Monday, March 2, 2009
SPOILER ALERT - this post contains some information about the 2009 ACPT puzzles, so if you are looking forward to doing them at home and don't want any answers spoiled, stop reading now.
I'm writing this post to give you all a sense of the shape and substance of the tournament, and also to provide a forum (the Comments section) for people to discuss the weekend (keeping tourney talk largely out of the normal write-ups so that at-home tourney puzzle solvers can safely avoid coming across puzzle information they don't want to see).
I arrived in Brooklyn just before noon on Friday, after having spent the past two days in Manhattan. I came to NYC early to see people and have fun, but my lingering sinus infection lingered further and made "fun" virtually impossible. My friend Grace made those days more than bearable, having dinner with me twice, taking me to the MoMA, etc., but I was less than optimal company, and felt horrible that I was staying at a gorgeous Times Square hotel and yet was not properly enjoying myself. By Thursday night, my head started to clear a bit, and Grace and I had a great dinner at Community Food & Juice on the Upper West Side (highly, highly recommended).
Brooklyn: got a suite because I knew I was going to have a get-together in my room on Friday night, but being less than skilled at party-planning, I didn't put together things like, oh, a guest list or a shopping list (snacks, glasses, drinks, etc.). While waiting for others to arrive, I wandered around Brooklyn in the afternoon hoping for some kind of shopping inspiration. After half a mile of cell phone and shoe stores, the only inspiration I found was Rite Aid, where I bought chips and peanuts and cups. Oh, and Oreos (Andrea Carla Michaels insisted). OREOS have dual relevance, as they are black & white (like a crossword grid) while also being crosswordese. So by late afternoon, I had all the ingredients necessary for a very terrible party. Thankfully, the heavy-lifting on the entertainment side was already being done for me - I knew Ashish Vengsarkar was bringing six bottles of wine from his private cellar.
By late afternoon, contestants started rolling in in droves. PuzzleGirl (Angela) and I milled about for a while. Then my wife arrived and we got ready to go to the Judges Dinner (ooh la la). Will invited us and the other bloggers (+ partners) because we were providing the first bit of Friday evening ... infotainment for the tournament: the blogging panel. Dinner was a lovely buffet upstairs in a private room at a cool little bar / restaurant called ... I want to say "Eamon's." Something like that. Creator of Ken-Ken was there (from Japan), as were all the judges. Mingling and eating ensued. On way back to hotel, wife and I found upscale food store where we filled out the menu for the party later that evening with somewhat less embarrassing food (this included some of the finest little chocolate truffles I've ever eaten).
Before the panel, I had a drink with Amy Reynaldo (of the blog "Diary of a Crossword Fiend"). Actually, during the panel, I had a drink with her (there was one bartender for 6 trillion drinkers, so our actual imbibing was delayed). I told her it would be like the old "Match Game" where the panelists drank and smoked on air. We couldn't smoke (by law), but drink we could. And did. Amy has decided that her signature drink is the Tom Collins. She didn't know what was in it, but whatever it was, she knew that it was good. My drink is the old-fashioned, in case you are ever in the position to buy either/both of us a drink.
The panel was over very quickly. I went up there, I babbled into a mike at various times. I drank. I have no idea what I said, although I think I said something about being "gun shy about penises" (re: my site's getting flagged a couple weeks' back). Amy was too phlegmy and tired to talk much. Ryan and Brian and JimH rounded out the group, and were probably much more coherent than I was. Given more time and a clearer structure, the panel would have come off better, but for those who could actually hear it, it came off OK, I think.
Angela decided that her suite was better laid out for a party, so we moved the party there, and later at the wine and cheese reception I went around desperately trying to round up guests I'd largely forgotten to invite early on. In fact, the party apparently started while I was still down trying to find people to come. Turns out, despite my failure to find some people I was looking for (the non-Amy bloggers, some faithful readers, etc.), there were plenty of folks in attendance. Some even brought me gifts, which I enjoy. There were constructors, blog readers, red-headed champion solvers ... all drinking wine and Oreos and chatting it up. It was just where I wanted to be at that moment.
[Byron Walden carries the official whiteboard wipes, i.e. paper towels from the men's room, to the site of the finals]
Then there was sleep, and then there were puzzles. Well, first there was oatmeal from Starbucks (did you know they did that?), and then there were puzzles. At that point, I was still stuffed up and had an arsenal of Kleenex in my pockets, so I was not optimistic about my chances. Seats were scarce and we finally ended up finding two way down in front, next to a very pretty, very anxious-looking woman. At some point she did a double-take, looking from her program to my contestant folder, and said "You're ... you're Rex Parker?" She was happy to meet me, and then immediately despondent that I would make her feel terrible about herself by finishing my puzzles so quickly. Over the course of the day, I think she grew to hate me less. My wife and I and she and the man next to her actually got on great. I think Sandy's got a picture of us all somewhere ...
The woman's name is Sandra Becker. The man's name, I'm ashamed to say, I forget, but I'd met him the year before and he was really friendly and interesting (out yourself, sir!).
So, after all that talk about "accuracy is more important than speed" and "double-check your completed grid," I totally chucked my own advice out the window on the first couple puzzles. See, I looked up at the clock when I first finished and noticed that I had only a few seconds before the next minute turned over (difference between solving in 3:59 and 4:01 is one whole minute in tournament scoring), so rather than eat the minute and check my puzzle, I just shot my hand up. Done! I was sure I'd made errors or left squares blank, but no. Perfect through 1, 2, 3, 4, and even the dreaded Puzzle 5. It was only at Puzzle 6, which I had plenty of time to check, that I made a mistake - putting MOAPO where MT APO should've gone. Ugh. That was the Maura Jacobson puzzle with Spoonerisms as theme answers. It was super-easy overall, though my brain could not spoonerize. I had to have the majority of the squares in place before I could get Any of the theme answers. Not my favorite puzzle, though now I'll remember it only for MOAPO.
