February 23, 2010

Battlefield Update from the Crossword Wars

Well, so, as you may have heard, I once again neglected to win the crossword tournament this year. Or make the finals. These things happen. Clearly my training plan of slacking off all year and then cruciverbo-loading a megadose of New York Times puzzles is just not sufficient against the likes of new champ Dan Feyer, who apparently solves 40 puzzles every day, or signed some sort of Faustian deal with the devil (which would make an awesome Damn Yankees-style musical; maybe "Damn Blank Squares"?).

Basically, I was just a little slower than usual this year, which was enough to knock me past the minute break on at least three puzzles, and was slow overall on Brendan Quigley's puzzle 5 (which I enjoyed, and picked up on the theme of right away, but cracking the theme didn't actually help much with the top half of the puzzle). This wasn't a great year to be a little slow, because absolutely none of the fastest solvers made any mistakes, so there wasn't any opportunity to advance through accuracy alone. Still, even though I had a bit of an off year, I came in 8th (tied for 7th on points, but 8th because of tiebreaker rules), which isn't bad at all. If that's an off year, I'll take it. I'm still feeling good about my chances next year if I actually bother to spend any time practicing over the course of the year.

Speaking of which, I realized too late what happened to my speed-solving chops -- the New York Sun folded. I had been speed-solving that puzzle every day while it was a going concern, but when it went under, I didn't replace it. Since I liked my system of saving up the Times puzzle to solve all at once, I didn't start doing those instead -- but clearly I should. And maybe some Newsdays as well, to cure myself of my inability to ever get a solving groove going in Stan Newman's puzzles.

Overall, it was a fun weekend. 8th place is not as exciting as 3rd, but it's a darn sight less stressful, I tell you what. I was definitely jazzed to see the finals consisting of nothing but people who hadn't won the tournament before: Howard Barkin, Anne Erdmann, and the aforementioned Dan Feyer. I didn't see too much of the non-puzzling parts of the tournament, since I opted not to spend the $75 for Eric Berlin's puzzle (which I'm sure was fun, but the cost-to-fun ratio still seemed a little high) and Swedish Call My Bluff (which...sounded...um...so, it was...Swedish...seriously, what?) on Friday night, and missed most of Saturday night to zip over to Freddy's Bar and perform a tap routine to Raymond Scott's "The Penguin" with Lorinne as an encore to her ukulele+singing+dancing vaudeville set at Don Ralph's Blowhole Cabaret.

Lorinne also closed the pre-award-ceremony show the next day to a great audience response. (Brendan Quigley described her successful evocation of an earlier era: "Suddenly [I was] at a USO show waiting to fight them Jerries.") Another crowd-wower was Amanda Yesnowitz, performing an original number (with Brian Cimmet composing the music and providing the accompaniment to her lyrics and singing), "A Way With Words." Sample lyric I was jealous of: "Miss Piggy had her way with Kermit / Miss Muffet had her whey with curds / I've got a way / Just like Roget / I've got a way with words." I was definitely kicking myself for missing her cabaret showcase last month, but next time.

The talent show took the place of the traditional lunch banquet (for hotel values of "banquet") that accompanies the awards ceremony. I didn't miss the banquet, but I did feel like I wanted a break for snacks after the performances. Instead, the performances/awards/playoffs occupied an uninterrupted block of time that sat smack in the middle of "when I would like something to eat." This'll be something to remember if I'm in contention for the finals next year: Have a sandwich in my bag so I'm not delirious from hunger while trying to solve onstage.

In more technical tournament matters, Trip Payne posted an open letter on Facebook to Will Shortz, arguing for scoring reform. He feels that awarding bonus points based on which minute a solver finishes in isn't really precise enough -- and I agree. A minute is a loooonnnnng time when it comes to crosswords. Finishing a daily crossword in 3:01 is very different from finishing in 3:59, but they get the same score under the current system. Trip proposed breaking down the time bonuses into 30-second blocks instead of 60-second blocks. I like the idea. It'll mean fewer ties among the top solvers, and also means less of a penalty if you decide to take extra time to check your grid. (Because, really, you don't need a whole minute to check a grid.)

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have crosswords to solve and/or deals with the devil to make. (Maybe he'd be interested in a custom puzzle? I'm sure we could work something out.)

Posted by Francis at 11:30 AM

One of my best friends from high school was Miss USO of 1997, believe it or not.

Have been thinking of Trip's proposal a bit, mostly of the mechanics of it. Maybe in addition to the count-down time clock, the powers that be can find a two-digit display device (good thing puzzle #7 is 45 minutes rather than 50) that can be set to decrement every 30 seconds, so that the judges can use that device to determine what number to write down but contestants can still see the actual time including seconds.

Posted by: saphir at February 23, 2010 03:19 PM

Haven't you already done one or two of those? http://web.mit.edu/puzzle/www/07/handouts/Hell7Handout.pdf ?

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