual report on his AI program, Dr. Fill. I lost interest in the subject after maybe a couple of years attending the ACPT, so I was glad that Matt had a much snappier (and shorter) presentation this year.

The final Saturday night event was a live version of HQ Trivia. There were several rounds with people standing if they knew the correct answer to a question (and sitting down when they were out) until under 10 people were left. Those people went up to the front of the room and held up cards with a number to indicate their answer choice, until only one was left. The winner of each round got $50. I never made it to the final rounds, alas, but I did have fun.

After basking in glory the previous evening, Mike Shenk was the constructor of Sunday’s Puzzle 7. I figured out the theme reasonably quickly, but was a bit slower than I’d have liked to be. Still, I did solve cleanly, which was a relief.

The rest of the day involved the talent show, which was preceded by a brief taping of a get well wish for Alex Trebek. (There are a lot of folks at the ACPT who’ve been on Jeopardy, myself included.) Then came awards and the finals. Dan Feyer set a new record with his 8th victory. An interesting footnote is that the B Division finals were vacated because of an earlier scoring error, which hadn’t been caught in time.

As for how I did, I was (obviously) disappointed in my error on Puzzle 6. But I did do better than last year – and every year except 2017. I’ll also note that even if I had solved Puzzle 6 cleanly, I wasn’t fast enough to have made it up to the B Division. More importantly, I saw lots of friends and had a good time. Which is really what it’s about.

2009 – 265 / 654 (55th percentile)
2012 – 241 / 594 (59th percentile)
2014 – 202 / 580 (65th percentile)
2016 – 171 / 576 (70th percentile)
2017 – 141 / 619 (77th percentile)
2018 – 254 / 674 (62nd percentile)
2019 – 220 / 741 ((70th percentile)

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