Wednesday, March 23, 2011

ACPT 2011 - Crossword Man Speaks!

Ross Beresford
The 2011 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was a radically different experience for me: I found myself on the podium for the first time!

I got The Call (actually an email) in early February: would I like to talk about The Differences Between UK and US Cryptics, to introduce the "U.S. vs. U.K. Crossword Showdown"?

This really threw me for a loop: while I am uniquely positioned to speak on the subj, I tend to get bad stage fright if my audience numbers more than one. The Friday night audience at the ACPT is in the hundreds. But could I turn down a request from The Dr. Will Shortz? No way!

Thankfully Magdalen managed to talk me down off the ledge after a couple of days and I set about researching my talk, negotiating with Will (my rabbiting on for more than 10 minutes being his persistent worry), and creating a small example puzzle. More significantly, I got in a lot of practice with Magdalen - huge props to her for supporting me through all this.

What all this meant was I made little effort to hone my solving technique for tournament itself. I'd bought the 2006 thru 2008 tournament puzzle sets (via the Play by Mail offer) after last year's tournament, but not done a single one. Under the circs, I was surprised to go up in the rankings as much as I did. One technique I did consciously adopt this year was to read and circle keywords in the crossword title and subtitle - I think that was useful for several puzzles this year (certainly my failure to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the titles cost me time in previous ACPTs).

Anyway, I was very glad my speech was on Friday night: once that was over, I could relax and enjoy the rest of the weekend, which started with the ...

US vs UK Crossword Showdown

I hadn't been sent copies of the competition puzzles, so I solved the British cryptic crossword by Don Manley and the American cryptic crossword by Rich Silvestri as a regular competitor. Since I'm now a naturalized US citizen, I chose to bat for the USA side (not that it made much difference).

Guys and Dolls
I was making pretty good progress with the UK crossword until I got stumped by {What sounds like appearance for dolls? No!} at 6-Across. With just _U_S from crossings, I stared at that last clue for maybe three minutes at the end before I realized the answer was guys. Despite that, I managed to finish in the top ten, winning a book prize - probably my first and last prize for speed solving. And I just edged out the mighty Dan Feyer. The US crossword was a steadier solve, but my relative inexperience with the American style meant I was outside of the top ten for that puzzle.

The British puzzle wasn't as parochial as I was expecting, and I get the impression Don Manley was steered towards a more transatlantic approach and didn't overdo the cultural references. That was probably in the interests of the majority of the solvers present - the Americans in the audience were there to be entertained, not flummoxed.

Still, a Brit (Mark Goodliffe, Times Crossword tetrachamp and co-founder of the Magpie crossword magazine) won the overall contest, as I anticipated. I was gobsmacked, though, to see an American so close behind: I'd watched Jeffrey Harris win Lollapuzzoola 3 last summer, but I'd no idea he is also an ace solver of cryptics - most impressive.

Puzzle 1 - Kelly Clark (15 minutes, 78 words)
Score: 780 (78 correct answers) + 200 (8 mins in hand) + 150 (correct) = 1130

I got along very well with the warm-up puzzle this year, finding no particular trouble spots, and was confident of a correct grid. Here's where I could have shaved off a minute or two with better technique: if I'd been solving it on computer as a New York Times crossword, I might have earned a 10 minute bonus ... as it was, my hand went up with just eight minutes left on the clock.

Puzzle 2 - Pete Muller (25 minutes, 89 words)
Score: 890 (89 correct answers) + 0 (0 mins in hand) + 150 (correct) = 1040

baseball scoreboard
With the second puzzle, I started to run into the troublesome crossings and doubts over accuracy that I expect from competition puzzles. The first problem was the crossing of 28-Across and 3-Down: Mila Kunis rang only vague bells and La Lollo meant nothing to me; this was clearly a case where prolonged thought would be wasted, so I just went with my first instinct and dodged a bullet.

The other trouble spot was at 83-Across, where I just couldn't figure out what the abbreviation Epis. stood for. I was very confident of the long downs crossing it and fairly confident of RHE at 77-Down having watched enough live baseball games now to realize it stands for runs, hits and errors. I actually had the correct grid with about two minutes left on the clock, but ran the clock down in the hope of finally spotting the error that wasn't there. After the puzzle was done, I heard from other solvers that 83-Across referred to the Episcopalian religious affiliation of the US presidents in the clue.

Puzzle 3 - Merl Reagle (30 minutes, 114 words)
Score: 1140 (114 correct answers) + 200 (8 mins in hand) + 150 (correct) = 1490

There were similar problems in the Merl Reagle puzzle. The first stumbling block affected a thematic answer, and I'd have benefited from being clear on which answers were the theme puns. I'd already solved 57-Across and realized that was thematic (tho only 8 letters); but when I got to 54-Across, it took me a while to notice it must also be so ... the question mark being another helpful pointer I overlooked. Not having come across the defunct EBS (56-Down) before, I tentatively tried mein hart before considering the clue more carefully and switching to the correct mein hare.

2-Down caused me further worry, as Brach's was new to me. Here I just had to trust that all the crossings were solid after double- and triple-checking them. All these uncertainties cost me time, so I was a little surprised to see 8 minutes still left on the clock when I'd completed the grid to the best of my abilities.

Puzzle 4 - Bonnie L. Gentry/Vic Fleming (20 minutes, 76 words)
Score: 760 (76 correct answers) + 300 (12 mins in hand) + 150 (correct) = 1210

This felt like a repeat of puzzle 1 ... very much another warm-up puzzle. I twigged to the theme early and found knowledge of it very helpful as I went along. I had no doubts about the grid as I put my hand up with 12 minutes to spare.

