Thursday, March 5, 2009

ACPT 2009 - The Not-So-Magnificent Seven

Ross BeresfordFour days after we got home from the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the things I want to say about it have finally gelled in my mind. I'll write about my experiences as a solver in rounds 1-7 here and cover the playoffs in a second post.

After two years in which I rather looked back on my former life in the UK, I finally decided at the end of 2008 to make an effort to embrace the US crossword "scene". Starting this blog was one way to do that; going to the ACPT was more of a no-brainer.

I knew I wouldn't do well in the puzzles: it's not just that I'm still learning the nuances of American puzzles and the cultural knowledge they call for - I won't ever be a fast solver. When I entered the nearest equivalent UK competition, the Times Crossword Championship, I never made it to a final (unlike Magdalen's Hub 1.0). When it comes to crosswords, I'm the long-distance runner, not the sprinter, wearing down the opposition with perseverance and attention to detail.

So my first year was all about setting a baseline for personal improvement. Given my experience of solving each day's New York Times puzzles, I thought I'd probably fail to finish some of the competition crosswords, but I'd no idea how many. Once I've got another year's solving under my belt (and maybe a bit of intensive practice ahead of time) I should improve a lot.

It was a good thing I wasn't too worried about The Clock, as our chosen spot - front row at the far right - had the worst view of it in the room. What a great clock it is though - I'm surprised no one walked off with it, as it would make a neat souvenir!

our ACPT spot
ACPT clock
our view of The Clock
close-up of The Clock

The one ambition I did have was to be 100% accurate in any puzzle I could complete, since I know how important this is in the scoring (an incorrect entry loses 150 points, plus 25 of your time bonus points for each wrong letter). To this end, I spent a couple of minutes checking each puzzle I managed to finish. With one (I think excusable) exception, I achieved my ambition.

I also wanted to set a baseline for the social side of the ACPT. I only knew two other attendees: Rex Parker who, although 30 miles away in the next state, is the nearest crossword aficionado in these underpopulated tracts; and Marilynn Huret, with whom I'd had considerable correspondence in the 1990s regarding my TEA and Sympathy software. Marilynn had been trying to lure me to an ACPT for about 16 years, so it was great to make her wish come true and finally meet her.

It was lovely to expand on this acquaintance and meet competitors of all abilities, as well as some of the compilers. Not knowing the faces made it hard to find some of the people I hoped to see: only after Jon Delfin walked up to receive a prize on Sunday did I manage to track him down to talk to.

Crossword Man and Will ShortzAnd I finally met Will Shortz, managing to grab a quick conversation between rounds on Saturday. Will actually knows of the Listener Crossword, the series I co-edited for 12 years, having had Steven Sondheim's collection bestowed on him. Amazing!

After all that, do you really want to know how badlywell I did in the puzzles? Ok, here goes. (The grids are of course taken from my scanned solutions that are now to be found on the ACPT site - what an awesome system that is!)

Puzzle 1 - Arms Race by Byron Walden (15 minutes, 74 words)
Byron Walden
Score: 740 (74 correct answers) + 125 (5 mins in hand) + 150 (correct) = 1015

Yay! I finished a puzzle in the time allowed, but I was not counting my chickens - I hadn't failed to notice that the majority of other competitors had left the room by the time I finished.

Puzzle 2 - Allow Me To Introduce Myself by Brendan Emmett Quigley (25 minutes, 92 words)
Brendan Emmet Quigley
Score: 660 (66 correct answers) = 660

I really struggled this one, seeing the theme much too late to take advantage of it. One thing I wasn't forewarned of is the helpfulness of the title and preamble (something you don't see in a regular New York Times puzzle). But it was my bad to be blinkered and just try to solve clues like a bull at a gate.

And what was I thinking with CILI and BITIK - I don't remember that at all. After this puzzle, I feel humiliated - surely it's puzzle 5 that's supposed to be difficult?

Puzzle 3 - Lipstick on a Pig by Merl Reagle (30 minutes, 112 words)
Merl Reagle
Score: 990 (99 correct answers)

This puzzle was less of a pig than BEQ's, but I again failed to finish. I was really motoring towards the end and would have loved another 5 minutes. Would it have helped enough? I was going to have to guess 4d Talmadge and 31a Dien and would encounter real problems with former TV personality 86d Brinkley and baseball lore 98a Say Hey.

