On the 2023 ACPT

Hopefully, I’ve set the bar low enough at this point that nobody expects a prompt ACPT wrap-up from me. Three weeks isn’t THAT bad.

Anyway! At the end of March, I once again journeyed to Stamford, Connecticut in pursuit of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament title. Going in, the vibe for me felt a little off compared to years past. I was anxious about the record attendance that was in store and wondered if the big crowd would feel overwhelming. Moreover, for the first time, I would not be staying at the Stamford Marriott. I’d dithered in booking a room, and my punishment for my laziness was to be consigned to the hotel a few blocks away. The hotel itself was fine, but having a bit of a commute to and from the tournament was something I could’ve done without. Things wouldn’t have the rhythm of previous years.

No room to dwell on that, though. I settled into the event with Friday night socializing, having the pleasure of meeting several people I knew fairly well but had never met. As usual, I skipped the official Friday night games in favor of posting up at the bar to avail myself of its ever-glacial service. I wasn’t overly preoccupied with the competition the next day, but it lingered at the back of my mind. I trudged back to the backup hotel with an ample window to sleep.

I slept like hell. I always sleep like hell at this thing, no matter how at ease I feel, or at least try to convince myself I feel. I conked out enough not to be a total zombie, though, so I gathered my things and scooted back over to the Marriott just in time to find a spot in the ballroom. My neighbors generously offered me the end seat to accommodate my hopefully quick exits. In position. Here we go.

For me, Puzzle #1 is among the most nerve-racking of the tournament. I’m at peace with never cracking the two-minute mark, but getting under three is more or less a must at the top level. There’s pressure there, and it’s the first solve of the day, so I was eager to get through it. The time came to flip the paper, and… wait, what the hell?

If you didn’t already know, the competitors had been pranked with a comically wide-open puzzle in which the answer to every clue was BLANK. I ran through a wide range of emotions in just thirty seconds or so: confusion at the ridiculous grid pattern, panic at not knowing the first few clues I read, relief at figuring out what was going on, suspicion that I WOULD have to write something into this grid, paranoia that made me determined to use the entire minute, resignation in raising my hand along with a bunch of other people, and more relief as Will Shortz got back on the mic and confirmed that this prank wouldn’t actually count.

It was a very clever joke, but it didn’t help my Puzzle #1 nerves, and when the real first puzzle dropped, they jangled even more than usual. Fortunately, the thing about Puzzle #1 is that it’s pretty easy, and I glided to the solution in 2:40 or so.

Puzzles #2 and #3 went well enough to finish off the morning session as I kept pace with the top peloton, as it were. Dan Feyer and Paolo Pasco, though, were already distancing themselves, which should have surprised no one. Dan’s long, long list of tournament accolades spoke for itself, and everyone knew that Paolo had ridiculous speed and needed only to clean up his errors. They were definitely clearing the very high bar they’d set for themselves.

Puzzle #4 eats at me for similar reasons that #1 does. Solving under three minutes is the target, it’s right after lunch, and, while it’s certainly more a sprint than a tough test, it’s maybe a notch trickier than #1. My nerves were more under control, I felt, but the solve was indeed stickier. I fought through it and looked up at the clock. Two seconds left in the minute. Ohhhhh Lord. Immediate hand-raise. No checking. I had no choice; if I’d made a dumb mistake, it wasn’t getting fixed, and I had only myself to blame for not leaving myself enough time. In the end, I escaped.

Puzzle #5 was much the same experience I had last year: struggled quite a bit and left the room convinced I’d lost significant time on my rivals, but found that the damage was minimal at worst. The standings weren’t totally updated, and I hadn’t analyzed them in detail, but it certainly seemed to me that Dan and Paolo were in pole position, with a massive war going on for the third and final playoff spot. I had no reason to think otherwise after Puzzle #6, a largish but fairly easy challenge to finish the afternoon.

My assumptions would soon crumble. Firstly, I saw David Plotkin and I had gradually carved out a little space for ourselves over fifth place; while it certainly wasn’t over for our immediate pursuants, we had the best chance to make it on stage in third. Then came the other bombshell: David had beaten the room on #6, meaning he stood alone in third place. Whoa.

Based on the tiebreaker rules, beating David on Puzzle #7 on Sunday morning would get me into the final, but a tie, of course, meant I was on the outside looking in. David certainly knew enough to go full-bore on #7, and given his ludicrous speed on #6, it was hard to like my chances. This was the situation I wanted least: probably not in the final, but close enough that I couldn’t totally let go of the idea on Saturday night. On the plus side, I knew exactly what I had to do: maximize speed, take risks, and hope for the best.

One middling (but perhaps slightly better) night of sleep later, it was go time. I did exactly as I’d planned: pedal to the metal, not necessarily checking a clue if I’d completed a sensible entry from the crossings, always moving. Finished. Anxiously checked the clock, specifically the digits to the right of the colon.


Holy crap.

