One day we’ll be watching this on ESPN2

A number of people I spoke to about the finals of this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament informed me that it was practically a point-by-point replay of last year’s finals. I wasn’t at last year’s tournament, due to illness, so I’d like to thank all of this year’s finalists for replaying the event for me. It was very exciting.

It’s a wonderful thing, watching three brilliant minds compete at the same difficult crossword, on big boards in front of an audience of six hundred puzzle fans, complete with color commentary from a pair of announcers. It’s a wonderful thing, I say, but also terrible, because I’m friends with these people. I am delighted — no, awestruck; gobsmacked; more than a little impressed — for Tyler Hinman, who brought home a fifth consecutive win. As Merl Reagle reminded us, over those five years he has solved forty tournament puzzles without making a single error. And he’s still only, what, twenty-five years old? A person can’t even think about this for long stretches of time. The mind can take only so much boggling.

But if Tyler has won, that means two other finalists lost, and in this case they were my friends Trip Payne and Francis Heaney. These two had a tie score for every puzzle straight through the weekend — the tournament’s tiebreaker rules aren’t even equipped to deal with a freak event like this. Luckily for everyone but a guy named Dan Feyer (who was winning going into the final puzzle, but who then slowed down just enough to cast himself down to fourth), no tiebreakers were required: Both Trip and Francis slipped into the finals.

The final puzzle was a beautiful, elegant themeless crossword by Patrick Berry. All three took a little time finding a way in to the grid, but after about five or six minutes it was clear that Trip had a slight edge. He had a few more words filled in, and a bit more momentum going than the other two. He’s been itching for another win, and heaven knows he deserves one, and I really started to think this might be his year.

And then he broke our hearts by writing the answer ALL ALONE for the clue “Basic.” I was baffled how he made the jump from that clue to that answer, although a few people have tried to explain to me that there’s a perfectly reasonable connection between the two. If someone wants to reassert that connection in the comments, please be my guest, because I still don’t see it. (The correct answer was ALKALINE.)

Actually, that’s not when our hearts broke, because mistakes happen on the big boards all the time. People really started groaning when Trip moved away from that corner, obviously content that he had filled it all in correctly. We had all seen enough of these finals to know what was coming: After the whole puzzle was done, he would give one more quick check, looking for blank squares, but there was no way he was going to check each answer to make sure it matched its clue. He was, in short, toast.

A few minutes later Trip was the first to complete the puzzle, and then came the terrible and unbearable moment: He removed his earphones (worn so he can’t hear the announcers) and heard not applause but Awwww. “You’re kidding!” he said to us, and then turned around to try to figure out where things had gone wrong.

Two minutes later, to my almost complete disbelief, Francis Heaney wrote ALL ALONE in his grid. Did I mention how he and Trip had been marching in lockstep throughout the entire tournament? Apparently that was going to extend to their errors. Francis has been in the finals one other time, and has consistently been in the top ten for years. He too absolutely deserves a year of being called the best crossword solver in the country, and God knows I wanted that for him. I think at this point I was clutching and pulling large clumps of my hair. See your mistake! SEE YOUR MISTAKE!

But no. Francis, like Trip, wandered away from that corner, never to return. A few minutes later he completed his grid, took off his headphones, and was informed by the audience that he wasn’t having quite as good a day as he had thought.

Meanwhile, just to add to the drama, Tyler was completely stuck. He had a mistake of his own, and it was blocking any further progress: For the clue “Item in stocks,” he had written BOND instead of BONE. By that point, Trip was sitting with us in the audience, and people were whispering to him: If Tyler can’t find his way out of this in the next four minutes, you can still win! Trip just rolled his eyes: Listen to yourselves.

There was, perhaps, the slightest molecule of chance that Tyler, believing he could do no better than third place, would simply give up and stop solving. But Tyler has been in enough of these finals to know that people make mistakes: Why, just last year he was the last to complete the grid, but the only one to do so cleanly… so he won. Maybe that would happen again this year. Anyway, he wasn’t about to give up. And he still had a long, long time to stand there and consider where he had made his mistake. This was Tyler’s tournament to lose, even if he didn’t know it.

With maybe three minutes to go before time expired, Tyler yelled, “Ohhhhh!” and it was over. He erased BOND, wrote in BONE, and saw the well-lit path through the rest of the grid. He turned around expecting the polite applause due the third-place finisher and observed himself receiving a standing ovation. Five times in a row! It was a thrill to be there to witness it.

People occasionally compare Tyler to Tiger Woods, but some folks do it ironically, maybe with a little unintended wink, as if their achievements can’t really be compared. Golf versus crosswords! How amusing to consider the two things at the same time!

