ACPT 2016 Wrap-Up!

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The 39th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was this weekend, and puzzlers descended on the Stamford Marriott Hotel to put their puzzly chops to the test in what is lovingly called “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 solve the championship puzzle on white boards 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.

(This year, Friday night featured author and puzzler Eric Berlin hosting an Escape the Room-themed puzzle hunt that received rave reviews from participants, and Saturday night saw the first Merl Reagle Memorial Lifetime Achievement Award in crossword construction presented to constructor Maura Jacobson. Her husband accepted on her behalf from Merl’s widow, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.)

I made the journey down to Stamford myself Saturday morning and sat in with my friend, proofreader and puzzler Debra Yurschak Rich, at the Penny Dell Puzzles booth.

Our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles had a terrific setup as always, with great books and tote bags for purchase and a metric buttload of magazines to give away, including copies of The Crosswords Club, Will Shortz’s Sudoku, and several flavors of Tournament Variety, Master’s Variety, and Dell Sunday Crosswords!

And they didn’t mind at all when I conquered and annexed the middle of the table for PuzzleNation’s in-person version of Friday’s View a Clue crossword animals puzzle. Many competitors stopped by the table to try their luck, allowing some to thoroughly impress their fellow puzzlers with their knowledge of African antelopes, while others were flummoxed trying to match names they’d written into grids dozens of times with images of the actual animal!

(One woman told me she’d seen many of these animals during a trip to South Africa, and even EATEN some of them, but she couldn’t identify them by name. I imagine it’s quite rare to know what an animal tastes like but not what it LOOKS like.)

At 9 AM, the tournament was two hours away, but the marketplace was up and running. In addition to the usual ACPT swag, the marketplace included Hayley Gold and her Across & Down comics, the aforementioned Eric Berlin (repping his Winston Breen books and Puzzle Your Kids subscription puzzles), a collection of Merl Reagle’s puzzle books, and an impressive selection of puzzly titles from the marvelous crew at The Village Bookstore in Pleasantville, New York!

Plus I got to see friends of the blog like Crosswords Club editor Patti Varol, constructor Ian Livengood, crossword gentleman Doug Peterson, and Penny Press variety editor Keith Yarbrough!

Another treat of the tournament is getting to chat with numerous puzzle luminaries I’ve gotten to know through PuzzleNation Blog, like New York Times Wordplay blogger Deb Amlen, constructor and Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project curator David Steinberg, constructor Joon Pahk, top solver and former champion Ellen Ripstein, constructor George Barany, Evan Birnholz of Devil Cross, top competitor Tyler Hinman, and, of course, New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz.

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

Puzzle 1 didn’t stagger any of the participants, although there was no repeat of Dan Feyer’s blisteringly fast under-two-minute solve like last year. Three minutes seemed to be the benchmark for the top performers this year.

But Puzzle 2 had a crossing that flummoxed several solvers: CORTANA crossing CONTE. Constructor Patrick Blindauer, not in attendance, was no doubt on the receiving end of some Puzzle 5-level heat for that one. But when Doug reached out to Blindauer, it turns out that THAT wasn’t Blindauer’s corner! It had been edited, with MONTANA becoming CORTANA.

I had no idea puzzles accepted for the tournament were edited that much!

Puzzles 3 and 4 passed without incident, and people seemed to enjoy both the camaraderie of the event and the opportunity to compete against their own best times from previous years.

[In our downtime, Debra and I indulged in a round or two of Bananagrams, because it was a day for wordplay of all sorts.]

Then Patrick Berry’s Puzzle 5 arrived, complete with zigzagging entries and a thoroughly impressive fill. (“Wow” was uttered several times by competitors describing their impression of the always-dreaded fifth puzzle of the day.)

Between puzzles 5 and 6, I handed out prizes for our View a Clue crossword animals game: copies of Scrimish, donated by that game’s terrific design team!

Two copies went to our top performers — one got ALL TEN and another got nine out of ten — and two copies went in a drawing from all of the players who gave it their best shot. So congratulations to Robert Moy (who pitched a shut-out), Robert Kern, Abbie Brown, and the man known only as Dan (who got all but one)!

After the diabolical inventiveness of Puzzle 5, Puzzle 6 was tackled by the solvers, who declared it a fun and fair end to the day’s competition. The solvers dispersed to rest their brains; we packed up the table, and headed for home.

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

The day started off with Lynn Lempel’s Puzzle 7, which received strong reviews, but did little to alter the standings of the top competitors.

