How Will Shortz Works

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[Image courtesy of Lifehacker.]

Last week, Lifehacker posted the latest edition of their How I Work series, which takes readers behind the scenes and into the workspaces of all sorts of experts, scientists, creators, and pop culture icons to see how they do what they do.

And New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz stepped into the spotlight to share his average workday and what his job is really like.

It provides an interesting snapshot of a job most people know very little about. (And, sadly, thoroughly debunks the glamorous crime-solving editorial life Lacey Chabert portrayed in A Puzzle to Die For earlier this year.)

Will talks about going through submissions, editing and polishing crosswords, working on clues, interacting with his assistants, and takes us into his workplace itself, including his reliance on book sources over Internet verification. He also namedrops his table tennis club (always table tennis, never ping-pong), and gives a well-deserved shout-out to XWordInfo.com as a world-class database of NYT crossword data.

But there’s one line in particular from the interview that stood out to me, and I suspect it stood out to other puzzlers as well. When discussing the editorial process for each Times-approved crossword, Shortz stated:

“I don’t think any other puzzle in the country goes through such rigorous editing and testing before publication.”

Now, I like Will. I do. I’ve interviewed him, and chatted with him at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament on more than one occasion. Hell, this year, I purposely lassoed him and pulled him aside so fans could grab photos with him before the tournament started AND still managed to work in a joke or two about the Crossword Mysteries movie.

But, man, there’s putting over your own product, and then there’s just stepping in it.

There are SO MANY great editors in the crossword market today. Off the top of my head, I can mention the editors at The Los Angeles Times, The Chronicle of Higher Edition, The American Values Club, The Universal Crossword, and The Crosswords Club, not to mention special projects like Women of Letters and the Indie 500, all of which provide wonderful, insightful feedback and attention to detail during the editorial process.

Sure, those puzzles might not all get the attention of ten test-solvers before publication, as Will claims each NYT crossword does. But then again, if you ignore those test solvers, as Will did in January when he used the word BEANER in a grid, that number doesn’t really matter much.

No, this isn’t always the case, obviously. Just two weeks ago, the Twitter account The Truth About Nursing praised Shortz “for allowing Howard Barkin’s description of nurses as ‘Pro caregivers, for short,’ implying expertise & autonomy. This contrasts with the 2007 clue ‘I.C.U. helper’ & the 2009 clue ‘hospital attendant’.”

nursingtruth

If you click through to the actual article, Howard does get the lion’s share of the thanks, as he should, given that the tweet shortchanged him a bit. But you also get more backstory on how the team at The Truth About Nursing spoke out against tone-deaf cluing regarding nurses:

Both of those clues led the Truth to protest to longtime Times puzzle editor Will Shortz. We explained to him in detail why the common misconceptions of nursing that the clues reflected were damaging, in light of the global nursing shortage and the proven influence that the media has in shaping public attitudes toward the profession… Shortz never responded directly to our concerns.

Yes, the NYT crossword gets more criticism because it is the flagship. But if you’re the flagship, you’re also supposed to set the tone, and with a track record of tone-deaf entries like ILLEGAL and HOMIE, as well as clues like “Decidedly non-feminist women’s group” for HAREM or “Exasperated comment from a feminist” for MEN, criticism is well-deserved.

The line between tooting your own horn and overplaying your hand is a very fine one, and undoubtedly, people are bound to disagree on which side of the fence this statement lands.

Some may say that Will deserves all the accolades and horn-tooting he wishes, given the subscriber numbers the NYT crossword garners. Others may take umbrage at Will seemingly dismissing the terrific work done by crossword editors around the country (with fewer resources, it must be said). I mean, Will himself mentored some of those editors!

I can’t speak for any of those editors, and I won’t. But, for me, as someone who has had the pleasure and privilege of meeting and getting to know so many of those creative, qualified, hardworking, and giving editors, methinks he doth toot a bit too much.


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Detective Days in Connecticut All Throughout September!

cluedupp1

I have to say, Connecticut has been crushing it this year when it comes to hosting puzzly events to interest and engage solvers of all ages.

