On the 2022 ACPT

After my triumph in the 2021 online edition of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, I took a good day and a half to get my thoughts down on the event. That was frankly unacceptable, and I knew I could do better. So this time I’m posting nearly three weeks after the tournament. Crushing it!

It was really good to be back in Stamford. For many, it had been a long three-year wait. For me, though, it had been four years, courtesy of my decision to skip 2019’s event after losing my job and just feeling like I needed a break. (“No big deal; I’ll go next year,” I thought. Ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.) That considerable gap, combined with the growth of the community through indie blogs, Discord, and Twitch, meant I was meeting many crossword friends in meatspace for the first time. And it was a delight. I won’t even attempt to name all the friends old and new, but the weekend was replete with reminders that this event would be worth attending even if I had no shot at any sort of prize.

The puzzles themselves were excellent, every bit a product of the care you would expect to go into a premier event such as this. Brendan’s #5 was the talk of the tournament largely due to its body count, but whether easy, brutal, or in between, every puzzle filled its role nicely. I’d refamiliarize myself with them at this point, but I never picked up my copy after the event, because I am extremely smart and remember things.

As for the win… well, it will not shock most of you to hear that I was a bit shocked. Sure, I was the defending champion, but that was in an entirely different medium. I still hadn’t won the title outside my apartment since 2009. As I said last year, I figured I had a puncher’s chance, but, given my track record in the 2010s, not much better than that.

As I conquered each puzzle, I admit I was bracing for something to happen to nose me out of contention—not a mistake on my part, necessarily, but something mundane, like being really slow on the aforementioned #5, or simply losing a minute here and there to enough people. But it never happened. In the morning session alone, I had close shaves on both sides of the minute, one bringing disappointment, the other (unfounded) terror. I thought for sure I’d lost time during my struggles with #5, but the damage proved to be minimal. In fact, things went better on Saturday than even an optimistic version of me had any right to expect: not only was I on the inside track to make the final, I could afford to take some extra care with #7 on Sunday morning. That situation is increasingly rare as the competition at the top gets tighter and tighter. I held serve and eased into the final in third place.

Of course, I’d been no stranger to the podium in my decade-long drought. Getting that gold medal was the issue. I’d been on the losing end of a split-second finish, pissed away the championship via what remains easily the dumbest error I’ve ever made at the tournament, and simply had my ass decisively kicked a few times. In fact, this was my first appearance on stage since that brutal gaffe in 2017, and I would be solving house right, just as I was then. I am grateful that this thought did not occur to me until just now.

The final solve proceeded apace, my handwriting betraying the relative unfamiliarity of the medium (I still have my home board but haven’t set it up in ages) as well as my nerves. I never know whether to use the paper towel or my fingers in erasing; I eventually default to the latter. I was petrified of leaving a square blank; I must have glanced over the finished parts of the puzzle a good five times over the course of the six and a half minutes. I felt a twinge of anxiety when I discovered a wrong answer; would that bit of lost time doom me?

As I finished up, my adrenaline naturally spiked. I knew better than anyone that any moment could be the one when someone else’s hand is raised and the victory slips away. I filled in the final letter to fit the Down clue, saw that the Across made a word, didn’t check the latter’s clue (the only cross-check I’d skipped all day), and raised my hand.

I nervously surveyed the crowd, remembering the winces and grumbles of five years prior. Not this time. Applause. Some upturned thumbs. Had I really done it? I removed my headphones (something I’d forgotten to do for an unsettlingly long time in finals past) and sat down, my eyes boring a hole in judge Vic as he surveyed my grid for one more verification. Dan completed the puzzle somewhere amidst this; it felt like at least a minute after my finish, but things had clearly been in slow motion for me since that point, as it turned out to be only sixteen seconds. I posed a bit for Don, the photographer, as David finished up, then got to my feet for Will’s announcement of the results. It didn’t truly feel real until the words left his mouth.

