5 Questions with Crossword Constructor Joanne Sullivan

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to welcome Joanne Sullivan as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

[Joanne stands beside fellow constructor Tracy Bennett at this year’s Indie 500 tournament.]

Joanne is a terrific constructor whose puzzles have appeared in The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and numerous other outlets. One of her puzzles is now featured on The New York Times‘ Wordplay Blog as one of their 11 Remarkable Crosswords for New Solvers (each hand-picked by Will Shortz). Her puzzle with Erik Agard at the 2016 Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, “Do I Hear a Waltz?”, was one of my favorite crosswords last year.

She often spends her time teaching crossword classes, spreading not only the love of crossword construction and wordplay to others, but hard-won knowledge and experience from a fun and innovative constructor.

Joanne was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!

5 Questions for Joanne Sullivan

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I’ve enjoyed a variety of puzzles and games ever since I can remember, but I had avoided crossword puzzles for decades. When I was a young adult, I would occasionally take a stab at The Sunday New York Times crossword and would manage to get only a couple of answers after reading every single clue. I was amazed that my father could routinely complete the whole puzzle. I didn’t aspire to match his achievement because I thought that crosswords were filled with useless, arcane information.

When I subscribed to GAMES Magazine, I solved all the puzzles in it except for the crosswords because I had the mistaken assumption that all crosswords were dry and boring. I now realize that I missed out on a lot of fun. The high-quality crosswords in GAMES were part of the new wave of puzzles that were filled with current references and lively phrases.

Many years later an office mate encouraged a group of our fellow coworkers to solve The New York Times crossword together each weekday. I never really enjoyed the computer programming work that I was supposed to be focusing on so I welcomed the diversion. I immediately was surprised at how clever and entertaining the crosswords were.

Like the character in Green Eggs and Ham, I learned that I actually liked the nourishment that I had assumed would be distasteful. In the beginning, my coworkers would pass around the newspaper, and we’d each fill in an answer or two until we managed to complete the whole puzzle. We relied heavily on Google by the time we got to Friday. Solving late week puzzles without help seemed like an impossible dream, but before long that dream became a reality.

[One of Joanne’s New York Times-published puzzles. This one makes excellent use of the black squares by incorporating some of them into the themed entries.
Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

2. What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle?

I personally love puzzles with inventive, tricky themes and clues. Crosswords have been around for a long time so it’s hard to come up with a new theme or a tricky clue that misdirects the solver in a different way. Even new themes and clues tend to be variations on something that has been done before so I appreciate crosswords that are truly original.

What do you most enjoy — or most commonly avoid — when constructing your own?

Here are crossword constructing tasks in descending order of my preference:

  • Coming up with a theme and finding answers that fit it.
  • Writing clues / Arranging the black and white squares in the grid. (Two very different tasks that I find equally enjoyable.)
  • Filling the grid with non-theme answers.
  • Adding new words to my database of potential crossword answers and rating those words in order of desirability.

Maintaining a good database of potential crossword answers can greatly facilitate crossword construction, but I find database maintenance time-consuming and dreary so I avoid it. I try to rationalize my negligence by telling myself that it’s impossible to add words and assign values to them that will be valid for all audiences.

For example, the word UGLY would be a perfectly fine answer in any mainstream newspaper, but I would try to avoid including it in a personalized puzzle that I was making as a birthday gift because I wouldn’t want the recipient to interpret it as an insult. But deep down I know that my rationalization isn’t valid, and I’m just too lazy to properly maintain my database.

What do you think is the most common pitfall of constructors just starting out?

I think some new constructors might settle for mediocrity instead of pushing themselves to achieve more. I’ve heard that some constructors are afraid to arrange the black and white squares in a grid from scratch. They’ll only use sample grids that they copy from a crossword database. It might take a lot of trial and error, but you’ll probably come up with a better grid if you try to arrange the squares in a way that best suits your theme answers instead of grabbing a prefab grid. I’ll often experiment with dozens of different grid designs before choosing one that fits my theme answers best.