In addition to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament every year in Stamford, we’ve discussed the Find the Wine corn maze event happening this month in Gales Ferry. Heck, the world’s first animal-centric Live-Action Roleplaying event was held in Redding just a month or so ago, and Goat LARP was widely praised as a successful and exciting puzzle endeavor for all involved!

And CT isn’t done yet. No, four different cities in September will be offering full, puzzly murder mysteries to be solved!

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Yes, the team at CluedUpp, a British game company that specializes in outdoor city-spanning mysteries similar to the film Clue, will be running their latest event, Sneaky Finders, in Stamford and Bridgeport on September 14th and then in Hartford and New Haven on September 21st.

Participating teams will scramble around town, hunting down witnesses, unearthing clues, and trying to unravel the mystery, all through an interactive downloadable app and their own investigative efforts!

According to the event page for the Stamford edition of the game, you’ll need the following to play:

  • A team of detectives (at least 2 but up to 6 players per team)
  • Access to a Smartphone (Android or iOS)
  • A clever team name
  • Awesome Sneaky Finders / 1920’s inspired fancy dress (dressing up is optional but good fun!)

cluedupp3

You only need to purchase 1 ticket per team of 6 adults. Children under 16 can play as an extra for free. Team Tickets are normally $60, but if you act now, you can nab Earlybird Team Tickets for just $46!

And even if you don’t crack the mystery, prizes will be awarded in such categories as:

  • Fastest team
  • Best fancy dress (Sneaky Finders / 1920’s inspired)
  • Best team picture
  • Best team name
  • Best little detective (kids prize)
  • Best K-9 detective (dogs prize)

This sounds like an absolute blast, and I suspect the turnout for each event will be terrific. You can click here for details on all things CluedUpp, and their full schedule of upcoming events in the United States can be found here.

Will you be attending one of the four Sneaky Finders events, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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Delving into the 2019 ACPT Puzzles!

acptlogo

One of the highlights of the puzzle year is the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. 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: And We’re Off! by Kathy Wienberg

The opening puzzle in this year’s tournament was a good smooth solve, easing solvers into the tournament experience. The theme of the word BATON being “passed” over a black square between longer entries was clever and accessible, easily cracked by tournament-puzzle standards, and the related phrases like FINISH LINE really sold the theme well.

Interesting grid entries included KOMBAT, ZAGAT, MAORI and AMOCO, and my favorite clues were “15 things in this puzzle” for ROWS and “Necessity for a farm team” for YOKE.

Puzzle 2: Following Orders by Joel Fagliano

Joel’s contribution to to the tournament was a fun reinterpretation of a song by The Doors, BREAK ON THROUGH TO THE OTHER SIDE, splitting up the theme entries so that the second part of the answer was a food. (Example: CAPRICORN becomes CAPRI CORN.) It was surprising to have two puzzles in a row that involved answers spanning black-square breaks between entries, but the revealer with The Doors added an extra touch to this one.

Interesting grid entries included UNHANDY, MY OH MY, SCHTICK, RICOH, and APOGEE, and my favorite clue was “Inspiring halftime speech, for a sports movie” for TROPE.

Puzzle 3: Added Time by Patrick Berry

The hook for Puzzle 3 was simple, but deftly executed, as the word AGE was added onto the end of established phrases like DOG POUND and CLASSIFIED AD to form new answers. But this was balanced by harder-than-expected fill, which definitely kept me guessing and ate up a great deal of the given time for solving.

Interesting grid entries included MAHLER, BIG DEAL, COLUMBO, MARS BAR, and MESMER, and my favorite clues were “Name-dropper abbr.” for ETAL and “Time or Money” for MAG.

[Image courtesy of How Stuff Works.]

Puzzle 4: It’s the Law by Jeff Stillman

My favorite puzzle from the tournament, Puzzle 4 employed a brilliantly visual gimmick where two circles represented an apple and a head, with a series of I’s (and one V) forming an arrow between them. With themed entries ISAAC NEWTON, ROBERT HOOKE, and GRAVITATION, you’ve got all the ingredients for a science-themed puzzle with a very fun twist.

