Crosswords everywhere!

To enjoy a competition, of any sort, you need to have a goal that you can shoot for. Something realistic but challenging. Something, perhaps, that’s just out of reach… but is nonetheless attainable, if the gods decide to smile. It doesn’t have to be climbing Everest or winning the Super Bowl. You can get a form of that same good feeling from nearly anything: Maybe at this week’s bowling night, I will beat my high game. Maybe this weekend I’ll conquer that goddamn dogleg on the 17th hole. Maybe I’ll play a triple-triple at the Scrabble club.

But to have any sort of expectation, you must also be ready for disappointment. You might not succeed at your goal. Indeed, you might very well blow things very, very badly. (I had a triple-triple and I just didn’t see it? Kill me now.)

The trick is to really enjoy the good things when they happen, and try to let the failures slide by. (Probably this is a difficult trick if you’ve just lost the Super Bowl.)

But you always have to have that goal, and — here’s the important part — that goal has to mean something.

All this to explain to you why I jabber on and on about wanting to be a top-100 solver at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, hosted by Will Shortz and held each year in Brooklyn, NY. It is hard to imagine a more arbitrary, ridiculous aspiration: As has been pointed out to me repeatedly over the years, it’s the percentile of your rank that really means something, because the attendance increases and decreases from one tournament to the next.

That logic has done nothing to dissuade me. And so, while my friends are climbing over each other, fighting for position on the top ten list and hoping they are fast enough to shoulder their way into the finals… I’m right there beside them, doing my own post-mortem of the puzzle we just solved, updating one and all about my chances of finally achieving a double-digit ranking. They humor me with the utmost grace.

The urgency of my mission has increased over the years because I’ve come so close so many times. A few years ago I was 111. Last year I was 122. I’m like an amateur trapeze artist that keeps almost grasping the bar, only to watch it swing away from his fingertips as he begins his descent down to earth.

I usually write these tournament reports after the whole event has ended. I am writing this now, however, in the hotel lobby late on Saturday night. We have solved six of the seven tournament puzzles; we’ll solve the last one tomorrow morning. Of the six puzzles so far, I have solved all but one of them correctly, with no errors, and at a reasonable speed. The puzzle where I had errors aplenty was the notorious Puzzle 5 — each year, it is Puzzle 5 where Will Shortz turns the difficulty up to 11. There have been years that I’ve left Puzzle 5 half empty (and believe me, I do NOT see it as half full). This year, I came pretty close to completing the damn thing, but ultimately had to leave an entire corner unfilled.

The end result of all this: With six puzzles down and one to go, I am ranked… {dramatic pause}…. 107.

One. Oh. Seven.

I am so close to the top 100 list, I could give it a kiss. There is one puzzle left. If I solve it clean and fast, I have a reasonable chance of jumping up the few places I need. If I make a stupid mistake or solve even a minute too slow, I will certainly fall back into my usual 125-ish neighborhood.

For you to know what happens, all you have to do is continue reading. I, on the other hand, have to wait ALL FREAKING NIGHT.

Now it is Sunday evening, and the tournament is over.

The final puzzle was a Sunday-size offering from Merl Reagle. My average solving time for a crossword of that size is about twenty minutes — fifteen if my mental gears are really clicking. I had no way of knowing what time I needed to bounce myself up eight places, but I figured I had to solve pretty fast.

So, somehow, I sat down and solved the whole thing in thirteen minutes. Clean, no errors. I’m not sure what the heck happened, and I’d love to figure out how to get in that zone more often. I left the solving room shoulder to shoulder with people who normally outpace me by many minutes. I was sorry that had to be the final puzzle — I was ready to solve another dozen or two.

While I was dwelling on my own personal drama, the real story of the tournament was occuring among the top solvers, who were having their usual heated battle. Only the top three contestants make the finals, and play on large whiteboards in front of an audience, competing for $5,000. There are WAY more excellent solvers than there are slots in the finals. Each year the same questions get asked: Will someone pour on the speed, leaving everybody else behind? (Just so you understand, the puzzle that I so proudly solved in thirteen minutes was completed by the top solvers in less than half that time.) Will someone make a foolish error or even, heaven forbid, leave a space blank? Who will be on top at the end of the day?

Last year, a relatively new solver named Dan Feyer cartwheeled out of nowhere into the spotlight. He led the whole tournament until the final puzzle… at which point he slowed down just enough to drop himself from first place to fourth. Nonetheless, he established himself firmly as Someone To Watch, and this year no one was surprised when he once again took the lead from the get-go. This time he never looked back. At one point he had two full minutes on the second place contestant, Howard Barkin.

