(SPOILER ALERT: If you’re one of the people who will be solving the 2010 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament's puzzles after getting them in the mail, you shouldn’t read the following until after you’ve finished the puzzles.)
It’s Saturday afternoon and time for the fourth of the seven puzzles designed for all the contestants in this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
And this time I get a surprise:
The fourth puzzle is constructed by Mike Nothnagel, the guy who’d handed me my registration folder the night before.
This is a surprise because a) in the previous two years the person who handed me the folder has turned out to be the person who constructed Puzzle No. 5, traditionally the tournament’s most difficult puzzle, and b) Mr. Nothnagel certainly has the chops to construct such a puzzle.
So I guess the streak (if two years in a row can be called a “streak”) is broken.
The puzzle, “Without Fail,” is pegged to words that can be used to form phrases when combined with the word “pass.” It’s an entertaining, pleasant puzzle, and I finish it perfectly, with nine minutes to spare.
The puzzle – as so many puzzles these days do – reflects a kind of generation gap. Some present-day puzzles contain modern references that I’m too old to get. This one, however, contains an answer that leaves a young woman two seats away from me clueless: Wavy Gravy (“Woodstock emcee who had a Ben & Jerry’s flavor named after him”). This charming young woman also mentioned earlier in the day that she’d had a dream in which she was on a car trip with Will Shortz, during which Will challenged her with this crossword clue: “The Opposite of Mexico.”
Yeah, I can see where that would be an odd dream, if not an out-and-out bad one.
And speaking of bad dreams, here comes Puzzle No. 5.
And it’s by Brendan Emmett Quigley.
I’ve written about Mr. Quigley before – he’s one of the most ingenious of the newest crop of constructors. And in the world of crossword terminology, “most ingenious” generally means “You’ll never get out of this alive.”
And if a puzzle sets my heart a-palpitatin’, it’s this Puzzle No. 5.
I don’t think I panic much when it comes to doing a puzzle – unless I’m having trouble finding a clue that I know the answer to, something that can give me a foothold or a toehold.
In this case, I’ll settle for a toenailhold, for at first glance none of these clues seems to mean anything to me. Heck, I’d even settle for “the opposite of Mexico.”
Finally – finally – I find something I can grab on to, and bit by bit I start filling in the grid. It’s a slow process, and the fact that I can’t seem to figure out the theme doesn’t help. Eventually I get part of the theme figured out, but that doesn’t help much.
And I once again find that, as with the other fifth puzzles I have done, there comes a point where you look at the clock, see you have only a few minutes left, realize you’re probably not going to get the theme (or the bonus for finishing the puzzle) and try to fill in as many answers as you can.
As the clock runs out, I realize I am one of many, many people who haven’t finished the puzzle. I later find out that I got 76 out of 94 answers right, for a total of 760 points.
Saturday ends, as it usually does, with a tension-relieving, amusing puzzle by longtime constructor Maura B. Jacobson, called “MISFILINGS: Seemingly the new library assistant hasn’t a clue.” (“Ivanhoe,” for example, has been filed “under Soviet Farming.”)
Since last year, the folks at the tournament have been fine-tuning their electronic scoring system, so that at the end of this day the scores for the first four puzzles – and preliminary standings – are now online, along with scans of the actual completed and corrected puzzles.
In other words, I can call up these scans and see if there have been any scoring errors and, if so, report them.
That is, I could do that if I had a computer or fancy cell phone with me. I have neither. (My cell phone can supposedly surf the Web, but somehow I can’t figure out how to do it.)
Fortunately, I’m scheduled to get together for dinner with a niece who is a local college student and who is far more advanced than I, and she uses her super-duper Swiss Army phone to determine that with the scores from the first four puzzles in, I’m at No. 231 out of about 643. I’m quite happy about this, considering that I finished at 250 last year.
If that won’t give me a good appetite, nothing will.
Next: The Rousing Finish. (Assuming you’re easily roused.)