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22Mar/11Off

Silver streak

In news broken on this website, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was held this past weekend in Brooklyn. After a suspenseful series of ups and downs in the first seven puzzles, followed by a not-so-suspenseful final showdown, I captured second place. Full breakdown of the affair after the jump, and you best believe there are spoilers.

As I mentioned, I really didn't fancy my chances going into the tournament. I figured I'd do some bona fide practice as the tournament got closer, but the days passed and the event arrived without a follow-through. I brought my Maura Jacobson volume with me, imagining a Friday tune-up, but this too proved to be a hollow gesture. Clearly, my strategy for this year was to plunge in ice-cold.

Despite my outlook, things seemed to be falling my way in the first four puzzles; I was in the first small bunch trailing defending champion Dan Feyer. This was about all I could ask for; though Dan had just won his first title, his cachet was already such that we all mentally penciled him into first place after the first few puzzles. Frankly, I was a bit shocked that I was keeping pace; part of me was waiting for it to fall apart.

Odds were decent that I wouldn't have to wait long. Puzzle #5 has a way of ruining many people's hopes. Mike Shenk was announced as the constructor, and nobody was shocked; Mike has proven that he could make the bastard crosswords. When I flipped over the page, my eyes quickly settled on 2-Down: "N.H.L. coach Vigneault". Easy one! I wrote ALAIN with a flourish and permitted myself a bit of smugness. Sports trivia was surely a weak point of most of my rivals. I had an entry point that they would lack. I was going to crush this wimpy puzzle and waltz to the top right alongside Dan. Sweet!

Then I noticed the theme clues. Every one of them hinted at a song. The year, usually well before the one in which I was born, the words "hit for", and the artist. Stark, uniform, and demoralizing. Here was my weak point, and it was threading the whole bloody puzzle together. I actually thought the words "my tournament is over" and gave myself little chance even to finish the puzzle in the allotted thirty minutes. I nonetheless pressed on, searching for another place to break in as ALAIN stood in the upper left, as lonesome as Mr. Vigneault himself must feel as the Blackhawks bounce his Canucks from the playoffs again. (Snap.)

I eventually found this respite in the lower right. I got JOCASTA, Oedipus's wife and mother and one of the very few bits of classical knowledge I had managed to retain from my schooling, and another sports clue, Nascar's DENNY Hamlin. That gave me plenty of headway in the bottom right, and soon the letters of IDIOT filled in. These ended a theme entry, clued by "2004 hit for Green Day". AMERICANIDIOT! Huzzah; one I know! I'll just write it into these eleven boxes and... wait, what?

You didn't think it would be that simple, did you? This is Puzzle freaking Five. So what's the deal? Well, the title of the puzzle is "Crossover Hits", with the subtitle "And the place is jumping!" All right, so? After a struggle, I discovered the trick: There were two songs in each of the themed rows, and the final four letters of the first title were identical to the first four letters of the second. Furthermore, a black square sat in the middle of that tetragram. AMERICANIDIOT's partner, to its left, was the 1980 Supertramp hit DREAMER (no idea; I got it near the end of my solve without really processing it), so that row read DREAM_ERICANIDIOT. Yes, seriously.

So I wound my way around the puzzle, piecing together the song titles until they were recognizable as something I'd heard of. I actually finished up around my old friend ALAIN, and raised my hand with just over eighteen minutes left on the clock.

"Eleven minutes and change!" you might think. "That's great for a puzzle that tough!" Not on this level. A double-digit time was a death sentence. I joined my colleagues in the hall and there was plenty of commiseration. Howard Barkin got crushed. It had beaten up Anne Erdmann. Trip Payne finished after I did. Francis Heaney (who's well-versed in pop culture in addition to an excellent solver) and Dan Feyer (duh) had done pretty well, but the other top-flight contenders were all convinced they were toast.

What didn't dawn on me at the time was that not all of us could be right. Somebody has to take the third spot in the final, and as long as our puzzles were clean, we could be right there in contention. As I saw it, though, I headed in for the traditional Maura Jacobson puzzle without feeling any pressure.

