Hey! I just got back from this year's crossword puzzle tournament, where I had a kickass year! The puzzle I presented Saturday night (which I will be posting tomorrow) was very well received, but more importantly DOOD I CAME IN THIRD!!!!! This meant I was on stage for the final playoff round, which was fairly stressful, since I've never been in a playoff before -- I moved from the C division to the B division by finishing in a high enough percentile, and I moved from the B division to the A division in a sort of freak finish in 1998 where I came in 10th overall (thus winning an A prize) but was 4th in the B division, so didn't make the playoff. (After that, I came in 9th in 1999 and have been pretty much dogging it in the 12th-to-14th zone since.) As you know if you've seen Wordplay, the finalists wear headphones with crowd noise recorded at the U.N.; this actually turns out to not really be very distracting at all. The distracting part is knowing that everyone is watching.
Anyway, I didn't finish the playoff puzzle, which is irritating, but I don't feel too bad about it, given that many other A division solvers came up to me and told me that they couldn't finish it in under 15 minutes without the pressure of being on stage. Al Sanders finished the puzzle slightly ahead of Tyler Hinman, but with an error, so Tyler won the three-peat.
So -- that error he made. I had the same error, as did 4th-place finisher Trip Payne (solving in the audience), and apparently quite a few other people who were trying to solve the A division clues. The Down clue was "Carpenter's tool", for which I had LEVEL, and the Across clue (crossing the first letter of the Down clue) was "Secesh". Which looked like complete nonsense to me! I got the rest of that area filled in and ended up with REL as the answer to "Secesh". Turns out "Secesh" is short for "Secessionist" (I wasn't even close to pronouncing that word correctly in my head! I kept saying to myself, "Suh-kesh? What?"), and thus the correct answer was REB (as in "Rebel", as in the Civil War), and "Carpenter's tool" was BEVEL, not LEVEL. Agh!
I got hung up all kinds of places in that puzzle, although I apparently was the first person to get the upper left mostly filled in (seeing through "Lead character in Glengarry Glen Ross" and writing in CAPITAL G right away -- since I know that play really well, and the only eight-letter character name I could think of was DAVEMOSS, and I knew perfectly well he wasn't the lead role), but I wasn't able to build any momentum off that, and I had a bunch of tentative wrong entries in the lower left that I never managed to correct (like WEAR/WAKEUP for "Don" and "Stop sleeping" -- or something like that -- instead of the correct CAPO/COMETO). This is probably attributable to the fact that the puzzle was by Stan Newman, whose wavelength I am just never on. And seriously, the man is just a sadist. Having an entry with an ambiguous first letter crossing a clue like "Secesh"? I call bullshit on that. And now Stan is the guy who cost Al yet another first-place win! Way to apply for "least beloved puzzlemaker".
So obviously I was a little deflated after that semi-debacle, but that wore off before too long, and eventually I was just happy about having my best year ever at the tournament! I've spent a long time in the A division feeling like, "Maaaan, it's going to be years before I drop back down into the B division, and I'm never going to get in the A finals, this sucks, waah waah waah, etc.", because, seriously, I've always been a pretty quick solver, but the gap between finishing in 10th and finishing in the top 3 is a bitch of a gap to get across, and I felt like I'd kind of hit the wall of how much faster I could possibly get.
But then last year I was on target to finish in 6th before I made a careless error in puzzle 7, and that was with a ridiculously slow solving time for puzzle 5. So I thought, huh, if I don't make any mistakes and don't get hung up on puzzle 5 this year, I could actually be in contention for the finals. And I did actually make an effort to train this year, which I don't usually do; I printed out six months' worth of Times crosswords and have been solving them on the subway -- and I realized I was definitely getting faster the first time I thought "God, I can't believe how lame I am, I'm solving this Monday crossword so slowly" -- and then I finished and checked my time and was like, oh, 2:45. That's...actually pretty quick. Okay then! So I went into this tournament feeling like, "Okay, dammit, I am getting into the finals this year." And I did! Too fucking awesome.
Some other moments from the tournament: After the first three puzzles, I returned to my seat to discover that I'd mislaid my favored pencil (a Pentel .5 mm Quicker Clicker). I did have a backup pencil, but I don't like it as well because it clicks from the eraser to extend the lead, which means that you can't press very hard if you want to erase something. So I finished the fourth puzzle in 3 minutes and change and thought, okay, I've got like 15 minutes before this puzzle's time limit is up -- I'm going to run over to the mall across the street and buy a new pencil at the drugstore.
Every fellow competitor to whom I have mentioned this has thought it was an insane thing to do.
Whatever! It only took me like two minutes to get into the mall, one minute to get over to the drugstore, and 30 seconds to curse angrily about the fact that the drugstore was not there anymore. It had closed and been replaced with a store selling sports paraphernalia. Gah! (That whole mall seemed like it was kind of on a downhill swing, economically -- every single restaurant on the food court had closed down except for one lonely little Subway, which was mobbed on the Saturday lunch break.) I actually had time to check two more long-shot stores -- wouldn't you think a store that sells fancy stationery would also sell pencils? You would be wrong, though -- before dashing back with a couple minutes to spare.
I related all this to the crew that was filming the documentary for which I'd written Saturday night's crossword, and they said I should tell the story to Pentel and try to get an endorsement deal. My hypothetical tag line for this ad campaign: "Pentel Quicker Clicker: There could very well be other, better mechanical pencils out there, but I'm used to using this one."
In any case, I did fine with my emergency backup pencil. I finished the next puzzle (the hardest of the tournament, but by no means the hardest puzzle 5 we've ever had) in just under 5 minutes; the only other solver to finish that fast was Trip. The theme was just the sort of thing I do well at -- it was about a "sex change operation", so a "Pane that breaks easily" is BRAND X GLASS (changing the Y chromosome from BRANDY GLASS to an X chromosome). The really cool thing about the puzzle was that the theme wasn't confined to the grid entries -- it was in the clues as well. So "Ox relative" was ALAS (a word akin to "oy"). I'm really good at themes where you have to translate clues in your head before solving them, so I zipped right through this. And it didn't hurt that I spotted the theme right away, probably aided by the fact that I had thought of a similar puzzle theme earlier that day. (One of the puzzles had PO' BOY as an entry, and I thought, oh, you could do a sex-change theme where a clue like "Sandwich delivery location?" would lead to PO' BOY P.O. BOX. So, perhaps some useful serendipity there.)
Anyway, I finished puzzle 5 with two seconds left on the clock and threw up my hand instantly, because I knew this year was a speed race, so I couldn't take the time to check my grid for obvious screw-ups like blank squares or what-have-you. I just had to turn in my paper and hope I hadn't screwed up somewhere. And those two seconds got me into the finals. WHEW. And now I finally know what it's like to solve on stage. I'm looking forward to another chance someday! Maybe next year...in Brooklyn!Posted by Francis at 08:24 PM