Soon, it was time for the finalists to be announced. When it came time for the top three to solve on their whiteboards in front of their fellow competitors, two of the names were quite familiar to attendees: Dan Feyer, defending six-time champion, and Howard Barkin, four-time champion and perennial participant in the finals.

Conspicuous by his absence was another familiar name and former champion, the performer who made last year’s finals such a nail-biting showdown: Tyler Hinman. An unfortunate error in Puzzle 2 took him out of the running, so the final member of the live-solving trio would be David Plotkin. (Joon Pahk, Francis Heaney, Al Sanders, Jon Delfin and other regular key performers were also near the top.)

He and Howard prepared for a thoroughly wordy and daunting battle with Mr. Feyer, whose excellent performance in the seven previous puzzles had him leading his competitors by three minutes.

You can watch the final puzzle being solved below:

In a stunning upset, Howard Barkin did the seemingly impossible, besting Dan Feyer and claiming the top spot! The room erupted for him as others sat by, stunned that the expected seventh straight win for Dan was not to be.

[Howard poses with his well-earned trophy.]

But that’s not all! Friend of the blog and crossword gentleman Doug Peterson placed 13th overall AND won the finals for Division B! Congratulations to Doug!

And it was a strong showing for many other familiar names! Patti Varol placed 97 (up from last year’s 109 showing), David Steinberg 113th, Kathy Matheson 237th, and Keith Yarbrough 266th out of a field of nearly 600 participants.

It was certainly a day for surprises, strong emotions, and puzzly camaraderie. 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 weirdness that comes part and parcel with it.

That would’ve been my closing statement, but I think the final word belongs to competitor Ben Smith:


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ACPT Wrap-up!

The 38th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was this weekend, and puzzlers descended on the Stamford Marriott Hotel in the hopes of putting their puzzly chops to the test in what has been dubbed “the Nerd Olympics.”

The tournament takes place over two days — with six puzzles to solve on Saturday, followed by one on Sunday — and then the championship puzzle, which the top 3 solve on white boards 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 ventured down to Stamford myself Saturday morning amidst some unexpected snow flurries and sat in with my friends from Penny/Dell Puzzles at their booth.

They were armed to the teeth with tote bags, magazines, pencils, and freebie copies of The Crosswords Club, The Uptown Puzzle Club, Will Shortz’s Sudoku, and some of the tougher Penny Press and Dell Magazines titles. It was a sumptuous buffet of puzzly goodness, to be sure.

Joining me behind the tables were Penny Press proofreader and puzzler Debra Yurschak Rich and PuzzleNation‘s very own Director of Game Development, Fred Galpern, who was on hand to show off the Penny Dell Crosswords App.

We had a few hours before Puzzle #1 would kick off the tournament, so I wandered around, checked out the ballroom where the competition would take place, surveyed the other booths, and chatted with many tournament competitors and puzzlers.

Not only did I get to see friends of the blog like Uptown Crossword Club editor Patti Varol, author and puzzler Eric Berlin, constructor Ian Livengood and Penny Press variety editor Keith Yarbrough, but it was a great opportunity to match names and faces, since I’d had the chance to tweet, email, and otherwise interact with many of them online over the last few years, but never actually met them in person.

Among the folks I got to meet were crossword gentleman Doug Peterson, New York Times Wordplay blogger Deb Amlen, constructor and Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project curator David Steinberg, constructor Joon Pahk, top solver and former champion Ellen Ripstein, Los Angeles Times crossword editor Rich Norris, constructor Alan Olschwang, Evan Birnholz of Devil Cross, top competitor and former champion Tyler Hinman, and New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz.

[Will stops in at the Penny/Dell Puzzles booth, and poses with his namesake titles.]

One of my favorite things about the tournament is the absolute and unabashed puzzle love shown by so many competitors. I saw crossword-patterned sweaters, ties, shirts, and earrings, as well as punny t-shirts of all kinds. One guy even dressed up in full papal regalia, but with a crossword theme!

[Fred poses with the eye-catching Puzzle Pope. In nomine puzzle…]

Finally, it was time for the tournament to begin, so the competitors filed into the ballroom where Will Shortz introduced Puzzle #1, created by Tracy Bennett, which would be a Monday difficulty puzzle.

It’s an excellent warm-up puzzle for competitors, and rarely one that poses a significant challenge. Dan Feyer, reigning five-time champion, set a new tournament record by completing Puzzle #1 in under two minutes. WOW.

