Many of you surely remember Ken Jennings and his incredible 74-win run on Jeopardy! a few years ago. It's less well-known, though hardly surprising, that Ken is also a puzzle aficionado; I've met him at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament as well as the 2010 National Puzzlers' League convention in his hometown of Seattle. And now, Ken offers us an online puzzle hunt with big prizes at stake!
You can find details about the Great American History Puzzle at Ken's blog, but to summarize, your quest will start in the pages of October's Smithsonian Magazine. You'll find and solve the first puzzle, then hop around the magazine a little to obtain your password for the game's website, which will begin accepting it mere hours from now. You'll want to keep up with the puzzles, but at the very least, you should be caught up by October 22nd, when the final puzzles open up. The first person to submit the final answer wins a trip for four to Washington DC, worth $10,000!
I'm excited to see when Ken has in store for us. Good luck, but not too much!
Here's a bunch of small items for you.
I forgot to talk about the NPL mini-convention in Las Vegas. It was once again great fun; we enjoyed some original games and puzzles as well as much of the fine food and drink that America's Playground has to offer. My girlfriend and I also mixed in a show, namely the Mythbusters: Behind the Myths show. Good times all around. One of the big puzzle-solving highlights was Mark Halpin's Labor Day extravaganza. It seemed a little bit easier this year; our group of nine polished it off in a few hours. However, it was still quite challenging and every bit as creative and well-made as in previous years. You still have some time to noodle on it before answers are posted, so have a go, and be sure to drop something in the tip jar to thank Mark for his great work.
If you're a Bay Area puzzler and you missed out on BANG 33, the rerun is on September 29th. It was a fun event in support of a good cause, so put a team together and get out there.
Last but not least, there's yet another website for quality independent crosswords. Erik Agard is a rising star in the crossworld; give his creations, including his newest contest, a try.
The results for the US Puzzle Championship and the US Sudoku Team Qualifying test are out. I finished 18th on the former, which is actually slightly better than I expected given my feelings after the test and my shocking, yet somehow also unshocking, idiocy on the answer form, without which I would have placed 13th. The latter result was 11th place, which, despite being a better ranking, is far more disappointing, as I felt much better about how that test went. I felt like I'd at least done well enough to crack the top ten, as I barely did last year. I'm forced to conclude that the competition is getting better and I'm not. I simply haven't put in the work required to make myself a contender, and I'm not sure what doing so would entail or even if I'm up to the challenge, especially given that my competitive-puzzling priorities are elsewhere.
Well, with those two competitions in the books for another year, it's time to lick my wounds and look forward to this weekend's BACFill tournament! The Bay Area crossword tournament returns with a new snappy name, a snazzier location in Oakland's CSU East Bay, and a new great charity to support, Families of SMA. Registration is just $35 for competitive solving of future New York Times and some good socializing with fellow cruciverbalists. I'll be there once again as a judge and I hope to see you!
Late update! Tournament director Andrew Laurence informs me that volunteers are needed! So if you want to come but aren't down with competing, consider that angle.
I had a busy weekend; unfortunately, from a puzzling perspective, it was a pretty lousy one.
It started with Saturday morning's United States Puzzle Championship. This is probably the fastest two and a half hours of my puzzling year. I was going in pretty cold this time around, as, for the most part, I was unable to take advantage of what precious little time competitors have to go over the instructions. I did get a chance to work through some of the example puzzles, but to a large degree, I was going to have to simply let it rip.
When the dust settled, I'd polished off Battleships, Complementary Domains, Corral, A Crossword, Masyu, Multiplicative Corral, Sudoku, Magic Order, Fences Variation, Musketeer Sudoku, and six Pond Scum differences, for a total of 186 points. To a neutral observer, I'd done quite well; I felt I would probably crack the top 25, and thus get a puzzle prize, for my performance. But from my own perspective, I was very disappointed for a few reasons. For one, the threshold of 200 was a psychologically big one for me. Also, I could have reached that score if I hadn't spent the bulk of the last half-hour failing to solve Packing For Croatia. This was an amazingly frustrating experience; I had virtually all of it filled in, but there was simply no place left for IMOTSKI. Everything fit so neatly that an error seemed impossible, but clearly it was there. The last few seconds ticked away as I stalled. Drat!
Then, on Monday, disaster struck, as I finally visited the solutions page to check my answers. To my utter horror, I'd somehow neglected to enter one of the two rows required for the sudoku answer, dropping me to 166. A well-earned twenty points, over 10% of my total, fumbled away through unadulterated stupidity. If I sound annoyed at myself, it's because I really am. In my decade of USPC participation, only twice have I not botched something on the answer form and cost myself earned points. It's spectacularly humiliating. What hope do I have of ever being a major player in this competition if I'm so thoroughly incapable of following simple directions and filling out a form correctly?
