Mar 312011

The third Winston Breen book does not have a title. Throughout its development, I called it The Grand Piano Puzzles, but my publisher thought that lacked a sense of “kid appeal.” We have batted around a dozen or more other titles, but none of them have stuck. If the book had to go to print today, which thank God it does not, it would have a blank cover.

So! Clearly we need some fresh brains on this, and luckily I have some handy, in the form of all of you. If you can come up with the title we need… well, you’ll get a free book, that’s for darn sure, plus my warmest thanks. Plus it will be your title on the book, and that’ll be kinda neat, won’t it?

Does it have to be in the form of The FirstWord SecondWord Puzzles? In my opinion, that’s a preference, but not a requirement. It does have to include some form of the word “puzzle,” I think. Or, hell, let’s not even be that restrictive. We’re brainstorming here. Take it any direction you want.

Here’s some possible dustjacket copy for the third book:

A world-famous musician is throwing a party with plenty of puzzles and games… and Winston Breen has snagged an invitation! It should be a lot of fun, hanging out with his friends Mal and Jake in a beautiful countryside mansion, eating great food and solving clever puzzles. But there’s some odd stuff going on this weekend, too. Their host wants to give away his most prized possessions — and somebody else wants to steal them. Who is the thief, and how did that person take something from a seemingly locked room? Is it the musician’s angry assistant, or the cheerful TV weatherman, or the rich girl who always seems to be sneaking around? Solving this mystery will take all of Winston’s puzzle-solving ability… that is, unless the thief stops him.

So. Any ideas?

Mar 242011

For a while there, I wanted to be a playwright, and Lanford Wilson was a major reason why. I didn’t see the much-heralded production of Burn This with John Malkovich, but I saw other productions, and back in my theater days I probably read that play about a thousand times. Talley’s Folly, too, which I’ve come to believe is even better than Burn This. Two actors, 97 minutes, and you can’t even call Matt and Sally “characters.” They are human beings up there on the stage, or even on the page, constructed out of nothing, just whipped up out of the air. I wanted to do that.

So I stumbled around the New York City theater scene for a while, and one of the places I stumbled into was Circle Rep, and I became a member of its Lab. As it happened, this was Lanford Wilson’s home theater, and once a year the man himself would generously throw open the doors of his Sag Harbor home for a weekend of script readings. A dozen, two dozen of us, would take the train out there in the summer. No actors, just writers — we’d cast each other in our plays, and read them cold. Maybe that’s not the best possible way of developing new work, but that didn’t matter to me. I loved the atmosphere of it. I loved hanging out with the other writers, and helping to prepare the food, and listening to their efforts. I liked the good stuff and I liked the bad stuff; I liked that we were all out here trying our best to lay down the truth on paper, just like our host had in so many plays.

My first time out there, I was a little overwhelmed, and kept to myself. Lanford’s home had an extensive garden, and apparently there was a rare orchid either blooming or about to bloom, and several of the guests were abuzz about it. So rather than mixing with the others, I walked through the garden, and found the orchid, and stared at it. Another fellow joined me, a quiet, older gentleman who introduced himself as Paul, and we chatted amiably for a while: We agreed that, yep, this was definitely some sort of flower here in front of us. Only later did I learn I had been talking with Paul Zindel, one of the writing heroes of my teenage years. This may have been the first time I realized that the famous and the maybe-hopefully-up-and-coming could treat each other as equals — as colleagues and as friends.

I went out to Sag Harbor… oh, three or four times, I guess. We read a couple of plays of mine. I learned that my plays go over very well after everybody has gotten some wine into them. The writing retreats continued briefly even after Circle Rep closed down — crushed by debt and artistic drift — but by that time I was moving away from playwriting, so I did not join in those final gatherings. I think the last time I saw Lanford Wilson was on a Manhattan street somewhere, and I didn’t think he would remember me, but he did, and that pleased me for the rest of the day.

My time in the theater was brief. Most of my fondest memories of those years, of course, took place while sitting in a chair, facing a stage. But there are other great memories, too, and quite a few of these took place at Lanford’s house. I was sorry to hear this evening that Lanford Wilson has died, at the age of 73.

Mar 242011

You don’t expect to do a spit take while reading a sober New York Times article about storing nuclear waste, but that is exactly what happened when I reached this part:

Beyond the objections of Mr. Reid’s constituents to opening Yucca Mountain, it is not clear that it is a good place to bury nuclear waste. One problem is that the courts have interpreted federal law as requiring the Energy Department to show that the waste can be safely stored in canisters there for one million years. So far, the department has established only that it can contain the material for 10,000 years.

