What’s a 9,674-letter essay for “What happened at this year’s crossword tournament?” Well, compared to last year, there wasn’t quite as much drama. I don’t know how there could have been, short of Trip Payne and Al Sanders getting into a knife fight. But it was a fine, fun, eventful weekend… so let’s start the recap!
Friday Night. The puzzles at the tournament don’t start until Saturday morning, and so Friday night is set aside for other games and events. This year we had a trivia bowl, with the winning teams moving to the stage for a playoff hosted by Ken Jennings, famed Jeopardy! champion. I teamed up with Francis Heaney and his wife Rose, and New York Sun crossword editor Peter Gordon. We were a strong team, but we came up just a couple of questions shy of moving on to the final round — which is probably for the best, since the difficulty level of the trivia ramped up alarmingly for the finalists.
Then it was on to the near-obligatory sudoku part of the evening. In a coup to rival Ken Jennings’s appearance, Will got Wayne Gould himself to fly in from Hong Kong to talk about the puzzle. This is the man who convinced a British newspaper to run the puzzle, an event that directly sparked the worldwide craze. Love sudoku or hate it, there is no doubting Gould’s importance among the pantheon of puzzlers. I was genuinely interested to hear what this man had to say.
And here’s what he had to say: Not much. Considering that he came here from the other side of the world to talk to us, and considering what he has achieved, Gould gave a speech that was almost awesomely information free. He made a couple of sudoku-related jokes, and then went into detail on the gigantic question of whether “sudoku” should have been one, two, or three words. And that was it.
However, Gould did supply one of my favorite lines of the weekend, delivered apparently without irony: “Wow! I can’t believe how many people have gathered here to play sudoku!” Uh… yes. We’re here for the sudoku. Please pay no attention to that banner directly over your head that reads AMERICAN CROSSWORD PUZZLE TOURNAMENT.
Whatever puzzle we had come here for, it was sudoku’s turn in the spotlight, and a mini-tournament was held. Somebody won.
The Crossword Puzzles. Saturday morning, the tournament officially began. As always, there were six puzzles on Saturday, and a seventh Sunday morning.
This year, the crosswords fell into two distinct categories: 1) Easy; and 2) “I Wonder If I Can Slit My Wrists With This Pencil.”
Puzzle 1, as is traditional, was the warm-up. I skated through it in six minutes and left feeling like a player.
Puzzle 2 crushed me like a cockroach. I never came close to finishing it. Worse, when I told people how much trouble I had, instead of receiving the empathy and sympathy I was looking for, they cocked their heads to one side and said, “Really?”, as if I had said I was still unsure how to tie my own shoes. Apparently, what was disasterously difficult for me was just another crossword for most everybody else. My goal each year is to improve on my standings from the previous year, and to place in the top 100 players. I could see that these goals had already crumbled to dust and blown away.
Puzzle 3 I at least completed, but it was a near thing. I didn’t catch on to the complicated theme until mere minutes were left on the clock. I went into the lunch break wondering if there was a nice word search tournament somewhere I could enter.
Puzzle 4 was blessedly uneventful. It was a mere garden path leading up to the dark, evil castle that was Puzzle 5. How hard was this puzzle? I shall tell you. This year the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament attracted just shy of 500 participants. I have it on good authority that fewer than 40 of them finished the puzzle perfectly. A surprisingly straightfoward quote puzzle, the grid was nonetheless filled with a killer assortment of obscure words, many of which crossed each other. “Endangered African animal” crossing “Russian pianist Yablonska” — lovely stuff like that. Eugene Maleska’s revenge. When time ran out, most of the participants were still sitting there, utterly stymied.
After that, everyone needed a breather, and Puzzle 6 provided one. That was it for the day. We then came back on Sunday morning for Puzzle 7, which I once again was unable to complete. I went into the final puzzle ranked 239 — down from 110 last year. I’ll be lucky if I net out at 250 overall.
Just wait until next year! Look out, 249!
Wordplay. (This part contains spoilers for the movie.) Saturday night was a screening of the upcoming documentary about crossword puzzles and the tournament, Wordplay. I was predisposed to like this movie, and of course I did. It is, after all, a movie about my own friends. Here’s a few other semi-random reactions I had as I watched the film:
- The moviemakers really excelled in displaying the warmth of the crossword community. Wordplay will inevitably be compared to Spellbound and the Scrabble documentary Word Wars, but whereas those movies were all about the battle to be the best, Wordplay ultimately demonstrates that the competition — while important and of high stakes to a select few — is secondary to the mere fact that we have all gathered together to hang out in this hotel, friends and equals.
In fact, I wonder if all this camarederie might hurt the prospects for this lovely little movie. It’s a rare movie that attracts large crowds because everybody in it is so darn nice.
- The celebrity interviews, even Jon Stewart, didn’t do much for me — they were neither harmful nor particularly interesting. I did like watching all of them solve the very same puzzle that we watched Merl Reagle create earlier in the movie.
- Also on the subject of the celebrity interviews, I have a question: Does Ken Burns have a special room in his house where he stores all the bullshit he spews? Otherwise, what does he do with it all?
