One of the highlights of the puzzle year is the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and the impressive, challenging, and well-constructed puzzles awaiting solvers there rank among the craftiest you’ll ever see.
So let’s put them under the microscope and see how I did!
Puzzle 1: For Cooler Heads by Kristian House
The opening puzzle was an excellent introduction to tournament solving, well-constructed but not too challenging. The grid featured two shaded 2×2 blocks within the fill (containing the word CELL), as well as three themed entries and a revealer for those shaded squares (CELL BLOCKS). The theme entries themselves were jail-themed phrases punnily clued, and they were very accessible.
Interesting grid entries included SCOPE OUT, BILOXI, GAUSS, and my favorite clues were “Something done by a prisoner” for TIME, “Spade doing a lot of digging” for SAM, and “Place to find a spare tire?” for ABDOMEN. This was a very solid Puzzle 1.
Puzzle 2: “T” TIME by Patrick Blindauer
Patrick is a top name in puzzles, and he set himself quite a constructing challenge with Puzzle 2. Not only did every clue start with the letter T, but every entry, both across and down, included a T. Very impressive.
If you read my recap of the tournament, you’ll recognize this as the puzzle with the diabolical crossing of CONTE and CORTANA that flummoxed so many competitors, but honestly, I found the entire upper-right corner to be tough. Much tougher than the rest of the puzzle, comparatively. Otherwise it was a very accessible grid, but one that asked a bit more from solvers than Puzzle 1.
Interesting grid entries included SPIN ART, SANTANA, and CORONET, and my favorite clues were “‘That’s all folks,’ for Mel Blanc” for EPITAPH and “Trojan material” for LATEX.
Puzzle 3: Series Cancellations by Mike Shenk
This time around, each of the theme entries was a television show with one letter missing. For instance, “TV series about a driver rear-ending another motorist” clued BRAKING BAD. Together, the missing letters from each entry spelled the word CENSOR reading down in the lower-right corner. This was very clever construction, and the puzzle offered some fun wordplay with the “new” shows as clued.
But there was something else lurking in the grid. The lower-right corner featured a pretty diabolical crossing that could’ve misled solvers. The correct entries were ROMANI crossing CRIER at the I, but a solver could easily fill in those entries as ROMANY crossing CRYER. Pretty sneaky.
Interesting grid entries included BOSWELL, NO MAYO, and A TO Z (as well as the way-too-hard for this puzzle AZUSA), and my favorite clues from the puzzle were “River past Memphis” for NILE, “Sch. for fathers-to-be” for SEM, “Focus on the road” for CAR, and quite appropriately for the tournament, “Didn’t get the 150-point solving bonus, say” for ERRED.
Puzzle 4: Symbology by Zhouqin Burnikel
This was the toughest puzzle thus far, as some of the entries were simply clued with a symbol like “/” or “[ ]” and you had to come up with the theme answer that fit the symbol or symbols. For instance, CUT SHARPLY (slash) and TAX LEVELS (brackets) were the answers to the above clues. Very crafty.
Given the challenge level, this felt like a good warm up for the infamous Puzzle 5, which was looming next.
Interesting grid entries included C’EST LA VIE and NO FEAR ACT, and my favorite clues were “Set in stone, say” for ETCH, “Fails to finish a sentence?” for ESCAPES, and “Pound note?” for ARF.
Puzzle 5: Changing Lanes by Patrick Berry
There are two sounds I’ll always associate with the tournament. The first is the whoosh of everyone turning over their puzzles and beginning at the same time. The second is the groan that accompanies the timer running out during Puzzle 5.
Puzzle 5 is always a beast, and this year’s puzzle did not disappoint. (Well, it probably disappointed a few people, but not with the craftsmanship of the puzzle itself.)
I admit, this one melted my brain. I got that some of the entries would shift from reading down to reading across and back again (in a zigzag pattern), but it took me a long while to realize that those “lane changing” entries would share those unclued lines reading across, but in the other direction. Had I been competing in the tournament, there’s no way I would have completed this one within the 30-minute tournament deadline. Brutal.
Interesting grid entries included CAR TALK, BOB VILA, TOLTEC, and LION CUB, and my favorite clues were “Drawing room?” for ART STUDIO and “Block lettering?” for LEGO.
Puzzle 6: I’ll Be There by Joel Fagliano
Rounding out Saturday’s competition was a nice mental palate cleanser after the diabolical Puzzle 5. In Joel Fagliano’s contribution to the tournament, the letter “I” added to standard phrases to make them comparative (like “Quaker State” becoming QUAKIER STATE comparing California to Nebraska). It’s a neat hook, one easily gettable for solvers already rundown by Puzzle 5.
Interesting grid entries included BBQ PIT, I RAISE, FOOD COMA, and RAZZIE, and my favorite clue was easily “Girl who’s coming back with something valuable?” for TESSA (asset backwards).
Puzzle 7: Page-Turners by Lynn Lempel
Sunday started off strong with this well-read entry by Lynn Lempel. As indicated by the title, the themed entries were novels with the last word in the title anagrammed. For instance, “Lord of the Flies” becomes LORD OF THE FILES and “Tender is the Night” becomes TENDER IS THE THING.
A solid closer with lots of accessible crosswordese, this puzzle was perfect for easing solvers out of tournament mode right before the big championship showdown.
Interesting grid entries included ALVIN AILEY, GANGSTA, ACOLYTE, and STEPS ON IT, and my favorite clues were “Soprano not known for music” for CARMELA and “Manhattan spot” for BAR.
Puzzle 8: The Low-Down (And Across) by Mark Diehl
And then, we were down to one. The final puzzle of the tournament offered three sets of clue difficulties (A for the top performers, B for the solid performers, C for everyone else). And there were a lot of longer entries crossing in this grid, so there were fewer giveaway words to get you started.
I found the solve to be pretty challenging, and I’m constantly amazed at how fast the finalists solve these puzzles. (For context, tournament winner Howard Barkin solved it in 8 minutes, using the A clues.)
I solved it with the B clues, and still with some difficulty. Interesting grid entries included PARLANCE, TOOK A HINT, and RARIN’ TO GO, and my favorite clue was easily “They have wings but never leave the ground” for SNOW ANGELS.
Overall, I was impressed with the quality and ingenuity of puzzles we saw in the tournament, and as always, it reminded me of just how quick, how cunning, and how clever many of the tournament solvers are. These puzzles were a real treat.
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