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.

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