Interesting grid entries included GO BAG, PC GAME, TUBULAR, and ARTOO, and my favorite clue was “One who gets asked a lot of questions” for SIRI.

Puzzle 5: Trade Names by Evan Birnholz

Puzzle 5 is infamously the most difficult of the tournament, and this year’s entry was no exception.

I figured out the gimmick pretty quick — themed entries in the same row would swap words that were also names, so the answers LANDMARK and GRANTING were actually LAND GRANT and MARKING — but the tough cluing and crafty fill entries made this a challenging solve. It was definitely the puzzle I struggled with the most. Puzzle 5, you’ve done it again.

Interesting grid entries included SPEEDO, ORVILLE, OFF NIGHT, and NOOGIE, and my favorite clue was “1986 #1 hit ‘On My Own,’ e.g., ironically” for DUET.

Puzzle 6: Playing the Field by Lynn Lempel

The first day of tournament puzzles wrapped up with this smooth, well-constructed closer loaded with delightful football puns. It was the perfect palate cleanser after the battle I had with Puzzle 5, and Lempel once again displayed her impressive skill mixing interesting fill words and balanced grid work to create puzzles with terrific flow. Blazing through this puzzle was a nice confidence boost after some tough earlier puzzles.

Interesting grid entries included CITIZENRY, ARAL SEA, MULAN, and DAUPHIN, and my favorite clues were “Adams who got the picture” for ANSEL and “Helpful feature of a crossword solver’s pencil?” for EXTRA POINT.

Puzzle 7: Politically Correct by Mike Shenk

Day Two of the tournament kicked off with this diabolical entry where the letters PC were added to established phrases to form new entries. (For example, LOW RANKING became PLOW CRANKING, which was clued as “Starting up a farm machine by hand?”)

The theme entries made sense, but weren’t immediately intuitive, so I found them tough to come up with, even though I cottoned onto the hook pretty quickly. Combine that with creative fill entries and you’ve got a well-constructed obstacle before the tournament’s final puzzle. Devious Mr. Shenk strikes again.

Interesting grid entries included ASADA, SCHIRRA, KIM NOVAK, CAT LADY, and MONADS, and my favorite clues were “Dial in your home, perhaps,” for SOAP, “Welcoming sign” for OPEN ARMS, “They’re just over two feet” for ANKLES, and “Volume setting?” for SHELF.

Puzzle 8: Troublemaker by Robyn Weintraub

The finals puzzle for the tournament boasts a different set of clues for each of the three divisions — A, B, and C — where the competitors solve the puzzle live on stage, and Weintraub constructed a puzzle with loads of intriguing entries and personality to spare. When the puzzle both apologizes to you (2 Down was I AM SO SORRY) and checks up on you while you’re solving (50 Across: HOW DID IT GO), you’re in for a unique puzzling experience.

Confession: I attempted the A-level clues, but I struggled with some of them. I did successfully solve the puzzle with a mix of A- and B-level clues.

Interesting grid entries included CHANDELIERS, ICAHN, IT GIRL, and IN RETROSPECT, and the B-clues were undoubtedly my favorite, boasting gems like “Joins a union?” for WEDS, “Darn it!” for HOLE, and “One with a talent for hitting low pitches” for BASS.


Overall, I think this year’s tournament puzzles were not as consistently hard as in previous years, though a lot of individual fill entries were fairly obscure. I did get stuck on several puzzles, frequently outwitted by cleverly misleading clues or my own inability to come up with what would later feel like obvious answers. But, as always, I relish the challenge of trying my hand at these puzzles, even if it’s not under tournament conditions.

The ingenious and creative constructors once again brought their A-game to the table with this year’s puzzles, and I never cease to be amazed at how fast and how clever so many of my fellow puzzle solvers are, blasting through these crosswords at unbelievable speeds.

ACPT, I’ll see you next year.


