That Puzzle Guy's Blog Long live the Hartford Whalers


Pity the fool

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.


To the rescue

Last week, I returned from the annual National Puzzlers' League convention, which this year was held in Portland, Maine. As usual, I had a fantastic time solving and socializing with my puzzling family, and I still have a pile of cryptics I never got to!

The capstone to the convention is the Saturday night extravaganza, in which attendees work in teams of four to solve a big set of interconnected puzzles, leading to a satisfying final meta answer. This year's event took a different approach; while there was a small group of people heading up the design, every puzzle was constructed by a different NPL member. These contributors could still play in the extravaganza; they just had to recuse themselves from helping with their own puzzle. I was one of the people approached to make a puzzle, and I did so, but due to an abundance of grid puzzles, it was left on the cutting-room floor. But hey, that's what the Internet is for; I've posted it here for your enjoyment. As with all hunt-style puzzles, you seek a single word or short phrase as your final answer, and I warn you that this puzzle is completely untested and unedited. You can contact me if you see something I really should change.

Looking ahead, here's another reminder of the upcoming Lollapuzzoola crossword tournament in New York City. I've test-solved the first drafts of the puzzles and I can say that some fun challenges await you. I once again will fail to attend because I am super-lame. You should go so you can be not super-lame.


Battles of wits

Hello again, solvers! Since my last post, I've had my second-worst performance ever on the US Puzzle Championship, failed yet another Real Escape Game, won at The Grimm Escape, and pulled out a nail-biting triumph at the Shinteki Decathlon. They were all fun except for maybe the USPC, and even that had high quality; it's just that it was dwarfed by my incompetence.

Looking to the future, it's nearly the season for local crossword tournaments! First up is Lollapuzzoola 7 on Saturday, August 9th, which, you might note, is a Saturday in August. This fun and freewheeling tournament is sure to bring another solid batch of creative, original puzzles. September, specifically the 13th, brings the Bay Area Crossword Tournament, also marking its seventh year. Solve the next week's New York Times puzzles in advance in pursuit of the tournament prize and in support of Families of SMA. Then, in October, competitive puzzling heads south for the next edition of Crosswords LA. Check back soon for more details on that, but for now, I can report that I've amicably stepped down from the Puzzle Wrangler position, which will be filled expertly by Amy Reynaldo. I still plan to be on hand to officiate.

Go get 'em, everyone.


Two much

I had a fun weekend at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. I saw a lot of puzzle cronies, made some new ones, and caught up with a few old friends outside the tournament. You probably care more about the fact that I finished second for the third time.

I don't have a lot of interesting commentary about Puzzles 1 through 7. They were enjoyable, well-crafted crosswords; I'd be a very happy man if every puzzle I solved were that good. My ascent to second place, though, was relatively drama-free, as I got there early and slowly made myself comfortable just behind Dan Feyer and, more importantly, ahead of the nearest rivals. The one bump in the road was when I finished Puzzle 2 with the dreaded "59" showing on the right half of the clock, meaning I'd missed out on 25 points by a margin of one second. I thought that was an ill omen, but by the end of Puzzle 6, my lead over third place had ballooned to four minutes' worth of points, and my advantage over fourth place, the first non-finalist spot, was a whopping six minutes. My approach on Sunday morning's Puzzle 7 was thus very conservative; I took just a little bit of the edge off my solving speed and took ninety seconds to check my answers (I found no mistakes in that span).

The championship showdown looked a little different this year, as Howard Barkin, a 2010 finalist, stepped into third place to face Dan and me on stage. The puzzle, a beauty by Mike Shenk, was, of course, tough as nails. I slammed in a few answers right away, but then I immediately got stuck. I don't know how long I stood there not writing anything; it couldn't have been more than two minutes or so, but it felt like an eternity. The thought was inescapable: I just lost the tournament. I knew what it took to beat Dan, and standing there stumped for more than a few moments was not part of that formula. Sure enough, Dan stepped away from his board and, through my headphones, I detected none of the rumblings I've felt when an opponent has submitted an imperfect solution. Once more, I was playing for the silver medal.

