Start your engines! It’s the Indie 500 crossword tournament!

Having recently attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament for the first time, I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for other puzzle events and tournaments to check out.

And I stumbled across an upcoming tournament with a lot of positive buzz and interest: The Indie 500.

I decided to reach out to one of the participating constructors, Evan Birnholz of Devil Cross. Having met Evan at the ACPT this year, I knew he would be the perfect go-to guy to fill me in on everything Indie 500.

1.) What is The Indie 500?

The Indie 500 is a new crossword puzzle tournament started by five guys with their own free, independent crossword websites: Erik Agard, Peter Broda, Neville Fogarty, Andy Kravis, and myself. We’re each writing and editing the puzzles and we’re excited to hold our first tournament on May 30 down in Washington, DC.

2.) How does it differ from other crossword tournaments/events?

I think our tournament is, first, an outgrowth of the work we do on our respective websites. On a larger scale, it’s essentially a celebration of indie puzzling. The five of us behind the Indie 500 had published only a few puzzles in mainstream outlets before launching our sites, and now most of our crosswords are things that we’ve created for self-publication.

Because we each drew inspiration from independent puzzle writers like Brendan Emmett Quigley and Matt Gaffney and Ben Tausig, we wanted to give others who didn’t have many published puzzles to their name a chance to have a spotlight of their own, so we held a blind, open submission contest to find a sixth tournament constructor with fewer than ten publications in mainstream venues like The New York Times, The LA Times, CrosSynergy, and so on.

If nothing else, we figured this would inspire new constructors to be creative and submit something that they wouldn’t normally send in to a newspaper. We got several amazing submissions, and ended up picking a winner in Finn Vigeland.

[The six contributors to The Indie 500, plus initials.]

I believe our unique voices as puzzle-makers will help set our tournament apart from others. The puzzles on our sites tend to skew younger in content compared with mainstream puzzles — no surprise considering we’re all 31 or younger (I’m the oldest) — and so we like to dabble in themes and clues that reference modern and sometimes edgy material.

Because we don’t have the same space or “breakfast test” constraints that a newspaper puzzle might have, that gives us a lot of liberty to work with fresh and creative clues and themes, and we’re hoping to bring a similar vibe to our event.

We’re also throwing in some fun features that you likely won’t see at other tourneys. First, we’ll be releasing a separate meta puzzle suite before the tournament featuring puzzles by all five of us co-founders; the suite isn’t required for solving the tournament puzzles, but we think it will be fun all the same.

Next, the solvers who make it to the finals will get to have their own individual entrance music while we announce their names in style. How cool is that?

But the biggest thing that sets our tourney apart? Pie. There will be Pie. No other crossword tournament can promise you that.

[Pie: an Indie 500 guarantee.]

3.) How did it start? How did you get involved in the tournament?

We each started talking about running our own collaborative gig shortly after the 2014 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. We just thought: events like this and Lollapuzzoola are such a blast, why not have our own tourney?

Of course we weren’t sure at first if it would be financially or logistically possible, but we got a great response from others in the puzzle world when we originally floated the idea. Over the last year, it’s just been a lot of planning, a lot of wrangling over the details, a lot of building and rebuilding grids… and now it’s almost here!

For myself, I just felt incredibly lucky to be included on the project with four other really talented puzzle constructors from the beginning. I had only published a small handful of puzzles on my website when we first discussed the idea of a new tournament, where the other four had been self-publishing for at least a year or two.

4.) As a constructor yourself, what’s your favorite part of an event like this? Do you have any favorite clues or puzzles you’ve crafted, either connected to the Indie 500 or on your own?

The best part about attending a crossword tournament is the camaraderie you get from hanging out with friends and meeting new people who enjoy the hobby of crosswords as much as you do. Solving the puzzles and creating them are fun to do, but that’s really secondary to the social aspect of a big event like this.

I’ve never had the chance to be on the other, more organizational side of things until now, but I will say that there’s a real rush I get from the thought of watching a whole room of people work on a puzzle of mine in real time.

[Solvers testing their skills at the Arlington Puzzle Festival.]

This won’t be the first time I’ve gotten that opportunity. Will Shortz once selected my first New York Times crossword as the final puzzle for the 2013 Westchester Crossword Tournament. That was a major thrill and I’m looking forward to that same adrenaline rush again.

As for favorite puzzles or clues of mine — I can’t really reveal much about what I’ve made for the tournament, but I’m a big fan of smooth grids with clues that really deliver a good a-ha moment, or at the very least make solvers laugh.

This early themeless puzzle is still one of my favorites because I was able to keep it relatively junk-free but still managed to fit in several longer, lively phrases.

This Halloween-themed puzzle was a nightmare to construct, but it had a fun gimmick and it gave me a chance to create some funny fake movie titles.

Often when I’m writing clues, I like to find quotations for famous people that may end up in my grids, especially comedians, since they’re usually a goldmine for funny sayings (like in 27-Down in this puzzle).

I’m also on the lookout for fresh angles on old crossword retreads — I once clued EDEN as [Apple site that was running perfectly until a couple of people violated its terms].

But for some reason, I still have a soft spot for a clue I wrote in the very first puzzle of mine that ever got published, in Ben Tausig’s Twenty Under Thirty compilation: [That’s what sheep said] (3 letters). The answer itself wasn’t exactly a great puzzle entry, but I figured, if the clue’s funny, people will still like it.


Thanks to Evan for taking the time out to answer my questions! You can check out the full details on The Indie 500 by clicking here!

I wish Evan and his fellow constructors the best of luck. Puzzle events and community-building efforts like this are always worthwhile endeavors.

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2 thoughts on “Start your engines! It’s the Indie 500 crossword tournament!

  1. Pingback: PUZZLE #45: Starting Nonstarter | Devil Cross

  2. Pingback: The toughest puzzles the UK has to offer! | PuzzleNation.com Blog

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