Tuesday, March 10, 2009

ACPT 2009 - The Magnificent One

After struggling with the first seven puzzles of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, it was good to settle back and watch someone else suffer.

WordplayTo our surprise, the ballroom doors were closed when we arrived for the playoffs, so we joined a large scrum of folks waiting to be let in. This allowed a little time to look at the weekend's Listener Crossword - one of its occasional mathematical ones. Magdalen secured pretty good seats for us about three rows back on the left hand side. We could see the whiteboards for the left and center finalists very clearly and just about make out the third one.

It was clear that many in the audience come just for the playoffs, perhaps inspired by the movie Wordplay to watch the real thing. I hope all this publicity encourages more people to solve crosswords and participate in competitions. Based on the ACPT numbers - only slightly down in a year of economic crisis - that seems to be the case.

B Division FinalB Division Final: Dan Katz, Dan Feyer and Len Elliott

There are three successive playoffs for different divisions; the solution grid is the same for each, but the set of clues gets progressively harder. The C Division finalists are the first off: only contestants not finishing in the top 20% in their last three tournaments were eligible.

Then comes the B Division final - to be eligible for this, you mustn't have won a Division A or Division B prize during your last seven tournaments. One finalist was a hot favorite: Dan Feyer had been leading the competition after six puzzles, but ended up in a four-way tie for the A Division final. The tie-breaker rule for this rare scenario looks at the times for individual puzzles from last to first, so Dan was eliminated from the A Division final. He had no difficulty securing the B Division prize.

I applaud whoever came up with the format for the playoffs: it adds a lot of drama to what can be pretty dull as a spectator sport. It's great to see the finalists write in their answers; the commentary was informative and entertaining; and of course that requires the competitors to wear headsets - the business of making sure these worked adequately added to the fun.

The only comparable event I'm familiar with, the (London) Times Crossword Championship in the UK, is much less fun to watch: you can see the dozen or so finalists, but they solve on paper in the normal way and there is a respectful silence while they are cogitating.

A Division FinalA Division Final - Trip Payne and Tyler Hinman

So to the A Division final. Having watched the movie Wordplay, we knew we were in for a bit of a nail-biter. Actually being there was a whole lot more exciting than we were expecting. Trip Payne set a cracking pace and was the first to declare himself done, but he had three wrong answers in the NE corner of the grid. Groans from the audience! Amazingly, Francis Heaney made exactly the same mistakes when he finished shortly after. Agonized groans from the audience!!

Tyler HinmanTyler Hinman contemplates the SE corner

Reigning champion Tyler Hinman had correctly solved the NE corner, but was stuck in the SE corner minutes after the other two finalists had finished. What does the rule book have to say about an incorrect solution with three wrong answers, versus an otherwise correct solution with three answers missing?

Luckily we didn't have to deal with that ignominious end to the proceedings. Tyler eventually worked out that the clue "They're tied at the top" led to co-leaders and put down his pen, assuming he had come in third. A standing ovation from the audience told him that he was the ACPT champion for the fifth year in a row. Even more extraordinary, he's not made not made a single mistake on a tournament puzzle in the last five years!

Watching the playoffs was the highlight of a great weekend and I think the Brits could learn a lot from the way they are run. The ACPT has clearly done wonders for the profile of crosswords in the US and this is a Good Thing given the attention new puzzles like Sudoku are getting. I think British solvers would love a tournament that, like the ACPT, was organized independently of any given newspaper and therefore could feature the work of the best compilers, regardless of their affiliations. And after seeing the ACPT playoffs, I do think the rather staid format of the current UK tournaments could be spiced up a little!


xwd_fiend said...

I'd love to see something like the 3-person finals done at the Times Championship - the current format, where finalists complete 3 puzzles at one sitting, is even less interesting for spectators than the version you remember, when you had four chances to see whose hand went up first, and there was a scoreboard with progress so far.

xwd_fiend said...

Also with you on the independent contest - though I doubt it will ever happen - there only seems to be room for one national championship. If someone had picked up the ball the Times dropped from 2001 to 2005, maybe ...

Crossword Man said...

I think there's a lot of potential, provided competitors are willing to solve puzzles in the style of a paper they aren't used to. Then you could draw in Times, Guardian and Telegraph solvers using the big-name compilers from each paper. How would you feel about solving an Araucaria puzzle in a British Crossword Puzzle Tournament? I get the impression that there's more uniformity of style in the USA.

xwd_fiend said...

There's nothing like replying on time, and this is nothing like it, but I'd be happy to have a go at a range of puzzles from any of the daily paper setters (well, nearly everyone - I can think of about two setters whose work I'd really prefer not to see).

That said, Araucaria reputedly refuses to allow any editing of his puzzles whatsoever. A properly run championship includes careful work to ensure that the puzzles are suitable, and this might preclude Araucaria puzzles. I'm sure that the Times championship puzzles have already been tried by various members of their setting team and tweaked afterwards.

Crossword Man said...

I suspect Araucaria's reputation is somewhat removed from reality ...