- At one point in the movie, someone says something like, “If you asked everyone at the tournament what their favorite crossword is, every single person would say the New York Times.” This was followed by a high-pitched whistling that, after a moment, I realized was the sound of steam blowing out of Peter Gordon’s ears.
- Yes, yes, it’s my old bugaboo of proper credit for crossword constructors. A good chunk of the movie is dedicated to the classic “CLINTON/BOB DOLE” crossword of 1996, but at no point does anybody bother to note the name of the person who made this puzzle. We are told that there is such a thing as a crossword constructor — we follow Merl Reagle as he creates a puzzle from scratch. But apparently one of the most famous Times puzzles, and the one Will often cites as one his all-time favorites, dropped out the sky, carried by a stork.
- There are a couple of shots in the movie that I found quite strange. I didn’t have a problem with Trip’s “Q” monologue — it seems perfectly natural for a serious crossword lover to expound on the eccentricities of particular letters — but during the scene, Trip stands next to a portrait, which we occasionally see in close-up and is in all ways filmed as if it was an icon of great importance. And unless I’ve missed something, at no point does anybody say who the man in the painting is. The inventor of the letter Q? We don’t know. It’s a very bizarre juxtaposition.
- The final shot of Ellen Ripstein shows her walking away in a mild Manhattan rain shower, holding an umbrella that is half destroyed. It’s clear from the post-movie discussion that the director, Patrick Creadon, has great affection for all the people he interviewed for the movie. So I am definitely confused why he chose to make Ellen — who he must know to be a smart, competent, level-headed woman, completely at home in New York City — look like a lost waif.
- Man, but the whole bit during the finals was well done. Even knowing what was going to happen — maybe even especially because I knew what was going to happen — I found myself close to tears as Al Sanders discovered, and reacted to, his tragic mistake. This part of the movie is just going to floor people.
- Hey, that was me in the background there! Can we rewind and see that again?
The Finals. The big news that will emerge from this year’s crossword tournament is that Ken Jennings won the C division. Except I can’t imagine that news organizations — the same people who routinely use the phrase “WORD NERDS” in their headlines — can even grasp the concept of a C division. So what we’ll see instead is “Ken Jeninngs Wins National Crossword Title,” with the other winners mentioned in the second to last paragraph, if at all.
That’ll be a shame, because while Ken Jennings definitely deserves kudos for his performance, the real winners had a much tougher hill to climb.
Let me back up. There are three playoff rounds on Sunday morning — first we see the top three contestants from division C, then the top three from division B, and finally the cream of the crop, the top three A players. The same puzzle, by Mike Shenk, was used all three times, but the clues were rewritten for each group. I solved the division C puzzle in about 7 minutes. Ken Jennings solved it in under 5.
This same grid, with the same exact words, was reclued for the A players so that two of the finalists couldn’t finish it at all. For instance, 1-Across was the phrase FINAL EXAM. The C-level clue was “Most important factor in a course grade, usually.” The B-level clue was “It may make the grade.”
The A-level clue was simply: “Senior moment?”
The three finalists this year were last year’s winner, Tyler Hinman; first-time finalist Kiran Kedlaya; and Ellen Ripstein, who just last year wondered if she would ever be competitive in this group again. (The answer is “Yes.”) Whereas groups B and C launched themselves into the puzzle with gusto, the final three took a good thirty seconds before any of them wrote anything. The clues were just too tricky — there seemed to be no footholds available on this steep, slippery mountain. At one point, Kiran had several words written here and there around the grid, and every one of them was wrong.
Slowly, slowly, slowly, they all found their way, albeit with lots of slip-ups and miscues. The clue “Enough!” ending with IT… well, that must be STOP IT, right? All three finalists had that at some point, and all three were wrong: It was DROP IT.
My favorite clue in the grid was for the entry UNO DOS TRE. In the much easier C puzzle, this was clued simply as “Numbers before quattro.” The A-level puzzlers were greeted with the clue “Count of Monte Cristo.”
Halfway through the allotted 15 minutes, Tyler started to pull away. He had a fair number of mistakes in his grid, things he would have to correct later on, but he had made the most progress overall. And when he started filling in letters in that final, nasty corner — the one containing FINAL EXAM and UNO DOS TRE — I knew it was all over. Ultimately, Tyler was the only one of the three to finish the puzzle at all. Kiran came in second with only a couple of errors, and Ellen placed third with a small handful of empty boxes in her grid as time expired. As Will Shortz noted, that makes Tyler the second-youngest champion in tournament history — the youngest, of course, also being Tyler, after his win last year. Next year he stands a good chance of being the third youngest winner, although Lord knows many smart, talented, powerful solvers intend to stand in his way.
And in conclusion… So, I solved seven puzzles competitively this weekend, and over half of them humiliated me. I’m likely to drop over 125 places from where I was last year. And the first thing I did when I got home was wonder what puzzles I had around that I might solve. But I’ll continue to call this a “hobby” as long as you indulge me. See you next year.