A number of people I spoke to about the finals of this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament informed me that it was practically a point-by-point replay of last year’s finals. I wasn’t at last year’s tournament, due to illness, so I’d like to thank all of this year’s finalists for replaying the event for me. It was very exciting.
It’s a wonderful thing, watching three brilliant minds compete at the same difficult crossword, on big boards in front of an audience of six hundred puzzle fans, complete with color commentary from a pair of announcers. It’s a wonderful thing, I say, but also terrible, because I’m friends with these people. I am delighted — no, awestruck; gobsmacked; more than a little impressed — for Tyler Hinman, who brought home a fifth consecutive win. As Merl Reagle reminded us, over those five years he has solved forty tournament puzzles without making a single error. And he’s still only, what, twenty-five years old? A person can’t even think about this for long stretches of time. The mind can take only so much boggling.
But if Tyler has won, that means two other finalists lost, and in this case they were my friends Trip Payne and Francis Heaney. These two had a tie score for every puzzle straight through the weekend — the tournament’s tiebreaker rules aren’t even equipped to deal with a freak event like this. Luckily for everyone but a guy named Dan Feyer (who was winning going into the final puzzle, but who then slowed down just enough to cast himself down to fourth), no tiebreakers were required: Both Trip and Francis slipped into the finals.
The final puzzle was a beautiful, elegant themeless crossword by Patrick Berry. All three took a little time finding a way in to the grid, but after about five or six minutes it was clear that Trip had a slight edge. He had a few more words filled in, and a bit more momentum going than the other two. He’s been itching for another win, and heaven knows he deserves one, and I really started to think this might be his year.
And then he broke our hearts by writing the answer ALL ALONE for the clue “Basic.” I was baffled how he made the jump from that clue to that answer, although a few people have tried to explain to me that there’s a perfectly reasonable connection between the two. If someone wants to reassert that connection in the comments, please be my guest, because I still don’t see it. (The correct answer was ALKALINE.)
Actually, that’s not when our hearts broke, because mistakes happen on the big boards all the time. People really started groaning when Trip moved away from that corner, obviously content that he had filled it all in correctly. We had all seen enough of these finals to know what was coming: After the whole puzzle was done, he would give one more quick check, looking for blank squares, but there was no way he was going to check each answer to make sure it matched its clue. He was, in short, toast.
A few minutes later Trip was the first to complete the puzzle, and then came the terrible and unbearable moment: He removed his earphones (worn so he can’t hear the announcers) and heard not applause but Awwww. “You’re kidding!” he said to us, and then turned around to try to figure out where things had gone wrong.
Two minutes later, to my almost complete disbelief, Francis Heaney wrote ALL ALONE in his grid. Did I mention how he and Trip had been marching in lockstep throughout the entire tournament? Apparently that was going to extend to their errors. Francis has been in the finals one other time, and has consistently been in the top ten for years. He too absolutely deserves a year of being called the best crossword solver in the country, and God knows I wanted that for him. I think at this point I was clutching and pulling large clumps of my hair. See your mistake! SEE YOUR MISTAKE!
But no. Francis, like Trip, wandered away from that corner, never to return. A few minutes later he completed his grid, took off his headphones, and was informed by the audience that he wasn’t having quite as good a day as he had thought.
Meanwhile, just to add to the drama, Tyler was completely stuck. He had a mistake of his own, and it was blocking any further progress: For the clue “Item in stocks,” he had written BOND instead of BONE. By that point, Trip was sitting with us in the audience, and people were whispering to him: If Tyler can’t find his way out of this in the next four minutes, you can still win! Trip just rolled his eyes: Listen to yourselves.
There was, perhaps, the slightest molecule of chance that Tyler, believing he could do no better than third place, would simply give up and stop solving. But Tyler has been in enough of these finals to know that people make mistakes: Why, just last year he was the last to complete the grid, but the only one to do so cleanly… so he won. Maybe that would happen again this year. Anyway, he wasn’t about to give up. And he still had a long, long time to stand there and consider where he had made his mistake. This was Tyler’s tournament to lose, even if he didn’t know it.
With maybe three minutes to go before time expired, Tyler yelled, “Ohhhhh!” and it was over. He erased BOND, wrote in BONE, and saw the well-lit path through the rest of the grid. He turned around expecting the polite applause due the third-place finisher and observed himself receiving a standing ovation. Five times in a row! It was a thrill to be there to witness it.
People occasionally compare Tyler to Tiger Woods, but some folks do it ironically, maybe with a little unintended wink, as if their achievements can’t really be compared. Golf versus crosswords! How amusing to consider the two things at the same time!
I think we can dispatch with the irony now. Tyler won five grand this weekend whereas Tiger won millions last year, but they do what they do in the exact same way: They march through their respective occupations perfectly. Their opponents know that they will not make mistakes. This automatically exerts a psychic pressure that I think has a real effect on the competitors around them. Would Trip and Francis have made the same error (and I mean the same error) if it wasn’t Tyler standing at the board between them? I don’t know. Quite possibly. But I don’t think you can say so absolutely. It is not easy to share the stage with someone who hasn’t made a single mistake in five years. Congratulations once again to Tyler. You are amazing.
In less dramatic news, I came in 120th. I was error-free as long as you don’t count puzzle 5. Unfortunately, they counted puzzle 5. This is the annual killer-diller, a crossword so hard it almost isn’t a crossword anymore. It’s certainly nothing like a New York Times crossword, except perhaps for the Saturday puzzle they publish in Hell. This year, I barely got past the halfway mark of that damn puzzle.
This gets me thinking: I’m a perfectly decent solver (error-free on six out of seven puzzles! Don’t they have a trophy for that?) but I need to do something more if I expect to break in to the top 100. And what I need to do is improve at that damn fifth puzzle. So, for you crossword-loving readers, a question: If solving the Times puzzle every day isn’t enough to prepare you for the fiery chasm of puzzle 5 (and it clearly is not)… what is?