Following that sixth puzzle, which was mostly breezy with a few tricky entries (PENATES, anyone?), I was mostly relieved that the day was over, and I looked forward to putting the brutal Puzzle 5 out of my mind in the evening. Then I had the following conversation with Trip:

Trip: So looks people got 38 [minutes left] on that one. I assume you did too.
Tyler: ...Actually, no.

Unbelievable. I'd just lost another minute. I didn't feel like I'd taken my foot off the accelerator; I was still solving for pride, not to mention the West regional crown. But was there a subconscious letdown that came with the apparent disappearance of my title hopes? I can't say for sure. Regardless, it felt like more dirt on my grave.

I was lounging in my room before dinner when my friend Jeremy informed me via text that I was tied for third after five puzzles, with Puzzle 6 results yet to be posted. I was stunned. I had been in contention, and it was not going to be dastardly Mike Shenk, but sweet little Maura Jacobson that was going to keep me out of the final. When the day's last scores went up later that evening, I saw that Dan was cruising in first place, Anne was second, and Francis and I were a minute behind Anne. Francis was winning the tiebreaker (comparing single-puzzle scores in reverse order) on the back of Puzzle 6. It was pretty cut and dried; barring an error from someone, I'd have to edge either Anne (giving me the tiebreaker) or Francis (topping him outright) on Puzzle 7 to get in.

My viewpoint was the same as it was going into Saturday: I didn't like my chances. Yes, I'd beaten Francis and Trip on the seventh puzzle to reach the 2009 final, but luck played a key role there; I finished that crossword with mere seconds left in the minute. My two rivals weren't far behind, but the difference straddled that crucial minute threshold. In 2010, Anne was my target, and I failed to catch her. So I saw the odds as long. My natural pessimism and my desire to keep the nerves away took over from there.

The evening festivities brought some redemption, as I was part of the winning team for The ACPT-zing Race, a fun puzzle suite designed and run by Greg Pliska and John Chaneski. I joked to people, "Hey, I won something this weekend!" Then I spent an enjoyable night in the hotel bar socializing, watching UConn take down Cincinnati, and learning that Yale's 6-0 destruction of Cornell in the ECAC Hockey championship game had given RPI a berth in the national tournament for the first time since 1995. (Side note: Suck it, Cornell.)

I went to bed around 1:30 AM, and despite my attempt to downplay my chances, I had a horrible night of sleep. My brain wouldn't stop humming. What would be my strategy? How much calculated risk was I willing to take on leaving some clues unread if their entries made sense? Might I lose a critical second raising and turning my head to look at the clock after finishing? This last question actually led me to decide to use my phone's stopwatch so the time would be right there beside me. Resolving this, however, did little to settle my insomnia, and I knew I was going to have to rely on adrenaline to get through my test later that morning.

After a zombified shave, shower, and breakfast-nibbling, the time was upon me. I solved the 21x21 crossword feverishly, acutely feeling every pause and erasure, knowing that any one of them could be the one to end my already fading hopes. At last, the grid was filled, and my stopwatch, which had been counting up, was ten seconds past the minute. Well, that was it. I had three-quarters of a minute to check, but I did very little, as it hardly mattered. The window for Francis and Anne to enter their solutions was too large.

I plodded out into the hall, where I found out that Anne and I had tied... but I'd beaten Francis. (I learned this from Francis himself, making me wish I'd shelved the "well, I'm done" talk until I knew for sure.) At the same time, I couldn't accept that I was in the final until it was made official. The puzzle was quite trappy; people were remarking that a few squares could trip up any solver not taking sufficient care.

With the talent show (yes, there's a talent show) sandwiched between Puzzle 7 and the awards/finals, I had plenty of time to stew. Even though I had several wonderful friends who would be doing acts, my parents had come down to visit me, so I spent a couple hours with them instead of taking in the show. My competitive buzz had worn off by this point, so I sat talking idly with my progenitors to spend what felt like my last few mental cycles.

When I finally wandered over to the hall outside the ballroom, I got confirmation that my solve was clean and I'd join Dan and Anne in the final. My nerves should have spiked at this point, but they didn't for one reason: I was a big underdog. Dan had shown absolutely no weaknesses this year or in 2010, making him the prohibitive favorite. All I could do was give it hell (I've moved carefully in previous finals and was determined to add just a dash of haste) and hope for the best.

