Well, it's been three weeks and chatter about the recent American Crossword Puzzle Tournament has died down. So, finally, who wants to hear about how I crapped the bed this year?
Before I get to that, though, big-time congratulations to first-time champion Howard Barkin. While I'd be lying if I said my primary emotion weren't weighty disappointment in my own performance, Howard's a great guy who's been knocking on the door for a while, and I'm very happy for him. I also want to thank the constructors for a terrific set of puzzles, and Will Shortz and his team of officials for making it all happen. Even though I fell woefully short of what I set out to do, there were still positives to be taken away from the weekend.
Now then, the tale of my undoing. This includes a picture of the offending solution grid as well as other spoilers, so if you have yet to do the at-home solving, you probably should avoid clicking through.
It all went to hell on Puzzle #2. Here's my grid, with the Yellow Mark of Tragedy and Shame occupying the dead center.
As you can see, I had the entries ORT and MRT. Both perfectly legitimate crossword entries on their own, but when the clues are for OAT and MAT, not so much. So what the hell happened? It was a combination of bad clue-reading and getting lazy on cross-checking. I forget what the clue for OAT was (I neglected to pick up my packet of tournament puzzles; maybe somebody out there could hook me up?), but it was something like "Bit for a horse." I had at least the O or the T in place, possibly both, and my mind jumped purely on "bit" and I put in ORT. Then, when I filled in the final T in the crossing entry, I saw MRT (Mr. T, if you haven't parsed it) and, recognizing it as a good, even lively, answer, I moved on without reading the clue. And in an instant, my fate was sealed, though I didn't know it yet. As far as I knew, I was still keeping pace.
I buried myself further on Puzzle #5, the pressure-packed toughie of the tournament. I was, simply put, way too damn slow. I was a full three or four minutes behind the leaders. In this case, I was acutely aware, even while it was happening, that my championship hopes were very rapidly fading. The theme, while brilliant, eluded me for the longest time. I just couldn't tell where entries were going. I had nearly half the puzzle done before I finally saw one of the answers that traveled right-to-left, which enabled me to go back and firm up the little patches I was unable to crack before. I finished the puzzle perfectly, but my time was, to say the least, not going to cut it.
I was morose coming out of the ballroom. As far as I was concerned, my tournament was over. With the near-nonexistent margin for error in the top ranks, I figured I'd dealt myself a critical blow. I avoided human contact before dragging myself back in for Puzzle #6, which I somehow completed perfectly despite feeling angry, desperate, and just plain rattled.
I informed friends and family of my situation and went out to try to enjoy dinner. At some point, I checked the rankings, and... hang on. Maybe I wasn't as screwed as I though. There were three people tied for second, all one minute ahead of me. If I beat two of them by a minute on Puzzle #7, I'd be in. I couldn't believe I was that close. It was a big challenge, but I believed I could do it.
Of course, as you know, the standings were lying. My error from #2 had not yet been discovered. In the evening, the judges rechecked the papers for the top contenders, and it was at this time that it was found. The scores were updated, and I found out about it around 9 PM, during the Saturday night program. I might have found out even later, but I was idly checking to see if my scan for Puzzle #3 had been updated, as someone else's paper was there before (though my score was correct). For whatever reason, I clicked over to the second puzzle and... "wait... what... oh... fuck." Now it was well and truly over.
The next morning, I was mostly nonchalant, though, thanks to the expanded prize pool, I still wanted to maintain my top-ten position and at least get $100 out of this debacle. I successfully defended ninth place (insert sarcastic finger-twirl here) on Puzzle #7, but I had to roll my eyes at the time on the clock when I finished: 38:59. The dreaded near-miss hadn't struck yet, but at the last opportunity, I managed to keep the streak alive.
As you might guess, I'm really quite pissed at myself. While I wouldn't call myself devoted to training, I definitely did a good deal more than I have in recent years. Most notably, thanks to an extremely generous and thoughtful gift, I finally acquired an easel with a dry-erase crossword grid, and I practiced some really tough puzzles in the style of the final. Of course, I didn't get to the stage where that practice would be applicable, and I have nobody to blame but myself. I had not one, but two major stumbles, and either on its own would have kept me out of the top three. It powerfully sucks to do that work and have it all rendered void within ten minutes' worth of solving. I didn't even give myself a chance to reach my goals and that hurts.
The competition at the tournament has become much tougher and I don't think I've kept pace. It used to be that I considered my nerves and adrenaline an asset when speed-solving, but I don't think that's the case anymore. The source of the pressure is more external now as I feel the heat from a stronger pack of rivals, rather than from my internal fire. My raw speed is still good enough, but sloppiness has crept in. If I don't clean that up, I've probably already won my last title.
For now, I'd just like to forget about competitive crossword solving for a while and enjoy the slew of other puzzle events I have coming up, including escape rooms, puzzle hunts, and the National Puzzlers' League convention. Movin' on.