Constructors might also be satisfied with so-so fill (which are the non-theme answers) or clues. I can understand the urge to leave well enough alone, especially when submitting puzzles on spec. It can be really frustrating to spend a lot of time coming up with stellar fill and clues only to be told that your puzzle was dead on arrival because the editor didn’t like the theme. Instead of compromising their standards, constructors might try to seek out the few editors who are willing to preapprove themes. Or they may emulate the many excellent indie constructors who publish their puzzles on their own websites.

[A puzzle, mid-construction. Images courtesy of Crossdown.]

3. Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others?

It’s hard to pick favorites because I’ve solved so many great puzzles and clues over the years so I’ll be self-centered and mention three of my own puzzles.

My Tuesday, February 23, 2010 New York Times crossword will always be close to my heart because it was my first published puzzle. Will Shortz picked it as one of the “11 Remarkable Crosswords for New Solvers,” but novices shouldn’t feel bad if they find it difficult. Most solvers found it harder than an average Tuesday puzzle.

Another special crossword is “Contents Redacted,” which The Chronicle of Higher Education published on October 16, 2015. I’m very grateful to Brad Wilber and Frank Longo for polishing it and working hard to present it in a way that stayed true to my vision. I also appreciate pannonica whose review on the Crossword Fiend blog was clearer and more insightful than any description that I could have written.

(Speaking of blogs, kudos to PuzzleNation Blog, CrosswordFiend, and similar blogs for helping us appreciate puzzles! Thanks for helping us understand the strengths and weaknesses of puzzles you review, explaining tricky themes and clues, and keeping us informed of news such as puzzle tournaments.)

One of my most satisfying experiences was co-writing “Do I Hear a Waltz?” with Erik Agard for the 2016 Indie 500 Crossword Tournament. Working with Erik was a joy. He’s brilliant and extremely kind. You should interview him next!

One great thing about making a puzzle for a tournament was having the flexibility to make an odd-sized grid that best suited our theme. I find that tournament puzzles are often very creative, perhaps because the constructors don’t have the same editorial and size constraints that they do at most other venues. Some of my favorite puzzles came from The Indie 500 and Lollapuzzoola crossword tournaments.

As a solver, my favorite clues are the ones that make me think, “What on earth can this mean?” One recent clue that gave me that reaction came from Brendan Emmett Quigley’s 9/20/17 AV Club crossword (which is titled “The Lay of the Land”). At first, I couldn’t make sense of the clue [Like slightly firm elbows, e.g.] When I read it, I thought, “What the heck is a slightly firm elbow? … Hmm … AKIMBO doesn’t fit … Hmm …” Eventually I achieved a great aha moment — AL DENTE!

I also love clues that put a fresh spin on old crosswordese or teach me interesting pieces of trivia. I find that The Chronicle of Higher Education and Peter Gordon’s Fireball Crosswords are particularly strong in that regard.

[Joanne poses with members of a crossword seminar,
showing off prizes from our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles.]

4. What’s next for Joanne Sullivan?

I’m currently focusing on giving crossword puzzle seminars. For years I had mistakenly assumed that crosswords were boring and impossible to solve. Now I enjoy showing skeptics how fun crosswords can be and giving people tips that help them improve their solving skills. I love hearing from novices who tell me that I inspired them to start solving crosswords and veteran solvers who say that my tips helped them tackle more difficult puzzles.

I recently taught my first children’s classes and was blown away by the kids’ intelligence and enthusiasm. I’m so glad those children caught the puzzle bug early and didn’t waste decades avoiding crosswords as I did.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, aspiring constructors, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

Read Patrick Berry’s PDF publication Crossword Constructor’s Handbook. The former print version of that book (Crossword Puzzle Challenges for Dummies) taught me more about constructing crosswords than any other source.