In third place there was a tie between champion solver Tyler Hinman and a perennial contender named Anne Erdmann. By tiebreaker rules, Anne would squeak into the finals unless Tyler beat her on the final puzzle. He couldn’t do it, and Tyler’s five-year run as champion was officially brought to an end. (On receiving his fourth-place trophy, he was greeted with a boisterous, moving, and well-deserved standing ovation.)

Dan was widely considered the favorite going into the finals, and this is one of those instances where the “wisdom of crowds” proves to be 100% exactly right. Dan went so far as to deprive this reporter of any drama to share with you. He simply marched up to the whiteboard and started dropping in letters, brushing aside nightmarish clues like he had written them himself.

(The final puzzle was supplied by the great Mike Shenk, and some of his A-level clues were the crosswords equivalent of a Major League spitball. Try “Checking account?” for CHESS GAME. Try “Punctuation with four digits” for AIR QUOTES. Try “Gnomes” for ADAGES, which I still don’t understand. Oh, and try “Topic for actors working as waiters” for GODOT.)

In the end, it was never even close. Dan completed his puzzle, error-free, minutes ahead of his competitors, both of whom had made mistakes in any event. The story of the finals this year is not in how Contestant One made an error or got stuck in a corner and let Contestant Two pass him by — the story is instead all about Dan Feyer’s dazzling speed. He now, and until further notice, has to be considered the automatic favorite at the ACPT, leaping ahead of the Wordplay trio of Tyler and Trip Payne (5th place this year) and Al Sanders (9th). It takes away nothing from Tyler’s awe-inspiring accomplishments to point out that he often capitalized on the hasty mistakes of faster solvers. Dan Feyer is fast as hell, and he’s so accurate you might well think he has some sort of Vulcan mind meld going with whatever constructor he’s solving. Discussing it with Tyler afterward, he said, “Dan can go five in a row easily.” He’s right.

BUT, Dan is not a Vulcan. Up there in the stratosphere of the A levels, anybody can beat anybody, and because of that, not a single one of them is going to give up. I’m only sorry we have to wait a full year to see the rematch.

And where did I wind up? How did my blistering-fast-for-me performance on puzzle 7 affect my standing?

As I write this, I am standing on the sunny side of the top-100 divider: I am ranked 96.

Except, no.

Looking over the scans of my solved puzzles just now, I noticed a little problem: The judges missed an error that I made on Puzzle 5. Take a look at 58-Across. The clue for this was “Sales pitch?”, and I had absolutely no idea what this could mean. I had LIE for a little while, and also TIE and DIE and PIE. I had so many erasures in that one square that I’m amazed the puzzle scanned correctly at all. In the end, I chose DIE more or less at random, and hoped for the best.

The correct answer is PIE, as the “Sales” in the clue refers to Soupy Sales, the pie-throwing comedian. And now that I’ve seen this error, I can’t not say something, dammit, so there goes twenty points right off the bat. That’ll move me to 97. And there’s always a little more shifting and settling as other people pipe up about errors. I might hang on to my top-100 score, and by God I’m going to enjoy it while I’ve got it, but I know full well that I am hanging on by my fingernails.

And honestly, I know something else: That even if I stay in double digits, it will change nothing. I will simply arrive at next year’s ACPT, absolutely desperate to be a top-80 solver…

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  1. Squonk
    Posted February 22, 2010 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    Congratulations on your finish! And thanks for your report. You left off a crucial detail, though – how was your game Friday night?


  2. Posted February 22, 2010 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    And here I am at 99, even more likely to fall out of the double-digit club. Ah, well. (Regarding “gnome”: There are two unrelated words “gnome”, one referring to the fantastical creature found on lawns, and one meaning “adage”.)


  3. Kevin West
    Posted February 22, 2010 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    As always, and engaging read. Congrats on the placing!

    My personal goal has been merely to get a higher ranking than my Conestant Number. Fortunately, my name begins with a “W”. All that does is make it close.


  4. AmesGames
    Posted February 22, 2010 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    I would say the next meaningful goal for you might be top 10 percent, no? That would be 64th this year, which I missed to my everlasting shame by somehow leaving the blank box in an easy puzzle that you were, um, kind enough to locate for me online. But don’t let that percentage thing fool you. I had my best percentage finish ever last year, but somehow the actual number didn’t seem all that special, since it was larger than many more impressive-sounding previous finishes in a much smaller crowd. Congrats to Dan and all the winners!