Best puzzles of the day, for me, were Quigley's double-I puzzles (with theme answers like GREOGRIAN CHIANTI and CHOCK FULL O' INUITS) and Mike Shenk's Puzzle 7 (with the theme answer of the tournament: "DUDE, WHERE'S MY CADAVER?").
Had a great dinner Saturday night at Lunetta with PG and her sister and artist Emily Cureton and Andrea C. Michaels. I've never seen so many women eat so many meatballs. Andrea liked that the restaurant felt like a place where one might see an honest-to-god mob hit. I liked that the food was delicious and that my waitress was ... let's say, captivating. I'll leave it there. Wife can tell you more if she likes.
Oooh, I had the pleasure of giving "crossword lessons" for an hour immediately after Puzzle 6 - a gift that a woman bought for her crossword-solving boyfriend. I wasn't sure what I had to offer in the way of insight, but it turns out we had way, way more to talk about than we could ever hope to cram into an hour. It didn't feel like work at all. I had a blast, and made a few bucks to boot. It was sweet how much he appreciated the uniqueness of the gift. So we geeked out for an hour+ about puzzles, and it was off to dinner.
Spent the evening hanging out in the bar with PG, PuzzleSister, PuzzleFutureStepNiece (long story - all you need to know is that she was a gorgeous, charming young actress), and then a host of people who stopped by, including Barry Silk, Kevin Der, and Doug Peterson. Andrea showed up and insisted on finding out the story behind the many young Jewish couples in the room (they were there last year, too). It's like Jewish speed-dating in there, only slow, and no changing partners. There's a story there, but I'll let Andrea tell it. Turns out PuzzleFutureStepNiece knows someone very famous. I said "I'll bet Andrea knows him too." So we asked Andrea over and she said "Oh, no, I've just met him once, I don't really know him." Sorry, that counts. That woman knows Everyone. It's insane. Two old-fashioneds later, I went to bed.
I'd been in 31st place after Puzzle 4, and possibly higher after Puzzle 5, but MOAPO sent me plummeting to 45. Still, with just Puzzle 7 left to go, I felt I had a good chance to hold my ground and thus beat my ranking from last year - which is exactly what happened, so yay. If I hadn't made the error, I'd have been in contention for the B Finals, but since I had no shot at the finals after the error, I was pretty methodical about Puzzle 7, just wanting to get through with no errors. Apparently, I was successful. I ended up at 42, which seems just fine. PuzzleGirl broke the Top 200 and my wife improved from the mid to the low 500s. So it was improvement all around. You can see scans of all my puzzles if you go here and enter 516 in the sidebar under "Puzzle Scans."
So the A Finals - Tyler got off to a good start, but he kept having moments of freefall. He'd tear up a quadrant faster than you can believe, and then screech to a halt and look, and look, and 10, 20, 30 seconds would go by with hardly any action. Then he'd be off again, tearing it up. Meanwhile, Francis Heaney and Trip Payne seemed to be solving at a steadier pace, and eventually it became clear that they were both going to beat Tyler to the finish line. Only Trip and Francis (if I remember correctly) made identical errors - putting ALL ALONE where ALKALINE was supposed to go (clue = [Basic]). So with something like 8 minutes still left on the clock, it was just Tyler, standing there, with what appeared to be two blank squares. And he stood. And stood. And stood. And danced. And stood. Total. Freefall. It was astonishing to see the country's best solver standing there completely flummoxed. Minutes ticked by. I was doubled over at points, either praying or fighting off nausea. My wife couldn't watch. Was the champion really going to go down in such an anti-climactic, painful way?
And then. This:
As I said in my post for today, I leaped out of my chair with my fists in the air, cheering myself hoarse. That kid Will Not Die. He's amazing. He's like Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction." Man oh man. I am so glad I was there to see him pull it out like that. Oh, and remember how I told you that there was a four-way tie for first before the finals? Well, because the puzzle gods have a sense of humor, the two squares Tyler struggled with for so long were both inside the word CO-LEADERS.
Later there was an Awards Banquet, catered by the Food Network's "Kitchen: Impossible," where 19 dishes representing different food clichés were prepared for us. Very decent food, overall, though I accidentally got liver in my mouth and couldn't get the taste out for many minutes. Ate with PG and her sister and my wife and Crosscan and Emily and the disgustingly charming and talented Caleb Madison and assorted other jokesters. Emily and I both got interviewed by the TV show. The questions were terrible and most of our answers were likely unusable, so I doubt I'll show up on the show. At least I hope not.
After that, it was subway / Greyhound / home, narrowly avoiding the approaching snow storm.
As anyone who has attended the tournament will tell you, you will not regret attending. It really does not matter how good you are - solvers of all kinds, all ages, all skill levels are there, just having a good time solving and talking puzzles. I might organize an informal, unofficial "Rookies" meeting next year, just so people who are reluctant to attend, for whatever reason, can meet people just like them. I'm also happy to learn that little tournaments seem to be sprouting up all across the country lately. For instance, you'll soon see me plugging the upcoming L.A. area tournament, which I'm hoping will be a big success (it's a charity tournament for a great cause ... and it's close to the beach, come on!).
OK, that's all til next year. Thanks to everyone I met, everyone who introduced himself or herself to me, shook my hand, said nice things, said enigmatic things, said critical things. I had a blast, and I'm already thinking of ways to make next year's experience even more memorable.
PS Here is Nancy Shack's video of the Blogger panel. I look ridiculous (i.e. I need a haircut, badly), and I talk Way too fast and the audio is half terrible, but ... I like it in parts.