Cruciverbalists might find the information about crossword construction interesting even if they don’t aspire to create puzzles themselves. The book includes 70 crosswords by Patrick Berry (who many crossword aficionados consider the preeminent crossword constructor) so it’s worth the $10 for the puzzles alone.

A huge thank you to Joanne for her time. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her puzzles and her crossword seminars!

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Delving into the BosWords puzzles!

I finally had a chance to sit down and try my hands at the puzzles from the BosWords Crossword Tournament earlier this month. Given the talent involved, I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

So let’s put them under the microscope and see what’s what!

Homeroom: Circles of Friends by John Lieb

The unscored opening puzzle in this year’s tournament was a warm-up to get everyone in the mood to solve. Its theme was simple and accessible: The circled letters in each long answer — the first two letters and the last two letters — spelled a synonym for “friend” (DU and DE in DUAL ACTION BLADE).

Interesting grid entries included OLD ELI, TREVOR NOAH, LEMUR, and PONY UP, and my favorite clues were “One taken for a ride” for SAP and “Luke Skywalker saw two from Tatooine” for SUNS.

Puzzle 1: Summer Vacation by Laura Braunstein

A very smooth, very fair solving experience, Puzzle 1 is exactly what the first scored puzzle of a tournament should be. It sets the tone, the difficulty, and whets your appetite for more. The clever use of SCHOOL’S OUT as a revealer for the game — phrases where SCHOOL has been swapped for OUT, as in SECONDARY OUT — even has the pleasant side effect of getting the song stuck in your head.

Interesting grid entries included TROTSKY, CAT SCAN, and X FACTOR, and my favorite clues were “‘Ghostbusters’ vehicle, before it was Ecto-1″ for HEARSE and “They might get smashed at parties” for PINATA.

I have no notes for Puzzle 2, because it wasn’t included in my Solve at Home packet. The puzzle, constructed by Andrew Kingsley and John Lieb, was used in the tournament with Will Shortz’s permission (as it was already earmarked for The New York Times).

The puzzle was published on Wednesday, August 16, if you’re interested.

Puzzle 3: Trade Schools by Brendan Emmett Quigley

It appears that Puzzle 3 will be BosWords’s version of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament’s infamous Puzzle 5, as this was the toughest themed puzzle in the set. However, as you’d expect from a Quigley puzzle, there was lots of intriguing fill, and a diabolical theme: long phrases that included the name of a college, but the college was swapped with the name of another college in another themed entry.

For instance, the answer THIN WHITE RICE would normally read THIN WHITE DUKE, but Duke was transferred to another line, where instead of BROWN-EYED GIRL, the answer was DUKE-EYED GIRL. All four theme entries had the name of a different college substituted in for the college that would normally appear in that phrase.

I confess, it took me a while to unravel just how this theme worked. Factor in the longer fill entries crossing those themed entries, and you’ve got a tough, topnotch puzzle.

Interesting grid entries included MALFOYS, DAME EDNA, CASSINI, DEEP FRYER, and EPONYM, and my favorite clues were “Egg foo yung, essentially” for OMELET and “It may be used by Colonel Mustard” for ROPE.

Puzzle 4: Why You Failed English by Joon Pahk

This puzzle, which played on those books we were all required to read in school, was lighter than Puzzle 3, but still kept solvers on their toes with engaging fill. (Likening “Of Mice and Men” to “Stuart Little” is hilariously audacious.)

Interesting grid entries included MONSANTO, FAN MAIL, BANFF, and HOHOS, and my favorite clues were “Paper tigers, perhaps” for ORIGAMI and “Long line at a wedding reception?” for CONGA.

Tiebreaker by Andrew Kingsley

This themeless puzzle — intended to settle any ties going into the final — had some impressively long entries crossing at the corners, making for a great solve overall.

Interesting grid entries included CRAPSHOOT, RECHERCHE, PLOT TWIST, EVANESCE, POKEMON, and ARIGATO, and my favorite clues were “Paris was too much for him” for ACHILLES and “Set back?” for SCENERY.

