(SPOILER ALERT: If you're going to be doing this year's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament puzzles by mail, you shouldn't read this.)
During the Friday evening of fun and games preceding this year's tournament in Brooklyn, something happens that makes me think that I might -- just might -- have a chance of improving my ranking from last year's 166 to (dare it be hoped?) the Top 100.
Ten stations are set up in the ballroom. At each one, a puzzle maker presides over competitions involving a particular kind of puzzle. You can spend 20 minutes at each of four of the stations, with breaks in between. If you do well enough, you get tickets that you can redeem for puzzle books at the end of the evening.
The competition at the first station I go to involves estimates -- what's the total current population of the U.S., how many screen credits did Mel Blanc have, and other esoteric queries. Those whose answers fall within certain percentages of the right answers are to get tickets.
I take my best shots, but I am well aware of how poor my aim is when it comes to things like this. I estimate that my chances of winning range from zilch to diddly-squat, and this estimate alone proves to be right on the money.
The next station involves cryptic crossword puzzles, which I am sometimes fairly good at, but I usually need a lot more than 20 minutes, and this time is no exception.
I do a lot better at my next competition -- a word search puzzle -- but I fall one answer short of winning anything.
Finally I hit some pay dirt at a competition that involves the kind of puzzles featured on "Wheel of Fortune." Each puzzle shows only the vowels, and each involves all five of them.
I've long had a knack for this sort of thing, and although I don't do a perfect job, I do well enough to get four tickets.
Aha, methinks -- I'll at least have something to bring home.
So I stay through the wine and cheese party that follows, but when the winners are announced at the end, it turns out that you need a lot more than four tickets to win anything.
So my "pay dirt" is really, at best, a smudge.....
On Saturday I'm up bright and early for the first of six puzzles, and I'm seasoned enough to waste little time in getting a seat in what I know will become a crowded ballroom. I'm ready for battle with my five soldiers -- OK, OK, lead pencils -- arrayed before me, awaiting orders, just as they have for the past year as they sat in a resealable bag in a shelf in my home.
The first puzzle, "To Tell the Truth," by Kelly Clark, is fairly easy (the first words of the theme answers are "open," "frank," "candid" and "real"), but I still take longer than I should because of two crossing answers in the right middle section; it takes me a while to figure out that "Sound from a bell tower" is BONG and "Like many homes on HGTV" is REDONE.
Next is "Five Borough Bridges," by Patrick Blindauer, whose puzzles can be fearsome. But this one seems easy -- maybe too easy. I never do figure out the theme, and I'm concerned that my answer to one clue, "Lightning Bolt," seems to make no sense but is apparently the only possible answer.
A few minutes after tournament director Will Shortz calls time, I find out that the trick of the puzzle involves names of local bridges that are separated by black squares -- BatMAN HAT TANdem, for example. It also turns out that I might be the only person in the civilized (and perhaps uncivilized) world who hadn't known that there is a famous sprinter named USAIN Bolt. But that doesn't matter because, as I later find out, I have a perfect score on this puzzle -- and the first one, too.
The third puzzle, "Silence of the Lampreys," is by Merl Reagle, whose Sunday-size puzzles appear in my weekly paper. This one seems a little harder until I figure out that all the theme answers involve a missing "eel" sound -- FIX THE CAT instead of Felix the Cat, for example. OK ... if Merl says so.
Before lunch, preliminary standings are online. I can't recall whether these were based on the first two puzzles or just the first one, but I do know that I'm now No. 142 out of 580. Not the top 100 of course, but not 166 either, and I have four more puzzles to do -- including the dreaded No. 5.
After lunch I face the fourth puzzle, "Spaced Out," by MaryEllen Uthlaut. The theme answers include the letters "ET," so that an inexperienced alien becomes a GREEN HORNET (or rather GREENHORN ET).