I guess forward thinking is something we can use more of in government, but seriously — a million years? How do you prove the state of anything a million years from now? Even a mere 10,000 years from now, I imagine we may have a whole raft of technologies to help us deal with our radioactive lefotvers. This is really one of the major holdups preventing us from collecting and storing the nation’s nuclear waste?

Mar 212011

A fascinating aside in Patrick Merrell’s account of this year’s ACPT:

Speaking of Matt Ginsberg [the ace programmer who revolutionized how judging at the crossword tournament is conducted -EB], at our Friday night judges’ dinner at Eamonn’s, a nearby Irish pub and restaurant, we got a look at the progress he’s made with his crossword-solving program “Dr. Fill.” It wasn’t quite ready for competition in this year’s tournament, but I heard it finished puzzle No. 1 in well under three minutes with no mistakes, a remarkable feat. A recent trial using last year’s puzzles would have put it in 272nd place for the 2010 tournament.

Mar 202011

There was only one question at this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament: Can he be beat? Individual competitors, myself included, wondered how we would perform, and whether we would improve over last year. We wondered whether the dreaded puzzle 5 would be difficult, very difficult, or are-you-goddamn-kidding-me. We batted around names: Who was due for a surge of success, who might surprise us by popping into the top ten or even the finals. Different people had different opinions about such matters, but deep down, we were all asking the same question, if only to ourselves. Can he be beat?

“He” is Dan Feyer, and looking at select raw statistics, you might question why he attracts such attention. He has won the ACPT exactly once, last year. He has a long way to go before he beats Jon Delfin’s record for most wins, or Tyler Hinman’s record for most consecutive wins. Dan is also unassuming, devoid of obvious ego, a standard-issue nice guy… albeit one who has developed the superpower of solving crosswords with laser speed.

But, aha, then you read that he solves a dozen or more crosswords every day, probably more than anybody else in the country. And then you might remember last year’s tournament, in which Dan breezed through the final puzzle’s most insidious clues like he’d written them himself. The other two competitors might as well have stayed in the audience.

I don’t think there was anybody at this year’s tournament who doubted that Dan would be in the finals again this year. But did that mean he would automatically win? Or can he be beat?

Before we could answer those questions, there was the small matter of the tournament itself: Seven puzzles, starting with an easy, breezy Monday-level puzzle, proceeding steadily toward that killer puzzle 5, and then, as a reward for getting through that dark cloud, two more puzzles that are intended to be challenging but not impossible.

Last year, I determined to at long last become a top 100 solver. I practiced on old puzzles; I made crosswordese flash cards so I could finally remember the name of Bambi’s aunt. All that practice helped… to some extent. The end of last year found me hanging on to the top-100 borderline with my fingernails, with a final ranking of 96.

This year I did not do any advance practicing at all. Oh, a couple of extra puzzles here and there, but nothing like last year’s training session. And at the end of five puzzles, I had a rank of 68. I couldn’t understand it, but there it was for all to see. People who knew where I usually rank were congratulating me like I had just been elected mayor of Puzzleville. My go-to joke for about an hour was, “I’m going to not practice twice as much next year!”

Puzzle 5 was the real stunner. The past few years, I’d be lucky to complete more than 75% of the grid. This year I filled the whole thing. There’s a word that less-than-elite solvers use at the idea of completing puzzle 5, and that word is miracle. But it wasn’t a miracle: My brain was simply in gear. I saw the nasty theme very early on: Each pair of theme entries consisted of two songs that overlapped by some number of letters. (HAPPY TOGETHER and THE ROSE, for instance.) The two titles were run all together in the grid… but with a black square in the way, making things even more inscrutable. Suddenly you had not two familiar titles but the baffling entries HAPPYTOGETH and EROSE. The usual Puzzle 5 consternation filled the room.

But not me. I was keyed in to the tournament’s hardest puzzle for the first time ever, and I completed it with plenty of time to spare. End result: A rank beyond my wildest imagination.

It was fun while it lasted, but reality came crashing down soon after. Completed puzzles are scanned and placed online so contestants can review them for possible judges’ errors. For the second year in a row, I spotted an error that the judges had missed. I had a single mistake in puzzle 5—ECOCIDE is a word; ECOCILE is not—so poof went my completion bonus and a few more points beyond that. Then I made another mistake in puzzle 6. Then I made three mistakes in puzzle 7. And thus ended my reign in the land of the 60-somethings: I wound up settling at a disappointing 124.

