Sunday, March 25, 2012

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.)


As the official competition in the tournament gets under way, I am competing with about 600 other solvers.

And a computer program.

The program, named Dr. Fill, has been designed by Matt Ginsberg, a software engineer who also makes crossword puzzles, many of which have been published in The New York Times, whose puzzle editor, Will Shortz, has run this tournament for 35 years.

One of Ginsberg’s Times puzzles was constructed in collaboration with actress Dana Delany, whom I find at least a little more interesting than Dr. Fill but who, unfortunately, is not at the tournament.

Will has announced that anyone who beats the computer program will receive a button that says “I beat Dr. Fill.”

Soon, all of us – and it – get to work on the first puzzle. The first puzzle of the tournament is supposed to be pretty easy, and I’m not surprised to learn that it’s by Lynn Lempel, who often does the Monday Times crossword – the easiest of the week.

Her tournament puzzle, “Plus Ten,” adds an X to five familiar phrases to form the theme answers – GREAT APE, for example, becomes “GREAT APEX.”

I finish this fairly quickly but, once again, take perhaps a little too much time double-checking the answers.

Between puzzles, I chat with the woman next to me. It’s her first time at the tournament, and she’s not that frequent a crossword solver. She works for a utility company and often faces deadlines, and she wishes that the competitors didn’t have to try to outrace a clock.

If women were running this tournament, she says, it would be a lot different – it would have a more laid-back atmosphere, with contestants occasionally consulting with each other (“What are you getting for 31 Across?”).

Oh, I say. You mean something like a “crossword bee”?

Exactly! she says.

I nod pleasantly, though I know that the odds of her idea taking hold are about the same as the odds of me collaborating with Dana Delany on anything.

Puzzle Two and Puzzle Five are supposed to be the two hardest. Given the panic attack Puzzle Two gives me, I am for a time unsure that I will make it to Puzzle Five.

The title and description alone raise my blood pressure:

Boustrophedon: adj. (and n.): having alternate lines running from left to right and right to left.

I freeze upon seeing that first word – a word that I’ve not only never heard of, but which looks a lot like Bouchercon, the name of the annual mystery festival that I have sometimes attended. I barely read the description and for a moment worry that it’s going to be one of those puzzles where a word goes to the end of the grid, then continues vertically.

What’s more, the puzzle is by Patrick Merrell. So I know I’m not going to be let off easy.

What even more: I have a problem getting started with the puzzle. It seems to take a long time for me to find a clue that I can grab hold of, and even then it leads me nowhere, so I have to look elsewhere, while envisioning myself up in my room, packing.

Somehow I calm down and gain some footholds and learn to deal with such theme answers as DLIEFAGNIWOLP for PLOWING A FIELD.

And despite my initial moments of panic, I manage to finish the puzzle – and finish it eight minutes early. A lot of other people don’t finish it as quickly, if at all.

The next puzzle, “Letterheads” by Patrick Berry, has a slightly larger grid but is more gentle. The theme answers involving adding one letter to the beginning of two initials, so that PS I LOVE YOU become GPS I LOVE YOU.

After the lunch break, it’s on to Puzzle 4, “Two for the Show,” by Ian Livengood, in which the theme answers are two-word phrases made up of one-word movie titles, so that CHICAGO and SEVEN become CHICAGO SEVEN. I pretty much sail through this.

Between puzzles, I chat with the very nice young man who is now sitting next to me, and he mentions how age and cultural references can affect a puzzle-solver’s progress. Puzzle 3, for example, asked for the name of “Grandpa Munster’s portrayer.” A baby boomer like me instantly writes in AL LEWIS, whereas my young competitor has never heard of him – or even Grandpa Munster. I sympathize but note that references to modern-day pop singers can cause me to fizzle.

But enough chitchat, for here comes Puzzle 5, which is traditionally thought of as the hardest puzzle of the tournament – or, to put it more bluntly, “The Bastard Puzzle.”

It’s by Patrick Blindauer (why are so many devilishly difficult puzzles created by people called Patrick?), and it’s called “Going Underground: Follow the tunnels made by five creatures to complete this pesky puzzle.”

Oh, great.

Up to now I have never completed a Puzzle 5. I’ll again give it my best shot, but my usual strategy is to solve as many “straight” clues as possible while hoping that somehow I’ll be able to figure out the theme.

I know that something really dastardly is up when I see the clue “1958 Curtis/Poitier film” in the left part of the grid and, unlike my young neighbor, instantly know the answer is THE DEFIANT ONES – but then see there is space for only seven letters.

So I write in THEDEFI and hope that somehow everything will make sense some point.

Eventually, it does; an answer in the right part of the grid is ONES. Aha – the ANT – the “creature” is missing! Turns out the other theme answers are similar. What I don’t find out until much later is that the word ANT appears diagonally between THEDEFI and ONES, and between the parts of the other theme answers.

But it doesn’t really matter because I soon realize that – wonder of wonders – I have a good chance of completing Puzzle 5! But there’s very little time left. By the time I complete the last part – in the lower right – there’s less than a minute on the clock, so I don’t take my usual amount of time for checking (and hey, haven’t I sometimes taken too much time?) and hand the puzzle in with maybe less than 30 seconds to spare.

