ACPT 2008 - Part II, "It Really Begins..." (SPOILERS)

Sunday, March 9, 2008


Hello all,

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.

More later-



joecab 4:50 PM  

Actually the digital timers have only been around since 2004. You can see one of the original analog timers way in the back here:

Dan 4:56 PM  

First, I must state for the record that it was awesome to meet you and your lovely wife!

My favorite thing about Rex (switching to third person here) is his "California accent" - a laid-back cadence that reminded me of the old San Francisco homestead. It's so different somehow from the "Rex Parker" voice... if that makes sense. Sandy has a hot accent too, but you all knew that.

I found this great photo of me from the offical tournament photographer. It was Puzzle 1 - I finished in under 4 minutes and took a few seconds to check it over. When the clock read 11:05, I raised my hand, and boom! Two dozen arms shoot up simultaneously in front of me (I was in the back row). Judges scurried everywhere, but nobody was coming to collect my paper! I frantically waved it around until Byron Walden spotted me - the photo captures his "oh crap!" expression, with the clock at 10:56 in the background. Fortunately Byron knew the score (as it were), and as he approached he mouthed "Eleven?" to which I nodded gratefully. Thanks, Byron!

Andrea Carla Michaels is indeed the coolest. I voted for her too. Oh and Rex, please make sure to post a clear shot of your "I am Rex Parker" T-shirt!

Unknown 7:12 PM  

While I enjoy all of the memories that made up the weekend, I do hope that others reading your excellent write up are inspired to attend next year. We all promise to make you feel welcome and provide you with your own memories and the opportunities to write about the good times. I look forward to your next installment.

I hope you feel better soon.

Anonymous 7:16 PM  

I had a disaster on puzzle 1 this year. I actually had the whole grid perfect in under 5 minutes, and had quite a few seconds on the clock, so I decided to check my work. Like Rex, I wasn't very happy with VIER (I love languages, but know very little of any of them), but it was the crossing with MAZELTOV that had me unsure. I had put the V in at first, but I second guessed myself and stupidly erased it and changed it to an F. Aaaargggghh! Goodbye, 195 points. I sure kicked myself for that one.

I'd forgotten about the ADVALOREM/ROLEO corner in puzzle 2 - luckily I guessed that one correctly. That was the puzzle I voted for as my favorite. I thought the word ladder was very clever.

Puzzle 3 was my bane this year though. I had probably 99% of it finished with 15 minutes left on the clock, everything done except the top left corner. Then, nothing. I had APEX at 16A (clued as 'Tip-top'.) It didn't seem to work, but I couldn't think of what else could go in there. I stared and stared at it, feeling total despair start to sink in as the minutes ticked away. I had thought of OCARINA, but I couldn't see how to make it fit. The C would fit with ACME, but that M was obviously wrong. What else? AONE? That also wasn't panning out. The clue that just *killed* me though (and how I finally got in, 10 minutes later), was 'Gone fishing, perhaps' for ASEA at 4 down. I could not believe it took me that long to come up with the answer. Then that S made ACES come to me. In retrospect I think that that 16A clue was too hard for this puzzle - come to think of it, this whole corner was too hard! Kind of like yesterday's NYT puzzle - it felt to me that that one section was unbalanced with the rest of the grid. Anyway... at that point I had enough to give me ARRAU for the pianist (never heard the name before), correctly. So, after frittering away 10 or 12 minutes just to fix up those 6 letters, I finally turned in the puzzle with 2 minutes left on the clock, thinking it was ok. *AFTER ALL THAT* it turns out that in my haste I had made a mistake earlier - HANGBACK instead of HUNGBACK at 68 down. It was one of those situations where you read the clue, think 'not sure yet, but I'll get it later', fill in a lot of stuff around it, see a letter combination that fits, and then think 'yeah, that's what that clue was getting at' without double checking it. Damn! The tense in the clue was perfectly clear, it was my own fault. Bye bye, 195 points. (And about 250 bonus points for not seeing @#$!@ ASEA earlier!!! ASEA, for goodness sake - it's only in about every other puzzle I do!) That rascally Merl gets me again.

Come to think of it, I had mistakes in more puzzles this year than I did last year, but was still able to improve my ranking from 402 last time to 228 this time. I think what did it for me was puzzle 5, where I had quite a good show relative to a lot of the competitors.

Well, thanks for giving me a place to vent. :) I didn't mean to sound so negative here. It's not like I had a bad time at the tournament; that simply couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, just like the first time I went, it was such a blast that I already can't wait for next year! To any of you who have been wavering about whether or not to come -- DO IT! I just wish I'd started attending years earlier!

barrywep 8:20 PM  

Puzzle 1 was a disaster for me too.

I put in NEEP for NEAP and finished with a few seconds left in the minute and never checked the crossings.

I enjoyed your writeup almost as much as your wife's. Yours was funnier but hers had real charm and captured the gestalt of the event. Judge Vic is a good guy and a GREAT storyteller. Do you need to clarify that "Judge" is his day job as opposed to Phillysolver who was only a judge for the day (two actually).

