(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.)
As I head down to the tournament room Sunday morning to do Puzzle No. 7 – the last puzzle for everyone except the finalists – I’m not feeling totally up to snuff. I’m even wondering whether I did indeed catch something from the woman on the plane who’d left a sick kid at home, or the guy on the elevator the night before whose wife asked him if he’d thrown up yet.
Of course, and not for the first time, I’m psyching myself out, because I feel a lot better for the rest of the day when I see the newly posted scores (in hard copy this time), showing that after the last two puzzles of the previous day I have risen from No. 231 to No. 221.
Puzzle No. 7, by Merl Reagle, is not unusually hard, at least for me. It is a big puzzle, the size of a Sunday puzzle, which, given what day it is, is entirely fitting.
And Mr. Reagle – who is prominently featured in the documentary “Wordplay,” which I recommend if you haven’t seen it – makes a living (or at least part of one) by designing Sunday puzzles with clever themes.
“Heads of State” is no exception. The theme consists of postal state abbreviations that have been attached to familiar phrases.
Thus “Like some political scandals?” translates as “MISTRESS RELATED” (MI + STRESS RELATED).
For the most part, the trip through the puzzle is an easy one, though I occasionally run into a section with one or two clues I can’t answer and sweat a bit until I find one or two nearby easier clues that help me solve the harder ones.
My worst problem is self-inflicted: 16 down, “Some bow ties,” seems to be coming out as “PASTS.” I try hard but can’t see any direct or even indirect connections between the past – or any pasts – and bow ties.
It takes way too long for me to discover that I’m getting “PASTS” because of a typo in my 33 across answer, which reads: MISTRESS RELSTED. Oops. Change the errant S to an A and I get “PASTA,” which makes a lot more sense. Whew.
Even with this, I finish well ahead of the deadline and go upstairs to finish packing, check out and check my luggage.
I get all this done in plenty of time to watch the finals, in which the top three contestants in three divisions (A, B and C) compete by doing the same puzzle on huge boards set up in front of the audience.
One major piece of news this year for Division A, the top division: Tyler Hinman, the young man who has won the division – and, in effect, the entire tournament – for five years in a row has just missed being one of the three finalists.
Instead, the top contestants going into the last round are, in alphabetical order, Howard Barkin, Anne Erdmann and Dan Feyer.
If you’re interested in how things went, with running commentary by Merl Reagle and NPR’s Neal Conan, click here.
The excitement, for me, at least, doesn’t end with the naming of the winner.
For as I leave, I discover that for the first time since I’ve been coming to the tournament, the final scores – taking into account all of the seven pre-final puzzles – have been posted. (This is due to advances made in the electronic scoring system and overseen, I gather, by Will Shortz and Doug Heller.)
And it turns out that I am no longer No. 221.
I am now No. 213 – out of 643 – in the top 33 percent.
And I immediately begin to wonder how long I’ll be able to hold this position; in the past, in the week following the tournament, my score has changed (and not for the better) as tournament officials make adjustments for newly reported scoring errors.
But right now, almost a week after the tournament ended, I’m still at 213, probably because the improvements brought forth by Shortz, Heller and their helpers have enabled the contestants to spot scoring errors earlier, during the tournament itself.
I’d considered making this year my last one at the tournament out of a concern that my score wouldn’t change much from year to year. But the latest score changes my mind.
Which leaves me with this to-do list for the 2011 tournament:
1. Crack the 10,000-point level (my point score this year was 9775).
2. Correctly finish a bastard/bitch mother puzzle well ahead of deadline.
3. Marinate myself in Lysol before boarding any public conveyance.