The last puzzle of the day, by Elizabeth C. Gorski, is “Foodie Film Festival,” with punning them answers that include A LEEK OF THEIR OWN and SILENCE OF THE CLAMS. I do pretty well on this, then leave to eventually have some food of my own.

The Saturday night social program includes a demonstration of Dr. Fill by its creator, Matt Ginsberg.

It turns out the doc hasn’t been doing that well – Puzzles 2 and 5 have posed some problems. (Welcome to the club, Doc.)

And I begin to hope that, for their own sake, the folks running the tournament have a lot of those buttons ready.

Later that evening, I get a very pleasant surprise – a check of the results, posted online, shows that I scored 1170 on Puzzle 5 – meaning I got all the answers right.

Better yet, my current ranking is 113 – up from 195 last year! Way up!

Wow, I think, if I do really well on the last puzzle I might crack the top 100! And move from C division to B division (the top 20 percent)!

And rumor has it that the last puzzle – Puzzle 7 – which, to be more precise, is the last puzzle everyone solves, is by Merl Reagle. Reagle does a weekly Sunday-size puzzle that appears in my local newspaper, and lately I’ve often been solving it in less than 20 minutes. Given that I’ve had a lot of experience doing Reagle’s puzzles, and that Puzzle 7 is a 45-minute puzzle, with the usual 25-point bonus for each minute left on the clock after you turn it in….

Is Sunday going to be a great day, or what?


To answer that last question:


Before the last puzzle I check the standings and find that my score for Puzzle 5 is now 1000, which – I’ll spare you the math – means that I made one mistake (and that someone, darn him or her, double-checked it).

So I’m now at 130 overall.

OK, I think, I’ll burn some rubber with the Reagle puzzle and climb back up.

An excellent strategy. Napoleon would have applauded me.

Except for the fact that Puzzle 7 isn’t by Merl Reagle.

It’s by Mike Shenk. The puzzle editor of The Wall Street Journal – who has sometimes designed the championship puzzle.

Uh oh.

Fortunately, the puzzle, “At Last!,” has a theme that I grasp fairly quickly – AT is added to familiar phrases, so that, for example, THE POWERS THAT BE becomes THE POWERS THAT BEAT.

I get through the puzzle as quickly as I can, though Shenk has planted a couple of words that almost stymie me – MHO and, particularly near the end, TRIGRAM. Although I finish in fairly good time, I wish I’d done better.

Merl, where were you when I needed you?

That’s the last puzzle I have to solve. Not much more for me to do than check out, check my bags, watch a variety show including some talented contestants (and emceed very capably by Liane Hansen, formerly of NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday”) and watch the championship finals.

The A division finals feature Dan Feyer, who won the last two tournaments; Tyler Hinman, a frequent winner who (as I recall) hasn’t competed with Feyer in a final before; and Anne Erdmann, who was also one of last year’s three A division finalists.

Who won? You can see it here.

I, of course, didn’t do nearly as well: My final standing is 142. Still, it’s nothing to complain about, considering that I was 195 last year.


For a while I can’t help being a little put out at Will. Why did he – or one of his minions, acting for him – feel it necessary to recheck my Puzzle 5?

But eventually I have an epiphany.

Will, in his infinite wisdom, was doing me a favor. (A favor I wouldn’t have minded doing without, but I think I see his reasoning.)

As a puzzle editor, Will has to be a master of detail, and to run a tournament like this he has to be a master of detail to the nth power.

And one of those details is this blog. Believe it or not, I know that Will has read my tournament blog entries on at least one occasion – last year. I even got a nice email from him, which I still have, though as yet I have been unable to have it bronzed.

So this year I’m sure Will was thinking, “Gee, how can we make Murphy’s blog more interesting this year, instead of the usual blah, dumb jokes?

“I know – let’s add some suspense. Let’s make him THINK he’s at 113. It’ll boost his morale – and add to the drama. Of course he won’t like it when we bring him down to earth at 142nd place, but hey, it’s his fifth time here -- it’s too early for him to be at 113, much less in the top 100. After all, Dr. Richard Kimble didn’t catch the one-armed man in the fifth episode of ‘The Fugitive,’ did he? So let’s make Murphy sweat some more – that way he’ll appreciate it all the more when (or I should say if) he crashes the top 100!”

Gee, thanks, Will. I think.

And by now you might be wondering what my mistake was.

It turns out I stumbled on a one-word clue: “Slight.” I took this as a noun and wrote SLANDER. It should have been SLENDER, as I might well have figured out had I checked one of the crosses and noticed that it read as DIA when it should have been DIE. (“It may be loaded.”)

I later figure out that without this gaffe I would now be at, maybe, 123.

Talk about losing by a slender thread. (Or maybe a slander thread?)

Still, 142 isn’t bad.

I also finished 10th in my geographical division, though I must acknowledge that this was almost certainly because one of the very top solvers in my region suddenly took ill this year. Hope you’re feeling better, Rex.

Though I’m mostly happy with 142, I do have one final bone to pick with Will.

If I have to fall from grace, did it have to be as far as 142nd place?

Considering that, um, Dr. Fill finished one notch above me, at 141?

There’s such a thing as overkill, Will….

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