Sunday, March 9, 2008
HERE BE SPOILERS!
It's Sunday and I'm getting the horrid-sounding cold that my daughter is just now getting over, so I'm chilled and a bit weak - a perfect time to write my loooong overdue recap of the 2008 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
So Saturday is when the tourney begins in earnest, with three puzzles to do at 11am and another 3 to do (after a short lunch break) at 2pm. The late start benefits all the people who stayed out very late socializing the night before. It also allowed me to have a leisurely breakfast at IHOP with my wife and Dave Sullivan (the closest thing I have to a "tech guy"). I love IHOP, and since it's such a prevalent xword answer, eating there seemed fitting. I am used to seeing IHOPs as free-standing, blue-roofed structures patronized largely by large white people, so it was a wonderfully different experience to eat in an IHOP that had been wedged into a good part of the first floor of a city block, and to see that apparently black people like IHOP too. If there is hope for black/white unity and reconciliation in this country, I believe it lies in our mutual love of pancakes. I had my usual (if you must know, I "build my own omelet(te)" and then switch out the regular pancakes for some corn cakes and then I get a side of hashbrowns as close to black as they can make them; and coffee). Maybe a little heavy for a pre-tournament meal, but it didn't hurt me much, as you'll see.
Went over to check out Emily Cureton's merchandise table, where there was an array of t-shorts, notecards, and tote bags bearing her Gorgeous crossword-inspired artwork. Wife and daughter now have matching "Sneakiness/Owl" shirts, which is terribly cute. Here's a pic of me and Emily (who, in case I haven't mentioned, is so cool and talented and kind and purty that it makes me sick):
And then the puzzles...
Last year, I tanked Puzzle 1. 7+ minutes, 2 errors - a complete disaster. Not so this year. Done in the four minute slot with no errors (in case you haven't heard, you are not timed to the second - rather, your time is scored based on the minute showing on the clock, so someone who finishes in 7:01 and someone who finishes in 7:59 are scored as finishing at the same time). Theme was "Encouraging Words" and all the theme answers were congratulatory expressions of some kind. The only trouble I had was an educated guess at the crossing of 34A: "_____ Stone," ABC drama ("Eli") and 31D: Zwei + zwei (vier). Not sure about the "I," but there weren't many other realistic options. Puzzle 1 was written by Andrea Carla Michaels, who was By Far the most entertaining person I met last weekend. I have a little book filled with quotations, most of which I can't really use. Anyway, I voted for her puzzle for best puzzle of the tourney, as easy puzzles never get any love. Here's Andrea beaming as 699 people solve her puzzle:
One of my favorite parts of the weekend was watching Andrea on Saturday night in the hotel lounge trying to solve her own puzzle, and struggling: "Something you put a tree in?" She makes a face and looks at me (answer ended up being SHOE). "ALTA ... that's the abbreviation for Alberta??!" Etc. We spent much of Saturday night in the lounge watching young Jews "speed date," which was going very slowly actually. Almost every table was occupied by clean young people in nice dark clothes, with the young men wearing dark hats. I want to say "fedoras," but that's probably not right. I felt like I had stumbled onto the set of some third-rate cable reality show - public access, maybe. Later, Judge Vic Fleming came over and gave Andrea a T-shirt he had made, with a puzzle on it (grid on back, clues on front, or vice versa). I thought the T-shirt featured her puzzle, and was very very impressed that he had the industry and wherewithal to produce such an item so quickly - turns out it was a puzzle he'd written. Still, it was a nice gesture. Then Judge Fleming regaled us with stories about the Arkansas Governor's mansion, then he forced us all to imagine a gigantic Kleenex being folded 50 some-odd times then got mad when the professional poker player among us knew Exactly how tall (theoretically) that Kleenex structure would be. Apparently we were cheating because we weren't "closing our eyes," as we were told to do. All of this actually happened, I swear. Judge Fleming was actually a really nice, generous guy, and a decent story-teller.
So back to puzzles. Here is a shot (from where I sat the whole of the tournament) of the giant digital clock from the 80s that has been looming over solvers since - I'm going to guess The 80s. (Last year, it loomed directly over my right shoulder, such that all my table-mates worried aloud about dying in a freak accident that would set some kind of Guinness Record for Absurdity.)
That's Michael "PhillySolver" Smith in the foreground - he was literally everywhere this weekend. All over everything, all the time. Very nice man.
Puzzle 2 was a word ladder, and man was it hard. OK, here's the thing - I blame Shortz. He introduced the puzzle by saying that the word ladder was there, off to the side, and it didn't matter if we did it or not, but it might be helpful; and stupid me, I'm thinking "screw that - word ladders are for chumps - I'm going right for the puzzle itself." Took me many, many minutes to realize that the word ladder contained the clues for Every Single Theme Answer. I took way way too long to get done, and was shocked to see so much of the room still working on the puzzle with so much time having elapsed (this would happen again with puzzle 5, but that's to be expected - nobody ever expects ... Puzzle 2!). Its theme was "Change of Venue," and the first letter of the word ladder was VENUE, and by the end it had become MOVER, clued (78A: Person responsible [last word in the ladder]). Get it - "Change of Venue ... MOVER ..." Well I thought it was OK. The one part of the puzzle that killed many people and nearly killed me was the SE, where AD VALOREM (46D: Proportionate, as a duty) met up with ROLEO (71A: Lumberjacks' competition), neither of which I had heard before. I'd like to thank every Latin teacher I ever had for teaching me the objective case.
Puzzle 3 was a snap by comparison, except ... 1A: Raillike bird (sora!!!!!) crossing 2D: Musical "sweet potato" (ocarina). Oh, that "O." Never ever heard of the bird (though Orange assured me it is old skool crosswordese) and OCARINA rang a bell only very very faintly. That "O" was an out-and-out guess. I'd make one more of those, again correctly, later in the tournament. Puzzle 3 was by Merl Reagle, and it was called "If I Wrote the Dictionary." Merl writes weekly puzzles that appear in the Philadelphia Inquirer and elsewhere, and they are of a uniformly high caliber - I think of him as the king of long, showily arranged theme answers. He is the only person I know who can make me love a pun. Theme answers here were characteristically playful, as actual words were clued in punny ways, e.g. LACERATION = 21A: n. the act of tying shoestrings. The one theme answer that seemed to puzzle most people was KEDGE (60A: n. muddy buildup on the soles of sneakers). A KEDGE, it turns out, is a "light anchor for warping a vessel" (and no, you did not know that, shut up). Except for the SORA/OCARINA thing, no problems. And at the break - I was in 82nd place. Not bad.