Saturday, March 7, 2009

Fun at the puzzle tournament

Notes from the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held Feb. 27 to March 1 in Brooklyn....


Registration time. Last year when I walked up to the table, a seemingly nice gentleman named David J. Kahn gave me my registration materials. But the next day it turned out that Mr. Kahn was the author of that year's Puzzle #5, which is commonly called, with more than sufficient reason, "the bastard puzzle."

This year I don't see Mr. Kahn at the registration table. Instead, I am waited on by Patrick Merrell, who I happen to remember is also a crossword puzzle designer. A very affable young man, Mr. Merrell is.

The Friday night program consists of a panel discussion and a competition that won't affect the weekend's scores. The panel consists of people who blog about crosswords, including Rex Parker, whom I've corresponded with a number of times, though we've never met, and our paths don't get around to crossing this weekend, either. (It's hard to spot someone in a crowd of more than 650 puzzle solvers.) The discussion seems pleasant enough, though the audio could be better.

The competition, called "Pick Your Poison," is in two rounds. The first consists of KenKen puzzles, KenKen being the latest rage for those who love Sudoku. The inventor of KenKen, Tetsuya Miyamoto, is a special guest at the tournament and speaks to us for a few minutes. Mr. Miyamoto is charmingly exuberant, and it soon becomes clear that no one will have any trouble getting him to come out of his shell any time soon.

Although I've done some Sudoku puzzles, I've never done KenKen. Turns out I have a choice between four 4-by-4 puzzles and two 6-by-6 puzzles. I figure doing the four smaller puzzles will be easier. We have 20 minutes, and with maybe four minutes left I've finished the first three and am thinking myself quite the KenKen whiz. But the last one stumps me, and I am forced to realize that the only competition I might win within the next few minutes will be one that awards a trophy for the most erasures. When it comes to KenKen competitions, I am a WashoutWashout.

Next we have 20 minutes to do one of three puzzles: Cryptic Crosswords, Split Decisions or Diagramless. I've never been able to do a Diagramless and I've never heard of Split Decisions (and when I look at a sample I know I'd be dead in the water before I ever left the beach). So by default I try a cryptic puzzle. I've done them before. They're like British crosswords; the clues involve puns and anagrams and almost never mean what they seem to mean.

Although I've done cryptic crosswords, it usually takes me a while to do each one, and my brain has to be in the proper gear for it. Because it's been a while since I've done a cryptic, I'm pleasantly surprised when I get a lot of it done, but there's no way I'm going to beat the 20-minute time limit.

So I don't need to stay for that night's awards ceremony.


A big day -- six puzzles.

Right off the bat I forget a lesson I learned last year: Get in the competition room early so you can get a seat at one of the long tables. Despite my forgetfulness, I manage to find a seat before things get so bad that they have to send out for extra chairs.

Two seats down from me is Ellen Ripstein, a competition winner who was among those featured in "Wordplay," a documentary made about the tournament a few years ago. Next to me is a young man (way younger than I) who designs puzzles; one he constructed with someone else was published earlier in the month in The New York Times.

No reason for me to be intimidated sitting at the same table with these folks, no sirree.

Puzzle #1 is by Byron Walden. Mr. Walden is a double threat: Not only does he compose diabolical puzzles, but I often see his name on the Times' crosswords Web page, listed among the top 10 solvers of the puzzle of the day.

But Puzzle #1 is supposed to be easy, and Mr. Walden complies. I'm relieved but maybe a little disappointed; seeing a puzzle by Byron Walden that turns out to be easy is a little like being James Bond and being taken to Dr. No's torture chamber and finding out that the only weapon the good doctor has on hand is his collection of favorite knock-knock jokes. But I complete the puzzle perfectly (150 bonus points) and a few minutes early (25 bonus points for each point).

Puzzle #2 is by someone even scarier than Byron Walden: Brendan Emmett Quigley. Seeing his name on a crossword puzzle usually makes me want to buzz my secretary and have her clear all appointments for the next three days -- no matter that I a) have no secretary and b) have few appointments these days. The puzzle is titled "Allow Me to Introduce Myself." The theme answers are familiar phrases with i's stuck in them, so that, for example, the answer to "Put some complete morons it touch with each other?" is CONNECT THE IDIOTS instead of CONNECT THE DOTS.

