Tuesday 27 March 2012

ACPT wrap-up: A rookie's take

Welp, back from my whirlwind trip to Brooklyn. Now, they call it the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and that certainly describes a significant part of the event, but honestly I treated it more like a conference/hootenanny/excuse to go to NYC. It did not disappoint on any front.

*******SPOILER ALERT***********

It turns out I severely underestimated the time it would take to get from Newark to Brooklyn and overestimated my ability to find my hotel in Chinatown without a map or anything (more on travel proclivities in a bit), so Friday night I rolled in late and missed the scheduled events. I had reserved a seat at the cru dinner for schmoozing opportunities, but looking back I was most disappointed to miss the palindrome competition. Never thought much of palindromes, but then I never realized that there are serious palindrome writers out there who do amazing work. I wasn't blown away by Mark Saltveit's winning entry "Devil Kay fixes trapeze part; sex if yak lived," (which satisfies the "must contain a Z and an X" constraint) but one of his others, "I tan. I mull. In a way, Obama, I am a boy, a wan Illuminati" (which satisfies the "person in the news" constraint) is gold, and he dropped some gems in his gut-busting standup at Sunday's variety show. Also, I have since discovered the beautiful work of also-ran Jon Agee, such as "Go hang a salami, I'm a lasagna hog" and "Dog doo? Good God!". It's a crazy world out there, folks.

Anyway, there were still plenty of puzzlers about, so I grabbed a perch at the hotel bar and started making friends with solvers and pints of Brooklyn Lager. Wonderful, weird, one-of-a-kind people, these puzzlers. Had the pleasure of meeting Tommy Lee Cook, proprietor of the World Famous Buckingham Bar, and also drunkenly introduced myself to Brendan Emmett Quigley and Mike Nothnagel. They handled it politely, at least.

Roaring drunk, I somehow managed to catch the subway back to Manhattan and find not only my fleabag hotel but my dinky room as well. Actually, "room" is a bit of an overstatement; I've seen cupboards bigger than that. That didn't really bother me, actually. I generally refuse to stay in proper hotels because you end up paying out the wazoo for a bed, which happens to be surrounded by needless floorspace and furniture, so after being up for a day and a half I was happy to pass out at 3am in my little prison cell, which my aching head handily filled the next morning. Ordered a surprise breakfast (which turned out to be a red bean smoothie) from a shop where nobody spoke English, evidently, and realized that I didn't really remember getting back to Chinatown and certainly didn't know how to get back to Brooklyn. Eventually figured it out, and rolled into the Marriott for a coffee and some puzzles. Solved the Sat NYT with relative ease and the most recent Fireball with some difficulty, so in spite of my rough condition I felt ready to tackle the tournament puzzles, although I didn't really bother to put myself in the zone or get my game face on or any of those cliches. In fact, throughout the first puzzle I had to keep reminding myself not to stop and admire the clues and fill as I solved. Finished quickly enough for my standards (6 or 7 minutes, I think), and headed outside for a smoke. I didn't really know what to expect from the puzzles (except superior quality, of course) and hadn't thought much about it, but I was surprised at how easy I found puzzle #1. By the time I had walked through the lobby I probably could have convinced myself that I summarily destroyed it, in fact. However, reality check number 1 would have come when I walked outside to see a group of half a dozen solvers that were done long before I was, who told me of a mistake I made. Number 2 would have been when we turned to see now-3-time champ Dan Feyer strolling leisurely up the street with a half-eaten bagel he had just purchased. The sonofabitch must have owned that puzzle in a minute-and-a-half. I won't go into great detail about the puzzles, as they have gotten their fair share of blogosphere reportage already. In general, I got worse as the day went on. I think I was in the fortunate position early in the day of being sobered up enough to see straight and hold my pencil but still drunk enough that my mind was loose and limber. Crushed #2, relatively speaking, which put me up to my tournament high of 252. Lovely puzzle by Patrick Merrell, but it didn't fool me for a second. It was titled "Boustrophedon: having alternate lines running from left to right and right to left." For the first time in my life, those Classic Greek courses I took in Uni paid off, and I actually knew the definition without the subtitle. Also, I was pretty sure I had recently seen a NYT puzzle where every 2nd row was entered backward , so I assumed that that was the gimmick. Turns out I was correct on both accounts. #3 and #4 were easy and elegant enough, but moving through the grids felt like plodding through mud. Just couldn't get enough traction anywhere to zip through, which brought me back down to the mid-300s. The legendary #5 got the better of me, and was my only incomplete grid (though I did make a few mistakes on the majority of the puzzles - I'm one of the suckers that didn't check their grid and got caught by the delectibly ambiguous [Pitcher's asset]=ARM/AIM trap, and being the tyro that I am I naturally fell prey to the IEOH/EEW crossing. Speaking of that crossing, a lot of solvers hated it but I loved it, as I suspect it may have been intentionally left in the grid to separate the wheat from the chaff vis-a-vis old-school-crosswordese chops). Pretty much grokked the theme, save for one crucial detail: didn't see the ANTs in the grid (I must've temporarily forgotten I was solving a Patrick Blindauer puzzle), and assumed that the back halves of the themers were paired symmetrically with their corresponding heads, which meant that I erased some correct answers to make them fit. Maybe I overthought it; I heard a few of the faster solvers say that they didn't even really get the theme, despite filling in a perfect grid in 5 minutes flat. By this point, I had actually started caring about the tournament side of things, not least because I had entered a friendly competition with my solving neighbour Claudia (she ended up beating me, 314 to 331. Pretty good!), so the sight of Joon Pahk (who was sitting right in front of me) leaving before I had even crossed two words was kind of hard to handle. After the gentle puzzle #6, I went out and bought too many puzzle books at the hallway-cum-market and then vamoosed for a cheap Brooklyn cheeseburger.