Of course, that's not my biggest problem. The fact is, I'm still not good enough at these puzzles. With the exception of Magic Order, which I messed up near the end and needed a second attempt at, I didn't feel like I made mistakes or got frustrated with the puzzles I solved. I simply wasn't fast enough to leave myself time for more points. Practice readily springs to mind as a solution to this, but I wonder if it can be that simple. Many of the puzzle types in the USPC (and indeed the WPC) are new; aside from a few examples competitors might post in the hours preceding the test, there's no real opportunity to get good at the specific varieties. The key seems to be a way of thinking: a quick sense for what clues are most constraining and lend themselves best to break-ins, knowing when to bifurcate (i.e. guess), knowing when to go by feel, etc. I'm unsure of how to improve this. Any thoughts out there from the experts?
Speaking of experts, hearty congratulations are in order for Thomas Snyder, who reclaimed his USPC crown with an incredible performance. And my own shortcomings do not reflect the quality of the test, which was excellent. I have another copy of the packet and, when I'm less traumatized, I hope to work through the fine creations therein.
Unfortunately, I have some less kind words for the third edition of the Real Escape Game, which I did at San Francisco's J-Pop festival in Japantown on Sunday. After succeeding at the first two games, the second time with the same teammates who joined me on this occasion, I was eager to prove myself again.
The theme was Evangelion; teams had to try to escape the Angel before Eva's emergency power ran out in one hour. After a brief, somewhat odd introduction, we were sent out onto the streets, as the game was taking place outdoors for the first time.
This will be rather vague, as I'm avoiding specifics at the organizers' request, but, basically, we killed it, solving all the puzzles in half the allotted time. We took the remainder of the hour to get some pork buns and feel good about our victory before we returned to the end location, where we were joined by a couple other teams who barely made it. Game Control congratulated us, lined us up, and took us to the room where the game recap would take place, sitting us in the front. They explained the puzzles we'd seen, and the players behind us reacted to the solutions and their failure to grasp them. When they reached the end, they had us escapees stand up and collect applause. Hooray!
...But that wasn't the end. To our shock, we were then informed that the Angel had killed us because of an extremely cruel gotcha that took place right before we walked to the recap. In front of everyone, after they'd built us up, they snatched our win away. My teammates and I sat in shock for several moments. We rightly savaged the twist on our comment cards before dejectedly leaving, rebuffing the organizers' offer to get a team picture taken in a frame with a "We Failed!" sign. This was additionally insulting, since we didn't feel like we'd failed.
The more I think about what happened, the less sense it makes to me. This gotcha took place a half-hour after we were given every indication that we were finished; with that much time with no game-related activity, our guard was fully let down. We were told we'd escaped; how can one escape something and be killed by it at the same time? Furthermore, to pass the final test, we each had to make a decision in a brief moment, with no apparent opportunity for consulting our teammates or our materials. The decision didn't even feel like it was a decision; it seemed like they were just ending the story, as it were, before bringing us to the postgame. We followed suit with the players in front of us and nothing unseemly happened to any of us in that moment. Instead, they waited to assemble the entire group before slapping us with the bad news.
Simply put, this twist wasn't designed to challenge us, but to make us lose. That's a very important difference, and Real Escape Game 3 was absolutely on the wrong side of it. This offense is made even worse by doing it after making teams think they'd won and could relax. It really soured us on the whole experience, which is a shame, because the puzzles, though perhaps a bit light, were quite nice. It may even affect future REGs for us, as we'll be looking for potential screw-yous at every turn. I'm willing to give this event another chance, but I sincerely hope Game Control gets the message that I and other players are clearly expressing.
So that was my dour weekend. But hey, things are looking up! I'm headed to Las Vegas on Friday for a National Puzzlers' League mini-convention. This does mean I'll miss the USPC's sister test, the United States Sudoku Team Qualifier, which is unfortunate. However, to look on the bright side, I won't exasperate myself by entering half-solutions to screw myself out of points. Good luck to all participating, and here's to better puzzling days ahead!
Had a great time at WarTron this weekend. For a total of about three hours, I was both exhausted and felt incredibly stupid about one solving failure or another, but overall Team Do Not Bounce had a fun and successful trip. Great thanks to Team Snout for an immersive event! My recap may or may not be forthcoming, as it seems the game will be rerun in Boston at some point. I could probably do it under a spoiler warning, though. Thoughts?