Luckily I figure out the theme soon enough, but some other answers (what crossword buffs call the "fill") prove troublesome. Most troublesome are two intersecting words, the clues for which are "Having gems arranged side by side, e.g." and "Fifth-century Chinese dynasty." For the first I have T_OROW; the second, _EI. I can't figure it out and return to it after I've resolved all the other trouble spots. Finally, with less than a minute, I decide that maybe China at one time had a FEI dynasty. And less than 20 seconds after the proctor takes my paper, I realize the correct answers are WEI and TWOROW (TWO ROW).

The next puzzle is by Merl Reagle It takes a while, but I finish it perfectly with a few minutes to spare. Luckily for me, Mr. Reagle is a lot closer to my age than those whippersnappers Walden and Quigley and is apparently an old-show-biz buff, so I have an apparent advantage over the young man to my left: I know immediately that "Constance or Norma of the silents" is TALMADGE and the vaudeville star who is famous for appearing in "Hellzapoppin'" is OLE OLSEN.

Even so, Ms. Ripstein has finished the puzzle (112 words) within a few minutes and has left the room, having had the decency not to get in my face and yell "Nyah-hah-hah!" before departing.

After lunch, Puzzle #4, by Andrea Carla Michaels and Myles Callum, provides me with another perfect finish.

But then comes The Bastard Puzzle.

And it's by -- you guessed it -- Patrick Merrell, that affable enough young man referred to above. How could you, Patrick? Then again, I am able to figure out the theme, which wasn't the case with Mr. Kahn's puzzle: each theme answer in Mr. Merrell's puzzle has two words, each of which could be preceded by "sub" (HUMAN SPECIES / SUBHUMAN, SUBSPECIES). But the fill is way too tough, and most of the people in the room (including me) run out of time.

The final puzzle of the day is by longtime puzzle-maker Maura Jacobson, who I believe has had a puzzle in the competition since the beginning, more than 30 years ago, and who once again wins a warm round of applause from the audience. The theme clues are spoonerisms -- NERD'S BEST SOUP for BIRD'S NEST SOUP is one -- and it's a charming way to end the day, especially since I finish it perfectly and ahead of time.

After dinner, it's Game Show Night, with word and trivia games. One of the team members is a puzzle-maker named Tony Orbach, but there's no puzzle about his parentage: It's plainly obvious from his looks that he's the son of one of my favorite actors, the late Jerry Orbach.


A lot of suspense -- not just the end of the competition, but the imminent end of relatively mild winter weather in Brooklyn: A big storm is scheduled to hit the area that night, and I decide to head out for the airport after the competition, skipping the dinner, which this year is to be prepared by a Food Network chef who, as part of the program "Dinner: Impossible," was taken to the hotel Sunday morning with the assignment to prepare the dinner from scratch. Matter of fact, The Food Network has been taping the tournament both Saturday and Sunday. A big sign near the entry to the competition room tells us all that we've pretty much given up our right to privacy by being in the tournament. (This is a particularly bad break for tournament contestants who are also entered in the witness protection program.)

The last puzzle for everyone, by Mike Shenk, isn't too bad, but going into it I know that that WEI has led my score way astray, so I try to be accurate and very fast, and I succeed.

The tournament ends with the section finals, and the last round, the Section A final, is particularly suspenseful; Trip Payne and Francis Heaney finish the puzzle (by Patrick Berry) early but have made the same error, while Tyler Hinman, who has won four times in a row, seems to be stuck and the clock is running ... running ...

Did he finish in time? Find out here.

The scores are posted on the tournament Web site. At first I'm 245th, but during the week the scores are adjusted, and on Friday I learn I'm 250th out of 674, up from last year's finish, 262nd out of 699. Were it not for that Puzzle #2 blunder, I apparently would have been 228th.

And did I get out of New York City in time to beat the snow? I'm afraid I don't have video on that, so you'll have to take my word for it that my plane took off before the snow took over, and I said WEI! WEI! WEI! WEI! all the way home.


Dough said...

Wonderful blog! Enjoyed it! Next year, register with Helene! BTW, Third place winner was Francis Heaney, not Patrick Heaney, who was Seamus Heaney's father.

Mark Murphy said...

Thanks for the comment and correction.
I realized my error this morning as I was listening to Will Shortz and Tyler Hinman on NPR, and I'd hoped to fix it before anyone else noticed. I'm glad I have sharp-eyed readers. I'm glad I have ANY readers....

Ellen said...

Guess you were on the other side of Francis. I probably wouldn't want to sit near me either. :0