ACPT 2019 Wrap-Up!

The 42nd 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.

The Penny Dell Store also returned for the first time in a few years, as puzzle books (including a collection of Daily POP Crossword App puzzles!), tote bags, travel mugs, and coffee mugs were for sale. The Word Nerd mugs were a big hit!

PLUS we held a contest to win a bundle of PDP puzzle swag, including a mug, a tote bag, coffee fixin’s, and a bunch of puzzle magazines! All you had to do was solve a marvelous crossword variant puzzle cooked up by Eric Berlin.

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 books galore from Will Shortz and Merl Reagle, ACPT shirts and cards from Elena Powell Abrahams, and a massive uber-crossword from T. William Campbell, which definitely caught the eye of some solvers:

Our friends from Lone Shark Games also had a booth at the tournament, staffed by either a very good hologram or an impressive doppleganger of Gaby Weidling. There were The Maze of Games books for sale and a puzzle card for their ongoing Maze of Games Omnibus Kickstarter campaign!

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 200 first-time attendees and enthusiastic rookies, mixing with current and former champions, and all sorts of puzzle enthusiasts of all ages.

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, puzzle ties, 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, Erik Agard, Peter Gordon, and more, along with former champions and first-rate competitors like Dan Feyer, David Plotkin, 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 once again needed to accommodate the more-than-700 solvers in Stamford!

When Puzzle 1 arrived, most competitors found Kathy Wienberg’s puzzle to be quick and fair, on par with Monday NYT puzzles.

Although there was no sub-2-minute time like last year, the top solvers still blasted through this one.

Puzzle 2, constructed by prolific puzzler Joel Fagliano, surprised some solvers with a clever little trick at its core. This is consistent with the last few years, where Puzzle 2 has surprised the competitors. 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.

About this time, scores started trickling out for Puzzle 1, and many of the expected names were at the top: Feyer, Pahk, Plotkin, Zawistowski, Sanders, Kravis, Ryan… but two big names were missing.

Former 5-time champion (and perennial top contender) Tyler Hinman was not attending the tournament this year, and Erik Agard, last year’s champion, had a mistake in Puzzle 1, which would seriously hamper his efforts to repeat last year’s success.

Puzzle 3 was constructed by Patrick Berry, and served as a well-received, smooth-solving palate-cleanser before the lunch break.

          [Even empty, all the dividers make the room feel packed…]

Solvers scattered to the four winds in order to grab a bite to eat before returning by 2:30 for Puzzle 4, while the tournament officials were still hard at work tabulating scores:

After 3 puzzles, Dan Feyer was on top of the rankings, followed closely by Pahk, and then a three-way tie among Kravis, Plotkin, and Zawistowski for third.

But it was time to kick off the second half of the day with Puzzle 4.

Last year’s fourth puzzle had a visual element that tripped up some of the competitors, and this year’s Puzzle 4 (by constructor Jeff Stillman) was also harder than expected. The fill featured more obscurities than solvers anticipated, and several competitors commented on it on Twitter:

Oh, and by the way, thanks to his puzzly skills and blistering speed, Erik Agard had worked his way back up to 7th place after completing Puzzle 4. Amazing.

Finally, it was time for Puzzle 5. This year, constructor Evan Birnholz (not Birnholtz, as it was misprinted on his name tag) 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.

Even the officials noticed:

After the diabolical Puzzle 5, it was Dan Feyer, Joon Pahk, David Plotkin, Stella Zawistowski, and… Erik Agard.

Competitors closed out the day with Puzzle 6, constructed by Lynn Lempel (she also contributed Puzzle 6 last year), 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 after Puzzle 6. Erik has worked his way back to 4th. Was a comeback story in store for Day 2?]

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 Mike Shenk, was what you might expect from a constructor of his caliber: elegant fill, little crosswordese, and great fun.

But Shenk’s name being announced for Puzzle 7 also meant a puzzly milestone for the Finals:

Yes, Robyn Weintraub’s tournament constructing debut would be the final hurdle for the competitors! Fantastic news!

Dan Feyer remained at the top of the leaderboard, having maintained a great solving pace, followed closely by Joon Pahk and David Plotkin.

But it was not meant to be, and the final three came down to Dan Feyer (7-time champ, looking for a record-breaking 8th title), Joon Pahk and David Plotkin (two familiar names in the top ten).

[Image courtesy of Dave Mackey.]

The top three competitors for each live-solving division were:

  • A: Dan Feyer, Joon Pahk, David Plotkin
  • B: Matthew Gritzmacher, Brian Fodera, Arnold Reich
  • C: Brian Kulman, Lily Geller, Claire Rimkus

Lily Geller won the C division, and Brian Fodera won B. Congrats to the winners!