I think we can dispatch with the irony now. Tyler won five grand this weekend whereas Tiger won millions last year, but they do what they do in the exact same way: They march through their respective occupations perfectly. Their opponents know that they will not make mistakes. This automatically exerts a psychic pressure that I think has a real effect on the competitors around them. Would Trip and Francis have made the same error (and I mean the same error) if it wasn’t Tyler standing at the board between them? I don’t know. Quite possibly. But I don’t think you can say so absolutely. It is not easy to share the stage with someone who hasn’t made a single mistake in five years. Congratulations once again to Tyler. You are amazing.

In less dramatic news, I came in 120th. I was error-free as long as you don’t count puzzle 5. Unfortunately, they counted puzzle 5. This is the annual killer-diller, a crossword so hard it almost isn’t a crossword anymore. It’s certainly nothing like a New York Times crossword, except perhaps for the Saturday puzzle they publish in Hell. This year, I barely got past the halfway mark of that damn puzzle.

This gets me thinking: I’m a perfectly decent solver (error-free on six out of seven puzzles! Don’t they have a trophy for that?) but I need to do something more if I expect to break in to the top 100. And what I need to do is improve at that damn fifth puzzle. So, for you crossword-loving readers, a question: If solving the Times puzzle every day isn’t enough to prepare you for the fiery chasm of puzzle 5 (and it clearly is not)… what is?

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23 Comments

  1. anderson
    Posted March 1, 2009 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    Nice meeting you at the crossword tournament. I had tons of fun, and thanks for letting my mom and me come with you and Kevin to the Chip place, which was very tasty. Also, I’m probably going to go to the puzzler’s league convention, luckily because it is very close to where I live.

    Could someone explain how “Items in stock” clues BONES? I didn’t get that one.

    Don’t forget that 120th place now is pretty much equivalent to 80th or so five years ago :)

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  2. Posted March 1, 2009 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    Stock is a soup base; to make it you simmer bones and other miscellaneous animal parts in water with herbs and vegetables. I’m glad you had a good time — you’ll like the NPL con even more, you’ll see. See you there!

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  3. tabstop
    Posted March 1, 2009 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    Speaking as someone who consistently finished puzzle #5 with two errors (I’ll have to go back through the archives to see, but I’m pretty sure the last two years in a row), I rely on panic. Or persistence, if you’re being kind. But I am certainly far more likely to just erase stuff and try over. I know this year I cleaned out the entire NE corner and started over, ’cause I didn’t like what I had. But if I’m working on a section, and nothing’s happening, and I see an answer that doesn’t fit, I’ll take out what’s there, put the new answer in, and see what happens. Even if that answer is wrong, just not having to think about the crossers will allow other right answers to form. On puzzle #1, I’ll hold on to an answer if I think it’s right. On puzzle #5, nothing’s sacred until all the other crossers are in. I don’t know if that helps, but that’s what I got.

    For the other guest: back before soup came in cans, soup came from boiling bones to make broth, or beef stock/chicken stock/etc.

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  4. Posted March 1, 2009 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for a wonderful recap of the finale!

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  5. Posted March 1, 2009 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    In my head at the time, I decided that “Basic” and “All alone” could both mean something like “Plain” or “Without extra frills”. The clue for SKATE was something like “Works on figures, perhaps”, and I thought that perhaps SLATE could be a verb meaning “Work on addition problems on a slate”, like in old schoolhouses. ROCARDO was dumb; I should have thought further than “OK, a name I don’t know” and realized RICARDO was still a name I didn’t know in this context, but was more recognizable.

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  6. Posted March 1, 2009 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    I see a connection for “Basic” = ALL ALONE, but I don’t know if it’s perfectly reasonable. UNADORNED or (to get fancy) FRILLLESS would work better, except they have a bunch of wrong letters and don’t fit.

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  7. The Dan
    Posted March 2, 2009 at 12:22 am | Permalink

    “Luckily for everyone but a guy named Dan Feyer (who was winning going into the final puzzle, but who then slowed down just enough to cast himself down to fourth), no tiebreakers were required:”

    I can think of at least one more person for whom this was unlucky. :)

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  8. Posted March 2, 2009 at 1:17 am | Permalink

    What surprised me most about the Trip and Francis errors was that they both missed SKATE, even though the clue (“Work on one’s figure, say”) was *exactly the same* as the one that appeared in BEQ’s 1/30/09 NYT puzzle. (It was fresh in my mind since it was one of my pre-tournament practice puzzles.)

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  9. uncanny
    Posted March 2, 2009 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the play-by-play. I *love* your writing. You really made the final come alive for me!

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  10. Robert Moy
    Posted March 2, 2009 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Hi Eric. I’m right behind you in the final standings as they are listed on the ACPT website though I am going to question the scoring on my Puzzle 2. (One letter may have been misinterpreted by the scorers; I did all lower case.) This is one year during which the theme of Puzzle 5 was straightforward and conceptually not difficult; you knew right away what was being asked of the solver. The problem was of course trying to think of the correct words quickly enough, which I couldn’t. It was only during the last minute and a half that I could nail the top left corner. But with the exception of “gum” (as in “sub gum” chicken) I wrote what amounted to semi-gobbledygook in the bottom right just to get the puzzle over with. So I fell from my 74th place that I achieved in 2007 and 2008.