Fortunately, once I looked past my roadblock to toeholds in other parts of the puzzle, I picked up a pretty good head of steam. There was the occasional misstep here and there, but for the most part I did pretty well for the rest of my solve. Good thing, too, because I claimed second prize less than thirty seconds before Howard finished his grid. For me, though, what mattered was that I missed another shot at the title, and Dan was crowned champion for the fifth straight time, matching the streak I'd put together immediately before his.

Let's not pretend these streaks are equal, though. For four of my five titles, I needed a mistake from an on-stage opponent (or, in 2009, both of them) to claim the championship. Only once, in 2006, did I actually complete the final puzzle first. Dan, on the other hand, has barnstormed his way through all five finals, finishing first and perfectly every time. The only year he needed some major luck was 2012, when he had an error in a Saturday puzzle and got back into the top three in a tournament rife with mistakes among the top solvers. And even then, his on-stage performance was dominant. I still believe I deserved my titles, certainly, but my streak was a hell of a lot flukier than Dan's.

So now what? You can get a glimpse into my post-tournament state of mind in this Time article (one of the best pieces I've ever seen covering the event). When I claimed my prize from Will Shortz, he commented that I was just about the only guy who's disappointed by second place. I see his point; by an objective standard, I did great. But after climbing the mountain several times, it's just not good enough for me. I don't fly across the country to be runner-up. It seems clear to me, though, that I'm a step behind, and, barring yet another big-time stroke of luck, I need to improve my skills on that final puzzle in order to claim another win.

My target does need to be Puzzle 8. Obviously, making the top three is never a guarantee, but my skills on the first seven puzzles are up to snuff, particularly if I practice a little more. I lost two minutes to Dan on Puzzles 1 through 7 this year: one on my very near miss in Puzzle 2, and the other on my conservative approach to the Sunday morning crossword. Take those away and I'm in a flat-footed tie. There's no reason for me to doubt myself anymore to that point in the tournament. But it's that tough puzzle that always seems to get me. There's always been a wrong answer, or a slightly overly long pause, or a really really overly long pause. If I seem like I'm losing confidence in the ability I take to the championship puzzle, that's not directly because of Dan, but because I see a biggish gap between my solving and what's required to win the championship now. The path back to triumph is to speed-solve the toughest crosswords I can find, and to do it on paper and not the computer. And, while I'm not about to set up a big crossword easel in my studio apartment, perhaps I could look at my approach to solving in that setting. If I improve to the point where I can eliminate my miscues and pauses, I'll have a good shot to win regardless of what anyone else does.

Now that I feel a little more focused, I think there will be more training in the year ahead. I remain a busy person and there are lots of things I do that I enjoy more than speed-solving. Practice is not going to dominate my schedule by any means. But if I get myself the right materials, there's no reason I can't do it at least a little bit every day or two. I have it in my head that I need to get better in order to win again, and if I don't make the effort, I have nobody to blame but myself.


Square dealing

If it's Daylight Savings Time weekend, it's probably time for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. This year is the 37th edition of the annual competition, and, almost incredibly to me, I'll be attending for the 13th time.

Much of the sentiment I expressed in last year's preview still holds true. The disappointment I felt about my failure in the 2013 final hasn't led to more practice or a greater hunger. While I have mixed up my tough-puzzle solving with this book and the occasional attempt to solve a triple-stack crossword with Down clues only, I've done nothing in the way of speed-solving on paper. I'll probably do a bit of it on the plane just to get back into the groove, if indeed that groove is still there.

With my perfect-solve streak now standing a nice round zero, I consider this sort of a proving year for me. Do I have the skills to threaten to get on stage, or can I not just flip that switch anymore? Plus, I want to gauge my mental outlook on the event; it certainly seems like I don't relish the hunt like I once did. I don't enjoy my spiking nerves or the "rivalries" in a group I consider first and foremost to be a friendly one. I don't like being a focus of attention for attendees or media coverage. Yes, this tournament is somewhat of a tradition for me, and I do look forward to seeing friends, and I do find it hard to tear myself away as long as the possibility of the title is there. Plenty of pros and cons, really.