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Unexpected Developments from the ACPT!

Usually, my coverage of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is one-and-done. I recap the event, share photos and links, and that’s it until it’s time to start hyping the event next year. (Of course, I do review the tournament puzzles later, but that’s more my own impressions and divorced from the event itself.)

But that’s not to say that there aren’t stories from the tournament that continue beyond the confines of that weekend. For instance, last year one solver was mistakenly given Puzzle 5 to solve instead of Puzzle 4. He managed to solve it in the shorter time allotted for Puzzle 4, but then ran into trouble afterward. You see, Puzzle 4’s trick was confusing, and the judges actually explained the puzzle before the competitors began Puzzle 5. So this solver couldn’t fairly solve Puzzle 4 in Puzzle 5’s place, because it had been explained to him.

It wasn’t until days after the tournament that I found out he ended up getting an averaged-out score for Puzzle 4, which was considered the fairest way to proceed. (Much fairer than the zero points he’d originally been given for a mistake that wasn’t his.)

So when it comes to intriguing stories emerging from the tournament, this year is no exception.

It all starts with self-reported errors. The ACPT has a long tradition of competitors honestly reporting their own errors which have been missed by either the tournament officials scoring their puzzles OR the computers that scan the grids afterward.

I know several solvers honest enough to have reported missed errors in the past, even though doing so hurts their scores and their standings in the field. They’d rather compete honestly, which is a marvelous quality indeed.

In fact, this year, the tournament even instituted the George Washington Award for self-reporting errors that judges missed.

And one error reported this year changed the entire outcome of the B block of the tournament.

As you might recall from my write-up of the event, the B division final came down to Matthew Gritzmacher, Brian Fodera, and Arnold Reich, with Brian Fodera scoring the victory.

So you can see why some competitors were confused when they logged into the ACPT website to see the following text:

Because of a scoring error in the preliminary rounds, which was not discovered until too late, the results of the “B” division playoff were nullified. The top three finishers after seven rounds: 1) Matthew Gritzmacher 2) Arnold Reich 3) Adam Doctoroff

What happened?

During his train ride home, Brian noticed that his Puzzle 7 score was impossible, given the number of minutes remaining. Brian reported the error to tournament officials, who determined that when his puzzle was scanned into the computer, a filled-in grid square was misread as a black square by the computer. This boosted the word count of the puzzle and awarded additional points to Brian’s score.

As it turns out, the winner of the B division was never intended to make the finals, and Adam Doctoroff was meant to be in that spot.

Brian has relinquished any claim to the title, the prize money, or any honors granted by his win, suggesting that the final be vacated and the prize money split among the three men who should’ve been on the dais.

It’s an amazing gesture, one befitting the goodness, honesty, and respect of the many puzzlers who congregate at the tournament every single year.

I don’t yet know if the tournament officials followed his recommendation regarding distribution of trophies, prize money, etc., but I suspect they will.

Kudos to Brian for truly earning that George Washington Award this year. And who knows? Maybe next year, we’ll see him in the finals again. After all, he’s now proven he can win it all.


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ACPT 2019 Wrap-Up!

The 42nd annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was this weekend, and puzzlers descended on the Stamford Marriott Hotel once again to put their puzzly skills to the test in what is lovingly known as “the Nerd Olympics.”

The tournament takes place over two days, with six puzzles to solve on Saturday, followed by one on Sunday. Then the top three finishers in the A, B, and C brackets solve the championship puzzle on whiteboards in front of the audience.

On Friday and Saturday night, there are often puzzle events, demonstrations, and panels by top puzzlers and figures in the puzzle world as well.

I made the journey down to Stamford myself Saturday morning, arriving with plenty of time to spare to prep our spot in the puzzle marketplace and say hello to friends and puzzly acquaintances. This year, I was joined at the Penny Dell Puzzles booth once again by my friend and partner-in-promotion Stacey Scarso.

