Gearing up for the ACPT!

The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is days away, and at this point, competitors are sharpening their pencils and honing their skills for game day.

I’ve considered entering for a few years now — haven’t pulled the trigger yet, maybe next year — and over the last few months, I’ve been working on my tournament-style puzzling to see if I can improve my solving.

After speaking to several ACPT veterans — and reading numerous blog posts offering tournament-specific tips — I’ve discovered that every solver approaches competitive solving differently.

Some puzzlers recommend training yourself to look ahead, reading the next two or three clues as you write the answer to the previous clue. This maximizes efficiency and decreases wasted time while solving. Other solvers suggest focusing on a given section (a corner, for instance) instead of scanning all the acrosses and all the downs.

Some competitors have said they’ve turned in puzzles without having read all the clues, which is an amazing thing to consider.

The one universal piece of advice when it comes to competitive crossword-solving? Solve lots and lots of crosswords. It builds your confidence, your familiarity with crosswordese and clever-clue dissection, and it makes you faster with a pencil.

(You’d be surprised how much slower online solvers can be, since they’re more accustomed to typing than scribbling.)

A terrific source for tournament-solving insight is Crossworld: One Man’s Journey into America’s Crossword Obsession by Marc Romano. Romano explores the history of crosswords as he prepares to compete in the 2006 ACPT, and he offers some valuable first-hand experience.

A competitor in a crossword tournament has three enemies to face: the genius of puzzle constructors; the vagaries, vicissitudes, and inconstancy of his own mind; and the clock.

A first-timer at the competition who overlooks the basic rules is making a big mistake… managing your time is perhaps the single most important thing you have to do if you wish to place anywhere near the top of the puzzling heap…

For the casual solver, simply completing the puzzle is a victory, but in tournament solving, it can become a question of strategy: time vs. accuracy.

Here, Romano gives us a breakdown of ACPT scoring:

You get 10 points for every correctly filled-in answer across and down. You get 25 points for every full minute you complete a puzzle before time runs out; however, you also lose 10 points for every incorrect or unfilled-in letter in the puzzle.

A complete and error-free solution to a puzzle earns you another 150 points.

You’re better off striving for a full and complete solution than going for the time bonus. The trade-off between time and accuracy is a somewhat counterintuitive concept to master, especially when you see the fastest solvers turning in their puzzles before you’ve even got your pencil properly sharpened.

(She’s probably stressed because she’s solving in pen.)

Surrounded by dozens and dozens of fellow solvers, as if you’re all back in high school, scrambling to complete a test before class is over, it would be easy to be overwhelmed by the energy of the event.

Romano mentions this as well in his advice for first-time competitors:

I’ll stress that, for a rookie solver, keeping all of this in mind under competitive conditions is extremely difficult; not only are you concentrating on solving puzzles under the gun (puzzles, mind you, that perhaps 90 percent of your fellow citizens couldn’t complete if you gave them a week in which to do them), but you’re also unconsciously pressured, timewise, by your out-of-the-corner-of-your-eye awareness of how many of your fellow contestants have completed a puzzle before you and already scurried out of the hall.

My advice to a first-time tournament puzzler? Do your best. It sounds ridiculous when you know guys like Dan Feyer are out there crushing puzzles in three minutes flat, but in all honesty, your main competition is yourself. I know plenty of puzzlers who walk into the ACPT with one objective: improve on their performance from last year.

That is an admirable goal, to be sure.

Good luck to all the newcomers and veterans! Be sure to keep calm and puzzle on. =)

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