(Contains spoilers for the final puzzle of the tournament.)
Hundreds of people compete each year at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and the vast majority of these people have no expectation of winning anything. A couple dozen people will win trophies, and precisely nine people will get to compete onstage in the finals — three each from the A, B, and C divisions. Everyone else will watch from the audience.
But everyone’s gotta have a goal, heading into the tournament, even if it’s as general as “improve a little” or “not fall back too much” or “try not to make any errors.” My goal tends to take the form of certain solvers around me, people I have nominated as my personal pace cars: They can be found near me in the standings (by which I mean, ahead of me). These are the people I compete with, a mini-tournament within the larger tournament, except that my rivals don’t know that I am gunning for them.
It’s a random group of friends and strangers. My friend Kevin Wald is one of them; so is the former New York Times ombudsman Dan Okrent, with whom I have exchanged maybe ten words over the years. There’s a particular woman from Connecticut on my list — I always look for her name when I’m checking the scores, like some kind of crossword stalker. Punch line: I don’t even know what this woman looks like.
But if there’s one person I’m really trying to catch, it’s my friend Amy Goldstein. To me, she represents a skill level I might realistically attain someday, but only if I perform at my very best.
Each year, it seems possible: For the first few puzzles of the tournament, I am able to keep pace with her, or at least not drag too far behind.
But then comes puzzle 5.
Puzzle 5 is traditionally the killer of the ACPT. There have been years where the timer runs down to zero and most of the solvers are still sitting there, baffled and shaken. There have been years where I cannot so much as figure out the puzzle’s theme — I’ll poke around at the grid, filling in words here and there, knowing with certainty that my place in the standings will once again plummet.
Generally you can find my name somewhere around 100th place, give or take. Last year, Amy said it plain: “If you can just beat puzzle 5,” she told me, “you’ll be thirty or forty places higher!” In other words, where she is.
Well, this year I beat puzzle 5. I KO’ed it like I never have before.
Solvers were given half an hour to solve it. Many years, I need every second and still have blank squares when I hand in my paper. (To say nothing of the squares that are filled in with wild guesses.) This year, I completed the puzzle in about fifteen minutes — perfectly. I found myself leaving the tournament room side-by-side with some really great solvers. I couldn’t believe it. This was the puzzle 5 I’d been waiting for. And I beat Amy by a solid ten minutes. Ten minutes! That is an eternity in a crossword tournament. I couldn’t wait to see the scores! I couldn’t wait to see the rankings!
When the scores for the first day were posted, it turned out I was right: I had thoroughly torn apart puzzle 5…
…and I had mistakes on not one but TWO earlier puzzles, puzzles I had thought I’d solved clean.
End result: A ranking of 97, pretty much where I am every year.
There’s one last tournament puzzle on Sunday morning, and I solved it without errors, boosting myself up to a still-unofficial 92, a dozen spots lower than last year’s 80. It’s hard to believe that I solved puzzle 5 perfectly — and, for me, blazing fast — and still managed to do worse overall than last year. One of these years I have got to get my act 100% together. I think that’s going to be next year’s goal.
For a while, it seemed as if this year’s Division A finals would be a replay of last year, and the year before that. The same three people stood at the top of the rankings. Dan Feyer was first, to no one’s surprise. Before the start of the tournament, Dan had demurred a little about his chances — David Plotkin had been outsolving him of late, he said, and Joon Pahk, too, was reporting impressive speed-solving times. That might well have been true, but something about the tournament brings out the very best in Dan. When the scores were tallied up, no one was even close to him.
In second place was five-time champ Tyler Hinman. Shortly after puzzle 7 ended on Sunday morning, I found him slouched in a chair in the lobby, looking very much like someone resigned to his fate. This would be Tyler’s third time facing Dan in the finals. Dan had trounced him every time. It was certainly possible to imagine Tyler coming out on top — anything can happen up there, as we have learned over the years, and Tyler is an extraordinary solver — but if so, the finals would surely be a heart-stopping squeaker. Dan is not one to be left in the dust. More likely, he’s the one doing the leaving.
