Thursday, March 24, 2011


A few minutes ago, this blog received its 5,000th hit.

I'd like to congratulate the lucky winner, except that a) the winner isn't really lucky or even a winner because I don't have a prize to give out, and b) the visitor is almost totally anonymous -- having left practically no tracks, or at least any tracks that a non-geek like me can use to solve this mystery.

However, he or she dropped by three hours ago, leading me to believe that Mr. or Ms. Shy is from the West Coast.

I'd also like to thank Will Shortz and the folks at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, who have been linking to the blog all this week, bringing a barrage of visitors that put it over the 5,000 mark.

And I of course thank all of you who've stopped by, especially the regulars. (And feel free to drop me a note sometime if you'd like.)

Sunday at the puzzle tournament

(SPOILER ALERT: I was looking in your refrigerator, and although I’m not an expert on dairy products, I don’t think egg salad comes in plaid. Besides that, you shouldn’t read any more of this blog entry if you will be getting this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament puzzles by mail.)

As I head toward the ballroom Sunday morning to do my last puzzle, #7, I notice that standings have been posted on one of the walls.

I’ve already been buoyed by the knowledge that as of last night I was 209, so imagine my reaction when I find that I am now at 221.

I guess I’m going to have to do even better with #7.

It’s “Kangaroo Phrases,” and the constructors are Ashish Vengsarkar and Narayan Venkatasubramanyan. The puzzle seems about the size of an NYT Sunday puzzle.

Normally #7 isn’t very hard, but this year’s is harder than usual, with the theme answers self-defined.

For example, the answer to 23 across, ISRAELI AIRLINE contains four circled letters: E, L, A and L – or EL AL.

Although I figure out the theme, this doesn’t make the puzzle much easier because I have to dope out each answer and clue by working out the rest of the puzzle, and this takes more time than I would like to take.

I run into two trouble spots, which, as usual, I leave to the end.

At 31 Down, the clue is “Big Sur retreat,” and I have “E_ALEN.” At 35 Across (the first letter of which is the second letter of 31 Down), the clue is “___ soda,” and I have “_AL.”

I seem to recall, maybe sometime in the 1960s, hearing about a place called “Esalen” in California. Maybe surfers hung out there? Or druggies? Or druggie surfers?

Also, maybe the other answer is “SAL SODA.” I haven’t exactly heard of “Sal Soda,” but when I was a kid there were ads for something called Sal Hepatica, which (as my hazy memory recalls) was both an antacid and a laxative, if that’s possible. (Can you tell that my marks for my high school chem lab projects ranged from F to “Evacuate this building immediately”?)

So I go for ESALEN and SAL SODA and later find out I’m right.

Similarly, 87 Down’s clue is “German donkey” (?), for which I have “_SEL,” while 65 Across is “Randomizer” (??), for which I have “DI_.”

This is particularly treacherous because the first letter of 87 Down is the last letter of 65 Across.

At least I know that the first letter of 87 Down must be a vowel, considering that an S follows. I mean, German isn’t that convoluted a language, right? Hmm…. ASUL, ESUL, ISUL, OSUL, USUL. Those last three seem too absurd. ASUL has two of the letters of “Ass,” but then again a lot of German things begin with “Es,” right? Isn’t there a place there called Essen? That reasoning seems good enough for me, especially considering that the only letter I can come up with that would complete “DI_” in any sensible fashion is E, for “DIE.” I’ve never come across the word “randomizer,” but when you toss a die (as in dice) the result is random, right? (At least it is if you haven’t loaded the die right.)

So I decide it’s Do or Die with DIE and ESUL. And later I find out I’m right.

I finish the puzzle in about 27 minutes, which is par for my course these days with a Sunday NYT puzzle. I’d wanted to finish a lot sooner, but the theme and those last two clues slowed me up. I later find out that my score is 140 points less than what I scored for #7 last year, but I do notice as I leave the room that a lot of people haven’t finished.

After I leave the room, I notice that another set of rankings has been posted, this time in alphabetical order.

And this time I notice that I’m now somehow at 223.

So I’m apparently stupider when I’m alphabetical.

As we all await the beginning of the talent show that precedes the announcements of the winners and the finalists, I hear someone talking about one of the puzzle answers – which puzzle I can’t remember, but it involved UAR (United Arab Republic) and UAE (United Arab Emirates). Apparently a guy put down one when the correct answer was the other.

Somehow I bamboozle myself into thinking that a) this was in #7 and b) I might have screwed it up. Turns out it was in #4, which I aced. (I did tell you I’m not at my best when I’m in alphabetical order, right?)

