Monday, March 18, 2013

Weekend at the puzzle tournament

(SPOILER ALERT: If you're going to be doing this year's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament by mail, you shouldn't read this post. I'm sure you can find many other delightful things to read on this blog, or, if you must, elsewhere on the web....)

Perhaps one of my most memorable moments at this year's tournament occurs before the competition begins.

In the lobby outside the ballroom where the tournament is held, a researcher for Michigan Technological University is conducting a study of folks who do crossword puzzles. Four laptop computers are set at a table, and people seated there are taking a test that involves filling in the blanks of words and remembering pairs of words.

I decide to try my luck. I take two fill-in-the-blanks tests and do fairly well on them. I do only fair, at best, on the memory tests, which involve remembering pairs of words that are flashed on the screen. I suspect that part of the reason I do only fair, at best, is that I've psyched myself out; the older I get, the less I trust my memory.

At one point during the memory tests, the program crashes. I go to signal the researcher about this, but the guy to my right beats me to it -- he's having problems, too.

I eventually beg off on finishing the tests -- the researcher says I'd provided enough data already -- but as I watch the researcher help the other guy with his computer, I get the feeling I've seen him before.

Then I look at his name tag:

Jason Keller.

Then it clicks: He's been a champion on "Jeopardy!" According to the show's web site, he has amassed $213,900 and, not surprisingly, has been in the Tournament of Champions.

This is quite a moment for me because appearing on "Jeopardy!" has been on my bucket list since long before buckets were invented.

But of course I don't trust my memory, so I lean over and, in what I hope won't come across as a stage whisper, ask him if he is indeed the guy. He pleasantly confirms this, and I leave him to his computer.

So maybe my memory is quite all that bad....

The first puzzle is by Lynn Lempel, who constructs a lot of the New York Times puzzles for Mondays.

The puzzle is supposed to be easy, but it somehow gives me more trouble than the usual first tournament puzzle does. It doesn't help that my mechanical pencil's point breaks at one point (easily remedied, though) or that I write in BASE ON BALLS instead of BASES LOADED. The puzzle is called "Buzz Words," and I figured out only a few minutes ago that the second part of all the theme answers is a synonym for "drunk."

Puzzle #2, "Short Breaks," is by Mike Shenk, one of those names who make me sweat a bit when I see it on a puzzle. In this case, the theme answers are phrases into which "min" or "sec" -- as in "minute or second" -- has been inserted. (BUS DRIVERS, for example, becomes "B MINUS DRIVERS.") At first I don't think I'm going to finish the puzzle -- I just hop around the grid doing what I can -- and I'm pleasantly surprised when I do finish it.

Puzzle #3, perhaps the second-hardest of the tournament, is by another feared (at least by me) name: Brendan Emmett Quigley and is called "Say What?" Once again I fill in as many fill answers as I can, hoping that the theme will occur to me, and it finally does: The theme answers all begin with the "say" sound, so that, for example, "What the Wheel of Fortune host wields at an auction?" is SAJAKHAMMER. And darned if I don't manage to finish this, too.

One new wrinkle in this year's tournament is that I have my iPad, which means I don't have to depend on the kindness of strangers (and their laptops or smartphones) to find out how well I'm doing. I can check my scores myself, and I'm pleased to see that my score is what I thought it was, and I got all the answers to the first three puzzles.

After lunch comes Puzzle #4, "Immortal Combat," by Ian Livengood. This time the theme isn't that complicated, though I figure it out after I've completed at least most of the grid: Each theme answer contains the name of a war god -- for example, FLOOD INSURANCE contains ODIN. I finish the puzzle without any problems and am confident I got everything correct.

Now comes Puzzle #5, which, each year, is informally called (hold your ears, kiddies) "the bastard puzzle." And it's by Patrick Blindauer, another fearsome puzzler, and is titled "Take Five."

Once again I'm in "you're probably not going to finish this, but get in as many answers as you can" mode. And if this is a typical Puzzle #5, chances are I'll be in pretty good company. Last year marked the first time I ever finished a Puzzle #5, which was cause for celebration until I found out I'd made a mistake.

As I soldier on, filling in what I can, I figure out the theme relatively early: The theme answers are phrases in which the vowels have been removed, so that "'Macbeth' prop" is WTCHSCLDRN -- WITCHES' CAULDRON. Even so, with five or six minutes left to go on this 30-minute puzzle, I'm still having problems with the upper left part. Then, somehow, my mental adrenaline, if there is such a thing, kicks in, especially on 31 across, "Snap, maybe." It's five letters, and I know the fourth letter has to be Y because the answer coming down is AYN as in AYN RAND. But this doesn't make sense -- a Y as the fourth letter of a five-letter clue that's not a plural?

