I had a fun weekend at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. I saw a lot of puzzle cronies, made some new ones, and caught up with a few old friends outside the tournament. You probably care more about the fact that I finished second for the third time.
I don't have a lot of interesting commentary about Puzzles 1 through 7. They were enjoyable, well-crafted crosswords; I'd be a very happy man if every puzzle I solved were that good. My ascent to second place, though, was relatively drama-free, as I got there early and slowly made myself comfortable just behind Dan Feyer and, more importantly, ahead of the nearest rivals. The one bump in the road was when I finished Puzzle 2 with the dreaded "59" showing on the right half of the clock, meaning I'd missed out on 25 points by a margin of one second. I thought that was an ill omen, but by the end of Puzzle 6, my lead over third place had ballooned to four minutes' worth of points, and my advantage over fourth place, the first non-finalist spot, was a whopping six minutes. My approach on Sunday morning's Puzzle 7 was thus very conservative; I took just a little bit of the edge off my solving speed and took ninety seconds to check my answers (I found no mistakes in that span).
All six puzzles' scores are posted. I don't want to jinx it, but I am CRUISING to another loss in the final. #ACPT
— Tyler Hinman (@thatpuzzleguy) March 9, 2014
The championship showdown looked a little different this year, as Howard Barkin, a 2010 finalist, stepped into third place to face Dan and me on stage. The puzzle, a beauty by Mike Shenk, was, of course, tough as nails. I slammed in a few answers right away, but then I immediately got stuck. I don't know how long I stood there not writing anything; it couldn't have been more than two minutes or so, but it felt like an eternity. The thought was inescapable: I just lost the tournament. I knew what it took to beat Dan, and standing there stumped for more than a few moments was not part of that formula. Sure enough, Dan stepped away from his board and, through my headphones, I detected none of the rumblings I've felt when an opponent has submitted an imperfect solution. Once more, I was playing for the silver medal.
Fortunately, once I looked past my roadblock to toeholds in other parts of the puzzle, I picked up a pretty good head of steam. There was the occasional misstep here and there, but for the most part I did pretty well for the rest of my solve. Good thing, too, because I claimed second prize less than thirty seconds before Howard finished his grid. For me, though, what mattered was that I missed another shot at the title, and Dan was crowned champion for the fifth straight time, matching the streak I'd put together immediately before his.
Let's not pretend these streaks are equal, though. For four of my five titles, I needed a mistake from an on-stage opponent (or, in 2009, both of them) to claim the championship. Only once, in 2006, did I actually complete the final puzzle first. Dan, on the other hand, has barnstormed his way through all five finals, finishing first and perfectly every time. The only year he needed some major luck was 2012, when he had an error in a Saturday puzzle and got back into the top three in a tournament rife with mistakes among the top solvers. And even then, his on-stage performance was dominant. I still believe I deserved my titles, certainly, but my streak was a hell of a lot flukier than Dan's.
So now what? You can get a glimpse into my post-tournament state of mind in this Time article (one of the best pieces I've ever seen covering the event). When I claimed my prize from Will Shortz, he commented that I was just about the only guy who's disappointed by second place. I see his point; by an objective standard, I did great. But after climbing the mountain several times, it's just not good enough for me. I don't fly across the country to be runner-up. It seems clear to me, though, that I'm a step behind, and, barring yet another big-time stroke of luck, I need to improve my skills on that final puzzle in order to claim another win.
My target does need to be Puzzle 8. Obviously, making the top three is never a guarantee, but my skills on the first seven puzzles are up to snuff, particularly if I practice a little more. I lost two minutes to Dan on Puzzles 1 through 7 this year: one on my very near miss in Puzzle 2, and the other on my conservative approach to the Sunday morning crossword. Take those away and I'm in a flat-footed tie. There's no reason for me to doubt myself anymore to that point in the tournament. But it's that tough puzzle that always seems to get me. There's always been a wrong answer, or a slightly overly long pause, or a really really overly long pause. If I seem like I'm losing confidence in the ability I take to the championship puzzle, that's not directly because of Dan, but because I see a biggish gap between my solving and what's required to win the championship now. The path back to triumph is to speed-solve the toughest crosswords I can find, and to do it on paper and not the computer. And, while I'm not about to set up a big crossword easel in my studio apartment, perhaps I could look at my approach to solving in that setting. If I improve to the point where I can eliminate my miscues and pauses, I'll have a good shot to win regardless of what anyone else does.
Now that I feel a little more focused, I think there will be more training in the year ahead. I remain a busy person and there are lots of things I do that I enjoy more than speed-solving. Practice is not going to dominate my schedule by any means. But if I get myself the right materials, there's no reason I can't do it at least a little bit every day or two. I have it in my head that I need to get better in order to win again, and if I don't make the effort, I have nobody to blame but myself.