The talent show, featuring contestants, is very amusing, with the standouts including two repeat performers from last year, Amanda Yesnowitz and Lorinne Lampert. I’m particularly indebted to Ms. Lampert (whose boundless energy could put Con Ed into receivership) for introducing me to a Harold Arlen song I hadn’t heard of, “You’re a Builder-Upper” (lyrics by Ira Gershwin and E.Y. Harburg). I’m particularly abashed because Mr. Arlen once lived in my hometown. (No, I didn’t know him. I’m not that old, as I keep telling the kids at the bus stop.)

The big finish of the tournament is supposed to be the Division A finals, featuring Anne Erdmann, Dan Feyer (last year’s winner) and Tyler Hinman (who didn’t make the Final Three last year but has won five previous tournaments). I’m particularly interested (probably along with everyone else) in seeing how Feyer and Hinman face off, but Feyer wins it by several minutes. The puzzle, "Well-Connected," is by Mike Nothnagel.

More suspenseful was the Division B playoff, in which David Plotkin beat Ken Stern by a whisker, a hair, an eyelash, or whichever cilium you prefer.

(For videos of the playoffs, the talent show, New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast's announcement of the winners and Friday night's very entertaining show by magician David Kwong, go here.)

After the tournament, I have lunch with my niece, who looks up the standings on her phone, and we find out that I have – wonder or wonders – finished at No. 194!

This cheers me up considerably, and I figure on coming back next year.

However, the ACPT standings are subject to change, given that the officials often wind up checking and quite possibly rechecking stuff, so that later in the week I’m 195. For a few hours I was apparently 196 but managed to regain my itsy-bitsy piece of turf to stay at 195.

And as far as I’m concerned, I’m staying at 195.

That’s my score and I’m sticking to it. Shove bamboo shoots under my fingernails. Beat me within a half-inch of my life. Draw and quarter me and feed my body to the wolves. Force me to listen to 2,713 consecutive choruses of “Blue Tango” – I don’t care. I’m Number 195!

Unless Will Shortz tells me differently.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Saturday at the puzzle tournament

(SPOILER ALERT: If you’re one of the folks who will be getting this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament’s puzzles by mail, you should read no further. And by “you should read no further,” I do not, of course, mean that you should literally never read anything else ever again, but you knew I didn’t mean that, right? I mean, this is the Internet, and there are a lot of other things you can read until after you’ve done the puzzles. Whether you should read these things, of course, is something else again….)

For the past year or two, as I’ve headed to Brooklyn, I’ve wondered whether this will be my last visit to the tournament. I’m not talking about whether my plane will land safely, or whether the cabbie will get me from the airport to the hotel without mangling the car’s chassis, let alone my own chassis, though I’m always amused that I wind up spending more time in the cab than I do in the wild blue yonder.

I’m talking about my score, and whether it will improve enough to make it worthwhile to keep going to the tournament. This was my fourth year; in my first year, I finished at 262. The next year, I went up to 250. Last year, I was 213.

My mission this year was to not only beat 213 but to get somewhere between 100 and 200.

In analyzing my last performance, I decided that I’d been far too anal. I usually get perfect scores on each puzzle but #5, but although the folks who run the tournament recommend that you check your answers before turning in your puzzle, and although that’s a very good idea, I think I overdid it and that this affected my score.

One thing I’ve learned is that you should try for speed when doing #1, which is always an easy puzzle. So I breeze through “Blithe Spirit” by Kelly Clark but spend only a minute at most checking my work, reading only the across answers. Perhaps I’m taking a bit of a chance in not checking the down answers, but the risk seems worth it.

This strategy apparently works; my #1 score is 50 points more than last year’s. (Hmm. Maybe I should take even more risks in my life – skydiving, bungee jumping, doing my own taxes….)

Puzzle #2 is usually one of the two hardest ones. “Counter Offer,” by Pete Muller, seems harder than the usual #2. The theme answers are the kind that can be treacherous, where they’re all part of one long quote or connected in some other way. In this case, the whole thing turns out to be instructions for making a Brooklyn egg cream.

There are a couple of spots in the puzzle that I have to leave near the end; in general, my method is to read a clue, and if the answer doesn’t come to me in maybe three seconds, I move on and come back – “Keep it moving” is my philosophy.

“Notches on arrows” is one of them; I’d gotten to NOC_S, and it takes me probably longer than it should to figure out that “Gang leader?” was KOOL, and I remember that NOCKS is indeed what those notches are called.

I almost wipe out in the southwest quadrant: 77 Down is “Baseball scoreboard initials” (I’d gotten as far as RH_); 83 Across is “Like Washington, Adams or Madison: Abbr.” and for this I have _PIS.

But this problem is of my own making; in the first clue, I’ve misread “scorecard” for “scoreboard,” leading me to think in terms of RBIs, flying out, ground outs, etc.