Sorry I didn't get to hang out with you and the charming Sandy. What is it you two do for New Zealand?

jasonf 8:40 PM  

I see I wasn't the only one who chose incorrectly between MAZELTOV/VIER and MAZELTOF/FIER.

Anonymous 9:25 PM  

Merl Reagle has a neatly twisted puzzle in the Philly paper today...

Anonymous 10:30 PM  

Phillysolver, looking at the photo, you look exactly like I thought you might based on your comments in this blog. Something very comforting about that : )

I have mental images for each of the frequent contributors, probably most of them way off...

Anonymous 10:40 PM  

@foodie, why don't you come to Brooklyn next year and meet them?

Anonymous 10:47 PM  

You should not go to IHOP in New York City. It's akin to ordering Dominos if you want pizza. There are many better places for breakfast.

AV 1:02 AM  

Rex - Great commentary, look forward to Puzzles 4 - 7, especially 5!

[Repeat of a post from the Orange blog]:

Great way to relive the tournament.

For every tricky crossing, the judges had their moments - for example, in Mike Shenk's ladder puzzle, we saw "Seduced By", "Seedy Buns", "Seedy Boys", etc. Many of the puzzlers sent private messages about the previous puzzle - like "You got me, Kahn!", and "Still don't get the last theme".

Just one comment on the great weekend - apart from the bar at the Marriott where you could move from one group of cruciverbalists to another, there were several games breaking out in the hallways.

One of them was a guessing game/charade combination called "Pass the chicken" and the most groan-inducing person to clue: Delroy Lindo. This crossing was clearly etched in the minds of the solvers!

It's not just the puzzles and the tournament, but the camaraderie and interactions that take place in the bar and hallways that make the event worth attending. Before the tournament, I could not imagine hanging out with Amy Goldstein (whose book I have gifted to every kid in the family), her wonderful son Evan, Leslie Billig, Peter Gordon, Will Johnston, and a host of others playing "Pass the chicken". Or, playing another guessing game with Merl Reagle in the crowd, trying to crack his clue "Its in his kiss" (for chocolate).

But now, after meeting all the participants, it just seems so normal for this all-inclusive crowd.


Anonymous 1:44 AM  


Thanks for the encouragement. I'm building up my courage... Might take a year or two.. But the attendees make it seem like a very warm and happy event.

Anonymous 6:43 AM  

rex, i used to impressed.... now i think u r a looser

QP 7:57 AM  

IHOP i n NYC is not a place to go for breakfast

Anonymous 8:31 AM  

I guess if you read Patrick O'Brien books you might know a kedge is a kind of anchor, but in a million years I wouldn't have put "Keds" and "sludge" together to answer the "kedge" pun clue. You're a better man than I.

Sandy 10:31 AM  

About the IHOP thing, if you've been reading along for the past year or so, you'll know that IHOP is a recurring Rex Parker theme, so we didn't just go there for lack of imagination. Yes, we do know that going to a chain restaurant in NYC is for loosers [sic], but it was also quite a lot of fun.

Anonymous 2:05 PM  

i too used to be impressed. now im just perpetually blushing.

Orange 2:42 PM  

Say what you will about the suitability of IHOP as a Brooklyn breakfast venue—it makes a helluva lot more sense than shelling out $20 to break fast in the hotel restaurant. Plus: It's hard to find corn cakes outside of IHOP, and they are nummy indeed.

barrywep 6:08 PM  

You are no LOOSER. I love the way you defend Rex.Who watched the dog when you guys were in Brooklyn?

Anonymous 9:21 PM  

Thank you Barrywep. Poor Rex is still on the couch coughing and hacking, so it falls to me to defend the family honor. The dog went to stay with our friend Dondie. The dog *loves* Dondie.

Anonymous 11:57 PM  

You don't use the OCARINA to ring a bell; you blow in it. I had the instrument, but had to guess on the bird. And blame late night television, I swear I've seen a ROLEO event before. I'm happy I figured Port Dover in puzzle 5, not Fort Dover.

Nice picture of Andrea; I voted for her too.

I remember sitting in the lounge, watching some Scrabble-like tile game, and watching Trip Payne (nicely) slaughtering the other players.

Anonymous 12:27 AM  

@6.43anon, do you have any idea who you are talking about, you anonymous cowardly you who can't even spell! Get a life and a name and stop badgering your betters!

Anonymous 12:40 AM  

I have to tell all of you I don't ever mouth off like this, but I guess I feel very protective of poor sick Rex.... Did I spell mouth properly or do I need some esl?

Anonymous 2:22 AM  

I don't understand why IHOP would be considered a bad place to go for breakfast. We have one in our neighborhood (Jackson Heights, Queens, the birthplace of Scrabble)and go there all the time. It's not like NYC is world-famous for its breakfasts. I can think of 3 NY breakfast things: Bagels/bialys with various fixings, lox and eggs, and matzoh brie. But if you just want an omelet with some hash browns why wouldn't you go to IHOP. It is a place to get delicious food and I think all restaurants should serve a side of pancakes with their entrees.

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