Wednesday, February 24, 2010

ACPT 2010 - The Fearsome Five

Ross Beresford
It's time to write about my sophomore year at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. When I first competed in 2009, I had only been solving American puzzles for a couple of months and was about two-thirds down the field, failing to complete three of the seven puzzles and getting one letter wrong in a further puzzle, due to my ignorance of TV personalities.

My speed and accuracy has been improving steadily since then, thanks in large part to this blog, which helps cement in the cultural information needed for American crosswords.

When I read the Wordplay Companion Book, I noticed that it included the full set of competition puzzles from the 2005 ACPT and decided to keep those in reserve for solving as practice this year. I did them all a couple of weeks ago and aced them: no mistakes and everything finished with time to spare. On the basis of my scores, I'd have been about a third the way down the field that year.

So I reckoned I had reasonable expectations of being in the top 250 or so in a field of 650-odd. I thought I'd at least be able to complete all the puzzles in the time and so make the "Solving Perfection" list. Perhaps I should have suspected that solving at home and in competition are rather different things, and that maybe the competition has got a bit stiffer in recent years? ...

Like last year, I chose a solving station towards the front right of the ballroom where sit the huddled masses yearning to fill crosswords. Magdalen (who opted not to compete this year) had told me not to sit near one of the top solvers - it can be unnerving to see them finish in the time it takes you to read the first clue. So after I'd chosen my spot I was a little fazed to see pentachamp Tyler Hinman choosing the same row - should I move somewhere else? I decided to stay put and, as it turned out, I was so focused on solving (and/or he was so quiet in leaving the room) that the proximity of such genius didn't affect me at all.

Once again, I've got the scans of my puzzle entries to remind me how I did on each puzzle. This feature of the tournament is just amazing, but then every aspect of this tournament with its huge number of competitors is outstanding. I don't think there's anything in UK puzzledom to parallel it. Kudos to all the officials for doing such a great job.

Puzzle 1 - Flip-Flops by Stanley Newman (15 minutes, 78 words)
Flip-Flops by Stanley Newman
Score: 780 (78 correct answers) + 150 (6 mins in hand) + 150 (correct) = 1080

This is supposedly a bit of a "warm-up" puzzle, and it was a romp until I got into the fairly isolated central block: I instinctively went for YMCA at 32-Across and LAPD at 45-Across, but wasn't at all sure of myself. Why should you go to a YMCA to learn CPR? ... it didn't make sense to me. Also, did Mel Brooks really win all those awards (yes, it turns out)? Although I had blogged about CSA at least once in the last year, and it rang bells, it isn't one of those abbreviations where I automatically think of the expansion.

I didn't want to turn in an incorrect puzzle #1, so I mused about this area for a couple of minutes before concluding it wasn't getting me anywhere. Up my hand went with 6 minutes out of the 15 left.

Puzzle 2 - Can We Tawk? by Elizabeth C. Gorski (25 minutes, 94 words)
Can We Tawk? by Elizabeth C. Gorski
Score: 940 (94 correct answers) + 125 (5 mins in hand) + 150 (correct) = 1215

Last year's second puzzle was by Brendan Emmett Quigley and I found it brutal, failing to finish. So I was comforted to see the byline of Elizabeth C. Gorski - a constructor I feel more of at home with. Although the title "Can We Tawk?" suggested to me that puns involving Ls becoming Ws might be involved, I soon realized that IT was being dropped and eventually justified that from 65-Across.

The problems really lay outside the theme, as there were lots of pop culture references I didn't know. Mostly cross-checking saved the day, but I had serious doubts about the top middle: I knew 6-Down to be a danger area, as carat can also be spelled karat. ices for {Nails down, so to speak} didn't make sense to me and of course Maris {Slugger in 1961 news} isn't a name on the tip of my tongue. Lamia {Vampire} crossing Madsen {Virginia of "Sideways"} was also a worry.

Eventually I went for what I thought instinctively right. On a final check through the grid I noticed MAAT at 1-Down, thanks to guessing taking a quick ex (?!) at 22-Across. Realized ma'am was called for and put my hand up with only five minutes in hand this time.

