Notes from a rookie contestant at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.....
It's 11 a.m. last Saturday, and I'm sitting at a long table in a ballroom at a hotel in Brooklyn. All around me -- seated across and down, you might say -- are other puzzle solvers. In front of me, face down on the table, is the first of seven puzzles I'll be working on this weekend. (There will be six today and one on Saturday, plus the puzzle that only the finalists do.)
Registration began Friday night. A nice, seemingly harmless guy named David J. Kahn, who also happens to be a puzzle constructor -- I recognized the name -- handed me the registration packet and took pains to point out my contestant number (415) on the folder. I'm supposed to write the number, and my name, on the back of each puzzle. (I later find out that some people have neglected to do this in the past.)
Each of the puzzles has a time limit. Each correct answer is worth 10 points. If you finish early, you get 25 points for each minute you had left. If your solution is perfect, you get 150 bonus points.
The bad news is that if you have a mistake -- or mistakes -- you get 25 points taken off the finish-early bonus for each error. If you have more errors than you had minutes left, though, you don't wind up in the "minus column," like a hapless "Jeopardy!" contestant.
And of course you don't get the 150 bonus points for a perfect puzzle.
On Saturday morning, before going into the ballroom, I walk through the hallway a few times. Tables have been set up and people are selling T-shirts, word games and, of course, crossword puzzle books. New York Times puzzles. New York Sun puzzles. Raunchy crosswords. Even a small book of crosswords to be done in the bathroom. The book is in the shape of a toilet.
People from The New York Times are giving away small card games and mouse pads in exchange for getting your e-mail address.
It's pretty crowded -- 699 contestants, in all -- but one guy stands out. His name is Jim, and apparently every year he wears some kind of weird costume to the tournament. This time Jim, who also sports a mustache, is wearing a wedding dress with a crossword puzzle on it. As he walks by, another contestant looks at me and remarks about the various kinds of people who show up at the event.
"Always a 10 across, but never a 5 down," I say.
It gets a laugh.
I eventually learn that there seem to be two groups of contestants, not necessarily mutually exclusive: those who are hotly competitive and want to WIN WIN WIN, and those who just like solving puzzles, don't get upset if they don't finish that well and just enjoy seeing the same people year after year. (The event has been going on for three decades.)
The first puzzle is titled "Encouraging Words," described as "a puzzle that provides some figurative pats on the back." Will Shortz, The Times' crosswords editor, who runs the tournament, announces that the puzzle is by Andrea Carla Michaels. This brings a round of applause, which is repeated throughout the tournament as Shortz announces the name of a puzzle's constructor. The hardcore puzzle solvers know the constructors' names -- and quite often, their constructing styles. And a number of the constructors are present, serving as tournament officials.
It's a 15-minute puzzle, as indicated by a big digital clock at one corner of the room. Shortz gives the signal, and we're off.
It's supposed to be an easy puzzle, and it is. I finish it with six minutes left. I look it over carefully before raising my hand -- which brings a referee over to take the puzzle from me and write down the time.
I'm a bit miffed; I shouldn't have taken nine minutes. It's as easy as a Times Monday puzzle, which I usually can do in six minutes.
Then again, I use a pen at home, a Pilot G-2, which is easier for my hand than a pencil, which the judges seem to prefer. My hand now feels a little cramped. For next year's tourney, I'll get a pencil that fits my hand better. Also, I solved the puzzle with my glasses on. Sometimes reading things at close range is a bit easier for me if I take the glasses off.
After a brief break, the second puzzle is passed out. Though it's face down in front of me, I suspect it's going to be trouble, because I can see that, besides the usual grid, there's some other kind of grid. Oh oh.
The puzzle, by Mike Shenk, is titled "Change of Venue." The smaller, vertical grid is a word latter; complete it and you get the last word of the puzzle, though the smaller grid will not be scored. We have 25 minutes to solve the main puzzle.
The answers to nine of the clues will complete the grid, but four of these answers are 11 letters long, and clues such as "second word in the ladder" are no help. Besides which, I can't figure out how the word ladder is supposed to work; at the top is the word VENUE. As I work the main puzzle I try to get the 11-letter answers by working around them. The first answer is "love goddess." The next is "bills of fare."
At some point I wonder why the hell I came here. I can't figure out what's going on. I envision myself running up to my room and packing.
Eventually I remember how a word ladder works: Each step of the ladder is just like the previous one, with one letter changed. So VENUE leads to VENUS, MENUS, MINUS, MINES, DINES, DIVES, DOVES, DOVER and, finally, MOVER.
Once I finally have this figured out, it's smooth sailing, and I finish with one minute to spare.
After another break, Puzzle 3 is "If I Wrote the Dictionary" by Merl Reagle, another of the crowd's favorite constructors. It's a 30-minute puzzle but not that hard, with cute "deft-initions"; "adj. pertaining to jazz singing," for example, turns out to be "scatological."
After lunch, I see that the preliminary standings have been posted. I can tell from my scores that I did perfectly on all of the first three. Thing is, though, that solving time is such a major factor that even given this, I'm at 231 so far. (Which, given that it's my first time and there are 699 contestants, I don't exactly mind.)
The fourth puzzle, by Paula Gamache, is "Can You Dig It?" The theme answers are various meanings of "digs." ("Living quarters," "Gets the picture," "Likes in a big way.") It's a 15-minute puzzle. I again finish with six minutes to spare.
The fifth puzzle of every tournament, Shortz tells us, is known as "the bastard puzzle." Because this is supposed to be a G-rated blog, there is no way I can do justice to how much he was understating this.
It's a 30-minute puzzle, titled "Up-Scale: Whose theme will be revealed one step at a time." And it's by that nice man, David J. Kahn.
At least he'd seemed nice.
When a crossword puzzle has a theme (and most of them do these days), figuring out the theme usually helps you speed to the end. In this case, I never do figure out the theme. By working around it, I know that "Physician who treats weightlifters?" is MUSCLE DOC. Also, "Pitched weight-loss programs?" is SOLD DIETS.
Okeydokey, but what do those clues mean? I eventually give up trying to figure it out and try to focus on the "straight" clues, at 10 points a pop. I, and many others, fail to finish on time.
Afterward, I'm told that the theme involved notes on the musical scale. If you take the DO in MUSCLEDOC and take it down one notch in the scale (TI) you get MUSCLE TIC. Taking the SOL in SOLD DIETS down a notch (FA), you get FAD DIETS.
It's a wonder I have any hair left.
The last puzzle of the day, "Elmer Fuddisms," is by Maura Jacobson, who has been putting crosswords together for many, many years. It's a 30-minute puzzle, and as you might expect, the theme answers involve switching an "r" sound to a "w" sound. Thus, "Story about an unemployed hag?" is "The idle witch."
A cute puzzle, and my notes indicate I solved it with 14 minutes left.
Later in the tournament, a woman who has been sitting in front of me and has been going to this thing for years tells me she was on an elevator with David J. Kahn.
Which leads me to wonder how many bruises he got off with. But no, she says she told him he'd forgiven him and had given him a hug.
Yes, I concede, David J. Kahn is certainly a nice man.
But I wonder if his mother knows what he does for a living.