As for the general outlook on how the tournament will proceed, stop me if you've heard this one: Dan Feyer is the favorite, trying to match the record of five straight titles immediately after I did it. What's more, Dan has just moved to San Francisco to challenge my recent West Region supremacy, which means there's a solid chance that, for the first time ever, I will leave the tournament without a first-place trophy of any kind. That prospect is a bummer, sure, but it doesn't really change anything for me; my approach has been "championship or bust" for a good decade now. Snagging a spot in the final is likelier to get harder than easier, with a goodly number of hungry players eager for their chance after three straight years of Dan, Anne Erdmann, and me up there. So expect Puzzle 7 to be a tense one among the tightly bunched top competitors. As I implied in the opening sentence, between the time zone change and the lost DST hour, that 9 AM puzzle will feel like 5 AM to us Pacific folk. I can't say it's had much of an effect in the past, but in a tight situation, any mental slip could be costly. If advance scouting is your thing, here's a list of this year's constructors. Let the speculation as to the ordering begin!

Once more unto the breach, friends. See you in Brooklyn.


American Values: Working on holidays

Hey, it's Christmas! Need a fun diversion to enjoy with your family and friends, or possibly to get away from your family and friends? Well, the last American Values Club crossword drops today and it happens to be mine. Buy it for a buck, or, better yet, buy a subscription. Better still, buy a subscription for one or more loved ones!

And while we're on the subject of crossword-related gifts, Winner's Circle Crosswords remains very much available! Yes, it may be a bit late for Christmas, but hey, no reason you can't surprise someone with, say, a Groundhog Day present or something.


Puzzle of the century

(Everybody's already made the "One Hundred Years of Solvitude" joke already, okay? Let's just move on.)

I return to the blogosphere today to commemorate what most of my readers already know: Exactly a century ago, Arthur Wynne's "Word-Cross Puzzle" appeared in the New York World, birthing the pastime we know and love today. The articles and special puzzles are almost too plentiful to run down; the crossword even made it into the Google doodle on Friday!

For my part, I'll take a little time here to look into the future. The crossword has undergone a great deal of evolution in a hundred years and that should continue in some fashion. The easiest prediction to make, I think, is the continued rise of online and independent distribution. Solvers these days are spoiled for choice; they don't have to turn to a major newspaper to find a good challenge. Between online-only syndicates, blogs, and Kickstarter projects, a web browser is all you need to access quality puzzles. This is undoubtedly a good thing; in time, I believe the best puzzles will rise to the top and the prestige of the old institutions will matter less and less. However, I expect that making a living from puzzle constructing will remain a rarity.

What new innovations will we see in the crossword grid itself? Well, if I knew that, I'd probably have invented it already and raked in the accolades. We've seen cryptics, code crosswords, vowelless puzzles, diagramlesses, and so forth. Even the conventional crossword has seen a slew of clever new theme types and daring new themeless constructions. With all the puzzles that get published in a given week, it's somewhat surprising that the well of ideas hasn't run dry, but it hasn't, and I expect my fellow puzzlemakers to continue to innovate. Whatever they do, though, the results had damn well better have good fill.

Best of all, the future of crosswords seems bright. I remember the days when I was at the extreme lower end of the puzzlers' age spectrum, but now, though I haven't yet hit thirty, another generation is coming up behind me. They're filling their puzzles with modern vocabulary and lively, sometimes irreverent clues, and I look forward to seeing much more.

On that happy note, go forth and celebrate the day! I plan to do so by solving some puzzles... but I suppose I do that every day.

Tagged as: 1 Comment

Plugs are alive and well!