Championship: Final Exam by David Quarfoot

A themeless challenging enough to rival Quigley’s themed Puzzle 3, this tournament closer was well constructed and engaging, really testing solvers’ creativity, wordplay, and vocabulary. I don’t think I would have completed it in the time allotted, let alone fast enough to do well against fellow solvers.

Interesting grid entries included BINGE WATCH, IN LALALAND, DADBOD, TRUMP U, and TEA CADDY, and my favorite clues were “Eventful activities?” for DECATHLONS, “Common note designee” for SELF, and “Floral drawing?” for NECTAR.

There was also a fun, themed bonus puzzle, You’ll Have to Be There by John Lieb, included for At Home solvers, which serves as either a nice closer to the day’s solving or a second warm-up puzzle.

Overall, I was fairly impressed by the puzzles offered at BosWords. They weren’t as freewheeling as the ones typically offered at The Indie 500 or Lollapuzzoola. But they were a little bit easier than the offerings at The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which makes this a wonderful intermediate-difficulty event to introduce new solvers to a timed, tournament environment.

It seems like the right mix of challenge and creativity for solvers accustomed to NYT-style solving, and I think the constructors and organizers did one heck of a job putting together the tournament.

Here’s hoping next year’s BosWords is an even greater success.

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The BosWords Crossword Tournament This Weekend!

This Sunday, August 6, from noon to 5 PM, puzzlers from all over will gather at The Roxbury Latin School in West Roxbury, Massachusetts for the inaugural edition of the BosWords Tournament!

With three divisions to choose from — Expert, Amateur, and Pairs — puzzlers of all ages and experience levels will have the opportunity to test their puzzly wits.

The four themed puzzles in regular competition have been constructed by Laura Braunstein, Andrew Kingsley, John Lieb, Joon Pahk, and Brendan Emmett Quigley, and after the scores from those puzzles are tabulated, a championship themeless crossword by David Quarfoot awaits the top three solvers in each division!

BosWords is asking for $20 for adults and $10 for students to attend and compete, which is a real bargain!.

You can check out their Facebook page for full details!

Will you be attending the BosWords tournament, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you!

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Crossword Tournaments Galore!

Crossword fans, be aware! There are TWO crossword tournaments looming in the near future!

The first is a newcomer to the crossword scene, the BosWords Tournament! Sunday, August 6, marks the inaugural event, and registration is officially open!

The format is simple. Three divisions — Expert, Amateur, and Pairs (allowing you to team up to solve) — pit their puzzly minds against clever clues and crafty constructors.

Competitors will complete four themed puzzles made by constructors Laura Braunstein, Andrew Kingsley, John Lieb, Joon Pahk, and Brendan Emmett Quigley, and then the top three solvers will take on a championship themeless by David Quarfoot.

And it’s super affordable! BosWords is asking for $20 for adults and $10 for students. That’s a steal!

You can check out their Facebook page for full details!

[Lollapuzzoola organizer and puzzle constructor Patrick Blindauer,
either counting people down or throwing puzzly gang signs.]

And, of course, it wouldn’t be summer without Lollapuzzoola! And Saturday, August 19, marks the tenth edition of the tournament!

The marvelous indie offspring of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, Lollapuzzoola is a favorite of both solvers and top constructors, all of whom descend upon New York City to enjoy what can only be described as “the best tournament held in New York on a Saturday in August.” (At least, that’s what they say on their website.)

The format is similar to BosWords. Competitors are placed in one of three divisions: Express (solvers with tournament experience), Local (other solvers), and Pairs.

But if you can’t make it to NYC that weekend, worry not! There’s an At-Home Division that will allow you to participate as if you were there! You’ll get your puzzles by email the day after the actual tournament for a very reasonable $15 fee!

