Crossword Solver’s Showdown: The ACPT Finals

There’s always drama at the annual crossword tournament, no matter how funny that sounds to people who have never been to one. Over the years, we’ve seen down-to-the-wire finishes, tragic mental errors, come from behind victories, and the occasional total rout.

There was drama at the crossword tournament this year, too, but the bulk of it occurred long before the finalists performed for a large audience on oversized crossword grids. What we mainly got from the finals themselves was déjà vu: In the top-ranked A division, we had the same three contestants as last year: reigning champ Dan Feyer, five-time champ Tyler Hinman, and crowd favorite and multiple-time finalist Anne Erdmann. To the casual observer, it might have seemed pre-ordained — as if only these three solvers were talented enough to make it to this moment. But that’s not the case at all. In fact, considering everything that happened this weekend, it was downright amazing that these three people should be back on stage together.

Out of 600 or so competitors, there are a dozen solvers, maybe fewer, who have the blazing speed and nimble brains necessary to make it to the winner’s circle. While the rest of us compete primarily against ourselves, hoping to do a little better than last year’s rankings, these dozen solvers are edging past each other, dropping back, fighting for every precious point.

For those of us who are not A solvers, trying to keep track of what is happening in that topmost tier is a bit like watching an aerial dogfight from the ground: You get a general sense of chaotic action, but it’s hard to understand exactly what is going on. All we knew for a while — and nobody could quite believe this — was that Dan Feyer had made a mistake on puzzle 3. Jaws dropped and eyes widened when the early scoring was released: The reigning champ, whose lightning-fast speed solving had yanked the tournament into a new era, was sitting in twelfth place.

And then it came out that two-time finalist Anne Erdmann had made a mistake, too — on the very first puzzle, the softball of the tournament. Or at least she says she made a mistake. The judges didn’t think so. Based on what Anne told me, I don’t think so, either: She clearly knew the word, but simply didn’t write the letter O as neatly as she might have. But the competitors in the ACPT are traditionally honest to a degree that would leave a lot of people dumbfounded. Anne didn’t want to get to the finals on a maybe, not even a 95% probably. At her insistence, points were deducted from her score, and she sank in the rankings as well.

So for a while, the oh-so-predictable finals weren’t predictable at all. Instead, it looked like there were going to be several new finalists up there — maybe David Plotkin, who had won the B division last year in such dramatic fashion (he came in first by one-tenth of a second); maybe Francis Heaney who had appeared in the A finals several times but has never won; maybe even Al Sanders, a multitime finalist whose near win/tragic loss was fully documented in the movie Wordplay. With the favorites seemingly out of the way on errors, any of them or several others, with a little luck, could have made it into the final three.

But then Anne solved the third puzzle faster than almost anybody, by a full minute. She then followed that up by solving another puzzle faster than almost anybody, by a full minute. And so even with her costly “mistake,” when the points were totaled up, she was right back in the game. As for Dan, he beat all but one person (Anne, in fact) on puzzle 5 — by tradition, the weekend’s killer. Then he beat the entire room on puzzle seven, gaining not one but two full minutes on his competitors. (A rare feat, at that level.) And so, once again, once the points were calculated, it was Dan near the top of the rankings — up from twelfth place to second place in a few quick, unlikely-for-just-about-anybody-else jumps.

Should I mention that most years, all three A-division finalists have perfectly clean error-free puzzles? That accuracy is considered key? And now we had two solvers with errors, but who had solved the other puzzles so damn fast that it ultimately didn’t make any difference.

And that’s how we wound up with our déjà vu final. Tyler, Dan, and Anne. (I didn’t tell you Tyler’s story because it’s so short: He sat down, solved puzzles really fast, and never made any mistakes. I don’t think he’s made an error in at least eight years.)

With the three finalists in place, Dan was immediately deemed the favorite to win. Once the timer started and the solving began, though, it looked like Tyler might reclaim the throne. For a while, Tyler looked more confident going up against Merl Reagle’s tricky final puzzle, knocking out whole corners while Dan Feyer bounced around, looking for a place to hook into. But then a single error knocked Tyler off track: given the entry TVEXECS, Tyler wrote ADEXECS, and it took far too long for him to see the problem. The error turned the middle of his grid into mishmash: Suddenly, none of his answers would fit. A fair amount of time passed in which Tyler made no progress at all.

