First things first: Les Foeldessy's new Gryptics contest is up. Go knock it out.
Now to the meat of this post: Saturday's Napa Valley Puzzle Challenge saw yet another thrilling ending to a local crossword tournament. Perennial contenders Jon Berman and Eric Maddy both made one mistake, and Jon beat Eric by a mere second! Coming in third was young newcomer Jeff Davidson... but should he have won? Read on to find out what happened and decide what you think. But don't do so until you've done Thursday's New York Times puzzle; it's a great one and you don't want to be spoiled by my description here.
As you might guess, all of the hubbub arose as a result of the very tricky theme. I'm enough of a dweeb to know how the symbols and numbers match up, but none of the three contestants were so fortunate. Eric put SAND* instead of SAND$, while Jon paired the pound sign with an H to form HDTV rather than 3DTV. Meanwhile, Jeff was still struggling away, and he had a few wrong answers scattered about, to the point where I didn't think there was any way he'd go around and correct everything. But that's exactly what he did, and pretty soon the special squares were the only things amiss, as he'd written just the numbers. He raised his hand to turn in his solution and was ruled incorrect, as the symbols were absent. Jeff, somewhat understandably, lamented this judgment, as he didn't know these were necessary. He admitted that he hadn't figured out what symbol joined the 5, but he would have taken his several spare minutes to do so had he known it was important.
I wasn't completely satisfied with the ending, but I'm not sure what else we could have done. Jeff's solution didn't demonstrate a total grasp of the theme. Eric had spent several moments figuring out the 5's symbol, which certainly played a role given the margin of victory, so that part had to be taken into account. Looking at the three grids, Eric's and Jon's seemed more correct, as it were.
At the same time, the standards weren't entirely clear, which does seem unfair. We tried to think of ways we could have informed the finalists of these standards before the final, but couldn't come up with anything that didn't give too much away about the puzzle. Maybe the best idea is not to use a puzzle like that in a tournament setting, to say nothing of the final.
What would you have done? Did Jeff get hosed? Did we make the right call? Both?