But that’s just my little story. The real story, as always, was at the top of the rankings. Dan Feyer was in the #1 spot, to nobody’s real surprise. There was the usual jostling of the other competitors to see who would join him onstage for the final puzzle. In the end it was longtime champ Tyler Hinman, and last year’s finalist Anne Erdmann.

The final puzzle is actually run three times in a row—once for the C-level solvers, again (with harder clues) for the B-solvers, and then with truly jaw-dropping clues for the A-listers. This year there was plenty of drama before the A solvers even showed up. The B finals consisted of David Plotkin, Richard Kalustian, and friend-of-the-blog (and thus my favorite to win) Ken Stern. Ken started off on the wrong foot with a long, wrong answer, but other than that he kept a smooth, even pace as he circled his way around the puzzle. We all knew he would fix that mistake, but would it be too late by then? David Plotkin (who at first glance looks to be about fifteen years old) was a bit more stop-and-start, and for a moment I thought he might be the third place finisher. But then he hit his groove, and before you knew it he was putting in his last few letters.

Here’s what happened next: David stood back and began checking his answers… slowly. He’d heard the stories of finalists undone by stupid mistakes; he had no intention of joining their ranks. David’s pointer finger swept back and forth, and midway through his check, Ken Stern, having fixed his error, wrote in his last few letters. He stood back and began checking his answers… quickly. The entire audience sat forward and held its breath, watching two people proofread.

The B final finished a tenth of a second away from a perfect tie. David raised his hand first, and Ken second. The time separating them was no time at all. Eyeblinks take longer. Every year I insist that watching people solve crosswords can be as dramatic as any sporting event. This year proved it yet again. Congrats to David, and to Ken on his terrific showing.

Ah, but now it was time for the A finals—time to answer the question. Can he be beat?

And the answer is, not this year. It wasn’t even close. Dan Feyer took a moment to find his way in, but once he started writing, he never stopped. Tyler solved his puzzle correctly in a more-than-reasonable amount of time—faster than 99.99% of the country would manage—but in this case it was nowhere near fast enough. And poor Anne, who is a superfast solver sitting in a chair holding a pencil, just doesn’t look comfortable in the awkward conditions of the ACPT finals. There’s a huge difference between everyday solving and solving in front of a large audience, on a giant whiteboard, wearing airport-worker headsets to block out the noise. Anne simply hasn’t made that jump yet. The smart money says she’ll have another shot.

So Dan walks away with his second ACPT in a row, and right now it’s hard to imagine it won’t be three in a row next year. His showing in the finals has been just that good.

Can he be beat? The answer is: Of course. But it’s going to take serious effort on somebody’s part.

Dan’s regimen of solving has changed the game of competitive crosswords. His talent and his non-stop practicing have made him fast as hell and accurate, and it’s hard to imagine him knocking himself off the fence with something as mundane as a mistake. Any of the A-listers can win the tournament. The question isn’t Can he be beat?, and probably never was. The question is, Who wants to badly enough?

Mar 112011

A while back, Frank Lewis, the longtime cryptic maker for The Nation passed away. The magazine is now searching for its next puzzlemaker, and I have to say they are going about it in the silliest manner possible. Apparently not trusting their own judgment on the matter, they are putting the whole thing up to a vote. And then, instead of letting readers consider the background and experience of each candidate, we’re supposed to make this decision based on a single puzzle from each applicant — not even a variety puzzle with some jazz, just a straight black-box cryptic. And for the coup de grace to the whole endeavor, they replaced each constructor’s name with a pseudonym: They really don’t want experienced solvers bringing any outside knowledge to the voting process. Heaven forbid you vote for somebody not based on this sample puzzle but because you know they have done top-quality work for years and years.

Well, sorry, I’m not playing along. I know that Trip Payne and Patrick Berry have applied for the position — should they get the gig, they would alternate weeks — and “Barney Prey” is an anagram of Berry/Payne. So I know who I am voting for even before I pick up a pencil.

This is to take nothing away from the other constructors, particularly “Remi Silk-Knee,” who is obviously Mike Selinker, another excellent puzzlemaker. But Patrick Berry is quite simply my favorite cryptic maker; Trip Payne is right up there with him; and Barney Prey, in my opinion, should get your vote, early and often.

Also, a final note to The Nation: Please make an effort to format your cryptics for easy printing. Like this.

Update: Aha. “Cosima K. Coinpott” is Kosman/Picciotto, aka Henri Picciotto and friend-of-the-blog Joshua Kosman, who together happen to be the cryptic editors for the National Puzzlers’ League. Still no idea about the other two. Feel free to reveal their identities in comments, if you know ‘em