Puzzle 3 - The Sports Bar by Patrick Berry (30 minutes, 118 words)
The Sports Bar by Patrick Berry
Score: 1180 (118 correct answers) + 0 (0 mins in hand) + 150 (correct) = 1330

It was a similar story with this Patrick Berry puzzle, although in this case, I think it took me quite a while to get enough of the theme answers in full to ascertain the fairly simple idea. Again, there were areas of uncertainty, particularly around Taos at 97-Across {Site of the Kit Carson House}, which crosses with the crafty poker reference {Doesn't just call} for raises at 82-Down; also around Skokie at 18-Down {Illinois home to Rand McNally} - that was a problem more for hampering recognition of thematic answers ... once I got those, the place name seemed solid.

I had the grid completed with about 3 minutes left on the clock, but took the time to run through every row and column as a final check. That's no mean task on a 19x, and by the time I was done with that we were into the last minute.

Puzzle 4 - Without Fail by Mike Nothnagel (20 minutes, 78 words)
Without Fail by Mike Nothnagel
Score: 780 (78 correct answers) + 25 (1 mins in hand) + 150 (correct) = 955

I met Magdalen for lunch in the hotel restaurant and we were lucky enough to be joined by two other competitors. Unbeknownst to me, the restaurant has the enigmatic name of "Archives", which had me calling up the following day to ask what ARCHIVES was doing on my bill - I expect they get that a lot!

With this 15x grid, we were given five minutes more than for puzzle #1 and I was very glad of it. It perhaps took me too long to realize the meaning of the pass clue {What you can do to the end of the answer to each starred clue}, viz that each theme answer ends in a word that can follow "pass the".

As usual, my concerns were mostly with non-thematic aspects: clip {Commit a gridiron infraction} crossing with Lou {Mary's boss on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"}; Fiona {"Shrek" princess} crossing Adama {"Battlestar Galactica" commander} and Henner {Marilu of "Taxi"}. So by the time I'd discounted any alternatives, there was only a minute left when I put my hand up.

Puzzle 5 - You're Solving ... With What? by Brendan Emmett Quigley (25 minutes, 94 words)
You're Solving ... With What? by Brendan Emmett Quigley
Score: 770 (77 correct answers) = 770

So to the fearsome puzzle five. I knew a Brendan Emmett Quigley puzzle was due and as it hadn't yet materialized, it was surely this one. The announcement of a BEQ puzzle sent a shiver down many spines, including mine: I've lately been solving each of his self-published puzzles at Brendan Emmett Quigley -- Can I Have a Word With You? to try to get into the mindset. It looks like I may have to keep taking the medicine!

Again, it was a story of realizing the workings of the theme way too late: I struggled to get enough downs to get a handle on the theme answers and it wasn't until about 20 minutes had gone by that I realized how easy the ones in the lower half were to solve. I then raced through the bottom half filling in corners right up to the bell.

Although I got further than I thought I did (I reported the grid to Magdalen as 75% done), I might have needed another 5 minutes at least to finish off. The intersection of 58-Across and -Down at the start letter is tricky: {Sound pulse} could lead to ding, ping, ring, ting, at least; {Sales pitch?} is still puzzling me, though I am told the answer is pie. OK I have to give up and check a database of past clues: the reference is to Soupy Sales, a TV personality famous for receiving pies in the face. OK, I concede: the chances of my getting this puzzle right were about 25%, based on a random guess of the 58-Down options! And Sales has to go into Pavlov's Guide to Crosswords right now!

What about the top middle? I'd got off to a bad start with April (rather than rains) for {Wet season} promisingly crossing pairs (rather than a pair ... I've led a sheltered life) for {Almost nothing, in poker}. I've just finished that area from where I left off, taking five minutes over it. Getting 27-Across as use great care was critical, and that required a knowledge of the corresponding bottom half answer. I can see now what a great thematic idea this puzzle has ... just a shame I didn't when solving! By the way, I'd have gone with Sliwa for 13-Down, but it's the sort of unexpected surname that gives me nightmares as a solver (no I'm not a follower of conservative radio talk shows).

Puzzle 6 - Misfilings by Maura B. Jacobsen (30 minutes, 122 words)
Misfilings by Maura B. Jacobsen
Score: 1220 (122 correct answers) + 500 (20 mins in hand) + 150 (correct) = 1870

This was a total contrast to the previous puzzle and I repeated my comparative success last year with the same constructor: thanks Maura! I got the theme of book titles from Wuthering Heights very early on and started throwing in literary titles with reckless abandon, barely looking at the theme clues.