And, finally, it was time for the A Block.

You can watch the final puzzle being solved below, courtesy of Ben Zimmer:

Dan Feyer crushed the A clues in under 7 minutes. Joon Pahk was a strong runner-up at 9:05, and David Plotkin placed third with a very respectable showing of 11:13.

[Image courtesy of ACPT.]

As he had done all tournament, Dan solved with undeniable speed and precision, claiming his eighth tournament victory!

And it was a strong showing for many other familiar names! Doug Peterson placed 21st, David Steinberg placed 26th, Angela Halsted placed 94th, Vega Subramaniam cracked the top 100 with 98th, and Patti Varol placed 113th out of a field of 741 participants. (And even with one eye tied behind his back, Keith Yarbrough managed an impressive performance as well!)

There were also some wonderfully heartwarming stories to emerge from the tournament, like this multi-generational solving success story:

In the end, Jenna LaFleur (aka daughter) placed 33rd! Awesome job!

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.

Of course, everyone should make sure to check their puzzle vaults when they get home:

We’ll see you next year!


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Crossword Solving Advice, Tournament-Style!

With the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament looming large, newcomers to the tournament and experienced puzzlers alike are trading advice, looking for ways to improve their solving, and gearing up for the latest edition of the Nerd Olympics.

In a similar vein, Lifehacker recently shared a post with advice for how to get better at crosswords. And I thought, with the tournament a little more than a week away, we’d analyze Lifehacker’s suggestions for sharpening your solving game.

1.) Do puzzles every day.

According to article author A.A. Newton, “the only way to improve at crosswords is to do lots of them, and the best way to do that is to work them into your daily routine.” Now, since there is more than one entry in her list, clearly that’s not THE ONLY way to improve.

But this is still valuable advice, especially with the tournament coming up. You see, a fair number of crossword solvers solve them online, either through apps or website interfaces, rather than on paper. But since the tournament puzzles are solved on paper, it’s a good idea to practice the old-fashioned way for a few weeks before the competition, especially if solving time is a priority for you.

2.) Use an app.

Like I said, access to puzzles is a great thing; being able to solve crosswords for all sorts of skill levels at the touch of a button… you can’t beat it. It exposes you to different cluing styles, theme ideas, and all sorts of clever wordplay.

I’d recommend an app that tracks your solving. Several apps like our very own Daily POP Crosswords app track data like your solving times, themes or categories you excel in, and even streaks of days gone without missing a daily puzzle!

3.) Know when — and how — to cheat

Now, this one is a little bit clickbait-y, since it’s only cheating if you look up answers during actual competition. I don’t consider it cheating to admit defeat on a clue you can’t get or a reference you don’t know, and looking it up in order to educate yourself.

Many apps offer hints — either by offering additional letters or entire words that are stumping you — which allows you to continue solving and get past a roadblock in your crossword knowledge.

And if you’re solving a paper puzzle, there are numerous crossword clue sites on the Internet with databases of previously used clues for you to peruse. Not only does this help you with the troublesome clue at hand, but it shows you the different variations of clues you might see for a given entry, which is helpful in the long run.

Of course, you can’t actually do this sort of thing at the ACPT. (Though you can utilize “Google tickets” at other tournament events like Lollapuzzoola, where instructors will silently provide an answer for you so you can keep solving.)

4.) Study up

There are all sorts of crossword resources out there. The article namedrops a few, like Rex Parker’s blog, XWordInfo, and several online guides to crosswordese.

I would also recommend Wordplay, the companion blog to The New York Times crossword. Not only does Deb Amlen break down each day’s puzzles, but there are articles collecting words that will help you become a better solver. Musical terms, authors, plants, opera terms, French rivers, characters from Greek mythology… the whole series is packed with common crosswordese and little obscurities that crossword solvers have come to know and, if not love, then at least tolerate.

But there is other tournament-specific advice I would offer:

  • Have pencils and erasers handy. Maybe a sharpener as well, though there are a few scattered around the competition space. (And we always have one available for use at the Penny Dell / PuzzleNation table in the marketplace!)
  • Bring a clipboard or other writing surface, since the solving space is often tableclothed, which can interact poorly with sharp pencils and paper puzzles.
  • Talk to fellow puzzlers. There’s nothing better than the experience of other solvers, many of whom are also constructors or tournament regulars.
  • Everyone approaches the actual solving process differently. Some people scan the clues for fill-in-the-blank clues or people’s names and fill those in first. Others read through the clues sequentially and fill in what they can. Some solvers even try to solve using only the Down clues, and then double-check their solve with the Across clues. My advice is to try different techniques and see what works best for you.