Returned for what was, for me, one of the highlights of the event, Matt Ginsburg's presentation of Dr. Fill. It's late and there's mad coverage elsewhere, so I won't go into details right now. Foolishly passed up the opportunity to talk to the man himself, though. It's a bad habit of mine. Whenever I'm really interested in somebody's area of study, I have no idea how to bring it up. I can never think of succinct questions; really I just want to hear them nerd out about it but I find it hard to know how to break the ice. Oh well. The rest of the evening proceeded from there without any surprises. Got owned in the Puzzle Nation variety puzzle challenge, and then got drunk with my solving buddies. Made more awkward introductions (I couldn't leave the tournament without thanking Amy Reynaldo for all she's done for the community) and met more solvers, including the amazing Joan Young, a cryptic constructor and tournament participant for 25+ years (and a 2nd place finisher in like 19-dickety-two, believe it or not!).

The next morning I still didn't really have any clue where I was or how to get to Brooklyn, but I did manage to make it there on time for the earlybird #7 puzzle. Surprised to see Mike Shenk and not Merl Reagle in the byline, but it was a great puzzle. I should have been primed for his "At Last" puzzle, because Steve Riley (yes, the very same that constructed this Friday's gorgeous NYT) made a puzzle with the same name and theme earlier this year for Campus Crosswords. Interestingly, though, when I read the title I assumed that it couldn't possibly be the same "add -AT" theme as Steve's, and I was slowed down a bit trying to figure out what else the theme could be. After that, it was on to the talent show, which was overall entertaining. As an aside, I've always known that if I spend a bit of time away from Canada I find Canadian accents not only refreshing but incredibly sexy. I was surprised to find, when a young Canadian lady whose name I can't recall took the stage to sing a crossword-themed Johnny Cash parody, that in fact this effect can be observed even after as little as two days away from home. Weird. Following that, dozens of awards without my name on them were given out (congrats, everybody! There are some amazing solvers out there), and then it was down to the finals. Watching the solvers on the big boards was more exciting than I had expected, especially considering I was making an effort to not look at the grids so that I could solve the puzzle myself. I'm proud to say that I almost finished Reagle's masterpiece ([Matching outfit] for EHARMONY!. IISAMUEL in 15-Across!) using the A clues before the spoiler-laden commentary began in the B finals. 15-20 minutes maybe, which ain't bad, but then super-tricky themelesses with very little trivia are my forte. As another aside, I happened to be sitting coincidentally right behind my Campus Crosswords editor, the incredible Milo Beckman, whom I had never met before.

After the finals, swapped some more stories with Joan over an exquisite rigatoni and veal sausage in a rose sauce with fresh basil, said my goodbyes to my new friends, and took off on a random subway which took me to Coney Island. I like to travel blind. Once I drove all the way from Regina, Saskatchewan to San Francisco airport without ever looking at a map (and even met my friend as she alit from her flight, without ever looking up which flight she was arriving on! My finest hour). Spent the rest of the day riding aimlessly up and down Brooklyn and lower-east-side Manhattan, getting off where I pleased. Ended up at a tiny jazz club near NYU, where I treated myself to some fine Umbrian Chardonnay and took a deeply gratifying 2 hour break from speed-solving with the gorgeous Walden/Nothnagel Sunday NYT, allowing each diabolical clue to languidly swim laps in my brain and not feeling bad about taking a moment here and there to step back and marvel at the breathtaking grid.

And that was my weekend. To all the fine folks I met, thanks for making it memorable. See you in 2013.

Oh yeah, we're running a puzzle site here aren't we? Cross Nerd OGs will know that my mini-themeless series is becoming increasingly misnamed with every instalment. Started with a cute little 11x11, and I've been working my way up, one row/column at a time. Mostly, I find wide-open themelesses a bitch to construct, and this seems like a good way to practice. Today's 14x13 taught me a lot, and I fought with it all weekend in an effort to remove the cheater squares. Overall, though, I'm ok with the grid, and I learned from a few of my mistakes. Also, just a heads up, this may be my toughest puzzle yet; had a lot of fun with the clues.

More words (but probably less of them), crossed and otherwise, next Tuesday.

Puzzle: Mini Themeless #7
Rating: XW-PG
Download the PDF and PUZ files here, or solve or download the Across Lite puzzle and/or software from the Java app below.

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