After my failure on puzzle #5 I was less concerned about mistakes, but (unlike my experience with the other puzzles) didn't feel insecure about anything I'd put in. I was pleasantly surprised to find fewer than 10 minutes of the 30 had elapsed when I put my hand up. With this puzzle I got a sense, for the first time, of how the best solvers can complete a puzzle as fast as they do (the top 9 solvers all did this one in between 4 and 5 minutes).

Puzzle 7 - Heads of State by Merl Reagle (45 minutes, 144 words)
Heads of State by Merl Reagle
Score: 1440 (144 correct answers) + 325 (13 mins in hand) + 150 (correct) = 1915

I slept badly on Saturday night and the mild cold that I'd been suffering for a few days turned more serious. I didn't have much of an appetite at breakfast and wondered if I'd be able to get to do the seventh puzzle at all. Fortunately, I gradually perked up during the day and I don't think my symptoms made a huge difference to the result with this puzzle.

The insertion-and-pun theme came to me reasonably quickly and I remember feeling fairly confident about everything in the grid except for the area around 89-Across (mayo, Adrian is based on a Rocky quote ... I've seen the movie, but didn't find "Yo, Adrian!" as memorable as Merl Reagle presumably did). This unfortunately crossed with Rosie {Whoopi's predecessor on "The View"} and Bruno {Magli of shoe fame} ... eeeek!

As before, I thought about the options for a minute or so and then just had to go with my instincts - spending more time wouldn't have made any difference and I put my hand up with 13 minutes to spare.

Summing It All Up

My scores add to 9135 which puts me in 307th place (up from 478th last year). I feel lucky to have got the six puzzles I finished right, despite feeling insecure about most of them. I'm upset I didn't finish every puzzle - that to me is still a priority over speed.

But looking at how other people did, I see that I should be much more concerned about speed if I'm to do any better. I'm going to pick on Ryan Hecht for a comparison, as he's another blogger and podcaster as part of Ryan and Bryan Do Crosswords (love your work guys) and therefore somewhat in the public eye already. Ryan finished just 9 places ahead of me last year, so we were both in the E Division (where contestants who have not finished in the top 65% during their last three tournaments go). This year he finished 51 places ahead of me and wrested the coveted "winner of the E division" trophy from his co-blogger Brian Cimmet. So where did I go wrong?

It looks like I'm just too slow: Ryan's faster than me on #2 (4 mins), #3 (9 mins), #4 (6 mins) and #7 (9 mins). I'm only faster than him on #6 and then only by 3 minutes. It didn't matter that I got closer to finishing #5 - speed on the other puzzles counted for a lot more. Having another year of solving and blogging under my belt should provide a further boost, but I also seem to be at a point where I need to think about faster technique.

What do I hope for next year? Going up 171 places again is certainly not on the cards: my aging brain can't take the knowledge on board like it could in my teens and twenties, and my background will always be a disadvantage - there's no substitute for a lifetime's TV watching and the likes of Soupy Sales are always going to be more challenging for me. I'm guessing that in another year, I might just have a chance of making it into the top third.

But I shouldn't dwell on the competitive aspects of the weekend, when so much of the fun of the ACPT is in the "extracurricular" events and just meeting lots of like-minded people. I felt more relaxed this time and talked with many more competitors and officials than last year. Being British makes me something of an oddity, but I still feel very welcome - be warned though, by ACPT 2011, I might well have been "naturalized" as a US citizen ... watch this space!


jeffurrynpl said...

I've just discovered your blog by searching on ACPT and 2010. Good job getting six clean out of seven! Great job holding it together on stage Saturday night! Every picture of me from that night shows me freaking out in some way.

Howard B said...

Impressive results, especially considering that you have learned many of the more common puzzle terms and names just through solving (as opposed to a lifetime of cultural osmosis).

You may be comforted to know that the Soupy Sales clue, from what I gathered, stymied even some experienced solvers who were familiar with Soupy Sales, but just did not quite grasp the wordplay. Just a very difficult, vague, almost (but not nearly) cryptic clue.

Also glad that you mentioned the social aspect of the tournament - this is the primary reason that many attend. Sure, the competition is a great attraction, but once a year this is an oasis in the chaos of life, and reaffirms my faith in the goodness of people.

