The Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, May 30, 2015 (The Rex Parker Write-Up)

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Indie 500 Crossword Tournament

Saturday, May 30, 2015—Washington, D.C.

We drove down to suburban D.C. to stay with PuzzleGirl, which we have done several times before, but usually only to visit before leaving the country via Dulles. The drive was typical summer road trip stuff—heat, construction, Harrisburg, traffic, Gettysburg, traffic, accident, traffic, urban traffic madness, creepily bucolic area around C.I.A. headquarters … and done. 6+ hours. Ridiculous. But we were in no rush, and we made it in time for 7:30 dinner reservations, so my pre-tournament excitement was undiminished. First great surprise was that constructing phenom and all-around good guy Doug Peterson was staying with PuzzleGirl too. The second great surprise was that Doug had brought me vintage sleaze paperbacks for my (sizable) collection. This actually wasn't much of a surprise, as it's become something of a ritual—I meet Doug at a tournament, he hands over roughly 4-to-6 smutty old books in a ratty plastic bag, all of us end up crying-laughing. Here's a typical specimen:

So we all had Italian food nearby and constructor Barry Silk came along (he's the guy who makes seemingly every LAT Saturday puzzle). I had chianti and split a pizza with my wife. You really don't need to know any of this.

[Former ACPT D-division champion Vega Subramaniam and her tournament-rookie father, Mani]

Up early the next morning to drive into Georgetown. The tournament took place on the GWU campus in the Cloyd Heck Marvin Center For Something Or Other—I don't remember the last part because Cloyd Heck is such a mesmerizing name sequence, you hardly feel anything else around it is worth remembering. Cloyd! It's like Clyde and Lloyd got together and said "Heck, let's have a baby!" A truly building-worthy name. The stairwells of the building had huge posters of famous GWU alumni affixed to the underside of the stairs, creating a truly vertiginous stair-climbing experience. But again, I digress. The tournament space was lovely; you entered down a large, wide staircase into a large well-lit area with a stage on one side. We got there early so we could see all the contestants arrive. My wife decided to assume the role of official tournament photographer: "it's amazing what you can get people to do if you act like you're in charge and have a camera around your neck." I got to meet a lot of first-time tournament-goers and see a lot of old friends. The air was festive. It should be noted, however, that the organizers—Erik Agard, Peter Broda, Neville Fogarty, Andy Kravis, and Evan Birnholz—were All Business. There were very few hiccups all day long, and this was clearly due to the fact that the organizers were well and truly *working* from start to finish. Really impressive how well they cooperated and improvised and generally made the trains run roughly on time.

[Peter Broda and Erik Agard—working]

I can't talk about the puzzles in detail. I can say that all contestants solved five puzzles: three before lunch and two after. Then the top three contestants in each division—Outside Track (beginner) and Inside Track (advanced)—solved Puzzle 6 on stage while the rest of us looked on in awe / sympathy (both Outside and Inside Track solved the same grid, but did so using very, very different clues—the Inside Track clues were Brutal). But to rewind a bit—Erik Agard's puzzle was first. It had parts that were (appropriately) in color, so that was new. It also was not not not nearly as easy as most people seemed to expect a Puzzle 1 to be. I struggled, and I ended up doing better on that puzzle (relative to the field) than on any other puzzle that day. It was my favorite puzzle of the day, though I should say now that there was not a bad, or even a Just OK, puzzle in the bunch. The whole set was amazing and if you don't believe me, or if you do, you should go get them and see for yourself. I tried to congratulate Erik on his great puzzle after I'd finished it, but he was nowhere to be found—I think he was in the scorer's lair, which was this mystery area behind a black curtain that none of us were allowed to—or dared to—enter.

[Tournament organizer / constructor Neville Fogarty and crossword bon vivant Tony Orbach]

Peter Broda's puzzle was next (Puzzle 2), and this is the puzzle that caused a bunch of errors among the top solvers. There were slashed squares, and you had to write a letter in each half of the square, and—as was made perfectly clear to us from the outset—which half of the square you put which letter in *mattered*. But not everyone was as attentive as they needed to be to those instructions, so there was some carnage. I was terribly slow on that puzzle, but since I got out of it clean, my slowness didn't really matter that much. Puzzle 3 was by Finn Vigeland, and it had won the right to be in the tournament, having been selected as part of a contest from a pool of puzzles submitted by comparatively novice constructors. It was a very deserving puzzle. Again, parts of the grid were in color. The grid had objects on it—little, emoji-like renderings of a familiar object. All over the place. You had to figure out why. Really entertaining.