But, as it turns out, there was a bit of a kerfuffle surrounding the first puzzle. From the Puzzle Brothers blog:

A weird scoring anomaly took place when the Puzzle 1 results were announced, when a solver named William Hall appeared to have solved Puzzle 1 a full four minutes before Dan Feyer did. Since Dan solved the puzzle in less than two minutes – believed to be an ACPT first – that meant that Hall would have had to do some serious messing with the time-space continuum to finish the puzzle TWO MINUTES BEFORE HE EVEN STARTED.

[I believe I met a third of the names on this list over the course of the day.]

The glitch was soon resolved and Dan Feyer returned to his proper spot at the top of the leaderboard.

Puzzles #2 and #3 (constructed by Joel Fagliano and Merl Reagle, respectively) proceeded without any scoring scandals, and throughout the day, I was getting great insight into the puzzles themselves and the energy of the room with post-puzzle updates from Keith, Patti, Doug, and some of the other competitors.

After a break for lunch, the ballroom filled once more for Puzzle #4, Paula Gamache’s contribution to the tournament. And then, it was time for Puzzle #5.

If you recall my report from last year’s tournament, Puzzle #5 is routinely the toughest puzzle in the tournament. While Brendan Emmett Quigley’s puzzle last year was widely regarded to be a brutally challenging one, Will Shortz said this year’s entry (constructed by Jeff Chen) was “easy for Puzzle #5.” Which is akin to calling something “the friendliest volcano” or “the warmest Eskimo.”

I happened to bump into Dan Feyer outside the ballroom after he completed Puzzle #5, and he jokingly inquired, “Where is everyone?” I looked at him point-blank and replied, “You know exactly where everyone is, Dan!”

Not long after, I received the following text, from another competitor: Puzzle 5. *sad trombone*

The day’s puzzle wrapped up with Puzzle #6, a Lynn Lempel creation that helped set the stage for Sunday’s remaining two crosswords: Patrick Berry’s Puzzle #7 and Byron Walden’s championship closer.

And although I wasn’t present for Sunday’s tournament finale, I continued to get updates from friends and fellow puzzlers throughout the day. When it came time for the top three to solve on their white boards in front of their fellow competitors, a familiar trio of names were listed: Dan Feyer, Tyler Hinman, and Howard Barkin.

Due to his performance over the previous seven puzzles, Dan began with a 5-second head start over Tyler. And that made all the difference.

Watch as Dan and Tyler race to the finish:

Only a half-second separated Dan and Tyler’s times, a nail-biter in ANY competition, but Dan Feyer locked up his sixth straight ACPT championship!

Not only did he top Tyler’s streak of 5 straight wins, but he’s put himself in contention to match Jon Delfin’s record of seven tournament victories next year! Names like Anne Erdmann, Francis Heaney, Joon Pahk, and Al Sanders were not far behind.

And out of more than 560 competitors, friends of the blog had a strong showing themselves! David Steinberg ranked 36th overall, and was named the Division C champion, the youngest ever!

Patti Varol placed 109th, and only a few steps behind her was Eric Berlin at 112th! Keith Yarbrough placed 177th, and Doug Peterson was the top performer in our little cabal of puzzlers, delivering some outstanding solves and placing 14th overall!

(In case anyone was curious, the Puzzle Pope placed 463rd.)

I’ve never experienced anything quite like the ACPT, but I’m definitely going back next year. Congratulations to all the competitors!

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The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is coming!

The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is just over two weeks away — Friday March 27 through Sunday March 29! — and this year is promising to be something special.

After seven years in Brooklyn, New York, the tournament is returning to Stamford, Connecticut, the tournament’s previous home for many years.

Every year, constructors and crossword fans alike test their puzzly mettle (and pencil points) against time and nerves as they solve topnotch puzzles as quickly and accurately as possible.

Last year, Dan Feyer won his fifth consecutive tournament, tying the record set by fellow competitor Tyler Hinman. Will he go six for six this year and move one step closer to meeting Jon Delfin’s remarkable record of seven tournament wins?

But there’s more going on than just the tournament! It’s a weekend dedicated to puzzle goodness of all kinds.

In the past, there have been talent shows, puzzle challenges, displays of live puzzle creation, team solving games, scavenger hunts, crossword songs, film viewings (including the Wordplay documentary), and performances of puzzle magic by David Kwong.

This is my first year attending the tournament, and I’m excited not only to witness the event firsthand, but to meet many of the names in puzzles I’ve interviewed and gotten to know over the last few years.

