Anyway, I had some things I needed to get done at work Friday morning, so took an afternoon train up to Stamford, Connecticut. Fortunately, there was no drama with Amtrak and the weather was reasonable enough to stroll from the train station to the Marriott. When I got up to my room, I found a lovely welcoming gift in the form of a sugar cookie decorated in a crossword theme. I had assumed that was related to my Marriott status, but it turns out that it was really because I had filled out their survey after the tournament last year. Regardless the reason, it was a lovely touch.
The Friday night kickoff event started with a brief talk by Richard Rogan, the editor of the Times (of London) crossword. British puzzles are, of course, cryptic, but his focus was less on the specifics of puzzles than on stories about the human side of things. The most memorable story involved a crossword competition that had an element of alcohol indulgence to it.
After his talk, there was a competition with three puzzles – a British cryptic by Richard Rogan, an American cryptic by Richard Silvestri, and a Puns and Anagrams by Mel Taub. I did not finish any of the three within the time limit, though I came close on the Puns and Anagrams. I had made a mistake on a word in the upper left-hand corner, which led me astray. I finished it up in my room in about 3 minutes the next morning. Someday I will finish the other two.
Then came the traditional wine and cheese reception. That is, of course, an opportunity to greet various people who I see all too infrequently. It also means staying up rather later than I normally would, but so it goes.
The actual competition starts late in the morning on Saturday. Note that I wil confine spoilers to comments which I will rot13. I got to the ballroom early so I could stake out a space with what I hoped would be adequate light and with a good view of the time clock. Because there had been a big jump in the number of contestants (with no clear reason for it), there was an overflow ballroom downstairs. People were relegated to that room based on their contestant numbers, with a different range of even numbers sent downstairs for each session (Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon, and Sunday). Contestant numbers are assigned alphabetically, by the way. At any rate, I was an odd number (appropriate, eh?) and so got to stay upstairs in the main room the whole time.
There was also a film crew from HBO, filming an episode of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. No, I don’t know when it will air (April or May). And, no, I don’t really consider competitive crosswording a sport. In situations like this, I tend to consider film crews a nuisance to be avoided, personally.
Puzzle 1 is ja straightforward warm-up. This year’s was by Tracy Gray. It was the sort of puzzle one could solve without noticing the theme at all. I solved it cleanly, but was about 2-3 minutes slower than my usual pace. I assume that was because I was having a carpal tunnel syndrome flare-up, making it harder than usual to write.
I was closer to my usual pace (or perhaps a minute or so slower) on Puzzle 2, which was by Zhouqin Burnikel. I will note that two of the clues were rather iffy. Neither made any difference, but they rankled my persnickety sensibilities.
Puzzle 3 was by Mike Shenk. As is typical of his puzzles, it had clever wordplay in the theme and interesting fill with a few challenging answers, but nothing I’d consider unreasonably obscure. I was slow, but I did finish with a couple of minutes to spare. There were quite a lot of people who did not manage to finish. I had gotten held up on two clues – one because I was unsure of how to spell something and the other because I had to go through the alphabet to figure out one square. I should also note that I had gotten the large print clues, which helped a little, but they do nothing to make it easier to read the numbers on the grid. One really needs to be able to see and to write to solve crosswords quickly. Who knew?
Like many people, I walked over to the food court at the mall for lunch. On the way back to the Marriott, I got to explain the theme for Puzzle 3 to Richard Rogan!
At that point, I was slow, but errorless. That continued through Puzzle 4, which was by Damon Gulczynski. The puzzle was not particularly difficult, but there was a potential trap involving some circled letters. I thought the instructions on this were quite clear, but some of the top solvers fell into the trap. I explicitly avoided it, but lost 2 minutes doing so as I went through the alphabet three times before realizing what the answer to one clue was. This is particularly annoying because it involved a clue I have seen several times before.
I had solved four puzzles cleanly, but the dreaded puzzle 5 lay ahead. This year’s Torquemada of the grid was Joel Fagliano, and he was, indeed, extremely evil. I actually figured out the theme fairly quickly, but thought I had only figured it out partially. Basically, I overthought things, leading me to decide I understood less of what was going on than I actually did. I completed slightly more than half of the puzzle and shattered my dreams of another clean tournament. My only consolation is how many other people also failed.
Puzzle 6 is intended to make people feel better and Lynn Lempel’s puzzles always do help me calm down. It was a nice, straightforward puzzle and a good example of why reading the title of a puzzle helps in figuring out the theme. I don’t remember any particular clue giving me pause. I will note that, of the theme answers, I particularly liked 59A.
That was it for Saturday’s puzzles. I went out to dinner with a rookie who had posted to facebook looking for dining companion. It turned out that she lives within a few miles of me and supports the Navy (though a different part than I do). What are the odds?
The evening program started with a short play, "Two Puzzles Walk Into a Bar" by Donna Hoke, performed by Maxwell and Emy Zener. What happens when a Crossword and a Sudoku see a tempting Pencil? It was cute. That was followed by the annual rundown of Dr. Fill’s performance. (Dr. Fill is an AI program for solving crosswords. It has trouble with certain types of themes. Earlier in the day, I’d heard a couple of people suggesting that to make things more fair, Dr. Fill should really be hooked up to a robot arm.) Frankly, I lost interest in Dr. Fill a few years ago and I’d rather have a half-hour play with a 10-minute rundown of computer solving than what we got. I didn’t stay to the very end and thus also missed the presentation of the MEmoRiaL award to Nancy Salomon. But I did get a little more sleep that way.
Puzzle 7 was by Patrick Berry, who is my favorite constructor of variety puzzles. Which is not to suggest that I don’t like his crosswords and this one was, indeed, a good one, with wordplay that made it my favorite of this year's tournament. I probably spent a minute or two longer than I really needed to checking my answers, largely because I had never heard of one of the terms that there was word play involving, but I still felt that I did okay on it.
The talent show involved a few clever parody songs. My single favorite moment was Jon Delfin singing "Don’t know why / Your hand is on my thigh / Stormy Daniels." (He then went on to do a song about seasonal allergies.
Finally, the finals. The final puzzle was by Sam Ezersky, who is really too young to use language like that in the A-level clues. (The finals for each division use the same grid, with different clues. The C-level ones are reasonable, the B-level ones are hard but doable, the A-level ones are ridiculous.) I was very pleased that Marie desJardins, who is an old friend (we first met on a mailing list for women on-line in the late 1980’s or so) won the B-division. And everyone was very excited to see Erik Agard win the A-division in a record setting time of under five minutes.
As for how I did, I was disappointed in both my slowness (though much of that was due to poor timing of some intermittent physical issues) and in my failure on Puzzle 5. When I left, I was at 250th place, but they have corrected a few people’s scores since then and I slipped a few spots. Oh, well, there’s always next year.
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)
By the way, the trip home was also drama free. I should probably unpack my backpack one of these days.
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