Saturday, April 16, 2016

Fun at the puzzle tournament

(SPOILER ALERT: If you’re on the list to receive this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament puzzles by mail but haven’t worked on them yet, you probably shouldn’t read this. Whether the rest of you should read this is something I’ll leave to you and your conscience, not to mention your tolerance for bloggers who write cutesy intros.)

While preparing for the trip to Stamford for this year’s event, I realize with some surprise that it’s my ninth attempt at crossword immortality and my second at Stamford, where the tournament originated in 1978 and where it returned last year after seven years in Brooklyn.

As always, I aim to improve my overall score, which last year was 153 out of 566. (My best overall score, a few years ago, was 142 out of 592.)

And as always, everyone does seven puzzles -- six on Saturday and one more Sunday morning. This is in addition to the puzzle for the championship competition, which takes place early Sunday afternoon and features only the finalists.

After so many years, even someone as dense as I am knows one of the big secrets to competing: Get into the tournament room early and grab a seat. Yes, it’s a big room (they don’t call it “ballroom” for nothing), but it fills up awfully fast.

After tournament founder Will Shortz’s introductory remarks, the competition proceeds with its usual efficiency, and I am faced with the first puzzle of the day, which is usually easy.

This year it’s “For Cooler Heads,” by Kristian House, containing puns about jails. (“Jailed, like a mixologist?” is BEHIND BARS.) For the most part it’s easy, but there’s one part of it temporarily costs me my cool.

I should explain that in this tournament, accuracy and speed count. Last year, the championship was decided by a handful of seconds. In all the puzzles, you get a bonus for finishing early, depending on how much time is left on the clock. But if you hand a puzzle in without checking it, you risk missing an error – and missing the 150-point bonus you get for a perfect solution.

My problem comes with 4 Down, “One of the things little boys are made of.” This pertains to a rhyme from my childhood. Little girls, we were told, were made of “sugar and spice and everything nice,” while little boys were made of “snakes and snails and puppy dog tails.”

So the answer is SNAKES, right?

Except that according to the grid, the answer has only five letters.

So I examine the Across answers for that part of the grid and realize that the answer is supposed to be SNIPS.

“Snips and snails?” That’s not how I remember it. But that’s what it has to be, and that’s what I put in, after spending a lot of time (in tournament terms) checking and rechecking.

Of course you’re not allowed to use the Internet during the tournament, and if you try it one of the proctors will probably catch you.

But nobody cares if you use it two weeks later, so I just did and found that, according to The Word Detective, it is indeed SNIPS, though another version has it as SNAKES.

To me it was always SNAKES. I guess that compared with Ms. House, I grew up in a rougher neighborhood. (And it might bear noting that Mr. Shortz lives in a place called Pleasantville.)

I later find out that as a result of all this, my score for Puzzle 1 is 1,080, compared with 1,090 last year.

Puzzle 2 is usually quite hard. I’ve often thought of it as being the second-hardest puzzle of the seven that everyone does, with No. 5 the toughest.

And “‘T’ Time” is by Patrick Blindauer, who can be tricky.

But I don’t find the puzzle to be all that tough, once you see that all the groupings of black spaces are shaped like the letter T, and each answer contains a T.

But then I hit another wall.

8 Down is “Talkative Windows assistant.” Seven letters.

I have no idea. I’ve used a Mac at home for years, and though I’ve used Windows at my workplaces, I don’t remember this “assistant.” Is it that little figure that used to jump out annoyingly at me when I used to hit the “?” icon in Word and “talk” in the form of balloons? I remember that guy, but he never told me his name.

OK, so we hit the Across words again:

From too many years of French classes, I know that “ ’Tis in Tours” is “C’est.” Note the capital C.

“Tale from medieval times” would seem to be CONTE. I don’t know it for sure, but I do know that the French term for “short story” is “conte,” and the other down clues are giving me “onte,” so CONTE seems to make sense. (Or, for our purposes, “cOnte.”)

