Mar. 31st, 2017

fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT) was this past weekend and I was there to test myself again. Because I had some odds and ends to do at work (including a meeting), I took a 3 o’clock train up, which meant I arrived at the hotel just before things started. There had been an Amtrak incident (their term, not mine – an Acela train clipped a New Jersey Transit train just outside Penn Station in the morning) which made me nervous about delays, but things were pretty much on time. Checking into the hotel was rather slow, however, largely because they gave me an upgraded room. I guess puzzle people don’t travel enough for there to be all too many with my elevated Marriott status. (Which I actually get out of being a United Million Miler, but, hey, I’ll take it.)

Anyway, part of the weekend involved the Second World Palindrome Championship, which didn’t really interest me. My issue is that I care a lot more about elegance and sense than sheer length of palindromes, so tend to dislike those with proper names and odd interjections and the like. It’s sort of like times I went to see a double feature and hated the first movie, but had to sit through it to get to the second one. Palindromes are the Blue Velvet of the puzzle world for me.

Fortunately, the other part of Friday night was more like Something Wild. (And, in case you wondered, that is a real life double feature example from my misspent youth.) There was a competition with two rounds, each of which had you choosing one of three puzzles to do. The first round options were Diagramless, Puns & Anagrams, and Cryptic. It was a tough choice, but I opted for the Puns & Anagrams, thinking that I’d be more likely to get bogged down in the Cryptic. I wasn’t particularly fast, but I did finish it in time. The second round options were Split Decisions, Spiral, or Marching Bands. I chose Marching Bands and, while there were a few clues that took me a while, I got through it reasonably quickly.

After the interminable voting on palindromes, there was a wine and cheese reception, which gave me a chance to chat with a few people I see all too infrequently. They announced prizes for the evening puzzles (one for each of the six possible combinations). And then I went up to my suite and collapsed.

This is as good a time as any to note that I have never really seen the point of getting a suite upgrade when I’m traveling alone. The "junior suite"at the Stamford Marriott is also somewhat oddly designed, as there is no desk area. Nor are there enough electrical outlets. I’d rather have a table than a huge ottoman, personally. It didn’t really matter much for the weekend, but I’d have been annoyed were I staying there on a business trip.

Anyway, Saturday came. I’d made plans to meet a couple of folks for breakfast. Since the hotel didn’t have their lounge open on weekends, they had given me breakfast coupons (free for continental breakfast, but you could upgrade to the full buffet for 5 bucks), so I could treat one person each day.

But, you really want to know about the ACPT, not hear me gloating about hotel status perks. I will refrain from including spoilers here since there are still people solving at home, but I will write some and rot13 them in the comments.

Puzzle 1 was by Bruce Haight, whose name didn’t immediately conjure up anything for me, though it seems he’s had a lot of puzzles published over the past couple of years. It was fairly straightforward, though there was a bit of a trick with one entry. It had the sort of theme that didn’t really matter much to being able to solve the puzzle. But it could have helped with that one tricky entry. (Not that I actually noticed that at the time, since I knew the answers to the relevant clues.) I solved this cleanly in 7 minutes, which is decent for normal people but the top solvers can finish in 3-4 minutes.

Puzzle 2 was by Patrick Berry, who is one of my favorite constructors. He is consistently clever. This puzzle had a nice little wordplay theme, which I finished cleanly in 13 minutes.

Puzzle 3 was by Brendan Emmett Quigley, who is a very evil man. The actual theme of the puzzle wasn’t especially hard, if you have done enough tricky puzzles. The fill, however – and, specifically, parts of the theme answers - included some very unusual words. I relied a lot on the crossings and did, indeed, manage to solve it cleanly, but it took me 21 minutes.

During the lunch break, I walked over to the mall food court, which isn’t exactly exciting, but is convenient. I also bought some puzzle books. Because, you never know, there might be some horrible disaster that stops puzzles from being published and I only have enough on hand to last me a couple of years.