I might not blog like I used to, but I'll never miss out on the chance to point out when it's my turn in the American Values Club rotation. It's a relatively light offering; hope you like it. And if you're not a subscriber... come on; we've been over this. Or you can buy just this one puzzle for an even buck.

I'll also take this opportunity to point out a few Kickstarter campaigns that are winding down. You have about a day left to back Matt Jones's crossword project. You can get the main set for just twenty cents a puzzle, but I recommend throwing in a little more to get the bonus pack as well. And when you're done with that, join more than 14,000 people excited for a new immersive game from Cyan. If you don't remember who they are, perhaps this next sentence will help: I'm honestly Myst-ified that this project didn't reach the goal in no time flat. I really want to see this one get to the finish line!

Lastly, congratulations to Eric LeVasseur on taking top honors at this year's Crosswords LA event. Hope everyone had fun at our new setting in Santa Monica. Did you miss the tournament? No worries; you can buy this year's puzzles to support charity.


I survived!

This may well have been the subject of much speculation, since my last post immediately preceded my participation in the perilous Famine Game. Rest assured that Team Apetitius Giganticus acquitted itself very well and emerged successful from the Capitol.

No, the reason for my month-long lapse in posting is more or less what I alluded to in a previous entry; to wit, the appeal of posting dryly about all the puzzle events I'm doing is losing its appeal for me. I'm hoping I'll be inspired to post more long-form stuff when subjects arise. We'll see how that goes. For now, here's the rundown of what's happened in the last four weeks or so:

  • I mentioned The Famine Game... it really was tremendous fun and probably the best puzzle event I've played in. The puzzles were uniformly clever and satisfying, and I can't recall a single erratum. A few were truly unique works of genius that I'll always remember. Great thanks to Todd Etter and everyone else who helped design and run the event. What a weekend!
  • A different team of mine did not enjoy similar success at the latest Real Escape Game, Escape from the Bank. I won't go into the details here, but, as I said on Twitter, I'm completely baffled as to how we let ourselves get stuck where we did; it really was a rather easy puzzle. I still shake my head when I think about it. You can talk to me privately if you want me the details; please bring me a beer when you do. The good news is that SCRAP have another game all queued up, as well as a sequel to their popular game that one team at a time does in a single room. Also, Southern Californians, the first American game, Escape from the Werewolf Village, will be staged in LA in early November!
  • My team, Friday the 13th Part VI, won the Expert division of the latest Mastermind Hunt in San Francisco! This was a whirlwind few hours of solving small puzzles and dashing around the city to get our answers. The trophy will reside with us for another year!
  • Looking ahead to this weekend, it's Crosswords LA! I'll be on hand as the puzzle wrangler, tournament official, and finals commentator. (Whew!) Join us in Santa Monica; it should be a great day!
  • In somber news, Puzzle Pile is going on a few months' hiatus for personal reasons. I know I'm not alone in wishing Bran well. We'll be eager to resume reading when he's ready to make his return.

Back to BACFill

The Bay Area's very own crossword tournament comes back on Saturday! You can enter right at the door for a mere $35, benefiting Families of SMA. Join us in Oakland!

It's been a while since I've mentioned a new puzzle-related Kickstarter... oh, look, here's one from Matt Jones of Jonesin' Crosswords! For a mere pittance, Matt is offering a hefty pack of barred crosswords, a grid type that's very rare outside the realm of variety cryptics. I've chipped in to see Matt's good work and you should too!

To finish this entry, I'm wondering where I should go with this blog. I post only the puzzle news that lands on my radar, and often I do so quite tardily. I doubt anyone's hearing about these matters for the first time from this site. Blogs like Puzzle Pile do a much better job of casting a wider net in a more prompt fashion. Perhaps I and you would be better served by writing less frequently, but putting up nice meaty posts when I do write. These could be deep recaps of events like tournaments and hunts, or opinionated essays like The War on Fill. Based on comment count, these certainly seem to be the popular posts anyway. Plus, if I post less, perhaps I could work on putting up the occasional original puzzle here. (Don't expect weekly!) Thoughts?