Meanwhile, Dan kept chugging along — not at a burning hot pace, but with no real pauses, either, and with every word exactly right. He crossed the finish line while Tyler was still recovering from his mistakes. As for Anne, she has been in the finals three times now. Her first time on stage, she didn’t even finish the puzzle: She was clearly uncomfortable with this awkward arrangement, solving in front of an audience and on giant whiteboards propped up on easels. (I got to do it once, and I’ll confirm that it is very different from standard paper-and-pencil solving.) Her second time in the finals — last year — Anne finished the puzzle, but long after her competitors. This year she gave Tyler a run for his money for second place. Considering she only gets to hone this talent once a year, she is improving at a fairly dramatic clip.

So yes, the final outcome may have seemed a tad predictable — wow, Dan Feyer winning for a third time? Imagine that! — but nobody could have predicted the way we got there. And with this new evidence that Dan is capable of making mistakes, that sound you hear is a dozen top-notch solvers, already sharpening their knives for next year.

Congrats to Dan Feyer, and also to both Tyler and Anne for their performances.


Before you ask: Yes, the puzzles I presented Saturday night at the tournament will be made available here on this Web site, probably tomorrow. I’ll have an answer sheet prepared by then as well. The eight-puzzle mini-hunt seemed fairly successful, with about forty teams getting the final answer in the requisite hour. Francis Heaney and Lorinne Lampert were first past the finish line, followed by Andrew Feist, impressively doing the whole thing solo. If you’ve already solved the puzzles, I hope you enjoyed them, and if you haven’t yet, I hope you give them a shot when I post them here soon.

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  1. Kevin West
    Posted March 18, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    As you know, I have not attended in quite a while. It was very interesting watching the shock unfold on FB, and I only have a few “friends” who were posting.
    Thanks, as usual, for the article.
    PS, Where is Jo the? I was looking at past standings, and he hasn’t attended in a while…


  2. Lance
    Posted March 18, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    You know, something struck me while reading your account. You’re right that the drama among the top dozen is interesting–who’ll make it? Who’ll slip?–and that’s true in a lot of competitive events. The difference between the ACPT and something like March Madness is that in March Madness, you watch the creme de la creme compete to see who’ll be at the very top. You don’t watch 600 teams in a single tournament to narrow down the top ten (or sixteen, or what have you). Instead, teams that aren’t in the same league as the top are literally not in the same league: there’s a reason that I got mail about MIT making it to the final four of the Division III basketball tournament, where they faced UW-Whitewater.

    That’s a big part, I think, of why I haven’t gone to the crossword tournament in something like a decade. Watching the top competitors in a field compete is exciting, it’s something I’d follow, it’s something I’d occasionally buy tickets for…but you’d better believe there’s no way I’d follow the baseball pennant races if, just to do so, I had to put on a uniform and go out on the field myself.


  3. Dan
    Posted March 18, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    I, in turn, wouldn’t mind putting on the uniform even though my chances of ever winning another prize at this point is slim… or at least I wouldn’t mind if the registration plus two nights in a hotel wasn’t now pushing SEVEN HUNDRED DOLLARS. I sure miss Stamford, and I’m sure looking forward to my first Lollapuzzoola.


  4. Dan
    Posted March 18, 2012 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

    (Actually, that figure’s misleading since most people split a hotel room at least two ways. But still, it seems ridiculous that the person who comes in third in the entire tournament barely recoups their onsite costs.)


  5. Todd
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    I have the same impression of ACPT that Lance articulated, and I have a great time cheering on the all solvers, not just the division final favorites, from my living room.

    I’m glad that you’re posting your Saturday event, Eric. I haven’t read much about other happenings at the tournament — the Friday events, after-hours gaming, the talent show, etc.


  6. Dan F
    Posted March 20, 2012 at 1:01 am | Permalink

    Every year I’m amazed that you write what’s usually the best wrap-up/essay about the ACPT on the train ride home. Then I remember that you’re a professional writer. But it’s still impressive.


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