Even worse, the “Abbr.” on the second clue doesn’t register, leading me to think that _PIS is a plural, and I am in a quagmire and a quandary (technically known as a quaggary) until I realize what I’ve done (or maybe haven’t done), and I wind up going with EPIS (short for “Episcopal”) which means that the other answer has to be “RHE.” I hand in the test with four minutes to spare and later realize that RHE is indeed right – I’ve seen it on scoreboards (not scorecards) for years. Anyway, my #2 score is 175 points less than last year’s. If I hadn’t been so dense, I might have picked up extra points for being earlier. (Then again, if wishes were horses, Jiminy Cricket would have sung “When You Clydesdale Upon a Star.”)

Puzzle #3, “Hooked on Homophonics,” is a Merl Reagle puzzle, and since he does a big weekly crossword that my local paper runs, I’m familiar with his style of puns. (“Collection of Hindu aphorisms on punctuation?” THE COMMA SUTRA.) Even so, my score for this year’s #3 turns out to be 15 points less than last year’s.

After lunch, Puzzle #4, “A U.N. Assembly” by Bonnie L. Gentry and Victor Fleming, goes fairly quickly, perhaps because I figure out the theme fairly early – familiar phrases that have the letters UN in them are changed by putting an A before the UN, so that POWER LUNCH becomes POWER LAUNCH. Even so, I pick up only five points compared with last year’s #4.

And now comes #5, which is known (and not very affectionately) as “the bastard puzzle.” The father of this particular bastard is Mike Shenk – one of the puzzle constructors whose names are wont to provoke a collective “Uh oh.” He’s the puzzle editor of The Wall Street Journal and did last year’s extremely tricky championship puzzle.

So already I’m intimidated.

The title is “Crossover Hits.”

As I work on the puzzle, I never do work out the theme. I do know that the theme clues pertain to pop music – not always my strong suit. But what’s more weird is that the answer to “1966 hit for the Monkees” would appear to be I’M A BELIEVER (yes, I used to watch “The Monkees,” yes, I’m an “old guy” – as kids at the bus stop insist on referring to me). But the answer has to be only nine letters.

What I didn’t figure out was that the clue across from it “1977 hit for Barbra Streisand” is supposed to mesh with it, so you’d have “IMABELIEV” and “ERGREEN” to combine “I’m a Believer” with “Evergreen.”

You do feel my pain, don’t you? Especially when you consider that there are three other sets of clues that work the same way.

Thing is, sometimes I can dope out a theme like this by filling in the other answers, but the clues to those answers are so tricky that I can only conclude that they were leftovers from last year’s championship puzzle. Example: “Ruby’s partner.” Hmm. Which Ruby? Didn’t Snow White have a sister or a cousin or a mother-in-law named Ruby Red? Or are we talking about Jack Ruby, who killed Lee Harvey Oswald? Who was that Ruby’s partner? Is this some kind of conspiracy-theory thingy?

The answer? OSSIE. (“Ruby” is Ruby Dee, the actress who was married to the late actor Ossie Davis.)

And this is one of the answers I figured out.

Anyway, it turns out to be my worst showing ever for a #5, with only 34 answers out of 92.

I’m not very happy as I head into #6, “Future World,” by Maura Jacobson, the grande dame of crossword makers, even though it has a healthy supply of her charming puns, such as LEAVE IT TO BIEBER. However, I do score 115 more points than I did on her puzzle from last year.

But I’m figuring that I’m not going to meet my goal of beating 213 – far from it.

But a few hours later, a check of the standing shows I’m at 209. OK, I think, if I can really pick up speed Sunday morning with the last puzzle for all competitors, #7….

More to come.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Words, words and more words

Those of you who read this blog regularly (OK, I know there’s at least one of you) might be wondering why I haven’t posted my annual account of my February trip to Brooklyn for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

There’s a very good reason for this.

The tournament has been moved from February to March – specifically, March 18 to 20 this year.

But it isn’t as if words didn’t keep me busy last month.

Early in the month, I survived another stint as a judge for my community’s annual spelling bee on live TV. Nothing major went wrong, though at the beginning the camera showed me while the other judge’s name was announced and vice versa. (Then again, I suppose the other misidentified judge might see that as a major problem….)

A couple of weeks later, I was a member of my former full-time employer’s team in a Scrabble tournament. We were supposed to collaborate in putting together high-scoring boards. We finished fifth out of 29 teams. One of the winning teams had help from a kid who has been in the spelling bee twice. I suppose there’s some significance to that, and perhaps one of these days I might spend one 40,000th of a second pondering it.

Finally, as I kind of warm-up for Brooklyn, I competed in a crossword event that raised money for a charity. There were three winners, not including me. The top guy has been a big finisher in the Brooklyn event; the woman who finished third is someone I have outscored at that event. I suppose there’s some significance to that, and perhaps one of these days I might spend one 100,000th of a nanosecond pondering it.

Freelance work for two clients also kept me busy.

In the weeks to come, I hope to report on my latest excursion into Brooklyn. Besides that, the local cinephile society comes out of hibernation for its spring season.

I hope you’ll stay tuned.