Whether it’s your first time attending a tournament or you’ve got a few seasons under your belt, there are always new tricks to learn and new techniques to try out.

Do you have any solving advice we missed? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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A New Gaming Opportunity for Opportunity?

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Last month, the world collectively mourned the loss of the Opportunity Rover, as NASA declared that the incredible machine’s marathon body of work on Mars had officially ended.

Its mission was meant to last 90 days. Opportunity vastly overperformed, delivering photos and data for a mind-blowing fifteen years of service. The Little Engine That Could has got nothing on the Opportunity Rover.

The outpouring of sadness and affection for the Rover surprised many, serving as a heartwarming reminder of the amazing things we can accomplish. It also represents our almost magical ability to come together as a people in appreciation of an icon, one we’d come to adore and anthropomorphize into a plucky, inquisitive adventurer.

[Image courtesy of Tom Gauld.]

As you might expect, a character with this much esteem couldn’t pass into history without the game community immortalizing it in some way, shape, or form.

Thanks to WalrockHomebrew, an independent content creator for RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, the Opportunity Rover can now be part of your roleplaying campaigns!

Creating not only full stats for Oppy as a neutral good construct but a plausible explanation for how this real-world scientific device has found itself in a magical universe, WalrockHomebrew has crafted a fun fictional legacy for the much-loved rover.

Understandably, Oppy isn’t much of a fighter, though it can use its rock abrasion tool to scratch at any potential foes. It’s far more capable as an observer, seeing through magical illusions and glamours.

It can even see invisible creatures and creatures in the Ethereal Plane. As far as we know, the actual rover couldn’t.

Though, if it could, I suspect its reports to NASA would’ve been front page material every single day.

[WalrockHomebrew even offered rules for how to restore the rover in-game to full operational capacity. Pretty cool!]

This is a wonderful tribute to one of the most amazing devices ever conceived. Thank you, Oppy, for all of the wonders you revealed.

And thank you, WalrockHomebrew, for letting us hold onto that magic in an unexpected and delightful way.


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Science Says Board Games Are Good For Your Relationship?

[Image courtesy of Medium.com.]

One of the hallmarks of a healthy relationship is enjoying the same activities. If you’re spending time together doing something you both find engaging, then you’re golden.

But, as it turns out, there are some activities that offer greater benefits than others.

According to a recent study published by Baylor University, couples who play board games together are actually strengthening their relationships chemically.

[Incidentally, there is a hilarious world of photos dedicated to couples with chess boards out there. Here are just some of my favorites.]

From the article on Baylor.edu:

For the study, Melton and Maria Boccia, Ph.D., professor of child and family studies, recruited 20 couples ranging in age from 25 to 40. Couples were randomly assigned to participate in one of two couple dates — game night or couple art class — for one hour.

One group played board games in a familiar home-like setting. Couples were alone. These couples chose familiar games that would not require them to read instructions.

The study was designed to examine any increase in levels of oxytocin in the couples’ hormone levels. Oxytocin, often referred to as the hugging hormone, plays a role in building social connections.

[Image courtesy of Daily Mail.]

Here’s the breakdown on oxytocin release increases:

  • men in the art class
  • women playing board games
  • women in the art class
  • men playing board games

Curiously, while there wasn’t a significant difference between the latter three categories, men in the art class released 2 to 2.5 times more oxytocin than the other groups.

There were measurable increases in the oxytocin levels for both men and women playing board games, lending credence to the idea that playing together is good for your relationship.

Some of the games used in the study: cards, checkers, chess, dominoes, and Monopoly. Given some of my unpleasant experiences playing Monopoly, I’m surprised that one didn’t throw off the curve somewhat.

[Image courtesy of Grey Mass Games.]

It does make me wonder, though, if some games would provoke greater oxytocin releases than others.

Would cooperative games like Pandemic, Forbidden Island, or Castle Panic! lead to increases, or is the type of game irrelevant? Are more stressful games, like those with timers or ones where quick reaction time is integral to winning, less likely to build those chemical connections?

Sounds like a field ripe for further study. Of course, I’m a little biased. I’ll take any excuse to play more games. =)


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Valentine’s Day Puzzle Fun!

It’s Valentine’s Day.

I know, I know, you’ve been bombarded with Valentine’s-themed content for days or weeks now.

I get that. Sure, I could spend today’s post talking about examples of puzzly romance like romantic cryptic crossword clues. I could regale you with tales of marriage proposals cloaked in puzzly trappings. I could offer up some last-minute gift ideas. I could discuss romantic puzzle moments from television.

But maybe you want a break. Maybe… you just want to read about puzzles.