Following the other awards announcements, I joined the A and B Division finalists in sequestration, where we waited for C's winner to be determined. Soon, the B finalists departed and I was left with Dan, Anne, and our chaperones. I refer to this period as a half-hour of brick-pooping; you're nervous and just eager to get the thing over with.

When official Doug Heller returned to summon us, he told us of the wild B final. David Plotkin had finished his grid and was checking things carefully, determined not to join the ranks of those who made mistakes and let the win slip through their fingers. Meanwhile, Ken Stern was finishing up, and there was no telling how quickly he'd pull the trigger. In the end, he pulled it not quite fast enough: half a second behind David. Doug laughed as he told us that the standard had been set. I put the thought out of my mind; I don't know how I'd react to either winning or losing by such a ludicrously small margin.

When our turn arrived, we strode into the ballroom to applause. (I always imagine The Right Stuff here.) I stood at the rightmost easel, got my commentary-blocking headphones in place, and held my face-down clues and uncapped marker as I waited for my signal. (The eraser was kicked aside; I've never figured out an erasure method more efficient than my fingers.) The tap on my shoulder came, and I was off.

The final puzzle was written by Mike Nothnagel, and it was a beauty. Lively fill everywhere, and great clues I was able to appreciate even as I tried to speed through. There was some hesitation, of course; it was a very tough puzzle, and solving on a whiteboard slows the process further. But overall, it went quite smoothly. I didn't hop around much, I was sure of my answers, and my pauses never seemed to last too long. I was done in a shade under ten minutes. It was my best-ever performance in the final by a sizable margin.

And I still got my ass kicked by three minutes.

We would not come close to duplicating the B final's suspense. This year, there was to be no error allowing me a dramatic comeback win. Dan had demolished the final puzzle without flinching, and a second consecutive title was his. After all the chaos, I would have to settle for second place.

So how do I feel about it? Well, I wouldn't say I'm happy, exactly; I had a chance to win and it didn't happen. That's obviously disappointing. However, I would say that I'm satisfied. There was nothing to regret, no one thing, or even a small number of things, that I couldn't point to and say "Dammit, if I'd avoided that, I'd be the champion." I was merely the one to lose to Dan by the smallest margin. So, in the end, it wasn't hard to accept. I collected my Second Place and West trophies (for some reason, the latter is significantly taller), not to mention a decent check, and joined friends for brunch before my 7 PM flight. (The two girls who recognized me in the restaurant and wanted a picture with me also buoyed my spirits nicely.) That was that.

I'll be blunt: If you still think my record of five consecutive titles is safe, you are officially delusional. Frankly, it's hard to imagine Dan getting taken down. He seems as close to unbeatable as there can be in this sort of event. My friend Eric Berlin said it best: "The question isn't 'Can he be beat?', and probably never was. The question is, 'Who wants to badly enough?'" I recall the intense thirst I had for the title circa 2004, and the effort it begot. While Dan's drive isn't as outwardly visible as mine was (I can be a tad demonstrative, if you haven't noticed), it's surely there. What else could make someone tear through twenty puzzles a day on paper? And given the success it's brought him, why would he stop if he's comfortably made it a part of his life? Meanwhile, for my part, I'd told myself I would practice more before the 2011 tournament, and I ended up doing even less than I had before 2010. I still have the skill to win, as do Trip, Anne, Francis, Howard, and quite a few others. But none of us work like Dan does to keep his game at its absolute peak. His amazing ability and his hunger to maintain it deserve praise in equal measure.

We may have to get the mob involved.

That'll do it! As a reward for reading this far, I leave you with an Amazing True Fact: This year, 100% of contestants wearing a T-shirt referencing Rick Vaughn, Charlie Sheen's character in Major League, finished second in their skill divisions. (No, we did not plan this.)

Total bitchin' rock stars from Mars

Good night, sports fans!

Comments (17) Trackbacks (1)
  1. ALAIN and DENNY? All crossings for me!

    This post marks the first time I have ever seen someone chat about their “progenitors.” It’s got more zip than “my folks,” I’ll grant you that.

  2. Ha, I’ve never seen you smile as wide as you did when your groupies arrived at the restaurant. Not even after one of your wins.