    Still, I had a wonderful time at the contest. At the school I teach we have a mantra “If you had fun, then you won.” Though I finished (tentatively) 121st, I “won!”

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  11. Posted March 2, 2009 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Actually, as I recall, Byron Walden’s neutron bomb from a few years ago was a perfectly straightforward quote puzzle. It was simply that the quote was embedded in a rock-hard wall of insanely difficult fill words.

    Thanks for explaining “sub gum,” which I never did understand.

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  12. Gary Sherman
    Posted March 2, 2009 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Hi Eric. Great write-up. As a fellow “clean but for the Puzzle 5 debacle” solver I’m also trying to figure out what I can do to prepare for next time. I thought concentrating on Friday and Saturday puzzles would help but it obviously wasn’t enough. I’m thinking I need to work on the hardest themed puzzles out there. Any suggestions where to look?

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  13. JanglerNPL
    Posted March 2, 2009 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    I don’t think that {Basic} really works as a clue for ALL ALONE, but that sure didn’t stop me from making that same mistake when I was solving the puzzles online.

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  14. Posted March 2, 2009 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Yeah. When you’re onstage, it’s less about “Do I think this clue works perfectly?” than “Do I have a justification for putting in these letters?”, generally speaking.

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  15. Posted March 2, 2009 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Excellent writeup Eric, and great to meet you briefly! Construct more, please.

    I’m not sure there’s a good way to prepare for Saturday-plus themed puzzles. Gary, the NY Sun Friday books are a good start, though half of those are themeless. Frank Longo’s two cranium-crusher books are definitely the toughest out there, but they’re not really the same style as ACPT puzzles. Like Trip says, it’s not about solving the clue precisely, but finding the word/phrase that works with the crossings, and might fit the clue if you have time to think about it…

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  16. Jon Delfin
    Posted March 2, 2009 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    “This was Tyler’s tournament to lose, even if he didn’t know it.” Odds are he knew it, at least unconsciously. Even with the white noise and the headphones, if 600 people are cheering, you can hear it. And if 600 people are groaning, you can hear that, too.

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  17. Posted March 2, 2009 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know; I didn’t hear groans when Trip finished. My headphones were super-cranked to drown out the booming commentary. Maybe if I’d realized I was still competing for first place instead of second place, I’d have checked my grid more carefully? Who knows. I could second-guess all this for days (and probably will).

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  18. judgevic
    Posted March 2, 2009 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Great coverage Eric! Thanks again for providing your guitar, so that Harvey could play along with Amanda in her great song! Thanks also to John Lampkin for bringing his bass and his considerable knowledge about all things musical to the brain storming table as we tried to ferret out the chords for “Ken Ken.

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  19. Elaine
    Posted March 2, 2009 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    Practicing for puzzle #5: I agree with Dan F. about the Friday NY Sun puzzles. Do as many of those as you can; the book of those helped me. Also I would suggest Henry Hook puzzles, and maybe the Newsday Saturday puzzles. Jon Delfin also got me to practice guessing at hard crossings by trying to solve at least one puzzle a day using the down clues only. I find I can sometimes actually solve the Monday NY Times puzzle faster this way than the usual way.

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  20. mnemonica
    Posted March 2, 2009 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    Nice to see you this weekend, and your well-written recap is the one I’ll be sending people to. It’s no consolation to Trip and Francis, I’m sure — but holy cow, that was one compelling cliffhanger of a final.

    I ended up 155th, I think (it seems to change a point or two every time I look), a huge drop from last year. So, one step at a time. My own goal for next time is to take the extra minute and look for the %*#@ empty square. After I do that right, I’ll start thinking about how to ace Puzzle 5.

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  21. Byron
    Posted March 2, 2009 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    In one aspect, Tyler has it over Tiger. Tiger famously has never had to come from behind on Sunday to win a major. He is perfect (or very nearly so) when he has the final day lead. Tyler came from behind in Puzzle 7, and then again in the final.

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  22. Debbie
    Posted March 5, 2009 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    The reason that “basic”= “alkaline” is that it is a chemistry reference.

    Acids are acidic, and bases are alkaline. Acids and bases are the opposite in pH. Vinegar is acidic, water is the half-way point and is neutral, drano is alkaline (or basic, but the more common usage is alkaline as it is less confusing). Hope that helps.

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  23. Posted March 5, 2009 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Yes, Debbie, but my confusion stemmed from how “Basic” could lead to the wrong answer ALL ALONE, which several top solvers, including two out of three finalists, put into that spot. And now I understand even that (see Trip and Robert’s comments, above), so I think we’re all good.

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One Trackback

  1. By No wonder I don’t want this year to end on January 8, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    […] do too shabby this year, although my goal of being a top 100 solver seems more elusive than ever. The finals in 2009 were, as always, mighty exciting, and I’m looking forward to witnessing the stories that […]

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