Speaking of the eastern US, Congratulations are in order for Joon Pahk, who took top honors at Lollapuzzoola 5 on Saturday in New York. There were some gnarly puzzles in that set; kudos to all who cracked them.
Lastly, a new Gryptics contest is up. You know the drill by now.
Heads up, competitive crossworders! Renowned constructor Merl Reagle is again teaming up with the Alzheimer's Foundation of America to bring you the National Brain Game Challenge. On September 30th, entrants will download Reagle's clever crosswords and race to find the hidden answers within them. This year, the contest is thrown open to everyone, as there's a separate Pro division for people who have earned more than a couple hundred bucks from solving or constructing. The grand prize for each division is $2,500, not bad for an afternoon's work. Plus, you can support the Alzheimer's Foundation and promote brain health, a cause very close to my daily work. Sign up today!
Also, at long last, the dates of the qualifying tests for the US Puzzle Team and Sudoku Team have been announced. The former will be held on August 25th, while sudoku has its turn one week later. I'd love to try my hand at them, but I have scheduling conflicts for both. At least I can't get my hopes up this time...
Edit! Turns out I don't have a conflict for the USPC after all, though it doesn't bode well that the reason for my original misconception was that I'm bad at math.
I must indulge in a little horn-tooting to lead off this Monday post. Last week, an extended League of Extraordinary Puzzlemen squad won the Berkeley Mystery Hunt! The newcomers were instrumental in our success and I think everyone enjoyed themselves. It was a big thrill to hold off a couple other talented teams and be the first to find the lost stone of the Mayan calendar and thus stave off the apocalypse. (Second time this year I've helped solve puzzles to save the world. Huh.)
I'm also pleased to report that my crossword was one of the twenty selected for Twenty Under Thirty. It's very exciting to be included in this group of talented young constructors. Look for the announcement and the puzzles themselves in about a month!
Okay, enough about me. Let's have a look at cool stuff other people are doing. Coming up on Saturday is Lollapuzzoola 5 in New York City. Unfortunately, I've yet to make it out to this fun tournament, and this year will be no different. You should definitely go if you can, though; the tournament always brings some great puzzles by top-shelf constructors and a strong solving field. Good luck to all participating!
Also, the crossword blogosphere gets even stronger with the addition of Neville Fogarty to the mix. Check out his free weekly puzzle!
My next post will be a report of the WarTron game this coming weekend in Portland. You may have to be patient with me there, though, as I report to jury duty the Monday after staying up all Saturday night for the game. Great Moments in Life Planning!
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.
Let's journey up the west coast from San Francisco and visit the locations of a few upcoming puzzle events.
In the north end of my home city, the second American edition of the Real Escape Game is taking place July 5-8 at Fort Mason. This version promises to be a little more active, as players will progress through three different rooms to solve puzzles and crack the mystery. I'm excited and hopeful that my teammates and I can tally a second victory! There are still plenty of tickets available for most of the game's sessions; I recommend giving it a shot!
Berkeley is a BART ride away, and the campus there is home to the Berkeley Mystery Hunt. The second annual event will be run for the public on July 21. I really enjoyed this hunt last year; it provides Mystery Hunt flavor in the scope of a Shinteki event or a long BANG. I know my team is determined to finish this year after falling short with a somewhat undermanned team last time around.
Moving up to Napa, there's a fun puzzle event this very weekend! Reigning crossword champ Dan Feyer is hosting the Napa Valley Puzzle Challenge on June 30 at the library there. There'll be a Wordplay screening, a solving contest (I can tell you that Dan and I will not be competing), and a panel to grill, so come on up!
Looking still further north and further ahead in the calendar, I'm getting pumped for this year's National Puzzlers' League convention, undoubtedly the highlight of my summer. We're gathering in Portland July 11-15 to enjoy the vast array of puzzles and games as well as each other's company. The convention brings the latest nights of my summer for a reason!
Also in Portland, but a few weeks later, teams of eager solvers will take on the WarTron game August 3-5. It'll be a very immersive event; I'll have to make sure to stock up on sleep before my second visit to Rip City in four weeks.
Some fun weekends coming up! I remain grateful to live in what has to be the best area of the country for puzzlers. Yeah, I said it!
Registration has opened for the Bay Area Crossword Puzzle Tournament, or at least it would have if it were still called that. Instead, the event now goes by BACFill, and there are major changes beyond just the name. Instead of a rinky-dink high school cafeteria, the competition will take place at California State University's Oakland Center. Also, there is a new worthy cause, Families of SMA, that will benefit. I hope you'll join me on September 8th for the new and improved BACFill tournament!