Puzzle 4 was by Julie Berube, a constructor who I was entirely unfamiliar with. The theme was straightforward enough, though of a kind I don’t find especially interesting. There were only a couple of squares which gave me any hesitation since either of two letters could be legitimate, but, in both cases, the crossings resolved any potential ambiguity. I’m not sure of my time on this, since it didn’t show up on the scan. I think (based on the score) that it took me 8 minutes. At any rate, I was still error free, which was very exciting.

But the dreaded Puzzle 5 was lurking. I had failed at this one, always the hardest one of the tournament, in my previous attempts at the ACPT. I was a bit relieved to see it was by Mike Shenk, whose puzzles I do (and enjoy) frequently. Then I looked at the puzzle and skipped a couple of heartbeats. But, wait, here was a clue I knew. And there was another. And, what? Could it be? A theme answer I knew that led me to what Mike was up to. Well, only partially, and it got me into trouble on the northeast corner. But the fill was falling. And, then, I realized that Mike had more up his sleeve. Yes! I figured out what was going on and, with furious erasing and replacing, I solved puzzle 5! Let me say that again. I solved puzzle 5! Admittedly, it took me 28 minutes. But I solved puzzle 5! It was one of those "now I can die happy" moments, akin to the Red Sox 2004 World Series Championship for me. Was it possible that I would actually have an entirely error-free ACPT? (I should also note that I thought this was an incredibly clever puzzle and it was my favorite of the competition.)

Puzzle 6 was by Lynn Lempel. In some ways, you didn’t really have to figure out the theme to get this one, though the wordplay was fun and did make a few of the answers go faster. I finished it cleanly in 13 minutes. At the end of the day on Saturday, I was in 130th place, which is quite a lot better than I’d done in the past.

Saturday night started with dinner. I ended up with a few other people at a South Indian vegetarian place a few blocks from the hotel. The food was good and reasonably priced. It’s worth remembering for the future.

The evening program started with more palindromes, about which the less said the better. I was happier with the trivia contest, even though there was more pop culture than is optimal for me. (On the other hand, I knew two of the music clues that other people on my team did not. And my encyclopedic knowledge of musicals proved useful.) There was also the Merl Reagle MEmoRiaL Award, which went to Manny Nosowsky and was accompanied by a lovely mini-documentary about him and his puzzles and his support to other constructors and so on.

While I had fun on Saturday night, I was up later than I should have been and then had trouble sleeping. Why, yes, I do relate to "The Princess and the Pea." Anyway, the morning came, as did breakfast. And so to puzzle 7.

Puzzle 7 is the last of the ones everybody does and is a Sunday sized one. This year’s was constructed by Joel Fagliano. As far as themes go, it wasn’t particularly difficult. I was, however, rather slow, partly because I probably should have asked for the large-size clues. It’s just as likely that it was simply lack of stamina, however. I was also being rather deliberate because I wanted to end up with completely clean solves. The bottom line is that it took me 20 minutes, which meant I slipped in the standings and finished in 141st place.

I had arranged an earlier train than I’d have liked to for reasons that aren’t worth getting into here. (In short, for somebody who travels so much, I can be kind of flaky on scheduling.) So I slipped out in the middle of the talent show and completely missed the finals. I heard that there were some interesting things in them – e.g. the B finalists being given the A clues by mistake and a critical error by Tyler Hinman in the A finals. Next time I need to schedule better.

Bottom line is that I was reasonably happy with how I did this year. I was one of only 65 contestants who had an error-free outing. And I continued to climb the ranks. I think a lot of that improvement is that, while I haven’t been trying to solve puzzles particularly quickly, I have made an effort to do more hard puzzles. For the record, here is my performance over all of the times I’ve competed:

2009 – 265 / 654 (55th percentile)
2012 – 241 / 594 (59th percentile)
2014 – 202 / 580 (65th percentile)
2016 – 171 / 576 (70th percentile)
2017 – 141 / 619 (77th percentile)

If I can keep up this pace, I could make it to B division next year!


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