Puzzle 5 - Mike Shenk (30 minutes, 92 words)
Score: 810 (81 correct answers) = 810

In the last year, I've focused a lot on difficult US puzzles. Not just those in the New York Times on Friday and Saturday, but also anything published by Brendan Emmett Quigley and Fireball Crosswords; I've also worked through a heap of hard puzzle collections in book form (such as those featured in the blog sidebar).

So would this be the year when I finally complete puzzle 5 correctly (and so have a good chance of making the Solving Perfection list)? Well I came maddeningly close. As I approached that final unfilled section at the middle right, the puzzle felt like a Friday New York Times crossword which I'd just spent 25 minutes wading through: on a good day, the last answers will fall into place in a swift minute's work; on a bad day, I'll stare at the clues till my forehead bleeds.

This was very much a bad day puzzle, as I discovered when Brendan Emmett Quigley walked me through the unsolved clues after time was up. I hadn't considered 31-Down might be an abbreviation, so it was going to be tough to arrive at TGIF. I've definitely come across Danny Aiello before, but not enough to recall his unlikely surname without at least half the letters. It didn't help that the problem area was awash with other proper names.

I also hadn't thought carefully enough about 59-Down, which started out as biocide. When that looked impossible, I somehow opted for exocide (unfortunately not a word) rather than the more plausibly formed ecocide ... these Alexes and Alecs are the bane of my life! I'm not sure I'd have fixed that error even if I had finished the rest of the grid in the time.

But, my performance relative to others in my class turned out to be rather good, and the points earned for a puzzle I didn't even finish boosted me considerably in the standings.

Puzzle 6 - Maura Jacobson (30 minutes, 126 words)
Score: 1260 (126 correct answers) + 425 (17 mins in hand) + 150 (correct) = 1835

I got on very well with Maura Jacobson's puzzles in the two previous ACPTs I attended and this one was also a breeze for me. It felt great to finish a 19x19 in under half the time allotted and have no doubts over accuracy.

Puzzle 7 - Ashish Vengsarkar/Narayan Venkatasubramanyan (45 minutes, 140 words)
Score: 1400 (140 correct answers) + 500 (20 mins in hand) + 150 (correct) = 2050

I'm used to the 21x21 being stuffed with Merl Reagle's puns, so I wasn't quite sure how the final puzzle would pan out with different constructors. It turned out that the theme was right up my alley, although I had doubts over non-thematic aspects in several spots.

At the top left, I was glad to have heard of Ben Zimmer, since I couldn't immediately work out what BWI should expand to as the airport serving D.C. In the absence of the crossing, I'd have gambled on GWI for George Washington International. Only when I'd had my reviving cuppa after finishing did I consider that the B must stand for Baltimore.

I know that the crossing of 35-Across and 31-Down caught out a lot of solvers, but here's an example of where the blog really helped me: I'd written about Esalen on January 19, 2010 and sal soda on October 31, 2010. Having only seen them once before, I wasn't 100% confident I'd remembered them right, but knew enough to go with my gut feeling on the doubtful crossing.

The final trouble spot was the crossing of 115-Across and 103-Down. This was a case of playing alphabetical roulette and opting for much the most likely choice of R giving Ari and Loral.

Summing It All Up

My scores add to 9565 which puts me in 164th place (up from 309th last year). I'm very pleased about that, because I expected to be in the 200s. I was lucky to have dodged several bullets when making the informed guesses described above.

I wonder, though, if I can maintain the upward momentum, now that I've stopped doing daily crossword commentaries. Although I continue to solve lots of puzzles I tend to be very lazy about answers I don't already know, unless forced to check them and read about their associations.

My first rather old-school idea was that I should keep a notebook of all the new stuff I learn from crosswords, but I'm wondering now if that couldn't be maintained online. Perhaps a weekly blog post of all the new factoids I learn from each puzzle?

I'll continue to do the Cheat Sheets, as I find those are fun to research and can be done in quiet times in my schedule. I'm currently working on "Crucial Counties" having got up to Michigan in the list of states in alphabetical order. That one's a lot of work - most of them take maybe an hour to write.

The 2011 tournament was particularly interesting because of the British presence, and I know the folks who came over from the UK were awed by the experience. As I continue to be ... nothing comes close to rivaling the ACPT for scale, efficiency and fun. I'm particularly indebted to Will for the opportunity to speak (a valuable learning experience for me) and to the technical team behind the website - the ability to see scans of your grids is a totally awesome feature (without which writing this post would be much harder).


John Reardon said...

With (the brilliant) Mark Goodliffe at 266th and Peter Biddlecombe at 407th your performance in coming 164th is outstanding for an England-educated solver. Congratulations – you should certainly be aiming for Solving Perfection next year.

Crossword Man said...

Thanks John. I'll keep trying.

The Brits did really well for rookies lacking the parochial knowledge I've accumulated ... I was 479th in my rookie year!

saphir said...

Nice to meet you face-to-face, albeit briefly! rec.puzzles, ah memories.

Jenn / Saphir

Crossword Man said...

Great to see you too, Jenn. There's always next year ... how about a rec.puzzles[.crosswords] reunion dinner? How many of us are still alive and kicking after all this time? :-)

Narayan Venkatasubramanyan said...

i really appreciate your valiant attempt at explaining cryptic crosswords to an american audience. that is almost as hard as explaining cricket to a baseball fan. i wish the camera had panned around to capture the audience reaction.

Crossword Man said...

Thanks Narayan ... and thanks also for a relatively tame puzzle 7!