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15Jul/11Off

A providential gathering

I'm back from the National Puzzlers' League convention in Providence! As usual, I had an absolutely fantastic time and was very sorry to see it end. Recap after the jump.

Mental challenges, of course, were the order of the days. Some involved getting together in our big room and interacting. There was a collaborative Scrabble game. We played a wordplay game in which we had to find trios of words that fit certain categories and didn't share any letters. (Despite working with fellow crossword champion Trip Payne, we didn't do so well.) There was a groupthink exercise that involved predicting how much the room would collectively gravitate towards one fill-in-the-blank option over another (e.g. when you see "roll out the ___", do you think first of "red carpet" or "barrel"?). We got a team trivia quiz in which three team members could each supply only one answer to the multi-part questions. And in probably the most grin-inducing part of the program, we were presented with flats (the NPL's word puzzles in verse form) that took the form of musical parodies starring an adorable puppet named Sirhound.

Of course, we're a pencil puzzle crowd too, and the Saturday afternoon schedule focused on these. One clever NPLer found phrases that contained each vowel exactly once, then replaced the consonants with blanks and put the clues out of order at the bottom of the page. (Oh, and the clues all began with vowels, which was a nice touch.) New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz composed a crossword in which the clues were split in two, with the answer going in the slot labeled with the sum of the two parts' numbers. (I did very well at this one, finishing behind only a single two-man team.) Finishing the afternoon was the traditional flat-solving competition; all of the verses this year were based on children's rhymes.

Sounds like a lot, right? Oh, but that's just the scheduled program, my friends. Much of the joy of Con comes from what we do in our own time. A table holds puzzles galore, all volunteered by members. This year, that included a packet of twenty small variety cryptic crosswords, the authors of which vied for our top ratings. There were custom games of Jeopardy!; Eggspert is filling the role usually fulfilled by old Quizzards. A member nicknamed Maso (every member has a "nom", which can be chosen in any way the person likes) brought the latest incarnation of his ingenious Doubles Jeopardy!, which made two-person teams work together in a variety of ways, whether it was simply giving one response each to a two-part clue, tracing letters on the teammate's back, or giving a closed-eyed partner a Jelly Belly bean whose flavor was the correct response. (In the latter two cases, one partner simply read the clue silently.) Another member, Pfire, brought his own Only Connect challenges. T McAy and Dart, both known for their excellent unofficial games, challenged us to draw signs and pictures that we've all seen but don't necessarily recall (quick, which person is on the left in American Gothic?). Dart presented a game of his own involving answering clues with rebuses. The list goes on. If you're bored at Con, you're doing something wrong.

The one thing I haven't mentioned yet is the extravaganza, which gets its own section both because of its quality and my experience with it. The extravaganza is the capstone of the Con solving experience, an interconnected series of puzzles leading to a satisfying final answer (think a miniature MIT Mystery Hunt). This year, all of the puzzles were smithed by the great Mike Shenk, one of the relatively few people capable of putting together something like this on his own (though he had test-solvers and such, of course). We knew we'd get great puzzles, but a good team is also critical. I'm not talking about solving ability; that comes in second behind enjoyable company. The NPL is full of great people, but there are certain personalities and styles of solving I'd rather avoid in this sort of undertaking. As it happened, I randomly landed on a superb team. It included my friend Eric, who is known as Story in the NPL and had been kind enough to pick me up at my family's home in a backwater Connecticut town on his way to the convention. My other two teammates were Maso and another gentleman by the nom of Tortoise. I figured I'd get along fine with these guys, but I wasn't familiar with everyone's solving styles and strengths. We weren't sure how well we'd do.

Turns out we did pretty damn well; we won the thing. There were lots of grid puzzles with crossword-type clues, but that wasn't all that contributed to our victory. I didn't make a conscious note of it at the time, but we worked together seamlessly. At the few spots where someone had trouble, a teammate was there to get him unstuck or provide the insight that would lead to the solution. We knew we were progressing well when we made Game Control realize that they'd printed the wrong answer to one puzzle on their solution key, briefly sending us into a hushed frenzy ("HOW THE HELL CAN THIS POSSIBLY BE WRONG????") before the ship was righted. Thus, we figured we'd been the first ones to finish that puzzle.

I'll never forget Eric turning away from GC's table after checking our answer to the final metapuzzle. Scarcely able to stifle his grin, he gestured at the door with his head so we could leave the room to learn we'd won and celebrate without looking like jerks. After spirited high-fives, Eric was good enough to accompany me to the bar for a victory beverage even though I was the only drinker on the team. Honestly, considering the number of brilliant people in that room, claiming first place in the extravaganza gave a thrill that was surprisingly close to that of a win at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

The only sad thing about the extravaganza is that it signals that Con is nearly at an end. Sunday morning's closing session involves dumping puzzle books and other mentally stimulating prizes onto a table. (I contributed a sizable amount to the collection this year, finally wising up and giving away some dust-gathering books.) These are sorted into three piles according to perceived value; which third you could choose from depended on the magnitude of your feat. I've won prizes at just about every convention; there's a lot to give away and a lot of opportunities. But this was the first year I got to choose from the "A" table, and I did so twice, for the extravaganza and my speed on Shortz's puzzle. I picked up this cool book about codes and this older collection of crossword mysteries. I also won a "C" prize for some reason and took a compendium of tough crosswords edited by Stan Newman.

I punctuated the long weekend by watching the US women's incredible win over Brazil, then reluctantly headed for the airport. Con was over for another year. Next year will be decidedly more convenient for me, as we will gather in Portland, Oregon. At our business meeting on Saturday, we also decided to hold 2013's event in Austin, Texas. That will probably put 2014's Con somewhere in the east, but we'll determine that next summer. For now, if the National Puzzlers' League convention sounds like heaven to you, why not join us?

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  1. Great report! Thanks for all the good details, and congrats on your win!


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