And in third place — for the
third fourth year in a row — was Anne Erdmann, a sweet, good-natured woman who, in past years, had seemed somewhat at a loss during the finals, which is played on large whiteboards at the front of a crowded, boisterous room. Solving up there is a radically different experience from solving in your seat, surrounded by people but essentially alone. Anne is astonishing at regular speed-solving, but she struggled during her previous appearances in the finals. Still, she now had plenty of experience at this, and nobody was dismissing her.
Dan, Tyler, Anne. Deja vu.
Except that it wasn’t deja vu, because when the final puzzle started, it was Tyler, and not Dan, who exploded out of the gate. Tyler had the upper right corner of the puzzle done with lightning speed, while Dan sputtered and jumped around, trying to find a place that would give him some traction. As for Anne, she had one word written in the grid, and it was wrong.
The puzzle itself was a grade-A killer. Constructor Kevin Der had laced his crossword with dangerous, easy-to-misread clues. “Challenge for one who’s lost” doesn’t refer to somebody lost in the woods, but rather somebody who has lost money — the answer is RECOUPING. “Activity involving three steps” might not lead you immediately to CHACHA.
The final crossword of the ACPT is always themeless, and themeless puzzles sometimes have a nasty little trait — you can walk your way through one corner of it practically with your eyes closed, and just as you think, “Man, I am acing this!”, that’s when you discover the rest of the puzzle isn’t nearly as easy.
With a quarter of the puzzle locked away, Tyler jumped into the rest of the grid and discovered it was made out of bricks. He had a few letters in place thanks to his earlier work, but they didn’t seem to be helping. Jittering in place, radiating comic-book lines of energy, he jumped around the grid, trying to find a new place to break in. There wasn’t any.
Meanwhile, Dan had performed a magic trick. Dan is very calm and still when he’s at the big board (certainly in comparison to Tyler), and it’s easy to let yourself be fooled: Because he is not moving fast, he must not be solving fast. But then you suddenly become aware of just how much progress he’s made. I glanced away for a moment — I swear it was just a moment — and when my eyes went back to the board, it was a whole lot closer to solved. Great swaths of white had been filled in with letters, all correct. “When did THAT happen?” asked the person next to me, also caught off guard.
That was it — Tyler’s advantage was lost, and he would not get it back. But Anne was not out of the picture: She had corrected her every mistake, and had picked up speed as she went along. And what’s this? Dan has an error in his grid?! Indeed, yes. Needing a president’s initials, Dan had gone with DDE instead of FDR. Was it possible that this might trip him up, allowing Anne to pass him? Dan stood back, trying to figure out what had gone wrong. Anne kept writing away. She had a whole corner left to fill, and then some, but she was clearly rolling. The audience began to murmur, and everyone sat forward in their seats.
But Dan spotted his minor mistake, corrected it, and broke into the final section of his grid. That was the end: Within seconds, he had claimed the championship for a stellar fourth year running.
And Anne came in second, which was a delight to see. She seemed so nervous her first year in the finals — she wasn’t able to complete the puzzle at all. The next year she was back on stage, and while this time she completed the crossword (I think), it was well after her competitors were done. This third time, she inked in her last letters while a frustrated Tyler still faced a half-blank grid. Her look of surprised delight when she took off her headphones and saw Tyler still at work is the great moment of this year’s tournament. (And on her birthday, too — the audience would serenade her as she picked up her second-place trophy.)
Of course, I felt bad for my friend Tyler — I can’t imagine it’s much fun standing in front of 500 people without the slightest idea what you’re doing. “Well, this is awkward,” he shouted as he danced his adrenaline-pumped dance and tried to figure out the rest of his puzzle. He wrote random words in the blanks: BLAST, DAMN, UGH. Finally he had a breakthrough, but too late — the clock got away from him, and at the end he had several squares blank: His first tournament errors in years.
Hearty and amazed congratulations to Dan Feyer for his fourth tournament win, to Anne for her exciting second place finish, and, yes, to Tyler as well — third place in this group is nothing to shrug at, and he handled his finals predicament with good humor. Congrats as well to my friend Jeff Schwartz, 2nd place finisher in the B division. He used to be one of my pace-car solvers, but he’s gotten too damn good. Luckily, there are lots of other solvers I can shoot for — and will, next year.