On the 2024 ACPT

This is the part where I joke about how long it took me to write this. Feel free to suggest your own material here.

So! Once more unto the breach, my friends. Back to Stamford for the 2024 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. I approached the tournament in my usual style: looking forward to it overall, some slight nervous dread for the competition, and acceptance of the fact that I just hadn’t trained much. There were more ups and downs to come, though, and I feel the weekend is best summarized in meme form.

The "we're so back / it's so over" meme

Friday: We’re so back

I got the weekend off to a great start with Crossword Con in NYC, as I appeared on the speed-solving panel after a slate of engaging speakers. I had a great time and I think it all came off brilliantly. Here’s our talk!

(And yes, it was here that I experienced the earthquake, which was stronger than just about any tremor I’ve felt in over fifteen years in San Francisco.)

After enjoying some socializing at the post-Con party, I took the train to Stamford and the familiar walk to the hotel. I was already doing better than last year because I’d actually managed to book a room in the Marriott this time instead of being consigned to the hotel down the street. I settled into the surroundings and enjoyed the company of my puzzling friends at dinner and the bar.

Friday night: It’s so over

That call on Aaliyah Edwards was utter horseshit and you will never convince me otherwise. Have to let the players decide the game. My only consolation is that nobody was stopping Carolina anyway.

Anyway, I went to bed at a reasonable hour, purely out of fatigue rather than a desire to rest up for the tournament solving.

Puzzle #1: We’re so back

I hustled to the ballroom in the morning to secure a halfway-decent seat. I got one in the back row near some friends, which was just fine by me. What was unusual was that those friends included fellow aces Dan Feyer and Stella Zawistowski; historically, for whatever reason, I’ve kept my distance from my rivals while in the competition space. Nonetheless, I certainly wasn’t averse enough to it to go elsewhere.

I consider it a tradition to struggle mightily on the Saturday NY Times on tournament weekend. Knocks my confidence straight to hell just before diving into things. Great way to do it; highly recommended. I expected more of the same when I saw Byron Walden’s name atop the puzzle, but I actually performed on it pretty well, if not world-beatingly so.

I’ve said before that the easy puzzles make me more nervous than the hard ones because we all know what the benchmark is. If you pass three minutes on this one, you know you’re behind the eight-ball right out of the gate. The slightly unconventional 15×16 size made me more uneasy still. Nonetheless, the solve passed remarkably smoothly, and I finished very comfortably around 2m30s. So far so good.

Puzzle #2: It’s over

Did I let my guard down after a straightforward opening solve? I don’t think so, but the fact remains that I dropped time here. I knew it even as I was solving; just too much hesitation, too much erasing, too much grappling with the theme. I could feel it piling up. Looking at the standings now, though, it seems I lost a minute to only two people. Even so, I knew the margins were razor-thin, this year especially.

Why especially? Well, in addition to the usual complement of title threats, Will Nediger was making his live ACPT debut. His triumphs in online tournaments are legion, and we all correctly figured that the skills would translate. The way I saw it, getting past at least one of Will, Dan, and Paolo Pasco was incredibly daunting, as I had a pretty poor record against those guys. And that’s not even considering Stella, David Plotkin, Andy Kravis, Joon Pahk, and anyone else who could beat me.

Puzzle #3: It’s so over

Here was a good chance to pick up time. If I could bear down and get through this one well, I can get back into the thick of things.

Yeah, that didn’t happen. My time seemed to be bang-average, so I knew I’d failed to make a move, but I didn’t know that this one actually did more damage than #2. I lost another minute to Will and Paolo AND dropped one to David and Dan on top of that. Now I was really in a tight spot. I had four tries left to beat at least two of four incredibly strong contestants.

Oh well; time for lunch! I appreciated the extra time we got this year; there was no rush back for the next puzzle. It always takes away from the relaxation to keep checking my watch.

Puzzle #4: It remains so over

Well, this one, the second-easiest of the tournament, was probably not the place to gain time. Gotta just keep pace on this one. I was dismayed when I finished inside four minutes and not three, but that turned out to be par. Paolo, though, did finish inside three; it should be abundantly clear to you at this point that he is absurd.

Puzzle #5: We’re so back

This is where the rubber meets the road. If this one threw me for a loop, I could more or less consider myself finished. And I responded… by beating the room with the only sub-five-minute time. I didn’t think that would ever happen again, even though I had the same thought when I pulled out a similar result in the online event in 2021. The theme was of vital importance, just as it was then. I figured it out quickly and cruised from there. With the tiebreaker rules (comparing individual score in reverse order of the puzzles), I was suddenly back in the driver’s seat…

Puzzle #6: It’s so over

…and then I jumped right the hell back out of it again. I again couldn’t keep pace with Will, Paolo, David, and Dan. What’s more, the latter, knowing he needed to get back ahead of me, pulled out an unbelievable sub-four solve to gain TWO minutes on me. I was right back to where I’d started the afternoon, with only one chance left to pick up at least two spots. I knew it was pretty much impossible and I resigned myself to being a mere spectator in the championship round.

Saturday night: We’re so back

I enjoyed dinner with a large group before sauntering back to the hotel to support my friend Andrea Carla Michaels as she received the Merl Reagle MEmoRiaL Award for achievements in puzzlemaking. I was enjoying the great Don Christensen’s slideshow of decades of ACPT photos and idly checking the standings… wait, I was fourth? How?