It’s one of the highlights of the puzzle world each year, and I’m definitely looking forward to tackling the puzzles! They’re a diabolical treat each and every year! (For a full rundown of the event, check out this interview with Local Division winner and friend of the blog Patti Varol!)

Are you planning on attending BosWords, Lollapuzzoola, or solving from home? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you!

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Delving into the 2017 ACPT puzzles!

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: Mystery Initials by Bruce Haight

The opening puzzle in this year’s tournament was certainly an interesting way to kick off the event. Puzzle 1 usually eases solvers into the experience, but this time around, it was more challenging than I think anyone expected. The theme of MI phrases (MORE INFO, MENU ITEM, etc.) was accessible and clued in a straightforward manner.

Interesting grid entries included MWAHAHA, DASH CAM, UHURA, and HI MOM, and my favorite clues were “Option from a list” for MENU ITEM and “’All ears’ or ‘lay eyes on’” for IDIOM.

Puzzle 2: One Dozen by Patrick Berry

Berry’s contribution to the tournament was a very smooth puzzle with great fill and fun wordplay. The theme of sound-alike phrases, but where the T is dropped (AMBIEN NOISE instead of AMBIENT NOISE) was very clever. My only issue with the puzzle was that the two long down entries didn’t adhere to the theme, so I found them tougher to unravel than expected. Otherwise, this was a great hook executed nicely.

Interesting grid entries included LAB RAT, ONESIE, COOLIO, and FABIO, and my favorite clues were “Scientific subject” for LAB RAT and “Shipping order?” for AVAST.

Puzzle 3: On the Table by Brendan Emmett Quigley

Much like Puzzle 1, Puzzle 3 was more challenging than many solvers expected, but the theme — common items or phrases where the initials are swapped for the element on the Periodic Table using that abbreviation (like PLATINUM CRUISER for PT CRUISER) — was really tough, but pulled off with great style.

With elements like Erbium, Moscovium, and Praseodymium getting namechecked, your knowledge of high school chemistry was really put to the test here. That being said, one or two fill entries really flummoxed me, particularly DO TO A TEE, which I had a hard time parsing out even with the section filled in.

Interesting grid entries included ASTARTE, OY VEY, MR. ROARKE, and ABSENTIA, and my favorite clues were “Makes calls” for REFS, “Title that’s shortened by removing its middle letter” for MADAM, and “It takes the edge off” for EMERY.

Puzzle 4: Body Doubles by Julie Berube

This was a nice break after the challenge of Puzzle 3, and several tournament competitors suggested that this should have been Puzzle 1. A relatively smooth solve with body parts hidden in larger entries (revealed by black boxes in the grid), there was one crossing that gave me pause, as ALII crossing ERIE PA was much tougher than any other crossing in the puzzle.

I was also surprised at allowing two phrases starting with “I’m” both reading down in the same corner, with I’M GONE and I’M A LOSER together. But other than that, this was a quick solve with plenty of French offering an international flavor.

Interesting grid entries included ANTIMATTER, ASAHI, and EYE CHART, and my favorite clues were “Prepare to race” for GET SET and “Apple standard” for IOS.

Puzzle 5: Splice of Life by Mike Shenk

At last, the always daunting Puzzle 5 arrived, and this one did not disappoint. Once you’ve figured out that each themed entry has the letters DNA stuffed into a single box, you really start rolling on the puzzle.

But not long after that, you realize there’s something else at work here as well, since parts of the themed answers are jumbled with each other. Instead of BORIS AND NATASHA, you get BORIS AND NAMES, since NATASHA is paired with UNITED in another entry. (This is confirmed by the revealer RECOMBINANT in the lower left corner.)

The two-step hook makes for a challenging solve, but a very satisfying one, once you’ve sussed out Shenk’s tricks.

Interesting grid entries included ZAPPA, SUSPENSE FILM, OVIEDO, and SUN RA, and my favorite clues were “Hit close to home” for BUNT, “One might be responsible for a reduced sentence” for EDITOR, “Dressing for bowties, e.g.” for SAUCE, and “Give up possession of, in a way” for PUNT.

