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?