  3. Excellent writeup.
    Broke into #5 with ALAIN here too. Hockey, our saving grace.

    California Penal League for the win.
    Congrats on the tournament and the groupiness. I miss it all already.

  4. great writeup… and now i finally understand the context of the “should’ve gotten the live chicken” tweet from the other day. :)

  5. As I mentioned on Sunday, it was a real pleasure watching you (and Anne and Dan and the B division finalists and the C division finalists) solve my puzzle on stage. I’ve watched the A Division playoff video about 6 times already, and every time it’s amazing. All three of you are great solvers, and great people.

    Until next year…

    • I’m glad Tyler mentioned how good your puzzle was. Obviously I was ripping through it as quickly as I could, but I did notice (and I hope I remembered to mention to you) how much I really did enjoy it and how solid I thought it was. Nicely done.

      Tyler – great write-up. Incidentally, I’ve only been at the boards 5 times to your 8, but I do know that the fastest way to erase is with your fist.

  6. Well, then. Maybe one of you will have better luck next year without bi-winning Charlie Sheen apparel.

    N.Y. Knights

  7. I knew DENNY but not ALAIN.

    Wasn’t it Anne in second place after Saturday, not Francis? Not that it mattered to you. I’d do the math but I’m trying to finish my (much less eloquent) writeup…

    Well, I don’t solve 20+ puzzles *on paper* except in the week or two before the tournament, but your point stands. I actually kind of hope that I don’t get to five in a row, because if I ever land a Broadway or national tour gig that keeps me from the ACPT, I’m taking it.

  8. ALAIN meant nothing to me, but JOCASTA was the one thing I was sure of to start off #5. I had also luckily entered in HAPPY TOGETH in the top without looking at the number of squares, and said, “Screw it – I’ll erase it later.” Thank goodness!

    Congratulations of the second place finish again. I agree – there are a number of people who I think pose a serious threat to Dan. But is sheer volume of solves throughout the year enough to put you over the top? I think (as #5 shows), there’s certainly a lot of luck involved. Hell, the fact that I had recently read how to make an egg cream online saved my ass on #2. May you just need a hockey themed #5.

    Mike Nothnagel, I’ll say it again: That was one of the most beautifully filled grids I’ve ever seen. Loved it.

  9. Great writeup, Tyler, and Mike, I meant to try to find you afterward and tell you what a fine finals puzzle that was, but you were being photographed with Dan at the time and so I missed you. I’ve always loved your work!

    • @Ken, Dan, Neville and Anne: I sound like a broken record, but thank you thank you thank you for the kind words about the puzzle. It’s truly an honor to be a part of the ACPT and especially the playoffs.

      MN

  10. One more: Great puzzle, Mike, great fun! I regretted torturing you with my singing voice during Saturday night’s puzzlefest after solving it.

  11. Tyler,

    Great performance, again. Congratulations. I’m a relative newbie to the ACPT and enjoyed it for the second time this year. Also liked your recap to see how the top solvers experience the puzzling day.

    As a veteran of finals, you might best know the answer to my question that hit me from the first time I watched a final on those whiteboards:

    Don’t you think that very tall and very short people are at a disadvantage in those whiteboard finals due to the need to look way up and reach (if you’re short) or often kneel (if you’re tall)? I also noticed that, with the cameras filming, some solvers (including you) had their boards completely in shadow, which must affect speed. Lastly, doesn’t standing instead of sitting completely change the natural state of crosswording, especially for anyone with difficulty standing or walking? (Not to mention, what would the ACPT do with a finalist in a wheelchair?) It seems to me that these random variables, which exist only in the finals, bring in a non-crossword solving influence on everyone’s chances.

    Have you and the other elite solvers ever considered potentially better ways to do the finals?

    • Interesting thoughts. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say they owe a win or loss to those circumstances, even partially. Certainly, the entire experience is very different by nature. As Merl says in Wordplay, some people are in their element up there and some people aren’t. I’m perfectly fine with it; it’s a great way to make the finals exciting.

      I’m sure things could be arranged for someone in a wheelchair if that circumstance arose. They’d have just about a full day to think about it, as they’d start considering it if such a person were in contention after the first few puzzles.