“‘The Sopranos’ restaurateur.” Uh oh. Sorry to say I never got around to watching that, but supporting clues seem to make it just about certain that it’s ARTIE (or, again, “aRtie”).

“Tenants” is obviously “renTers.”

“Tatum and Hill, in ’21 Jump Street.’” This takes me longer than it should (no, I never watched that show either, let alone the movie). Then it his me (and I almost hit myself literally): “cosTars.”

“ ‘Three Sisters’ playwright Chekhov”? ANTON (or “antoN”).

Finally “ ’Twixt 12 and 20” is TEENAGE (or “teenAge”).

Add up the letters I capitalized and you get C+O+R+T+A+N+A. So that’s the name of the Windows assistant. Has to be. (Unless I’m wrong about “conte.”)

Later, in my hotel room, I Google “Cortana,” and I’m right. It also turns out that Cortana looks nothing like that assistant I was used to seeing. I feel dumb and out of touch until later in the tournament, when Will Shortz indicates that I wasn’t the only one stymied.

I later find out that my score for Puzzle 2 is 1,335, compared with 1,100 last year. Not bad.

Puzzle 3, “Series Cancellations,” causes me some worries because it’s by Mike Shenk, The Wall Street Journal’s puzzle editor, who can be tricky – and who on at least one occasion has composed the championship puzzle.

But, as is usually the case with Puzzle 3, it’s not bad. Sample theme clue: “TV series about a boorish fraternity?” is HOUSE OF CADS.

But although I don’t seem to hit any roadblocks, I somehow lose ground: My score on Puzzle 3 is 1,335 (yes, same as for Puzzle 2), compared with last year’s 1,555. Then again, it was the largest puzzle yet (96 words, compared with 78 and 86 words, respectively, for the other two puzzles), so maybe that, and my fear of Mr. Shenk, worked against me.

During the lunch break I find out that my ranking, so far, is 199, which is a surprise; I hadn’t known I was doing that badly.

But there’s still the afternoon. And Sunday morning.

I perhaps could have done better on Puzzle 4, “Symbology” by Zhouqin Burnikel, if I hadn’t psyched myself out upon seeing that the clues for the theme answers were along the lines of “[ ]” and “/” with (in these respective instances) the not-so-difficult answers TAX LEVELS and CUT SHARPLY. (In other words, “Brackets and Slash.”)

So my score is 1,180 compared with last year’s 1,185.

And now we come to Puzzle 5, commonly called “The Bastard Puzzle,” and usually with good reason. It’s called “Changing Lanes,” and it’s by another sometimes challenging constructor, Patrick Berry. (I consider myself a First Amendment absolutist, but if someone wants to pass a bill barring people named Patrick from making crossword puzzles, I’m sure I can easily arrange to look the other way.)

The themes of “Bastard Puzzles” are often, to put it kindly, convoluted, so my rule of thumb is to attack Puzzle 5 by finding non-theme clues that I can easily handle, racking up as many points as I can, and hope that when I’ve filled in all the straightforward clues I can get a glimmer of what’s going on.

In this case, some of the answers are going all over the place. One example: 37 Down is “John Updike novel that won the Pulitzer.” The answer is RABBIT AT REST, but there are only seven squares. Turns out that you’re supposed to fill in RABBI at 37 Down, then turn right (changing lanes, get it?) so that 58 Across is ITATRES and then go one space down for the final T.

And now you know why so many of the folks who make puzzles for this event attend the tournament but somehow manage to sneak out of the ballroom while their handiwork is torturing the contestants.

With maybe five to 10 minutes left I figure out what’s going on and furiously try to fill in the theme answers, but this is the only puzzle I don’t finish on time. (Though I had plenty of company, to put it mildly.) I think I did get more answers than most people (104 out of 118), leaving me with a score of 1,040 compared with last year’s Puzzle 5 score of 790.

Puzzle 6 is usually one of the easiest ones in the tournament. Shortz calls it a “palate cleanser” for contestants who wouldn’t mind being Patrick Berry’s “clock cleaner.”