[Contestants Brayden Burroughs, Lena Webb, Adam Jackson]

We ate lunch at a Baja Fresh because we were lazy and there were a lot of us and actually it was pretty damned good. Tournament was running a little behind at that point, but not so's you'd notice. People seemed to be having too much of a good time to care. After lunch there was a puzzle by Andy Kravis. The whisper campaign—instigated by Andy, I'm pretty sure—had it that this puzzle, Puzzle 4, was going to literally figuratively decapitate people. It would be the equivalent of Puzzle 5 at the ACPT—the terrifying, world-slaughtering monster. This ended up being complete B.S.—so much so, that I got paranoid that I was solving it *too* easily; I figured I must be missing something. Threw my game off pretty badly. So remember if you ever attend one of these things in the future: mind games are apparently part of the deal. Don't believe the hype—just Follow Instructions and solve the puzzle. Puzzle 5 … what was it? Oh, Neville's puzzle. A fine, tricky-at-first-but-ultimately-doable puzzle. Turns out the puzzle had an interesting back story, which involved its having to be completely rewritten (they took test-solver feedback very seriously). The original idea sounded amazing, but also, possibly, solver-maddening. None of that really matters, though, as the resulting product was excellent. And just like that we were done. And *very* shortly thereafter (before Puzzle 5's time had officially completely elapsed), I found out that I had had a perfect tournament—clean, no errors. In the end, I finished 9th (out of 100 contestants—an impressive total for an inaugural independent tourney). I will never, ever finish higher than 9th at any tournament. Thus, I am The 9th Greatest Crossword Solver in the Universe In Perpetuity Forever and Ever Amen. I didn't get any hardware, but that single-digit finish (and my favorite number to boot!) was good enough for me.

[Trip Payne senses a disturbance in The Force—runs to tell Al Sanders about it]

Both of the finals were pretty thrilling. On the Outside Track, Andrew Miller (a tournament rookie who had destroyed the competition all day long) finished way before the other two contestants, but (dum dum DUM) he made the mistake (familiar to anyone who has seen "Wordplay") of leaving squares blank, even after having stepped back and checked the grid. Note to future on-stage solvers—apparently it can be hard to see the parts of the grid that are below waist level when you are stepping back to check your grid at the end. Anyway, his mistake paved the way for Joshua Himmelsbach (another rookie) to take the top prize. Christine Quinones ended up finishing well before time elapsed, so she got the … silver, or whatever they were calling 2nd place.

[Contestant Joshua Himmelsbach, looking, fittingly, victorious]

Then it was time for the big guns—all A-level competitors at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT), all people who had solved on stage and won before, in other venues. Joon Pahk had a Lollapuzzoola championship under his belt, Amy Reynaldo won the ACPT B division back during the year documented in "Wordplay" (you can see her curtsey if you watch real carefully), and Eric Maddy had won many regional tournaments around the country, most notably (and recently) Crosswords LA. Joon was the favorite (he's one of the very fastest solvers in the country) and he didn't disappoint, finishing comfortably ahead of the others, with no errors. Here he is looking gleeful while the others still toil away:

Amy made steady, methodical progress and came in a comfortable second. Eric didn't manage to finish in the allotted time, so he took third. That someone of his solving caliber couldn't finish in time should give you some idea how hard the cluing was. With the Outside Track clues, the puzzle was tough—but with the Inside Track clues, it was well nigh impossible. Mere mortals could not hope to solve this thing at all. So congrats to all of them, and to anyone who dares to solve a tough puzzle on stage with 100+ people watching you. I would probably break down and cry and/or put my fist through the grid.

Then there were awards to hand out. Here's the list of winners:

1st Inside Track: joon pahk
2nd Inside Track: Amy Reynaldo
3rd Inside Track: Eric Maddy
[Amy, Eric, joon]

1st Outside Track: Joshua Himmelsbach
2nd Outside Track: Christine Quinones
3rd Outside Track: Andrew Miller
[Andrew, Christine, Josh]

The PuzzleGirl Rookie of the Year Award: Andrew Miller
[Andrew's wearing the medal; Neville, for some reason, is celebrating]

Bobsy Jane's Pretty Penmanship Award: Laura Zipin (runner-up was Bret Martin)

the joon pahk award for worst handwriting: Christopher King
[He has a puzzle site:] Indie Spirit Award: Amy Reynaldo

The Yogi Berra Best Wrong Answer Award: Megan Beresford

Special Dairy-Related Tradition Drawing Winner: Joe Cabrera (winner of this drawing got to hit any constructor of his/her choosing with a pie)
[Pie Victim: Puzzle 2 constructor Peter Broda]

After the tournament, a most unusual / terrible post-tournament dining experience for me and a few of my friends. Then back to PuzzleGirl's house to rest up for next day's trip to Camden Yards to see the Orioles lose to the Tampa Bay (don't call them "Devil") Rays, with actual Oriole fan and UVA junior-to-be and independent crossword constructor Sam Ezersky. But I'll just stop there. I can't recommend this tournament highly enough. In terms of the combination of professionalism and pure fun, only Lollapuzzoola can really compare (and you should definitely go to that—NYC, Saturday, August 8). I really hope Indie 500 happens again next year. It deserves to be an annual event. Thanks to all the organizers, and everyone who came up to me at the tournament and said (mostly) nice things. Yay, dorks!

Awaiting next year,

[Follow Rex Parker on Facebook and Twitter]
[Get the 2015 Indie 500 Crossword Tournament puzzles here (under "ORDER")]
[Register for Lollapuzzoola 8 (on 8/8!) here]
[All photos ©2015 Penelope Harper]


Anonymous 8:32 PM  

K, we're gonna have to hear about that "most unusual / terrible post-tournament dining experience."

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