Sunday, April 12, 2015

Fun at the puzzle tournament

(SPOILER ALERT: If you are among the solvers who will be doing this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament puzzles by mail, you shouldn’t read this now.)

I didn’t ask for the change of venue, but now that the proceedings are over, I have no plans to appeal.

I began competing in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 2008, the first year it was held in Brooklyn. It had moved there from Stamford, Connecticut, where it had always been held, after a documentary about the event caused attendance to zoom so much that the event outgrew the hotel.

Last year, with attendance leveling off, tournament officials announced that the event would be moved back to Stamford. This meant that instead of a simple plane ride to JFK or LaGuardia and a cab to Brooklyn, I’d have to take a train to Manhattan, then catch a commuter train to Stamford.

But I was pleasantly surprised by how well things went. True, the Amtrak ride was a long one, but I didn’t have to go through all the fun stuff you have to do just to get to the gate – just get on, show your ticket to the conductor and settle back. Perhaps it helped that my maternal grandfather, whom I never met, was a railroad worker, and I remember my uncle telling me that he, my aunt and my mother had train passes until they were 21.

So the move back to Stamford was a good idea.

But you didn’t come hear to here about my travel travails, so on to the puzzles….

As always, the first puzzle on this Saturday is an easy warm-up: “Whom Not to Invite to the Party,” by Tracy Bennett. It has an asymmetrical grid, in the middle of which black spaces are arranged to form a frowning face.

I do well on this, though as in past years I maybe take a little too much time checking my answers as I work toward my eventual goal of beating my ranking from last year – 164, down from my best showing, 142.

Puzzle 2 is supposed to be the second most difficult, but I’m able to spot the theme right away. Joel Fagliano’s “Tearing the World Apart” splits the names of continents across several horizontal lines – so you find, for example, EURydice and antiPOPE. I seem to make fairly good time on this.

Continuing the geographical motif, Puzzle 3, by Merl Reagle, is “Our Expanding Cities.” Having done many of Reagle’s Sunday puzzles in my local paper, I’m ready for his brand of pleasingly outlandish wordplay, which includes this clue: “City that’s out of touch with the other cities in this puzzle?” Answer: DISCHENECTADY.

After the lunch break, I’m feeling pretty good, figuring I’ve nailed all three puzzles.

Then I make the mistake of asking the nice lady next to me to check my scores on her phone.

My score for Puzzle 2 is much lower than it should be.

The scans for Puzzle 2 are already online, and when she called mine up on her screen I see my error: For “River of central Germany” I have ODER instead of EDER. Because of this mistake, I miss out on more than 200 points.

So as I go into Puzzle 4, I have to work a bit to maintain my concentration and not let my ODER stink up any chances for improving my score. Fortunately, Paula Gamache’s “Odes” is fairly easy (“Ph.D. candidate’s ode?” TO A HIGHER DEGREE”), and I nail it.

Next comes the dreaded Puzzle 5, often referred to as “the bastard puzzle,” which is supposed to be the trickiest of the seven puzzles that everyone does. This year it is “Attention, Newbies!” by Jeff Chen.

Over the years I have decided that the way to handle Puzzle 5 is not to get too intimidated -- just fill in as many clues as you can and hope the theme will become clear. In this case, it takes quite a while, especially because during the first five minutes of this 30-minute puzzle I’m unable to make much of a dent in it.

But as usual in crossword land, persistence pays off, and I eventually get what’s going on: In the theme answers, one or two Bs have been added, so that the answer to “Rebounds” is not CAROMS but CAR BOMBS. (New Bs – get it?)

Maybe with 10 minutes more I might have nailed this puzzle, but as it stands I finished more of it than most of the contestants (as usual with Puzzle 5, few seemed to finish it).

Puzzle 6, the last puzzle of the day, is “Company Turnarounds” by Lynn Lempel, who does a lot of the easy Monday New York Times puzzles. (“Jewel to wear on Election Day?” TUESDAY RUBY.) I do a perfect job on this.

On Sunday morning, as I head downstairs to do Puzzle 7, my score is in the upper 150s, an improvement over last year, though not by much, though Puzzle 7 is the biggest one in terms of clues and is given the most time – 45 minutes. So if I can nail all the clues and finish well ahead of time, I have a very good chance at scoring mucho points.

On the elevator with me as I head down are several guys, one of whom is instantly familiar: Jason Keller, a former Jeopardy! champ, who is competing in the tournament. Over the years I’ve also seen a couple of other champs from the show competing. Monetarily, this seems odd; the tournament’s top prize is $5,000, which is chicken feed to any Jeopardy! champ who is good enough to make the show’s annual Tournament of Champions, as all three of these guys have done. The only thing I can figure is that to them, the crossword competition is just another Everest.

As I get ready for Puzzle 7, the seat next to me is taken by someone I’ve seen at most of the other tournaments: mystery writer Parnell Hall.

If you’ve never read any of his stuff, you should look him up. He writes mystery novels that are both cleverly plotted and funny. If you think that’s easy, try it sometime – chances are that you’ll decide to take up a less perilous pastime, like juggling chain saws.

One of Mr. Hall’s series stars a woman who is famous for making crossword puzzles -- – which are really constructed by her niece – and for solving murders. He and I have a chat about the mystery business, and like most of the mystery writers I’ve met since I began to sell some of my stuff, he’s very nice and treats me as a fellow professional, though I’m sure not yet at the point where I deserve that title.

Our conversation is so enjoyable that I almost forget I’m there to do a puzzle, in this case “I’d Sooner Spooner” by the often tricky Patrick Berry. I know I’m in my element, because I know that a spoonerism is a familiar phrase in which a couple of beginning letters have been switched, so that “Merchandise at an Indian grocery?” is CURRIES AND WARES (instead of Worries and Cares).

We have 45 minutes to do this big puzzle, and I’m finished with 26 minutes left on the clock, with the grid filled in perfectly.

The last puzzle, by Byron Walden, is done only by the finalists, a group that – surprise! – doesn’t include me. The big showdown involves (in alphabetical order) Howard Barkin, Dan Feyer and Tyler Hinman, and this finish is about as exciting as you can get, and you can see it here.

As for me, I finish in 154th place out of about 560 – an acceptable improvement over last year, but were it not for the ODER/EDER screw-up, I probably would have been 133rd.

But there’s always next year’s tournament, which begins on April Fools’ Day.

Sure hope that’s not an omen.