The 41st 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.
Plus we had a terrific sample puzzle for the Daily POP Crosswords app, constructed by the marvelous Angela Halsted! You can click this link for the answer grid AND a bonus offer for anyone who missed our ACPT tournament puzzle!
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 marvelous crossword variant puzzle cooked up by the folks at Penny Dell. (Though I did have a hand in writing some of the clues.)
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 magazines galore from the Village Bookstore (as well as a table of Merl Reagle’s puzzle books), a booth loaded with Nathan Curtis’s various puzzly projects, and ACPT-themed jewelry, key chains, teddy bears, magnets, 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, 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; apparently, contestants ranged in age from 17 to 92(!), and there was a 90-year-old rookie competing this year!
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.
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, 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 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 needed to accommodate the nearly 700 solvers in Stamford!
When Puzzle 1 arrived, most competitors found Tracy Gray’s puzzle to be quick and fair. One solver in particular, constructor Erik Agard, delivered an absolutely blistering time, solving the puzzle in under 2 minutes! (A feat not seen since Dan Feyer did so in 2015.) It immediately rocketed Erik to the top of the leaderboard in impressive fashion.
Puzzle 2, constructed by prolific puzzler Zhouqin Burnikel, surprised some solvers with its difficulty. Then again, Puzzle 2 has been on the tougher side for at least the last few years, but 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.
Puzzle 3 was constructed by Mike Shenk, and served as a well-received palate-cleanser before the lunch break. Solvers scattered to the four winds in order to grab a bite to eat before returning by 2:30 for Puzzle 4.
[Even empty, all the dividers make the room feel packed…]
And what a Puzzle 4 it was. Constructed by Damon Gulczynski, this puzzle had a visual element that tripped up several top competitors. (An unclear blurb “explanation” didn’t help matters, and several competitors told me they would’ve been better off with no blurb at all.)
The judges were forced to actually explain the puzzle before competitors began Puzzle 5. It was a disappointing way for the second half of the tournament day to kick off.
Not only that, but one solver was mistakenly given Puzzle 5 to solve INSTEAD of Puzzle 4. He managed to solve it in the shorter time allotted, but couldn’t fairly solve Puzzle 4 afterward because of the explanation. I haven’t been able to follow up and find out what exactly happened to his score.
Finally, after the unexpected drama of Puzzle 4, it was time for Puzzle 5. This year, constructor Joel Fagliano 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. (Apparently, computer solving program Dr. Fill failed to complete puzzle 5, one of its few slip-ups in an otherwise impressive year for the program.)
After the diabolical Puzzle 5, competitors closed out the day with Puzzle 6, constructed by Lynn Lempel, 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.
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 Patrick Berry, was what you might expect from a constructor of his caliber: elegant fill, very little crosswordese, and great fun.
Erik Agard remained at the top of the leaderboard, having kept a great solving pace after his outstanding performance on Puzzle 1 — a nice redemption for him after a heartbreaker last year, when an error dropped him out of finals contention after a strong performance overall.
So the final three would be Erik, Dan Feyer (7-time champ), and David Plotkin (a familiar name in the top ten).
Thankfully, this year, there was no repeat of last year’s flub where the B-level finalists got the A-level clues or anything like that. And there were no distinct time advantages among the top solvers.
It was simply a match-up of some of the fastest, sharpest puzzlers. (Including 2 rookies in the C-level final!)
You can watch the final puzzle being solved below, courtesy of Ben Zimmer:
Erik Agard would complete the puzzle first, solving it in under 5 minutes. By comparison, huge swathes of Dan and David’s grids were still empty at this point. It was a stunning showing for a very well-liked member of the puzzle community!
Dan Feyer would wrap the puzzle up in 9 minutes, with David Plotkin following at around 13.
As he had done all tournament, Erik solved with incredible speed and precision, claiming his first tournament victory!
And it was a strong showing for many other familiar names! Doug Peterson placed 14th (up from 18th last year!), David Steinberg placed 23rd (up from 28th!), and Patti Varol placed 74th (up from 103 last year!) out of a field of almost 700 participants. (And even with one eye tied behind his back, Keith Yarbrough managed an impressive performance as well!)
[I wonder how many competitors this tweet applies to…]
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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