Puzzle 6: Field Trip by Lynn Lempel

The final puzzle on Saturday was a nice palate cleanser after Puzzle 5, employing a hook based more on cluing wordplay than any trickery in the grid. All of the clues played with baseball terminology: “One touting pain pills?” clued RELIEF PITCHER, for instance. This was a solid way to close out the day’s solving, with very little crosswordese and a balanced fill.

Interesting grid entries included SOIREE, IRON MAN, CORONET, and KANSAN, and my favorite clues were “Apple on a teacher’s desk” for IMAC and the themed clue “Two square dancing needs?” for SWING AND A MISS.

Puzzle 7: Rebranding by Joel Fagliano

Sunday morning’s puzzle was all about the cluing as the constructor peppered the grid with the names of famous companies and offered alternate sales pitches for them in the clues. (For example, “Now we sell chess pieces!” was new advertising for WHITE CASTLE.) The associative cluing style felt different from all of the other puzzles in the tournament, giving this one a fun energy and making for an enjoyable solving experience.

Interesting grid entries included I’LL PASS, CARNITAS, ROGER MOORE, NBA TEAMS, and SENESCED, and my favorite clue was “Woman’s name that sounds like two letters of the alphabet” for EVIE.

Puzzle 8: Last Words by Michael Shteyman

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 with no theme and plenty of long entries crossing in this grid, there were fewer giveaway words to get you started.

I attempted the A-level clues, but I struggled mightily with them. I did successfully solve the puzzle with the B-level clues, but honestly, that just gave me more respect for the B-level finalists who were mistakenly given the A-level clues at the tournament this year, because they all still managed to complete the puzzle! Wow.

With unusual entries like AQUAPLANE, INDOJAZZ, LEO VI, and FLESHPOT, Shyetman did an impressive job cramming all 26 letters of the alphabet into this pangram puzzle.

Interesting grid entries included PUZZLE MUG, MOON UNIT, and AL-JAZEERA, and my favorite clues were “50/50, e.g.” for ONE — very nice math cluing there — and “Knife handle?” for X-ACTO.

Overall, I think this year’s tournament puzzles were tougher than those in previous years. That being said, there was a lot of ingenuity and creativity involved in these eight 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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ACPT 2017 Wrap-Up!

The 40th 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. As I arrived at the hotel, I was unexpectedly greeted by an enthusiastic marching band and cheering fans!

As it turns out, they weren’t there for me (or any of the other puzzlers), as the Oregon women’s basketball team was also in attendance. But that was a pleasant, and slightly raucous, surprise. Go Ducks!

Once I had sidestepped the band and revelers and made my way into the hotel, I sat in with my friend Stacey Scarso at the Penny Dell Puzzles booth.

Our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles 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.

Plus we held a contest to win a bundle of PDP puzzle swag, including a mug, a tote bag, an umbrella, and a bunch of puzzle magazines! All you had to do was solve a Weaver Words puzzle. (And, yes, in their downtime between tournament puzzles, many competitors DO solve other puzzles. Madness!)

At 9 AM, the tournament was two hours away, but the marketplace was up and running. There were puzzle magazines galore (including a table of Merl Reagle’s puzzle books), developers showing off their puzzle app Word Squares, and ACPT-themed jewelry, key chains, and other items from All of the Things.

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, constructor Ian Livengood, 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 first-time attendees and enthusiastic rookies, like the two lovely ladies wearing “Monday Puzzlers” t-shirts.

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, and other grid-heavy accoutrements.

And there were icons of the puzzle community, like NYT Wordplay blogger Deb Amlen, event organizer and made man in puzzles Will Shortz, and programmer Saul Pwanson, who helped reveal the USA Today/Universal Uclick crossword plagiarism scandal last year.