This one’s really special for several reasons. For one, as I mentioned, it was my first time in thirteen years having the thrill of victory in a packed ballroom, a thrill I was increasingly convinced I’d already experienced for the last time. For two, there’s extra satisfaction in feeling I really earned it by solving the final (correctly) first, only the second time I’ve done that (2006). It’s no secret that I’ve benefited from opponents’ mistakes in the final over the years. I gave one of those back in 2017, but overall the luck has decidedly been on my side, so it was nice to break the tape this time, as it were. And a third reason, I have to say, was getting past Dan, who, in addition to having a solid argument for the best tournament solver ever, is the dispenser of most of the decisive ass-kickings I mentioned earlier. However he assesses his own abilities, we all know it takes a very strong wire-to-wire effort just to have a chance to beat him, and, after repeatedly coming up short, I finally managed to do enough.

Of course, it’s also hard as hell to edge out David, who wasn’t in first place after seven puzzles by accident and is a great bet to join the champions’ club soon. He’ll be back, as will Dan. 2018 champion Erik, who was absent this year, will return. The distressingly young Paolo will get more accurate at little expense to his ludicrous speed. I expect the other big contenders (whose names I won’t run down because I’ll probably forget somebody and have this thrown back in my face when they win in 2023) to maintain or even improve their peak levels. And somebody new could barnstorm the top ranks.

So, I know my friends will roll their eyes at this, but really, this could well be my last title! Because man, this thing is tough to win. At the very least, though, I know I’m not completely washed as a competitive solver, and I don’t know what complete idiot would ever say such a thing.

I have a bunch more inconsequential thoughts and observations that just work best in a mess of bullet points, so here we go.

  • For those who were wondering about my Crosswords Super League hat and tote bag… a friend made them for me in a Secret Santa group last year, based on this joke I made following the announcement of the ill-advised and thankfully short-lived European Super League. A bit of a niche gag, but there you are.
  • I was briefly credited with solving Puzzle #1 (slightly oversized at 15×16) in under two minutes. Here’s what I’m fairly sure happened. When I raised my hand, the judge who collected my paper was unsure when I’d finished. I held up three fingers to indicate that I’d finished in the third minute, but that was interpreted to mean that there were thirteen-plus minutes left on the clock for a fifteen-minute puzzle. It was a no-brainer to alert the judges to it; nobody wants to win because of an incorrect ruling, and even if I were the underhanded type, I was hardly the only contestant who knew it was wrong.
  • Puzzle #7’s theme was actually one I’d used in a puzzle I made for GAMES World of Crosswords some twenty years ago! It was smaller and, while some of the pertinent words were the same, I don’t think any whole theme answers were identical. Nonetheless, I took it as a good sign.
  • I know I sacrificed the West title with my cautious approach on #7. It definitely crossed my mind, but I would’ve felt pretty stupid if I’d made a mistake and not taken the extra time. Making the final was paramount. Plus, it kind of amuses me to have grand-champion and second-place trophies from the same tournament.
  • We finalists were told we could take our masks off for the solving, but I simply forgot to do so. Did this provide the boost I needed? Well, no; I’m sure it had no effect whatsoever.
  • There was commentary that the hockey clue was the first one I answered. That’s true, but did nobody see me get it wrong initially? I started to write an answer that didn’t even have the right length. I let out a “NOPE” as I sheepishly erased it, but I guess it wasn’t loud enough for anyone to pick up.
  • At some point during the final, there was a brief pause in my white noise as the track ended and it looped back around. I almost held a hand out and shouted for the commentary to stop, but it kicked back on, to my relief.
  • My parents were enjoying a fabulous European vacation during ACPT weekend, but my aunt and uncle, my only close family left in Connecticut, came down. It was great to see them and I’m so glad they got to watch me win. Of course, they have to come back every year now.
  • Looking at the tournament photos, I admit I’ve been wincing a lot at how big I’ve let myself get. Working on it.
  • It was a pleasant surprise to receive the 2021 trophy as well. It’s a unique beauty; well worth the wait.

Okay, I’m gonna go lie down. See you next year!

Like 2015, but good this time. (Photo: Don Christensen)