Continuing my tradition of blogging about events well after everybody else has stopped talking about them, here's my take on the recent American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, at which I took third-place honors. I got a little introspective with this one instead of just giving the play-by-play.
I can't imagine it's fun to watch somebody not solve a crossword. I assure you that's even less fun to do the not-solving.
Part of me was surprised to be on stage, one of the top three competitors at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, to begin with. Without any sort of speed-solving-on-paper practice regimen to speak of over the past year, it seemed likely that I'd be on the outside looking in against stiffening and deepening competition. I expressed this view to a tournament official over a beer on Friday night (or was it Saturday morning?). He told me to knock it off, convinced I could win. I just shrugged. Maybe.
The next day (or later that same day?), I wondered when I'd face my first hardship in the tightly packed upper echelon of the standings. Puzzle #1 felt slow, but I actually finished inside of 2:30. Nice and low-stress. Not so on #2, when I had a scant few seconds to check my work before the minute rolled over and took more points off the board. Then, on #3, it happened. I looked up at the clock with a bright red 23:59 on it. Two seconds might as well have been a whole minute. I had nobody to blame but myself; I could and did reflect on several needless slip-ups that wasted precious moments. I wondered if I was losing just a little of my touch.
I had all of lunchtime to chew on it (as well as my food) before the fourth crossword, and perhaps as a result, my nerves jangled more than usual on the second-easiest puzzle of the tournament. Much like Puzzle #2, I finished with very little time to spare in the minute. I knew I had to get it together for the final two puzzles of the day, where I've made my move in years past. I responded in a big way, picking up chunks of time on my rivals on both puzzles. Note that these rivals do not include defending champion Dan Feyer, who had once again comfortably ensconced himself in first place. Second suited me just fine. I just needed to get in, to get on that stage.
Technological advancements at the tournament have made scores available far more quickly, so the leaden thoughts of an unknown, fatal error were dismissed in good time. On Sunday morning, I'd have the luxury of a conservative approach; barring an extremely poor solve, I could afford an extra minute to look over my completed grid to check questionable answers and weed out obvious missteps like blank squares. Something would have to go wrong just to let third-place Anne Erdmann pass me, let alone Francis Heaney in fourth, the highest non-finalist spot.
And so I entered into my Saturday night ritual: allowing plenty of time for sleep, knowing full well that adrenaline wouldn't permit me to take advantage of more than about half that. There was also the matter of the time change combined with Daylight Savings; for those traveling from the West Coast, the crucial Puzzle #7 was scheduled at what would feel like 5 AM. But that was no excuse. This wasn't my first rodeo.
The Sunday-size seventh crossword took a few moments to get started, causing my anxiety to spike. I settled down, breathing a small sigh of relief every time I worked through a clue or section that had eluded me on the first pass. The last letter went in. I had plenty of time left in the minute, but I didn't care, and took one more. I made no changes. I think I'm good. I think.
Yes, I was good. There had been no shuffling at the top; for the third straight year, I would face Dan Feyer and Anne Erdmann in the final. I attempted to pass the agonizing time before actually getting up there, doing so largely by thinking about Dan's formidability in the final. He'd cleaned my clock in our two previous meetings; I'd certainly need my best-ever performance, and even that might not be enough. My friend Eric Berlin remarked that I looked "resigned to my fate," and he wasn't exactly wrong. Nothing to do but give it hell, I suppose.
There was one final waiting period as the finals for Divisions C and B took place (I eloquently call this the "half-hour of brick-shitting"), and then it was our time. Occupying the left board, I got everything situated and braced myself for the judge's tap on my shoulder. There it was. Let's go.
Right away, two things happened that virtually screamed "It's not your day."
You all saw the first one: my marker didn't work. I pressed and pressed, but the F I wanted on my board wasn't there. I quickly cast it down and picked up the other one. This one worked. I have no idea how they would have handled the proceedings if it hadn't.
