Monday, March 2, 2009

Ha-a-ave You Met Ross?

Magdalen here.

Ross is out of town this morning, and even when he gets back, he's going to have a lot of work to do blogging about the three puzzles from the weekend, as well as about the weekend itself. So, while he's getting on with all that, I volunteered to post something on the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. And, thinking about it, I realize that my experience this past weekend has as much to do with my involvement with British cryptic crosswords as it does my casual past with the New York Times daily crossword. So settle back for an uncharacteristically chatty post on this blog.

It was Ross's idea to go to the ACPT, and I have to admit I really was dreading it. "Worse than the bar exam," was my prediction -- seven mini-tests for which I was ill-prepared. I was right about that -- and wrong at the same time. The weekend really is a lot of fun, even for someone like myself who's not that good at solving crosswords. Clearly others like me attend and compete for the fun of it, as I was near but not actually at the bottom.

What's a quilter/lawyer doing at the ACPT if she's not good at crosswords? Well, I was supporting Ross. And that's where the title of this post comes in (an homage to the "Have you met Ted" bit on "How I Met Your Mother"). I'm not the most naturally gregarious person in the world, but next to my British husband, I'm Chatty Cathy herself. Because I knew he'd never initiate a conversation, I wanted to introduce him to American crossword solvers. I want people to know how cool Ross is.

To non-crossword people, I can explain Ross's former life in the U.K. by saying he used to be an English version of Will Shortz. This statement has some inherent inaccuracies. Will has a full-time job editing the daily and Sunday puzzles for the leading newspaper in the country. Ross's stint as editor of The Listener Crossword (the especially hard cryptic published on Saturdays in the Times of London) was part-time. Will Shortz is a brand name here (and over there) as are other editors, but crossword editors labour in obscurity in the U.K. while specific setters, such as Araucaria and Azed, are famous enough that many people even know their real names!

At the same time, there is one very real parallel between Will Shortz and my husband: for certain groups of people, they are both rock stars. It's just that the group impressed with Ross was way smaller than the group impressed with Will. I was introduced to the "Ross Beresford" reputation in 1998 when I was "solving" the Listener on transAtlantic telephone calls with my first husband, Henry. I've known Henry since 1971, and I'd previously watched as he'd solved the large-format Azed puzzle in the Observer. He'd later switched to the Listener because it's even more challenging.

About the Listener: It is generally considered to be the toughest crossword puzzle in the English language, combining the basic elements of a cryptic format with extra manipulation of the clues, the grid and the theme. With a normal cryptic puzzle, you solve the clues, write in the answers and use the crossing letters (the grid is not fully checked as it would be in an American crossword) to help with the answers you can't quite get. With a Listener puzzle, the clues are very often manipulated to be harder to solve, the resulting answers may be manipulated before entry into the grid, and there's usually another level of thematic puzzling still to be done.

A couple examples: In one recent Listener, there were clashes in the grid that made it impossible to fill it satisfactorily. A hidden message instructed the solver to erase everything and find the only legal grid that would accommodate all the words you just solved. In effect, you had to construct the grid yourself! Another brilliant puzzle published on January 1 and titled "New Year's Resolution" seemed at first to be pretty straightforward. But a hidden message instructed you to erase all the answers and solve all the clues again this time using a different method and arriving at different words. How Dimitry (the pseudonym of John Grimshaw, one of the current Listener editors) managed to write clues that operated both as a valid cryptic clue to one word and a valid alternative clue to another word is beyond me. But the solver still wasn't done -- another hidden message then instructed you to make further changes to the grid, revealing a Happy New Year's greeting from the setter. Re-solution, indeed!

And that's the huge difference between the Listener and any of the puzzles we're used to here in the U.S.: You send it in to be graded. Every week. A fellow named John Green -- who does not get paid for this labor of love -- marks each puzzle and maintains a database of everyone's performance. Entries number in the hundreds, with maybe half being correct. Sometime in March you write in for your stats and learn if you were all correct for the year.

This is where Ross's rock star status comes in. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, Ross set a record for the longest stretch of being all-correct: nearly five years. (It's even more impressive as there weren't as many aids for the solver then as there are today.) As Henry explained this to me in 1998, Ross was all correct for so long that they retired him and made him the editor. Henry is the smartest guy I'll ever know, so to have him speak with such awe about "the" Ross Beresford was pretty impressive. I certainly wanted to meet this paragon!

When I did meet him, that fall, he seemed very very quiet. Same thing in 2000, when Henry and I attended a Listener Dinner (the annual event to celebrate the setters and the person/s who were all correct the preceding year) in Paris. Henry and I met Ross a couple more times, and he never had a lot to say, even though he is The Ross Beresford. He was the Listener editor for 13 years, first as the junior editor to Mike Rich then, when Mike died quite young, as the senior editor with Derek Arthur, a mathematician in Edinburgh. Ross retired as editor in late 2005. It was a while before the Listener was publishing puzzles he hadn't himself edited, but since the beginning of 2007, we've been all-correct. In a sense, he's been all-correct for over 20 years; as he put it recently, if he couldn't solve a puzzle that was submitted for publication, there was something wrong with the puzzle!