Dan’s was the name unexpectedly missing from the cluster above me. In his blistering Puzzle #6 solve, he had some bad luck in placing a plausible but wrong answer that happened to make perfectly valid crossing entries, causing him not to check those clues in the name of speed. It could absolutely happen to any of us, but on this occasion it brightened my hopes considerably.

They were still pretty dim, though. It was exactly the same situation I faced last year: beat David outright on Puzzle #7 or miss the final, assuming no errors anywhere. I did it then, but the timing fell perfectly for me, a matter of seconds. I thus considered the odds very much against me that I could do it for a second consecutive year.

UConn beat the snot out of Alabama. I hung out a little bit more and then went to bed kind of on the early side.

Puzzle #7: It has never been more over

I guess I’m kinda spoiling things with these headers, huh? Oh well.

I got to the ballroom at the ungodly hour (by Pacific standards) that ACPT Sunday demands and claimed more or less the same spot. As I fidgeted waiting for the puzzle to come, I spied David a few rows in front of me. Whatever happened, I would know my fate right away.

So here we go. I raced, knowing that every second was precious, trying to stifle my instincts to do the safe things while solving. I was just finishing up when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a judge’s movement towards David. In that moment I knew two things: I wasn’t making the final, and the dreaded :59 would pop up for me at the worst imaginable time.

I filled the last square. I looked up. Yup. Shit. Well, at least I had some time to verify my solve.

Hey, you know that “I filled the last square” sentence above? Sure you do; you just read it. Anyway, I lied. A few seconds into my desultory, defeated check, I saw an empty square. I damn near burst out laughing. Now I was grateful I hadn’t finished two seconds faster. I absolutely would have hastily turned it in, still not had the time I needed to beat David, and plummeted in the standings because of a friggin’ blank. Amazing.

Anyway, as it was, David’s clean solve was soon confirmed. He, Will, and Paolo would be on stage and we were guaranteed a first-time champion. I want to underline how emphatically David slammed the door in my face on Puzzle #7. His performance forced me to solve a 21×21 puzzle in under five minutes, and even at my most effectively reckless, or recklessly effective, that was never going to happen. I was drawing dead, and, as mentioned above, I got a bit lucky just to hang onto fourth place.

Puzzle #8: It’s over, but we’re back

Dan and I did something we’d literally never done before: sit together in the audience during an ACPT final. Of course, we cracked into the A Division final as the C Division began. I found it hard to summon the gusto for speed-solving now that the competitive portion of my weekend was over, but any way you slice it, Dan finished comfortably ahead of me, and I’m confident that my solve, while respectable, would not have been good for anything but a distant third were I on stage.

But who gives a damn? This was all about our three finalists. I admit being slightly partial to David, since he’s been on the verge of a title for years now, but I consider the whole trio to be excellent humans. In the end, Paolo pulled out a well-deserved wire-to-wire win, swiftly avenging his heartbreaking split-second defeat last year. Will and David also acquitted themselves extremely well and the final was better for not having my just-happy-to-be-there ass up there. My sincere congratulations to all three of them.

While there’s inevitably disappointment in not winning a championship that I, at least at some point, was in contention to win, I had a great time at the tournament. It was great to see Will Shortz recovering so well from a February stroke; I’m sure we’ll see him at the National Puzzlers League convention in Dallas in July and that he’ll be in even better shape. I’ve deliberately avoided spoiling the puzzles here, of course, but they were their usual high quality, with plenty of joy to be had even as we contenders blazed through them. And my thanks to the volunteers as well; I know firsthand that it isn’t easy.

I have a lot to be proud of this year. I brought home the West title, and in particular that #5 solve should be plenty to convince me that I’m still a threat at this thing. I’ll spare you my usual hand-wringing about my motivation and my lack of training and my perceived returns from more training and that crap. I’m trying to spend my time deliberately; maybe that’ll involve more speed-solving and maybe it won’t. Above all, this is a fun hobby and must remain so.

What pleases me most about the weekend was the simple fact that I did have a good time. As I wrote last year, despite a bronze-medal performance in the tournament, I felt kind of off and battled a weird depression for a large part of my stay in Stamford. This time around, I was able to enjoy socializing a lot more, and I kept my nerves in check better than I ever have. I don’t need to be on the podium to consider it a weekend well spent, and I’m glad to prove that to myself again.

Monday: We’re so back

I was lucky enough to see eclipse totality in Arkansas with my lady. Well worth it, and I checked off another US state to boot.

UConn Huskies. National champions. Again. Blue blood.

Tuesday morning: We’re back… home

Of course, my eclipse detour made for a pretty long trip back to San Francisco, and I can’t say I was at my most effective on Tuesday. But it was a trip I’m happy to look back on as a cornerstone of my 2024.

That’ll do it from me. If you want to read more, Hoang-Kim Vu’s Defector article is excellent, and Rose Maura Lorre’s Wirecutter piece (including the video) is a lot of fun too.

[Addendum: Shortly after I publicized this post, I heard the sad news that we lost Nancy Schuster, the tournament’s first champion, on April 26. She was a giant in crosswords and a mainstay at the tournament; she will be sorely missed.]