Thursday, March 24, 2011

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.

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