And whether you’re single or in a relationship, a fan of today or a detractor of Valentine’s Day trapping, there’s one thing we can all agree on.

We love a good puzzle.

So I cooked one up for you.

Of course, I couldn’t ignore the holiday, so with Valentine’s Day in mind, it seemed appropriate to whip up a Partners puzzle for you to solve. Enjoy!

Can you unscramble and match these pairs from film, television, and literature?

Why nineteen? Well, it’s 2019, and I couldn’t resist flouting the convention of nice round numbers by not coming up with a 20th entry. Heck, maybe I’ll make this a thing, avoid round numbers for a while longer, do a top 12 tead of a top 10. Just to keep this gag going.

Oh, and I couldn’t include some of my favorite couples for logistical reasons (too many 3-letter anagrams would be blah) or obscurity, so shout-out to Han & Leia, Gemma & Leopold (FitzSimmons!), Vastra & Jenny, and of course, both Jim & Pam and Tim & Dawn from The Office.

Anyway, enjoy putting your anagram and matching skills to work! Let us know how you did in the comments below!


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Puzzly Ideas in Time for Valentine’s Day!

Every year, we offer up some puzzly ideas for celebrating Valentine’s Day. Usually, we post it the same week of the holiday, but you know what? Even if they’re designed to be last-minute ideas, we thought we’d switch things up and offer a bit more lead time.

Yes, Valentine’s Day looms large, and sometimes it’s hard to find that perfect way to express your love for that certain someone… particularly if that certain someone is the puzzly type.

But we’ve got a few suggestions…

puzzle-pin-valentines-day-craft-photo-420-ff0299vala16

Jigsaw puzzles are the perfect metaphor for relationships, as they require separate pieces working together to complete the picture.

There are necklaces and other pieces of jigsaw-themed jewelry, as well as do-it-yourself jigsaw patterns you can utilize. You could depict anything from a favorite photo to a specific Valentine’s message in the completed image.

4903-13710

Now, you can always start with something simple, like a subscription to a puzzle service like The Crosswords ClubThe American Values Club Crossword, or Matt Gaffney’s Weekly Crossword Contest. New puzzles every week or every month are a great gift. (Especially the Valentine’s Deluxe Sets for the Penny Dell Crosswords app! *wink*)

If they’re more into mechanical puzzles, our friends at Tavern Puzzles offer several brain teasers that incorporate a heart shape.

heartpuzzle

But if you’re looking for something more personalized, why not make a crossword for them yourself?

(Yes, you can also commission a top puzzler to do one for you, but you’d usually want to get the ball rolling on something like that well before Valentine’s Day.)

Now, to be fair, crosswords can be tough and time-intensive to make, so if that feels a little daunting, why not try a Framework puzzle instead? It involves the same crossing style, but doesn’t require you to use every letter.

valentine-s-day-love-wedding-criss-cross-word-game-romance-themed-puzzle-also-known-as-fill-blanks-crossword-puzzle-36632791

[This grid is presented fill-in style, in case you
don’t want to use crossword-style numbering.
Check out the original here.]

It allows you to maintain a terrific word list all about you and your significant other without all the effort of filling in every square crossword-style.

Or you could write the object of your affection a coded love letter! All throughout history, people have employed different tricks and techniques to keep their private messages away from prying eyes, and you could do the same! Whether it’s a simple letter-shifting cipher or something more complex, make sure your message is worth reading. =)

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

Have you considered a puzzle bouquet? You could grab some newspaper crosswords and origami them into flower shapes for a fun puzzle-fueled spin on a holiday classic.

img_8721

Or you could hide jigsaw pieces around the house that, when put together, spell out a Valentine’s message or a picture of the two of you.

Put your own spin on the idea. A little bit of effort can go a long way, plus it doesn’t cost anything.

With a little more effort, you could whip up a scavenger hunt! You could leave clues around leading to a gift, or a romantic dinner, or some other grand finale. Maybe offer a rose with each clue.

Show off how much you know about him or her. You could make each clue or destination about your relationship or about your partner, allowing you to show off how well you know them… where you first met, favorite meals, favorite movie…

If you don’t want to leave things around where anyone could nab them, keep a few small tokens on you, giving one for each destination reached or clue solved. Heck, you could enlist a friend to text clues to your special someone once they’ve reached a particular destination!

Or for something less formal, you could make a game of your romantic wanderings and play Valentine’s Day Bingo.

valentines-bingo-stripes-blank-blog

[I found this blank template on Makoodle.com.]

Maybe go for a walk or take your loved one out to dinner, and see if they can get bingo by observing different things. A couple holding hands as they walk, a Valentine’s Day proposal, outrageously priced flowers…

The possibilities are endless when you put your mind to it.


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