Welcome to a very special edition of 5 Questions!
Usually, 5 Questions is simply that: five individual questions answered by our guest. But this time around, we’ve ditched the 5 Q format in lieu of a more relaxed, conversational interview. I hope you enjoy!
Last weekend marked the seventh edition of Lollapuzzoola, a crossword puzzle tournament held in New York City and hosted by people who love puzzles for people who love puzzles.
The brainchild of Ryan Hecht and Brian Cimmet, Lollapuzzoola has quickly become a beloved yearly tradition for top constructors and solvers, and I’m pleased to announce that friend of the blog and Crossword Goddess Patti Varol won the Locals division this year!
Patti was gracious enough to take some time out to talk about her experience at Lollapuzzoola, so without further ado, let’s get to it in a very special edition of 5 Questions!
Tell us a little about Lollapuzzoola.
My favorite description of LPZ is from the organizers: it’s the best tournament held in New York on a Saturday in August.
How does it differ from the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament?
It’s much more casual and laid-back, smaller, 150ish competitors versus 600ish.
All crosswords. There’s usually a theme to the day — last year was birds (… I think) and this year it was baseball. There’s a meta puzzle that everyone solves to pass the time between the last puzzle and the Finals.
How many times have you participated?
This is my second year.
What do you look forward to most when heading into the tournament?
I’m kidding. I talk to crossword people all day long, but it’s always over IM or email. It’s great to see them in person.
[Tournament directors and pro puzzlers
Patrick Blindauer and Brian Cimmet]
And the crosswords at LPZ are fantastic — the clues are clever and current, the themes are fun and tricky. There is usually one puzzle with an off-the-page gimmick.
Last year there was a very fun puzzle with picture clues. This year there was one with audio clues (for the theme entries, not the whole puzzle).
How do they determine which three solvers in each division go into the final solve?
There are two divisions. Express and Local. If you’re in Express, you’re one of the solving gods – you’re in the top 20% at ACPT. Local is everyone else, the mere mortals who happen to be pretty good at crosswords.
[Glenn's note: There is also a Rookie division, a Pairs division (where you solve with a partner) and an At-Home division, where anyone can purchase the puzzles for a very reasonable $10 and compete from the comfort of home.]
Scoring is a reflection of speed and accuracy. The scoring is way simpler at LPZ than it is at ACPT, but it’s still math, so…
The way they [Brian Cimmet and Patrick Blindauer] write it all up, you really get a sense of how playful the whole event is. They are there to have fun, and so the day is lots of fun for everyone. They are relaxed and we are relaxed… unless we have to stand on tiptoe in front of 200 people.
Oh, and you’re allowed to cheat.
You’re allowed to cheat?
They have a system with Google tickets. Once the allowed puzzle time reaches the halfway point, you can write a clue number on the back of a Google ticket, and signal to a judge. The judge comes over and writes the correct answer on your ticket. 25 points are deducted from your score, and you forfeit the 100-point perfect puzzle bonus.
But the penalty for multiple wrong letters can be worse than -25 for the ticket. I used 2 of them on puzzle 4, and I still had 6 letters wrong! That puzzle was a beast.
[Some of the trophies awarded at Lollapuzzoola 6 last year.]
So, can you take us through what it’s like to solve the final puzzle?
After everyone has solved the first five puzzles, the standings are announced and the top three in each division go into the final puzzle, which is solved on whiteboards in front of all the solvers.
When Brian Cimmet called my name for second place of the Local division, I was stunned. And then it turned out that the first place person really belonged in the Express division, so I was bumped up to first place.
They took us into this room in the back so they could set up the grids and distribute the puzzles to the crowd. Sara [Nies, ranked 47th overall, but a finalist in the Local division], Simon [McAndrews, 48th overall], and I were a blur of nervous, giggly energy, but Francis [Heaney], Jon [Delfin], and Scott [Weiss], the Express gods, were all chill.
They bring us out, and there were two immediate problems: I couldn’t get the noise-canceling headphones to stay on my head – they were too big and I was shaking so hard from nerves. And then I couldn’t really reach the top line of the dry-erase board. I was a nervous, shaking, flustered mess. We were all joking about finding me a phone book or a dictionary for me to stand on, but they couldn’t find one, and they had me test it out – I could reach, barely, on my tiptoes.
[Several solvers tackling the final puzzle
at a previous Lollapuzzoola event.]
I was on the far right of the stage. I could see Simon, but not Sara. I was shaking so hard at first that I couldn’t read the clues on the paper. And the board seemed so big and the puzzle seemed to be in German… I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and didn’t throw up on my shoes. I started solving in the lower right corner, because it was right in front of my face. Ultimately, I solved from the bottom up.
Simon finished solving first, and once he stepped away from the stage, I calmed down – I knew I couldn’t win, so I just wanted a clean grid. I slowed down, I read more carefully, I started to enjoy the puzzle. I was sure Sara had finished already, too. I finished the puzzle and started checking the grid, line by line, very carefully, and then I took a step back … and saw Sara was still solving! I turned around and took off my headset as quickly as I could, and there was this huge collective sigh of relief – Sara had only two letters left when I turned around.
My friends were on the edges of their seats, telling me to stop checking the grid and turn around. I finished a good 20 seconds ahead of her, but officially, it’s only 3 seconds because I took so damn long to check the grid. Doug [Peterson, crossword gentleman] told me later that he had been trying to get Brian and Patrick’s attention because they hadn’t noticed I was done – they were busy reviewing Simon’s grid.
Heartbreak for Simon, who finished more than a minute before me: he left a square blank and placed 3rd. But as soon as I finished, Simon thumbsed-up to me and whispered, “It’s you!” because of his wrong letter. Big smile, really gracious.
And, it turns out – had Erin [Milligan-Milburn, who has a cheating trophy named for her after winning Rookie of the Year when she wasn't a rookie] and Angela [Halsted, Locals finalist last year] remained in the Local division, it would have been an all-girls Local final! And I still would have been in first place going into the finals. How cool is that?
And I got the greatest trophy.
And a gift card to Barnes and Noble, and a puzzle book. A bunch of us agreed it would have been funnier if a dude got the bikini-clad musclewoman trophy… but I’m not giving it back.
(It didn’t sink in that I’d actually won until Oscar, Brian’s two-year-old son, handed me the musclewoman.)
After everything was over, I asked Doug, “How did this happen?” And Doug, laconic as ever, shrugged and said, “You’re good at crosswords?”
So you’ll be back next year to defend your title?
If I understand correctly, I will be in the Express division next year. But I will be there. And they just announced the date — Lollapuzzoola 8 will be on 8/8.
What advice would you give a first-time Lollapuzzoola-er?
Solve puzzles. Have fun. Stay for pizza.
Many thanks to Patti for her time and insight into the Lollapuzzoola experience. You can check out her work at The Uptown Puzzle Club, The Crosswords Club, and the Los Angeles Times Crossword. Can’t wait to see what she cooks up next.
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