Someone else now holds the record for all-corrects at the Listener, having finally broken Ross's pre-editorship string. His goal now is for us to win the Silver Solver Salver (an actual piece, traditionally presented to the all-correct solver who hasn't yet won it) so that I can give the acceptance speech. That'll be fun, particularly as the only Listener puzzles I can solve on my own are the mathematical puzzles that appear four times a year. (Henry and I submitted together, but although Henry had been all-correct on his own before we married, we were never all-correct as a couple. That might make it look fishy -- I remarry the former editor just to get the Silver Solver Salver? -- but Henry was all-correct the year after we divorced, so it seems marriage threw him off his game.) After we win the Silver Solver Salver, Ross figures he can relax his stringent standards for solving the Listener.

My other goal is to get a puzzle published in the Listener; it would be the first time someone had set a puzzle that she herself can't solve. It's not impossible: I'm a pretty good clue writer, and I should know because I'm married to an editor with very high standards. Also, I can't solve my own clues unless I remember them. No, really! A good cryptic clue should read like a natural fragment of prose with its own meaning, usually unrelated to the answer. That makes it much harder to solve because the wordplay and definition are harder to spot. As an American, with none of the upbringing leading to solving English cryptics, I'm at a disadvantage. I don't know cricket (lots of lovely misleading terms and abbreviations in that sport), I don't have the code-breaking genetics that the Brits seem to share, and there's always an obscure cultural or commercial reference to trip me up.

Imagine how much harder it is for Ross to solve American puzzles, which have so many more pop stars and food products and terms & teams from four sports to learn. I've learned a lot in ten years about cryptics -- I can't wrap my mind around Ross's accomplishment in just a few months of solving the NYTimes crosswords.

Which brings us back to the ACPT. Roughly 700 people participate. Most know they won't win, but I happened to meet several "rookies" who did well -- a LOT better than I did. These are people who do the daily puzzles at home and think, "I'm not bad. I wonder how I'd do at the tournament?" So they show up in a hotel in Brooklyn to meet fellow enthusiasts and see how they do in the tournament. Most are probably just average, but that rare special person . . .?

On Saturday morning, we took a walk over to the Promenade to admire the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge. On the way back, I overheard a woman tell her school-aged son, "Everything starts at 11:00 but from past experience I know you need to show up early to get a good seat." Ross had been warned not to sit near any of the top players, because it can be demoralizing when they get up while your grid is only a quarter-full! So with that in mind, I picked the front table all the way over to the right. It turned out to be a fun table: We had Rex Parker at one end, and Dave White at the other. Dave, who lives in Kansas, took 6th place among the rookies! Whoo-hoo, Dave!! At the same time, there was a rookie at our table who was very serious and very intent on everything, but who seemed to struggle a bit even with the first puzzle.

I'll let Ross tell how he did, but I met my goal of being more than 100 from the bottom. I completed -- possibly not correctly -- four of the seven puzzles. It's not a matter of time management; I'm just not fast. Also, I've never been able to solve a Friday puzzle on my own. (There's a clue as to how I would do!) I don't know if I'd compete again, but I do know -- with reasonable certainty -- that I wouldn't do a whole lot better if I did. And that's okay.

One bittersweet note. My mother used to solve the NYT daily puzzles. She taught me an important TLA: CBA for "could be anything" when you just don't know an answer. She solved during the Will Weng and Eugene Maleska eras; I don't recall her talking about Margaret Farrar but I dimly recall her having the "old fogey" reaction to the inclusion of more up-to-date cultural references in the early Will Shortz years. I wished I could have called her after the tournament was over to tell her how I'd done. I don't know if she would have been proud of my ranking, but she would have been proud of my attending.

She died before I married Henry, so she never had a chance to meet Ross. I know she would have adored him. What's not to like: smart, funny, and good at crosswords.

And now you've met my husband, the crossword star.


Dan said...

Great post, Magdalen! I guess Ross would never be able to put himself into perspective like that. Look forward to reading your impressions of the ACPT, XWRDMAN... More Barney Stinson references would probably be too much to hope for.

Recently found this blog via Wordplay, and it is fascinating - I've only read a few of the full posts but I'll be following. Apparently I'm one of the fastest American crossword solvers, but those Listener tricks simply boggle my mind. I've only solved a couple of basic cryptics, but I look forward to getting into the Fraser Simpson and Hex and all the variety cryptics out there.... probably not British puzzles though. :)
Dan F

Magdalen said...

Awesome performance yesterday, Dan -- we were sorry you didn't get to the finals, but there's always next year, right? I know the Listener sounds hard, but at least time isn't part of the equation. What you're able to do in 13 minutes is incredible. Great job!

fmcgmccllc said...

What a wonderful tribute, I love the blog and enjoyed reading about "your guy". Wish I was better at doing the puzzles though.

Sarah Allen said...
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