1. Get there on Wednesday, so that you can go to the picnic. Over the years, this has become the true start of the annual NPL convention, though officially the con doesn’t get going until Thursday evening. This year the variable weather in the host city — Portland, Maine — forced the picnic indoors, and the food was more snacky than dinnery. A perfectly legit way to go, picnicwise, but I was traveling with my family, and I wanted them to have something to eat beyond Whoopie Pies and Moxie. Also, my son sometimes has a problem with crowds, and this was one of those times, so we walked down to the Portland harbor and found a restaurant where the wife and I could get lobster-based meals and the kids could get nugget-based meals.
2. Just because you had dinner, though, doesn’t mean you can’t go out for a second dinner, if you’re invited along by NPL friends. Over pizza (the best I’ve had in a long time), discuss puzzles, math, pop culture, games, opera, trivia, and who even remembers what else. That’s how conversations tend to go at NPL cons; that’s one of the main reasons I go to them.
3. Late-night games! You have to play late-night games! Conventiongoers bring along home-brewed versions of different game shows, as well as wholly original offerings, and these get played and re-played late, late, late into the night. This year I had a slight logistical concern: Sure, I could stay up playing games until 3:00 a.m. — that is by no means unheard of — but I knew that I would regret that in a major way when my children inevitably woke up four hours later. So I didn’t get in nearly as many games as usual. But I managed to hit my short list of must-play games. “It Takes Two,” in which partners have to work together to figure out every trivia answer, is at the top of that list… and happily, this year the inventor ran an afternoon session for us early birds. (And which my partner and I won!) I also stayed up late specifically to play my friend Jeffrey’s latest version of Jeopardy!. He’s been running a new game each year, with categories and questions that dance between challenging and wonderfully absurd. This year’s Maine-themed game had categories devoted to Murder, She Wrote, and the Cryptozoology Museum. And instead of that old Jeopardy! standby “Before and After,” we had “Before and Lobster.”
4. Yes, it’s the National Puzzlers’ League convention, but you’re allowed to do things other than puzzles. In Maine, my wife took our son to the local train museum. My daughter and I, and a bunch of other NPLers, hit the beach for some glorious open-sea kayaking. Glorious, that is, once we actually got our kayaks on the open sea. Lea and I went river kayaking last year, and I stayed bone dry the whole time. This year, trying to get the kayak past the breaking waves, I was drenched from head to toe in about ten seconds. But then we were on the water, and it was beautiful, serene, joyful. It dawns on me that I can probably go kayaking even here in my home state of Connecticut. I should look into that.
Daughter and I also went rock climbing in Portland, making this by far the most physically exerting convention since the one in Montana back in 1999, when a whole bunch of us went white-water rafting.
5. There’s a big foodie contingent in the NPL, and each year they hit the shmanciest restaurants they can find — I’ve joined them a couple of times. This year, with kids in tow, that wasn’t in the cards… although we did manage a tremendously good meal at Nosh Kitchen Bar. My barbecue pork sandwich wasn’t as life-transforming as the barbecue I had at last year’s convention in Austin, Texas, but the Nosh version had a layer of macaroni and cheese right there in the sandwich, and if that is not the definition of good food, I don’t know what is. And my wife is now obsessed with learning how to make the restaurant’s “Belgian fries.”
6. I’m up to point 6, and the convention hasn’t started yet. At a convention of puzzle lovers, our official events consist of trivia and word games, scaled up so they can be played by 200 people in a go. Favorites from this year include Trip Payne‘s very clever deduction game, “Ten Clued Very Much.” (Bonus points for that name, amiright?) Players had to figure out ten specially chosen words, using as few clues as possible. Each clue pointed to exactly two of the words — “Word 2 and Word 6 are rhymes,” for example — and each pair of words was clued exactly once. [Wait, no, wrong. See comments for a correction.] If you could figure out one word… just one word… you might, with the help of a few other clues and a couple of linguistic leaps, spark a mental chain reaction that will lead you to all the other answer words. A very fun, puzzly challenge, and one I’d love to play again.
I also enjoyed a variation on the simple trivia game of “Initials.” Sure, you might be able to name things with the initials R W, but can you name a two-word phrase with those letters in the fifth positions of the words? Now do that for a whole bunch of other letter pairs.
7. The official games are all well and good, but the highlight of the official schedule is inevitably the Saturday-night extravaganza — a team-solve puzzle event, usually a dozen or 15 puzzles strong, created by some of the best puzzlers around. Normally I get on a “running” team, racing with others to solve all the puzzles as fast as I can. This year, my friend Todd asked me to be on a more-casual “strolling” team, so that his teenage nephew, Ian, could participate. I was also able to convince my daughter to join in, fully expecting that after fifteen minutes she would say, “Can I go upstairs now?” But she stayed for the whole event, working with Ian on several puzzles, and, with assistance, doing the legwork that brought us to the finish line. Her delighted laugh when she saw the final answer made me want to jump up on the table and do a little tap dance.
8. And still there is more to do. Each year solvers bring puzzle handouts for the enjoyment of one and all — your clipboard will be stuffed with them an hour after you enter the hotel. If you like cryptic crosswords, an NPL convention is Wonderland. In addition to the many puzzles shoved at you every time you turn a corner, there are also three “official” cryptics, which are generally eye-popping constructions. This year’s puzzles were no exception. Patrick Berry’s sequel to his astonishing Teleportland cryptic of several years ago is a miracle of word weaving. I assume he’ll post it on his Web site soon; do not miss it.
9. It was an extra pleasure being there with my family. I knew I’d find ways to entertain my daughter; my special-needs son was another story. But we had a fine time taking walks around Portland. Down the block was a small park where artists and musicians set up shop — we stopped to enjoy several of them, including a wacky event where people were invited to rock in rocking chairs, thus creating abstract paintings on the canvases under the rockers. Portland has trolleys rolling around, which means my son would be delighted to move there permanently. And Alex has always loved hotels: Riding in the elevators, exploring various hallways, looking out the window at an entirely new view of the world. Here there was the added bonus of various people greeting him by name — people who last saw him in a stroller, now accepting his overenthusiastic high fives. I don’t know that the whole family will go to next year’s convention in Vancouver, but the next time there’s an east coast con? Yeah, maybe we’ll all be back.