  5. tabstop
    Posted February 22, 2010 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    The Friday night game was a lot of fun. The format was a neat twist on Siamese twins (although, confirm or deny: not every (pair of) words in the grid were clued, right? There was one entry in the first puzzle we wanted to check and we never saw it come up). My team definitely needed to treat the first round as a learning experience, but I thought we did pretty good on the second one. (I have no idea what our actual “standing” was, but we were happy with it.)


  6. Rubrick
    Posted February 22, 2010 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Uc: I guess this means I’ll have to give up my mental interpretation of “gnomic” as “being the sort of thing a gnome might say”?


  7. Eric Berlin
    Posted February 22, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    My game went very well, I thought — anyway, I received a lot of nice compliments, almost all of which started with some variation on, “When we saw how fast those slides were going, we thought you were out of your mind.” There was a general freakout when I started the first slideshow, but then people settled down, got into a system with their partners, and started solving, and it was all okay. The first puzzle was solved in about 6 minutes; the second puzzle in about 7:30.


  8. Eric Berlin
    Posted February 22, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Oh, and: Yes, every pair of words was clued, in both puzzles.


  9. Posted February 22, 2010 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Nice writeup. Good to see you again.


  10. Dan F
    Posted February 22, 2010 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    Awesome post — you should write a book or three! Hey, maybe I can hire you to ghost my tournament wrap-up. Great to hang out with you, and congrats on the top 100 (and the Friday game)!

    Gotta say, I didn’t understand “Gnomes” = ADAGES either, but I had just seen it the night before in an old puzzle (NYT 12/3/05). Very serendipitous! With those other brilliant clues, I needed lots of letters. On the other hand, I knew 1-Across immediately, but didn’t fill it in until I had something crossing it.


  11. David
    Posted February 22, 2010 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    Just came across your blog and found we share(d) the top 100 goal. I was 144 last year in my first try and Saturday night stood at 98th this time. Unfortunately for me I was slow on puzzle 7 and had slipped to 117 when the results were posted. Congrats on your performance.


  12. Jan
    Posted February 23, 2010 at 2:32 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed Friday night’s game – after the first dozen slides came and went, my partner and I settled down considerably and were delighted to finish. It was great to meet you – I enjoyed your Friday night efforts two years ago, too, even though I couldn’t spell Fuhgeddaboudit, or whatever. I’m looking forward to next year – too bad it’s not until mid-March, but maybe that will be better for those who couldn’t make it this year, like Squonk.


  13. Rocky Schwarz
    Posted February 23, 2010 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    I, too, had that goal of 100 — as a 64-year-old who put in a grueling work week that ended with me running to the subway Friday evening, I figured I had to be realistic. I made no mistakes, as it turns out, but until I read your blog, I didn’t understand the PIE / Soupy Sales connection – thought it had something to do with a piechart. And, no, I don’t understand the adages/gnomes thang either. (BTW, I finished 86, so I think I’m safe despite any aftershocks.)

    My “backers” were disappointed that I dropped from last year, but I pointed out that other contestants included “the guy with the puzzle in the Sunday Times magazine,” and suddenly they appreciated that this is a tough competition. As I explained, “It’s like the Olympics. Today you have a medal, and the next day you’re sliding down the mountain, crashing into the fences. It just takes a few small mistakes to move way down in the standings.”


  14. AmesGames
    Posted February 23, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    The tournament actually was traditionally in mid-March. Lots of St. Patrick’s Day puzzles over the years. It’s moved around the calendar a bit in the last few years, with early April the latest (I think) and this year the earliest.


  15. Jon Delfin
    Posted February 23, 2010 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    I’m thinking that one year we were in Stamford in August, but I might be hallucinating.


  16. yy
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    hi i amz reading the puzzelin world a winni breen


  17. AmesGames
    Posted February 24, 2010 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Jon: My first year at Stamford was 1991. I can’t vouch for anything before that.


  18. Jon Delfin
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    Checked with WILLz that the Stamford tourney did indeed occur in August one year. Seems to me I used to know why that happened, but the memory has faded.


  19. Patrick Merrell
    Posted March 28, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    Really terrific write-up, Eric, which I’ve only gotten to just now, over a month later. And congratulations on you top 100, if the standings I see now are the final ones. It has you at 96. Alas, poor Alan Arbesfeld sits at no. 101.


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