The Penny Dell crew had a terrific setup as always, with a metric buttload of magazines to give away, including copies of The Crosswords Club and several flavors of Tournament Variety, Master’s Variety, and Dell Sunday Crosswords. They were also running a kickass promotion offering half-price on a year’s subscription to Crosswords Club, which is a great deal.

The Penny Dell Store also returned for the first time in a few years, as puzzle books (including a collection of Daily POP Crossword App puzzles!), tote bags, travel mugs, and coffee mugs were for sale. The Word Nerd mugs were a big hit!

PLUS we held a contest to win a bundle of PDP puzzle swag, including a mug, a tote bag, coffee fixin’s, and a bunch of puzzle magazines! All you had to do was solve a marvelous crossword variant puzzle cooked up by Eric Berlin.

And, yes, in their downtime between tournament puzzles, many competitors DO solve other puzzles.

At 9 AM, the tournament was two hours away, but the marketplace was up and running.

There were puzzle books galore from Will Shortz and Merl Reagle, ACPT shirts and cards from Elena Powell Abrahams, and a massive uber-crossword from T. William Campbell, which definitely caught the eye of some solvers:

Our friends from Lone Shark Games also had a booth at the tournament, staffed by either a very good hologram or an impressive doppleganger of Gaby Weidling. There were The Maze of Games books for sale and a puzzle card for their ongoing Maze of Games Omnibus Kickstarter campaign!

As competitors readied themselves for the day’s solving, I had plenty of time to see friends of the blog like Crosswords Club editor Patti Varol, crossword gentleman Doug Peterson, constructor Joanne Sullivan, and Penny Press variety editor Keith Yarbrough!

Perhaps the best part of attending the tournament is getting to chat with so many members of the puzzle community in one place. There were 200 first-time attendees and enthusiastic rookies, mixing with current and former champions, and all sorts of puzzle enthusiasts of all ages.

There were long-time puzzle fans who have been competing at ACPT for years, if not decades, many of whom were decked out in puzzle shirts, puzzle scarves, puzzle ties, and other grid-heavy accoutrements.

One of the attendees even offered to buy the Crossword Puzzle Junkie shirt off my back! I assured him that that would work for him and literally no one else in attendance.

But I digress.

Many of the top constructors in the business were there, names like David Steinberg, Evan Birnholz, Joon Pahk, Erik Agard, Peter Gordon, and more, along with former champions and first-rate competitors like Dan Feyer, David Plotkin, Howard Barkin, Ellen Ripstein, and Stella Zawistowski.

Getting to connect faces and personalities with names I know from tournaments like the Indie 500 is a real treat, and so many of the people in the puzzle world are genuinely nice, funny individuals. Not only that, but I also got to meet several fellow trivia fiends from the Learned League community!

The two hours before showtime passed quickly, and soon, the marketplace emptied and the ballroom filled as competitors took their seats for Puzzle 1.

Attendance jumped again this year, which meant not only was the main ballroom absolutely jam-packed with competitors, but an overflow room was once again needed to accommodate the more-than-700 solvers in Stamford!

When Puzzle 1 arrived, most competitors found Kathy Wienberg’s puzzle to be quick and fair, on par with Monday NYT puzzles.

Although there was no sub-2-minute time like last year, the top solvers still blasted through this one.

Puzzle 2, constructed by prolific puzzler Joel Fagliano, surprised some solvers with a clever little trick at its core. This is consistent with the last few years, where Puzzle 2 has surprised the competitors. I think many solvers forget that, given how legendarily difficult Puzzle 5 is every year. It’s easy to forget other puzzles can offer quite a challenge along the way.

About this time, scores started trickling out for Puzzle 1, and many of the expected names were at the top: Feyer, Pahk, Plotkin, Zawistowski, Sanders, Kravis, Ryan… but two big names were missing.

Former 5-time champion (and perennial top contender) Tyler Hinman was not attending the tournament this year, and Erik Agard, last year’s champion, had a mistake in Puzzle 1, which would seriously hamper his efforts to repeat last year’s success.

Puzzle 3 was constructed by Patrick Berry, and served as a well-received, smooth-solving palate-cleanser before the lunch break.