Sorry I didn't get a chance to meet you over the weekend; with so many attendees, it is inevitable that there are many people you don't get a chance to meet, unfortunately.

All the best,
Howard B.

Ryan H said...


I'm flattered you used me as an example of a "fast" solver. That's certainly never happened before.

Personally, I think your results are really good. I've lived in this country all my life and at my second ACPT I finished 470th. So you're way ahead of me in that regard. Your finish is made even more impressive by the fact that you're shaky on some of the cultural references. For instance, I've watched a lot of TV so on puzzle #3 I immediately knew HENNER, LOU and ADAMA. I'm not sure how I would have done if had to figure those out from crosses.

Looking back I think I was helped mostly by the convergence of BEQ and puzzle #5. I don't do well with his puzzles and I don't do well on #5 so to be able to get both of those challenges out of the way on the same puzzle was good for me. My goal for next year is 7 perfect puzzles.

Looks like you did too well this year to remain in the E division but I wouldn't be surprised if you challenge for a D division prize in 2011.

Sorry we didn't get a chance to meet you this past weekend but maybe we can convince you to attend Lollapuzzoola 3 in August.

Crossword Man said...

Hi Jeff,

If we can work out your surname, we'll remember you to Julian West, whom we expect to meet at the Listener Crossword Dinner in Wales next month. There are four Jeff(rey)s and they're all in the top 200 of the ACPT ... suspicious.

I haven't dared look at the Listmania pix. My reasonable knowledge of Dickens and the like helped our team in round 1, but state capitals, presidents and US Monopoly stumped me. If I'd have known I was doing this ahead of time, I'd have been terrified; as it was, I was just mildly flustered.

Crossword Man said...

Hi Howard,

Many thanks for your kind comments. I'll make a point of tracking you down next year.

I did actually read about Soupy Sales when I blogged the July 1 puzzle last year but the pie business went over my head I think!

Crossword Man said...

Hi Ryan,

You seem fast to me and you ARE more smarter now. Time to change the tag line guys!

Yes, I would love to come to a Lollapuzzoola. If we can get to Brooklyn, we can surely get to Queens, and it sounds such fun.

Here's to Solving Perfection in 2011. We can do it!

Howard B said...

Better the pie goes over your head than in your face, ala Soupy Sales.

Congratulations for Listmania, by the way. Our team had a great time, and proudly completed the Harry Potter series and most of the orchestral instruments, but unfortunately our trivia pace slowed down quite a bit from there. Relieved that it was you on stage rather than us.

Lollapuzzoola is a fun time for all involved. Nine out of ten solvers agree. (The tenth one was struggling with a Saturday puzzle and could not be reached for comment).

Crossword Man said...

Yes, maybe it was right to duck the pie clue :-)

Will hope to see you at Lollapuzzoola 3 then!

xwd_fiend said...

Reading this after a late and not very impressive go at set of the ACPT puzzles - Maura Jacobson's 6 was the only one apart from No.1 which I completed inside the time limit.

Don't know whether you've seen the books of the New York Sun puzzles edited by Peter Gordon. I was given a few of these on a visit to NYC and they're a good challenge, with difficulty gradings. The harder ones are probably good practice for future puzzle 5's.

Main suggestion for quicker solving: another puzzle each day, if I'm right in reading the "puzzles we solve" list as saying that weekdays mean one US-style puzzle a day. That would match the "Times and Guardian cryptic every day" (for a number of years!) routine that did me a lot of good in the Times championship. "More puzzles by BEQ and the like" is probably as close as you can get to an equivalent of doing barred-grid cryptics to learn the difficult words and cluing tricks.

Crossword Man said...

Hi Peter. Thanks for commenting and kudos to you for attempting the ACPT set given you've no real incentive to learn the parochial stuff like Soupy Sales.

Yes, I am aware of the New York Sun anthologies and have now worked through three books of the hardest themeless ones. That was excellent practice.

I appreciate the advice regarding a second daily puzzle. The obvious choice is the LA Times: up to now I've been solving that in book form as the anthologies come out (I've just finished #19 and #20 is due in a few weeks). Perhaps it is time though to subscribe to get the LA Times puzzles as they appear, for that extra daily workout!