Finally, the answer kicks in: EASY A.

And now all the other answers fall into place like a pile of dislodged logs and I check the puzzle over and I look at the clock which is almost down to two minutes -- if my puzzle is handed in under the two-minute mark, I'll get credit for only a one-minute bonus. I wave my hand frantically, but the proctor who is standing a few rows away doesn't seem to see me.

Finally, from behind comes another proctor, the great Stanley Newman, crossword puzzle editor for Newsday, who scoops up my puzzle, sees 1:59 on the clock but, bless him, gives me credit for two full minutes, taking into account the couple of seconds or more it took to get to me.

And, as I later confirm, I have, for the first time, finished AND CORRECTLY SOLVED a Puzzle #5!

The rest should be smooth sailing, right?


Puzzle #6, the last one of the day, is "Everybody Loves a Clone," by Elizabeth C. Gorski. It's a cute, simple enough theme: The theme answers are familiar phrases with the last letter of the first word repeated, so that "Wonderful chinaware contests?" is SUPERB BOWL GAMES. I finish the puzzle without much trouble.

That's the last puzzle of the day, with one more, "Puzzle #7," Sunday morning, eventually followed by the finals, in which the three top members of Divisions A, B and C compete. I'm in Division C, meaning I'm among the top 40 percent of solvers. I'd love to get into Division B, which is for the top 20 percent of solvers.

But on Sunday I outsmart myself -- and not for the first time.

Hours before I take on Puzzle #7, which is a 45-minute puzzle, I try to calculate how quickly I need to solve it to get a really decent score -- meaning, in my case, a score substantially above last year's 142.

I figure that 18 minutes ought to do it, and if my experience with New York Times Sunday puzzles (Puzzle #7 is that size) is any indication, I might be able to pull it off.

The puzzle, "The Long and the Short of It," is by Patrick Berry -- another tough constructor. (Rule of thumb: Any puzzle by anyone named Patrick is apt to be a bitch, if not an out-and-out bastard.)

I fill in the squares as quickly as I can. I have a hard time getting a handle on the theme. I also hit a huge speed bump, otherwise known as 8 Down: "Prince of Wales's motto." It's seven letters, and it comes out to be "ICH_IE_" and I'm darned if I can figure the rest of it out, though I know it must be a two-word phrase because although I don't know much German, I do know that "ICH" means "I." All righty, then, but ICH what? I figure the fourth letter might be L and the last is F because it intersects with an O in one of the horizontal theme clues whose other words are "PEAK" and "THE CHECK." So, ICH LIEF? That would make the intersecting L answer "DAL," for "Old man." Maybe "DAL" is a Hindu word for "Old man." I eventually have a flash of insight and realize that the old man is really DAD.

All righty, so this gives us "ICH DIEF." What could that possibly mean? I don't know, but I do know from looking at the clock that I'm running late, so I go with it.

As I'm on my way to the elevators to go back to my room, it hits me: "A PEAK OF THE CHECK" is really "A PEAK ON THE CHECK," a play on "A PECK ON THE CHEEK" -- the short vowel becomes a long vowel, and vice versa.

And that motto has to be "ICH DIEN," which I soon confirm on my iPad. (It means "I serve," which in this case is particularly apt: The Prince of Wales has indeed served -- served to confuse me.)

So I wind up sliding to No. 166, but I also figure out that had I not blown it I would have wound up at 149, down seven points from last year.

Which prompts (not begs) the question: Is it worth trying again next year, or have I reached my level? I don't want to keep attending the tournament unless I can improve. Ah, what the heck. I'll give it one more try next year. I might even try another tournament, called Lollapuzzoola, held in the summer in Manhattan. In the meantime I can try to improve my speed.

Amid all my musings, the three tournament finalists are announced. In alphabetical order, they are Anne Erdmann (also celebrating her birthday that day), Dan Feyer and Tyler Hinman.

And this is how it all came out. (Play the Part 2 section.)

(Memo to the Prince of Wales: If you're ever in my neighborhood, don't even think about dropping by mein haus.)

1 comment:

Judy Berman said...

Mark, I'm impressed. My crossword puzzle accomplishments are limited to much more mundane affairs - People magazine crossword puzzles.

Kudos to you. Great job.