The puzzle is pretty easy, which is just as well, because I'll need all my stamina for Puzzle 5, traditionally the hardest puzzle, and in this case it's "Send in the Clones" by Brendan Emmett Quigley, who to me is even more fearsome than Patrick Blindauer.
The trick in the puzzle might be the most convoluted one I've ever seen in a Puzzle 5, and I've seen seven of them so far. See if you can follow this (perhaps better yet, see if I can follow it): The clue is "Tried / 1964 title role." The answer is STRANGELOVE -- you take STROVE (tried), separate the letters and insert ANGEL, and you get STRANGELOVE.
Where, you might ask, does the ANGEL come from? It comes from the Down answer that gave us the G: "Religious figure." So you have one ANGEL crossing another ANGEL.
Yeah, I know. I didn't really figure it out myself. But what helped me, I think, is that I took the approach I often taken when Puzzle 5 comes along: Fill in the answers you know as quickly as you can and hope the theme will occur to you. And although it never really did, and although few people, at most, seemed to finish the puzzle, I was only a few clues short of a perfect solution. Perhaps STRANGELOVE was, in its obscure way, the key. Once I got STROVE, I knew it had to be STRANGELOVE, even if I didn't know where the ANGEL came from. Or perhaps I have a GUARDIAN ANGEL (or, perhaps more aptly, a CROSSING GUARDIAN ANGEL) who has been coming to Brooklyn with me.
Puzzle 6, the last one of the day, is usually pretty easy, and for the most part this puzzle, "UH ... LIKE ... YOU KNOW?" by Anna Schectman, ran true to form, with theme answers that included "UM" and "ER." ("One singing psalms loudly" is a BIBLE BELTER.)
That was easy enough. But my problem was a case of "The cultural references giveth and the cultural references taketh away."
It was a classic instance of what I call the Dreaded Double Cross -- two intersecting words for which you don't have much of a clue. This was payback for my getting lucky with USAIN.
"One of the girls on 'Girls.'" Now I know what "Girls" is. It's the HBO show that sometimes came on after "True Detective." I watched "True Detective," but in my household we always switched before "Girls" came on.
Big mistake -- as far as the tournament was concerned.
I knew the answer was _ESSA. What else could it be but TESSA?
The clues for the intersecting word was "Backpack brand" and had to be _ANSPORTS. So I figured it was TANSPORTS, ignoring that an answer below it was SPRAY TAN.
As I'm guessing many if not most of you know, the correct answers were JESSA and JANSPORTS.
Saturday night, the current standings, based on the first four puzzles, show me around 166, even though I did the first four puzzles perfectly. I'm guessing I'm still not fast enough, and I'm hoping that I did so much better on Puzzle 5 than many others seemed to that it will cushion the self-inflicted blow of Puzzle 6.
The big Sunday morning puzzle, Puzzle 7, the last one everybody does, is "It All Ads Up," by David J. Kahn. It's trickier than usual for a Puzzle 7, with a square of numbers in the middle (each row adding up to 15), but I figure it out soon enough to finish 22 minutes early.
The championship showdown is exciting enough,involving Howard Barkin, Dan Feyer (four-time winner and current champ) and Tyler Hinman (five-time winner). Feyer beats Hinman by a few minutes to successfully defend the title.
And now, one week after the tournament, I'm at 164, up two places from last year's 166. Perhaps the rankings will be revised again (as they usually are as scoring mistakes are found), but I have a feeling they won't be at this late date.
Were it not for JESSA, I think I would have finished around 142 again.
At any rate, I won't be going to Brooklyn again.
No, I'm not bailing out of the tournament; the tournament is bailing out of Brooklyn after seven years and returning to Stamford, Conn., where it started in the 1970s.
Who knows? Maybe a change of venue will improve my score.
And maybe I should look for another CROSSING GUARDIAN ANGEL -- preferably, one who watches all the TV shows I can't be bothered with.
UPDATE, March 21: Just checked the standings again, and I'm now down to 165 -- one place above last year. Well, it's still progress, I suppose....