Many of the top constructors in the business were there, names like David Steinberg, Evan Birnholz, Joon Pahk, Peter Gordon, and more, along with former champions and first-rate competitors like Dan Feyer, Tyler Hinman, 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 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.

A jump in attendance from last year saw the room absolutely packed with competitors. Will Shortz joked that there were 624 solvers and 625 chairs. I’ve certainly never seen the room that crowded.

When Puzzle 1 arrived, several competitors I spoke to were surprised at its difficulty. There would be no cracking this puzzle in under 2 minutes, as former champion Dan Feyer did in 2015. Most of the top competitors hovered around the 4 minute mark. And this wouldn’t be the only puzzle that kept solvers on their toes.

Puzzle 2, constructed by veteran puzzler Patrick Berry, received rave reviews for its cleverness and elegant fill, providing a nice counterpoint to Puzzle 1.

[The rankings after Puzzle 2 (posted as competitors were heading into Puzzle 4)]

Puzzle 3 was constructed by Brendan Emmett Quigley, and following the path set Puzzle 1, proved far more challenging than expected. At this rate, the always-dreaded Puzzle 5 was still looming, and some solvers were more apprehensive than usual about tackling it later in the day. That being said, several competitors were impressed with Quigley’s constructing. (Not a surprise, his puzzles are always excellent.)

Puzzle 4 was constructed by relative newcomer Julie Berube, who was in attendance and super-excited to see competitors tackle her puzzle. The general consensus of competitors was that this puzzle should have been Puzzle 1.

Finally, it was time for Puzzle 5. This year, constructor Mike Shenk 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.

[One of the puzzly keychains offered by All of the Things. I suspect making it
“I finished Puzzle 5 in the time allotted” would limit the possible customer base.]

After the diabolical Puzzle 5, competitors closed out the day with Puzzle 6 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 at the end of the day on Saturday.]

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

Going into Puzzle 7, constructed by Joel Fagliano, former champion Dan Feyer was on top of the leaderboard, followed closely by constructors Erik Agard and Joon Pahk, both of whom were chasing their first tournament victory, as well as former champion Tyler Hinman, who shared third place with Joon.

Not far behind them were familiar names like David Plotkin, Al Sanders, Francis Heaney, Stella Zawistowski, and last year’s winner, Howard Barkin.

Puzzle 7 was smooth, a good capper to the official tournament puzzles. But it would prove to be a heartbreaker for one solver in particular. An error by Erik Agard dropped him out of finals contention, opening the door for a former champion who missed out on the finals last year.

It would be Dan Feyer (6 time champion), Tyler Hinman (5 time champion) and Joon Pahk in the finals.

But first, there would be an Oscars-style flub for the B-level finalists, as they were given the A-level clues for the final puzzle.

A quick rundown of the finals: there are three sets of clues written for the final puzzle, labeled A, B, and C. The A-level clues are the hardest, and the C-level clues are the easiest. So the B-level contenders were given much harder clues than intended.

But guess what? All three competitors (including one rookie solver) completed the final, even with the harder clues! That is some impressive solving!

Naturally, this led to some discussion of how to make things tougher for the A-level competitors. I suggested that all their clues should be written in Esperanto, but perhaps the best suggestion came from Ophira Eisenberg, who suggested that we don’t give them any clues, and only reveal the Zs in the grid as hints. Fiendishly clever!

You can watch the final puzzle being solved below:

Tyler Hinman would complete the puzzle first, and by a fairly wide margin, but unfortunately he had an error in the puzzle.

In the end, Dan Feyer would reclaim the crown, tying Jon Delfin for most tournament wins with 7!

And it was a strong showing for many other familiar names! Doug Peterson placed 18th, David Steinberg placed 28th, Patti Varol placed 103rd (up from last year’s showing!), Kathy Matheson 228th (also up from last year’s performance!), and Keith Yarbrough 238th (again, up from last year!) out of a field of over 600 participants.

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.

We’ll see you next year!

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