Puzzle 4 Twice as Nice by Andrea Carla Michaels and Myles Callum (20 minutes, 76 words)
Andrea Carla Michaels and Myles Callum
Score: 760 (76 correct answers) + 175 (7 mins in hand) + 150 (correct) = 1085

I feel refreshed by lunch and solve a second puzzle correctly. For the first time, I make sense of the theme early on and really exploit it to break into all areas of the grid quickly. It seems everyone else did too!

Puzzle 5 Sub-Merging by Patrick Merrell (30 minutes, 92 words)
Patrick Merrell
Score: 470 (47 correct answers) = 470

We were warned that this was the "bastard" of the set - Will Shortz called Puzzle 5 that, so it's official! I don't remember too much about this one and I don't want to!

Puzzle 6 Switcheroo by Maura Jacobson (30 minutes, 122 words)
Maura Jacobson
Score: 1220 (122 correct answers) + 175 (7 mins in hand) + 150 (correct) = 1545

This was definitely "my finest half hour". It was a lovely feeling to complete such a big grid, with quite a bit of time to spare.

Puzzle 7 Additional Cast by Mike Shenk (45 minutes, 140 words)
Mike Shenk
Score: 1380 (138 correct answers) + 25 (1 minute in hand) - 25 (one letter wrong)

Another puzzle I felt very pleased with myself for having finished correctly ... or had I? I spent several minutes checking through every clue and didn't think I'd made any mistakes. Only when I checked the scans on the Monday did I realize that I had 48d Nye ["Science Guy" Bill] and 53a Elayne [Comedian Boosler] wrong.

Magdalen kindly suggested that I couldn't be expected to have heard of Bill Nye or Elayne Boosler, but I still feel bad. It should have occurred to me that Nye is a much more likely surname than Nie and that Elayne is a plausible alternative for Elaine.

Summing It All Up

My scores add to 7145 which puts me in 478th place. That gives lots of room for improvement next year.

What would I do differently? Start by actually reading the title and preamble and taking advantage of those. Then have a strategy for solving order: too often I found myself getting stalled in one area of the grid and just walking through clues in order, many of which I'd already solved; or pecking around at random.

More than anything, I need more practice: not just solving the current New York Times puzzles, but going back through the archived puzzles and trying another quality puzzle like the LA Times Crossword.

And I'd like to get to know more of the compilers and competitors - this will be a lot easier the second time around.


xwd_fiend said...

Ex-Listener Editor fails to read preambles! That's a really dramatic demonstration of the power of daily solving habits.

Solving order: I think it helps to have a well-practiced system (i.e. use it every day), though I don't think it matters much what the system is. You then know instantly what clue you're going to look at next. The other key is using the grid to choose where you go - you gain info from checked letters and don't look at solved clues.

Then there's the simultaneous writing and solving trick. Writing an answer while reading the next one takes a lot of practice (I can't really do it well), but a good compromise is reading the next before writing, and then thinking about it while writing.

Glad you met Jon in the end.

Crossword Man said...

All good advice ... thank you. Writing the blog is also great for learning - facts don't always sink in the first time I write about them, but the second time usually does it.

Did you know that you have a rival in fiendishness? See Amy Reynaldo's blog

Anonymous said...

And Jon is glad to have met you.

Dan Feyer solved an average of 25 crosswords a day for the past year. Not that I'm recommending such an extreme effort, but in general, the more U.S. crosswords you solve, the quicker you'll familiarize yourself with the cultural touchstones you need for such as Elayne Boosler and Bill Nye.

xwd_fiend said...

Yes, I know about the fiend coincidence - I've tried to encourage some of the US cryptic solvers in her chatroom to try the UK cryptics, partly from knowledge that she's been tackling a book of Times puzzles after a visit to London.

Crossword Man said...

I can barely manage 1 extra crossword a day, let alone 25! I will try and ramp up on that closer to ACPT 2010 ... and maybe I'll get into a virtuous circle as faster solving allows more time for more solving ... maybe ...