          [Even empty, all the dividers make the room feel packed…]

Solvers scattered to the four winds in order to grab a bite to eat before returning by 2:30 for Puzzle 4, while the tournament officials were still hard at work tabulating scores:

After 3 puzzles, Dan Feyer was on top of the rankings, followed closely by Pahk, and then a three-way tie among Kravis, Plotkin, and Zawistowski for third.

But it was time to kick off the second half of the day with Puzzle 4.

Last year’s fourth puzzle had a visual element that tripped up some of the competitors, and this year’s Puzzle 4 (by constructor Jeff Stillman) was also harder than expected. The fill featured more obscurities than solvers anticipated, and several competitors commented on it on Twitter:

Oh, and by the way, thanks to his puzzly skills and blistering speed, Erik Agard had worked his way back up to 7th place after completing Puzzle 4. Amazing.

Finally, it was time for Puzzle 5. This year, constructor Evan Birnholz (not Birnholtz, as it was misprinted on his name tag) did the honors, and according to competitors, it was as challenging as expected, really putting the craftiness and keen wits of the solvers to the test.

Even the officials noticed:

After the diabolical Puzzle 5, it was Dan Feyer, Joon Pahk, David Plotkin, Stella Zawistowski, and… Erik Agard.

Competitors closed out the day with Puzzle 6, constructed by Lynn Lempel (she also contributed Puzzle 6 last year), and declared it both fun and fair. The competitors dispersed to rest their brains (or solve more puzzles). We packed up the Penny/Dell table and headed for home.

[The standings after Puzzle 6. Erik has worked his way back to 4th. Was a comeback story in store for Day 2?]

And although I wasn’t present for Sunday’s tournament finale, I continued to get updates from friends and fellow puzzlers.

Puzzle 7, constructed by Mike Shenk, was what you might expect from a constructor of his caliber: elegant fill, little crosswordese, and great fun.

But Shenk’s name being announced for Puzzle 7 also meant a puzzly milestone for the Finals:

Yes, Robyn Weintraub’s tournament constructing debut would be the final hurdle for the competitors! Fantastic news!

Dan Feyer remained at the top of the leaderboard, having maintained a great solving pace, followed closely by Joon Pahk and David Plotkin.

But it was not meant to be, and the final three came down to Dan Feyer (7-time champ, looking for a record-breaking 8th title), Joon Pahk and David Plotkin (two familiar names in the top ten).

[Image courtesy of Dave Mackey.]

The top three competitors for each live-solving division were:

  • A: Dan Feyer, Joon Pahk, David Plotkin
  • B: Matthew Gritzmacher, Brian Fodera, Arnold Reich
  • C: Brian Kulman, Lily Geller, Claire Rimkus

Lily Geller won the C division, and Brian Fodera won B. Congrats to the winners!

And, finally, it was time for the A Block.

You can watch the final puzzle being solved below, courtesy of Ben Zimmer:

Dan Feyer crushed the A clues in under 7 minutes. Joon Pahk was a strong runner-up at 9:05, and David Plotkin placed third with a very respectable showing of 11:13.

[Image courtesy of ACPT.]

As he had done all tournament, Dan solved with undeniable speed and precision, claiming his eighth tournament victory!

And it was a strong showing for many other familiar names! Doug Peterson placed 21st, David Steinberg placed 26th, Angela Halsted placed 94th, Vega Subramaniam cracked the top 100 with 98th, and Patti Varol placed 113th out of a field of 741 participants. (And even with one eye tied behind his back, Keith Yarbrough managed an impressive performance as well!)

There were also some wonderfully heartwarming stories to emerge from the tournament, like this multi-generational solving success story:

In the end, Jenna LaFleur (aka daughter) placed 33rd! Awesome job!

It’s always great fun to spend time with fellow puzzlers and wordplay enthusiasts, immersing myself in the puzzle community and enjoying all the charm and camaraderie that comes with it.

Of course, everyone should make sure to check their puzzle vaults when they get home:

We’ll see you next year!


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