Puzzle Tournaments Loom Near!

[Solvers gather for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.]

Tomorrow is the 21st annual Westport Library Annual Puzzle Contest, and I consider Westport the unofficial start of the year’s crossword-y festivities.

Sure, the obvious start is the weekend of March 20-22, when the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament descends upon Stamford, CT, and puzzlers from all over test their puzzly mettle against some devious and delightful crosswords.

Then, after the big event in March, it’s a few months’ wait until summer, when there’s at least one proper tournament every month. We’ve got the Indie 500 in June, BosWords at the end of July, Lollapuzzoola on a Saturday in August, and Bryant Park in September.

But that ignores all the smaller tournaments and events in between. Libraries and rec centers all over the country host puzzly events that get less press than the famous ones.

For instance, did you know that on March 14th, you can attend the Eighth Annual Finger Lakes Crossword Competition?

I bet you didn’t.

So, in case you’re not traveling to one of the more well-known tournaments, keep your eyes peeled for smaller, but no less enjoyable, puzzle events happening throughout the year.

And good luck to all those headed to Westport for some Will Shortz-fueled cruciverbal adventures! Happy puzzling!

Are you attending any puzzle events this year, big or small? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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The PN Blog 2019 Countdown!

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It’s the final blog post of the year, so what do you say we revisit all of 2019 with a countdown of my ten favorite blog posts from the past year!


#10 Daedalus

I’m a huge history and mythology buff, so any opportunity I have to indulge those interests in a puzzly way, I will happily seize. Delving into the story of the famous labyrinth builder and trying to separate fact from fiction was great fun, probably the most interesting deep dive into a subject I experienced all year.

#9 Escape Room Goodness

Escape rooms are the biggest puzzly fad in years, an interactive form of group puzzle-solving that is immersive, challenging, and story-driven. This year, we teamed up with several escape rooms around the world to share stories of some of the weirdest moments from the relatively brief history of escape rooms.

From people breaking into the ceiling to escape to others sabotaging the room in insane ways, it was a treat to hear just how far some people will go to “escape.”

#8 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide

Every year, one of my favorite activities is putting together our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide. I get to include the best products sent to me for review by top puzzle and game companies, mix in some of my own favorites, and draw attention to terrific constructors, game designers, and friends of the blog, all in the hopes of introducing solvers (and families of solvers) to quality puzzles and games.

#7 Crosswords

There’s more to writing about crosswords than simply solving puzzles and unraveling clues, and that was especially true this year. The social and cultural aspect of crosswords came up several times, and it’s important to discuss these issues in an open, honest way, even if that means calling out the biggest crossword in the world to hold them accountable.

Whether it was The New York Times ignoring good advice and placing an offensive word in a grid or Will Shortz dismissing the hard work done by other crossword editors in the field (intentionally or unintentionally), we took up the torch more than once this year because it was the right thing to do.

#6 Wordventures

At the start of the year, we were already rolling with Wordventures, our interactive puzzle mystery that incorporated narrative, word search puzzles, and roleplaying elements into a unique solving experience.

It was an absolute delight to explore that narrative in posts like this, taking the reader into the mysterious world of the Vampire Pirate, one where sight and sound helped draw you into one of our most ambitious puzzle apps yet.

#5 PUZZLE FEST

April Fools Day pranks are an Internet tradition at this point. Some websites go all out in celebrating the holiday. (Heck, ThinkGeek has started using the holiday to tease the public’s interest level in “fake” products, going on to actually release some of those April Fools pranks as real items later in the year!)

So after Puzzles for Pets and PNVR both made a splash in subsequent years, we couldn’t resist getting in on the pranking fun again this year. And why not have a little fun with the famously disastrous Fyre Festival by pretending to host our own PUZZLE FEST? With an elaborate brochure, lots of photos, and enough overblown promises of puzzly luxury to catch all sorts of eyes, we made a lot of puzzlers laugh (and left a few disappointed that there wasn’t a luxury puzzle resort… at least, not yet anyway).

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#4 Top Solvers

Blending pop culture with puzzles always makes for an enjoyable blog post, and this year, I was fortunate enough to combine my love of puzzles with my love for horror movies when I made a list of the best puzzle solvers in horror films. It allowed me to discuss some of my favorite clever characters without delving too far into the horror element (which I know some of our readers wouldn’t necessarily enjoy), making it the best of both worlds.

Plus, it’s kicked off a recurring series of posts, since I recently followed up with a list of the best puzzle solvers on TV. For 2020, we’ll see additional lists like the best puzzle solvers in literature and the worst puzzle solvers in pop culture.

#3 Puzzle Events

And speaking of top solvers, there are few things better than spending time with fellow puzzlers and gamers, and we got to do a lot of that this year. Whether it was cheering on our fellow puzzlers at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament or putting our hands dirty with some knock-down, drag-out, game-playing ferocity during our Tabletop Tournament, these interactions were both invigorating and encouraging. Events like these really help solidify the spirit of community that comes with being puzzly.

#2 Crossword Mysteries

One of the funniest and most peculiar moments of the year 2019 was finally getting to see the long-ballyhooed Crossword Mysteries film debut on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. Not since the Wordplay documentary had crosswords gotten such public attention, and this only increased when the channel announced three additional movies in the series would air later in the year.

Although we only got to see one more of them before the year was out — still waiting on #3, Hallmark — it was tremendous fun to review the marriage of the curiously campy style of Hallmark murder mysteries with puzzles (particularly when it involves Will Shortz cameos).

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#1 Daily POP Word Search

There’s nothing more exciting than getting to announce the launch of a product that has been months or years in the making, so picking #1 was a no-brainer for me. It had to be the announcement of Daily POP Word Search.

But it’s not just the app, it’s everything behind the app. I’ve watched it grow and evolve during the development phase, and I had the pleasure of interviewing some of my favorite fellow puzzlers who contribute so much to its success and style thanks to their puzzle designs and terrific content.

It may sound self-serving or schlocky to talk about our flagship products as #1 in the countdown, but it’s something that we’re all extremely proud of, something that we’re constantly working to improve, because we want to make our apps the absolute best they can be for the PuzzleNation audience. That’s what you deserve.

And it’s part of the evolution of PuzzleNation and PN Blog. Even as we work to ensure our current products are the best they can be, we’re always looking ahead to what’s next, what’s on the horizon, what’s to come.

Thanks for spending 2019 with us, through brain teasers and big ideas, through Hallmark murders and Halloween puns, through puzzle launches and landmark moments. We’ll see you in 2020.


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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’.”

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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!

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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!)

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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!

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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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