Friday, March 7, 2008

Sunday at the puzzle tournament

Final notes from a rookie contestant at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held Feb. 28 to March 2 in Brooklyn.

(Previous postings below)

I get my stuff all packed (checkout time is a few hours away) and head downstairs to see if the latest rankings have been posted.

I'm not completely eager to see these postings, considering that I wiped out on Puzzle 5.

But I force myself to look, and the news isn't all that bad. I've slid from 231 to 245, with only 580 points from Puzzle 5 (meaning 58 correct answers out of 94). If I can only do a perfect job on the next (and, for me, last) puzzle....

It's a 45-minute puzzle called "Where Oh Where?" and it's by Oliver Hill, who, Shortz informs us, is all of 17 years old. (I've done at least one puzzle by him before -- a Saturday Times, as I recall, and The Times' Saturday puzzles are the toughest of the week.)

I'm a little nervous, but I figure out the gimmick early on. It involves directions -- left, right, up, down -- and these directions take up one word space in various answers.

The first, clue, for example, is "Perfect husband material." It's seven letters: M I S T E R -- and in the last box, RIGHT. It's tough fitting that word into the box, but I do it. (I later learn that I could have drawn an arrow facing right.)

Another clue is "Play direction." Obviously "E X I T S T A G E RIGHT," so I fill in that too. The last box also happens to be the first box of a Down clue, which I look at quickly.

Of more concern to me are two other Across clues:"'Illmatic' rapper" and "Former San Francisco Mayor Joseph."

I'm especially concerned because in each case I'm not sure about the clue that intersects with the answer. "Bath sponge," five letters: LOOF something. I know the rapper, three letters, is N-S. I know LOOF has to end in a vowel. Maybe it's LOOFA. And somewhere from the recesses of my brain I think I've heard of a rapper called NAS. So I try that.

The ex-mayor is A-IOTO. ARIOTO? The intersecting answer, for "Foul-smelling," is O-ID. ORID? Doesn't sound right. Maybe OLID. Then is the ex-mayor ALIOTO? Again, somewhere from the depths of my brain, specifically the part that holds my memory from my many years on The Post-Standard's national and international news desk, comes ALIOTO. Let's go with it.

Afterward, partly through asking other contestants and partly through eavesdropping, I learn I'm right on both counts! Yippee!

Finally it's time for the championship puzzle, done by the three finalists in three Divisions: A, B and C. Each final round is held in front of the audience, with each competitor doing the puzzle on a big grid.

Did I score high enough to be a finalist?

No. (Just as well, considering how tired I am, not to mention having to check out and check my bags between Puzzle 7 and this round.)

This part of the tournament ends with the big showdown in Division A, involving Tyler Hinman, Trip Payne and Howard Barkin.

These three guys do the same puzzle as the finalists in the other divisions -- or rather, the grid is the same and the answers are the same, but the clues are harder. One example: for MITCHUM, the Division C clue is "Robert of 'The Night of the Hunter.'" The Division B clue is "'Farewell, My Lovely' star, 1975." The Division A clue is "Actor who Ebert called 'the soul of film noir.'"

And that's one of the easier ones.

Payne finishes first, but he has two errors; Hinman eventually wins, becoming the first person to win the tournament four years in a row.

After a pleasant banquet and award ceremony (by chance I wind up sitting next to a woman who went to college in my hometown, who's roughly in the same line of the work and who knows a longtime co-worker of mine), I eventually head home.

Once there, I check the standings. It seemed pretty clear at the banquet that the top category winners had, for the most part at least, 10,000 points or more.

I figure I have at least 9,100

I'm in for a rude surprise: From the standings I can see I didn't score perfectly on Puzzle 7, though I'd taken care to proofread my answers before submitting it, and though I know NAS and ALIOTO are correct. My final point score is 8,985.

Fortunately, contestants are allowed to e-mail Shortz, asking where they went wrong. So I do.

On Monday evening, I get an e-mail from Ellen Ripstein, who is assisting Shortz. (If you've seen "Wordplay," Ripstein is the one-time champ -- she finished fourth this year -- who at one point is shown twirling a baton.)

She responds:

"At 35A/41D, you had EXITSTAGE(RIGHT)/(RIGHT)IST instead of the correct direction (LEFT).

"Sorry about that!"

It turns out that the clue for 41 Down was "Extreme liberal."

HOW could I have misread that?

Oh, well.

My final ranking is 262 out of 699. In my age category (fifties) I was 61st out of 161; among rookies, 55th out of 237; and regionally (Upstate New York/Westchester) 18th out of 53.

Doesn't seem too bad for a first-year effort.

But wait till next year....

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