And I won’t be the only member of the PuzzleNation Crew at ACPT this year, as Fred, our Director of Game Development, will be there to show off the Penny Dell Crosswords App and talk shop with fellow puzzlers!

Plus, several friends of the blog will be in attendance, like Penny Press variety editor Keith Yarbrough, crossword gentleman Doug Peterson, and Uptown Puzzle Club editor Patti Varol.

For more information or to sign up and test your puzzle skills, click here! (You can participate online or by mail!)

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American Crossword Puzzle Tournament Round-Up!

This past weekend was the 37th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Puzzlers descended upon Brooklyn, NY, for what more than one Twitter user affectionately referred to as “The Nerd Olympics.”

I’ve spoken to several participants — all veterans of the tournament who often enjoy the socializing as much as the actual puzzles — and much fun was had by all.

The tournament flowed smoothly, despite Daylight Saving Time stealing an hour’s sleep from competitors on Sunday. Topnotch solvers emerged early with blistering times, and other solvers challenged themselves to reach new personal bests and performances to be proud of.

In previous years, the biggest hurdle for most solvers has been Puzzle #5. It’s routinely the toughest, and this year’s puzzle proved to be no exception. Only a few dozen solvers completed the puzzle in the half hour allotted.

Here are two of my favorite tweets that captured the impression left by Puzzle #5:

I asked Penny/Dell variety editor and friend of the blog Keith Yarbrough about Puzzle #5. As a multiple-time attendee of the ACPT, one who has placed in the top 20% on more than one occasion, he had some valuable insight into the infamous puzzle:

If they didn’t have puzzle 5, the top solvers would all be bunched up with roughly the same scores, and it would be a mess trying to figure out the top three for the finals.  Puzzle 5 separates those people a bit and is the price we mortals have to pay for it.

(For the constructor’s thoughts on the puzzle, check out Brendan Emmett Quigley’s blog post here.)

On Sunday, after the ceremonial final solve in front of an audience — click here to check it out on YouTube! — the winners were crowned, and to no great surprise, Dan Feyer scored his fifth consecutive ACPT title, tying Tyler Hinman’s formidable streak. The top solvers were a who’s who of ACPT puzzlers, including Joon Pahk, Anne Erdmann, and Jon Delfin — and a thoroughly impressive 43 solvers managed to solve all 7 puzzles without any errors!

And friends of the blog had a terrific showing this year! Crossword gentleman Doug Peterson placed 14th, Los Angeles Times crossword editor Rich Norris placed 71, constructor David Steinberg (of the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project) placed 136, Uptown Puzzle Club editor Patti Varol placed 145, and editor Keith Yarbrough placed 212. (When you consider the nearly 600 entrants, those numbers are stunning.)

For a more complete rundown of the tournament, I highly recommend you check out the Twitter feed of The Puzzle Brothers. They virtually live-tweeted the tournament — their coverage of the final puzzle is terrific — and it’s a really fun read overall.

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebookfollow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Tumblr, download our puzzle apps and iBooks, play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!

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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The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is almost here!

The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is less than two weeks away — Friday, March 7, through Sunday, March 9! — and the entire crossword community is gearing up for one of the year’s biggest puzzle events.

Every year, constructors and crossword fans alike converge on Brooklyn, New York — the tournament’s home since 2008, after years in Stamford, CT — to test their puzzly mettle against time and pencil-point-stressing nerves as they solve topnotch puzzles as quickly and accurately as possible.

It’s a weekend dedicated to puzzle goodness of all kinds, and the social events and extracurriculars are nearly as popular as the tournament itself. In the past, there have been talent shows, puzzle challenges, displays of live puzzle creation, team solving games, scavenger hunts, crossword songs, film viewings (including the Wordplay documentary), and performances of puzzle magic by David Kwong.

[Here’s a solvable puzzle mosaic of tournament organizer
Will Shortz, created in 2003 by Ken Knowlton.]

It’s the 37th year of the tournament, and the turnout will undoubtedly be high. (Several friends of the blog, including constructor Ian Livengood, Penny Press variety editor Keith Yarbrough, and Uptown Puzzle Club editor Patti Varol, will be in attendance.)

And, of course, the best and brightest in puzzle-solving will be looking to etch their name in tournament history. Dan Feyer has won four years in a row. Will he match Tyler Hinman’s five-year winning streak, and close the gap between him and Jon Delfin’s record of seven tournament wins?

Either way, it’s sure to be a great time.

You can sign up to compete or attend by clicking here, or you can participate online or by mail!

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebookfollow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Tumblr, download our puzzle apps and iBooks, play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!