Hand up without hesitation. Now I didn’t have to beat David by a minute. I just needed to beat him by five seconds. And just a few moments later, I found out I had; in fact, I’d beaten everyone (though Paolo and Dan were no doubt playing it conservatively). Of course, an error on my part would render the whole thing moot, so there was still a question about that, but that too was allayed fairly quickly. I’d made it in. Unbelievable.

So the butterflies in my stomach would remain a bit longer, and I’ve long said that the time between #7 and the final seems to last a blessed eternity when I participate in the latter. I passed the time as best I could with breakfast with my aunt and uncle (visiting as they had last year) and taking a brief rest in my room. Of course, that still left a half-hour or so of sequestration with the other finalists and a judge or two, with no phone to fiddle with. (I’ve never known anyone to even attempt cheating at the tournament, but it makes sense to put simple measures in place.) At last, the walk up and into the ballroom for the final showdown.

You know what happened: while there was no shortage of drama, it was all on the left two-thirds of the stage. Dan edged Paolo by the slimmest of margins (as you’re no doubt aware, I very much know what that’s like), but both left me well and truly in the dust. After two years at the top, I’d head back home with the (figurative) bronze medal.

My feelings about my performance are very mixed. Puzzles #1-6 were good; I did what I had to do, for the most part. I think my only real failure was a somewhat wobbly mindset; I could have been much calmer along the way. That’s a very hard thing to quantify, but nonetheless it’s something I’d like to improve. As for Puzzle #7, I’m very proud of it. I think pulling that one out of the fire is quietly one of my more clutch performances ever at the tournament.

Which brings us to the final. I really don’t think much of anything within my capability would have changed the result; as I said, Dan and Paolo were nigh unstoppable, the class of the competition all weekend. Looking back, though, I don’t think I attacked the final rabidly enough; I didn’t have the same urgency. I told myself beforehand that I had a chance to win, but I don’t know how much I truly believed it, given the quality of my opponents and the ten-second points-based head start they both enjoyed over me. That said, I think I did all right in the final! People have commented on my “struggle,” and it certainly wasn’t the smoothest solve in the world, but overall I feel I performed decently. Dan and Paolo have a way of making good, even great, solving look downright mediocre.

So where does that leave me for next year? More practice? Eh, doubtful. Life seems to get fuller all the time, and all else being equal, I prefer more leisurely solving of greater variety. I think the biggest favor I can do myself is honing my equanimity, dispensing the adrenaline and energy only where it will help me perform rather than psych me out. That’ll also help me have more fun, which is very important to me, or at least should be. It’s all easier said than done; those who know me know how much I often grapple with what’s between my ears.

Of course, making strides there and in my solving game itself guarantees nothing. The competition is ridiculous, the margins razor-thin. (I owe my finals appearance this year to six seconds between Puzzles #4 and #7!) I’ve mentioned this year’s top four, but plenty of other threats lurk further down the standings. Several more competitors are charging harder each year. As cutthroat as the contest is, the nice thing about it is that there’s no one to truly root against; I hope I’ve been as magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat as Dan, Paolo, David, and everyone else I’ve squared off with.

And hearty thanks, as always, to Will Shortz and all of the judges and constructors. I don’t have time to savor the puzzles, but they’re invariably of high quality, and everyone does a great job of corraling well more than a ballroom’s worth of solvers.

I’ll be back. I hope you will too!

Quick hits:

  • While it wasn’t zero, my sociability felt significantly down compared to normal. I think it was a combination of staying at the other hotel, fatigue, and battling a vague depression at various points. Given how many great people are around, this was one of my biggest disappointments of the weekend.
  • One thing I don’t need to hear again in a passing conversation at the tournament is “Gonna win?” There’s just no good way to answer it. “Yes” is egotistical, “no” is a fatalistic downer, “maybe” is unsatisfying, and ignoring it is rude. I’ve taken to replying “sure” in a flat tone.
  • On Friday night, I joined a group for an escape room at Trap’t. As soon as I walked in, I realized I’d played it before. Whoops. Fortunately, it had been several years, so I remembered pretty much nothing. Plus, we won, which was not the case in my first go-round.
  • Hey, I found an error! “My Cousin Vinny” was misspelled as “Vinnie” in Puzzle #3. I circled it on the paper; evidently no bonus points were awarded for my expert proofreading skills.
  • For lunch on Saturday, I observed the noble tradition of running late and barely making it back on time for Puzzle #4. One of these days it’s gonna burn me if I’m not careful.
  • You know what was missing from this post? Bemoaning a finish with :58 or :59 on the clock! I’m always good for at least one of those, but it didn’t happen this year. I think the closest one was about a :48 on Puzzle #2. Underscores even more how fortunate I was just to scrape into third place.
  • I spent Saturday night in the bar watching the UConn men’s national semifinal, bonding with a few other fans among the tournament attendees. I would rather have won the ACPT title, but seeing the pride of my home state secure title #5 was a good consolation prize. Go Huskies.