Puzzle 6, “I’ll Be There,” is by Joel Fagliano, and the theme answers consist of familiar phrases with an “I” added, so that, for example, QUAKER STATE becomes QUAKIER STATE. I breeze through this pretty well, scoring 1,600, but apparently my breeze wasn’t gusty enough to match last year’s Puzzle 6 score, which was 1,800.

I later find that my overall ranking is 226. Again, why so much lower?

But some things are more important than crossword puzzles, and one of them is celebrating the life of a man who made a lot of entertaining ones. His name was Merl Reagle, and he died last year. On Saturday evening, Patrick Creadon, one of the people who made “Wordplay” (and a nice guy too, I discover while sharing an elevator with him) presents humorous outtakes from the film that feature Merl.

A surprise guest is Jeff Walters, who tells how he and his late wife, Clara, loved to solve crosswords together. After Clara found out she had cancer, Jeff approached Reagle about putting together a puzzle that contained answers relating to Clara’s life. Reagle managed to do this in a syndicated puzzle that to most solvers was just a typical puzzle. (None of the clues referred to Clara or her life.)

When it came time for her to solve the puzzle, Clara gradually figured out what was going on and was delighted.

Merl Reagle did all this free – all he wanted, he told Jeff, was to be told how Clara reacted.

Yes, I guess there are some things that are more important than crossword puzzles.

But I still want to clean up on Puzzle 7 on Sunday. It’s the tournament’s biggest puzzle – Sunday size – but usually not all that hard. We have 45 minutes to do it, and I’ve been known to finish it with 25 minutes left on the clock, meaning a lot of bonus points.

This year’s Puzzle 7 is “Page-Turners” by Lynn Lempel, who has fashioned many of the Monday puzzles (the easiest of the week) for The New York Times, where Shortz is the puzzle editor.

The theme answers are puns about book titles, so that “Novel about wickedly good aces? (1988)” is THE SATANIC SERVES. (Think tennis.)

I fill all the spaces carefully but as quickly as I can, then look up at the clock and see that I don’t have 25 minutes left.

I have 28 minutes left.

In the past I’ve maybe taken too much time checking my answers. This time, at 226 in the standings, I decide to take a chance and give my puzzle a very quick check before handing it in.

This strategy pays off: I score 2,250 compared with 2,160 for last year’s Puzzle 6.

A couple of hours later, it’s time for the championship rounds. I’m sure you’ll be thunderstruck to find out that I’m not one of the finalists.

Before those rounds, Merl Reagle’s widow, Marie, presents a new memorial award – the MEmoRiaL – for lifetime achievement in crossword construction. The award goes to veteran Maura B. Jacobson, who for years was the creator of Puzzle 6. She’s unable to attend, but her husband, Jerry, is on hand to accept the award.

The big finish of tournament is basically a duel between longtime champ Dan Feyer and frequent also-ran Howard Barkin. How did it end? You can see here.

And – as I’m sure you’re asking – what about me?

I originally finished at 220 overall, though the other day, as adjustments were made, I was upgraded to 219 out of 575 contestants. (I’m usually downgraded.)

Thing is, I scored 9,820 points this year, compared with 9,680 last year.

So why did I sink from 152 to 219?

A closer look at the standings provides the answer.

Last year, 126 contestants scored at least 10,000 points and 39 contestants solved all seven puzzles with no mistakes.

This year, 194 scored more than 10,000, and 67 had perfect scores for all seven puzzles. (I was perfect for every puzzle but No. 5.)

If I’d had this year’s score last year, I probably would have finished at 139.

But either the puzzles are easier or a lot of the contestants are smarter.

Let’s just say that, as far as I’m concerned, the puzzles aren’t getting easier.

So what’s a poor schlub to do?

Maybe next year, if he hasn’t won the presidency, I can legally arrange for Donald Trump to build a wall around the Stamford Marriott to keep out undesirables. (“Undesirables” meaning people who are much better solvers than I am.)

Who’s up for a referendum?

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