I haven't seen anybody mention the second thing; I think at most only a few people saw it, so this may be quite a surprise for many of you. I cast a glance at the bottom of my grid... and where there should have been a 48, there was nothing. Looking to the right, I saw 48 where 49 belonged. I had a surge of panic. What was going on? I verified that those were the only two mistakes and I quickly scribbled in the corrections. Well, cripes, I guess I can start solving now.
I would never point to those things as the reason I lost the tournament; the margin was much too huge to chalk it up to anything but inferior solving on my part. But it sure as hell didn't help.
Once I started writing in letters, things seemed to be going well. Upper right. Done. Lower right. Done. Halfway home. If I wasn't in first, I wasn't far behind. Then the brick wall. Nothing but blanks in the lower left. Nothing but hesitation and wrong answers in the upper left. I was nowhere. Just a few minutes later, I considered the title lost, which was just about confirmed when I saw Dan step away from his board. Anne followed him. All at once, I was completely alone, with hundreds of pairs of eyes trained on me.
Look, I know what can happen even when one is the last to finish. I also knew it wasn't happening here. I was playing purely for pride, and as the minutes drained away, so did that. Feeling utterly defeated and keenly aware that a ballroom full of puzzlers was watching me do essentially nothing, I felt I had to transform the situation into a tragic comedy, or perhaps a comic tragedy. When all else fails, entertain.
So I danced and twitched a little bit. I wrote BLAST, DARN, and UGH in a stack of three Across entries. (If it weren't obvious, DARN was not my first choice for that slot.) In tiny letters, I wrote TYLER in response to the clue "[How sad!]". The time off seemed to help my brain, as real answers slowly dawned on me. I went from bottom to top with zero sense of urgency. Will Shortz alerted me that time was up just as I was getting to the finish line, which I was allowed to cross just before he announced the final results. Even so, officially, for the first time since my ACPT debut in 2001, the clock hit zeroes with my grid still partially blank.
I congratulated Dan and Anne, hashed things over, claimed my prizes, and bid farewell to friends before making my departure. In a sort of inverse Pandora's box, the manic demeanor I'd adopted in the face of failure dissipated, and what remained was crushing disappointment in myself. It wasn't even the third-place finish, really. Beating Dan would have constituted an upset, and I couldn't be annoyed about losing to Anne, whose excellent track record has surely earned her a promotion from the bronze medal. They were very strong competitors and my good luck in the final had seemingly run out a few years ago. What did I expect?
Well, I expected to finish the damn puzzle, that's what. My streak of perfect solves was gone, and it had happened with a national championship on the line. That's what hurt the most. If I'd finished, say, two minutes behind Anne, I could at least feel like I gave it a great shot. Instead, I'm trying to figure out what went wrong. Did Dan's presence psych me out? Did I let off the gas when I figured the big prize was lost? Did I just plain choke?
Yes, perhaps I'm being silly. Perhaps this was an isolated incident, just one unfortunately timed ass-kicker. Perhaps I'm once again being too hard on myself, which, as any of my friends will attest, is a perennial problem for me. Here's the thing, though: I've never been very strong in the final. As I mentioned, I've had great, sometimes obscene, good fortune on stage. Take away opponents' unlikely miscues and I have but one title to my name. It's better than zero, sure, but it ain't five.
Simply put, if I don't get better at these brain-busters, it's quite possible that I've won my last championship. Annoyingly, though, these are the rarest crosswords to find. Very, very few puzzles reach such heights of both quality and difficulty. An alternative may be to introduce more stuntlike challenges, like solving a Saturday New York Times puzzle with just the Down clues. At that point, though, it seems like I'd be diminishing my enjoyment, which I don't want to do.
But I also don't want to go out like this. I've taken my tournament attendance year by year recently; the trip is expensive and a pain to do, and I don't enjoy feeling nervous all weekend. Right now, though, wanting another crack at title outweighs all that. Maybe next time, I'll only dance and twitch after I'm done.
Thanks for reading; hope you enjoyed my take on things. And, lest I forget, thanks to Will Shortz for putting on the event, to the constructors and officials that make it possible, and to my friends for putting me at ease when possible. Until 2014...