The Boswords Themeless League Returns Soon (Plus Some Puzzle Activism!)

boswords new

The Boswords summer crossword tournament has been a highlight of the puzzly calendar for years now, but during the pandemic, they also made a splash with their Fall and Spring Themeless Leagues.

And registration is now open for the Boswords 2021 Fall Themeless League!

If you’re unfamiliar, the Fall Themeless League is a clever weekly spin on traditional crossword tournament-style solving. Instead of cracking through a number of puzzles in a single day (or two), the Fall Themeless League consists of one themeless crossword each week, scored based on your accuracy and how fast you complete the grid.

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Each week’s puzzle only has one grid, but there are three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth is the least challenging, Choppy is the middle ground, and Stormy is the most challenging. (When solvers register to participate, they’ll choose the difficulty level that suits them best.)

Sign up, and you get two months of puzzly fun running through October and November!

Plus, they’ve already announced a dynamite lineup of constructors for this season’s puzzles. Here’s the full list: Evan Birnholz, Kameron Austin Collins, Mollie Cowger, Debbie Ellerin, Leslie Rogers, Quiara Vasquez, Byron Walden, Nam Jin Yoon, and the team of Angela Olson Halsted and Doug Peterson.

There’s a terrific mix of established names and up-and-coming constructors there, and I expect the season to be a terrific exploration of the best of themeless crosswords.

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The project is once again being spearheaded by the dynamic duo of John Lieb and Andrew Kingsley, and Brad Wilber will be the puzzle editor.

It’s only $30 to enter as an individual participant ($40 for Pairs), but there’s also a student/discount level for participants who may find the $30 price tag too steep. (There are also puzzle packets from the previous Themeless Leagues available for $10 apiece.)

The Boswords Seasonal Themeless League events have not only opened my eyes to the creativity and skill required for themeless crosswords, but they’ve become some of my favorite parts of the puzzly calendar.

Be sure to click this link for more information, sample puzzles, instructional videos, and more.

And you can check out our thoughts on both the 2020 Fall Themeless League and the 2021 Spring Themeless League for more info as well!


Puzzling and charitable acts often intersect. This is true of the Boswords team with their wonderful discounted option for participants, as well as their donation to Boston-based charities from the proceeds of their summer tournament

And while we’re discussing the intersection of puzzling and doing good, it’s worth mentioning that there are numerous examples of crossword projects working hand-in-hand with social activism for the greater good.

Queer Qrosswords, Women of Letters, and the charity puzzle packets organized by our friends at Lone Shark Games are only a few examples. All of them provide puzzle bundles for you to enjoy if you show them that you’ve donated to worthwhile charities and other helpful groups and causes.

But there’s another one you might not have heard about: These Puzzles Fund Abortion.

This puzzle packet, originally created to raise funds for the Baltimore Abortion Fund, contains the work of over a dozen constructors, and serves as a marvelous incentive to donate to abortion funds all over the country.

Please click this link hosted by Just Gridding for more information. It’s a terrific way to do some good.


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Have you checked out our special summer deals yet? You can find them on the Home Screen for Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search! Check them out!

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Need Crosswords Sorted by Difficulty? Look No Further!

A quick reminder before today’s blog post:

ThinkFun’s Cold Case: A Story to Die For is available for preorder today on Amazon and the ThinkFun website!

Click here to check out our spoiler-free review!


Getting into crosswords can be daunting for new puzzlers. Maybe you’ve solved the syndicated puzzle in your local paper, or you’ve downloaded one of those fabulous apps like Daily POP Crosswords, and you’ve enjoyed, but you’re looking to expand your solving horizons.

The New York Times crossword is well-known, for sure, but has an intimidating reputation as the flagship brand. You know other companies and newspapers have crosswords, but you’re just not sure where to start.

We’ve got good news for you on that front.

A constructor and crossword enthusiast named Lloyd Morgan has assembled what he calls the crossword difficulty matrix, and it’s a thoroughly impressive launchpad for new and inexperienced crossword fans to explore a lot of terrific puzzles and crossword venues.

[Click here for a larger version!]

He originally launched a version of the crossword difficulty matrix on Reddit, and then expanded and adapted it based on feedback from fellow solvers. His goal was to create a guide for new solvers that would help them find the right puzzles and difficulty rankings for their puzzly comfort level.

Not only does he cover major outlets like The New York Times, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Universal, but he also looped in Kings syndicated constructors like Joseph and Sheffer, plus some other outlets casual solvers might not even be aware of!

I haven’t really seen anything like this made available for enthusiastic solvers before, and I think he did a terrific job.

Then again, I’m not the savviest crossword solver around.

[Me, watching faster and more clever solvers posting their solve times.]

But I do know some pretty savvy cruciverbalists, so I reached out to some topnotch and experienced constructors and solvers and asked for their thoughts on the crossword difficulty matrix.

Wordplay blogger and brilliant crossword lady Deb Amlen thought it was a totally fair breakdown of puzzle difficulty, though she noted, “I still believe that if you asked 10 solvers about the difficulty of a puzzle, you will get 10 different answers.” TRUTH.

David Steinberg, editor of the Universal Crossword, thought the matrix was pretty accurate as well, though he suggested a few tweaks regarding “Universal (which has no increase in difficulty during the week for 15x15s, though the Sunday 21×21 is a bit more challenging) and maybe the Wall Street Journal (which I would consider a little easier in the early week).”

Looks like Deb’s prediction is already coming true.

I also reached out to constructor Doug Peterson, one of the most knowledgeable puzzlers in the game today, was also kind enough to offer his thoughts:

I don’t really know the Joseph & Sheffer puzzles, but I believe they’re easy, unthemed 13x13s, so light-green makes sense for those. And I think New York Magazine is Matt Gaffney, so that seems about right too. Yeah, this is well-done. I might tick up the Thursday NY Times a notch, but it varies from week to week.

He had some suggestions for other venues to include as well:

If folks are looking for something else at the Very Difficult/dark-red end of the scale, Fireball [Crosswords] sometimes gets there. They’re definitely a “red” venue. The Inkubator I’d put in that middle yellow/Wednesday area for their themed stuff. And AV Club is literally the entire range above “Very Easy.”

I did ask one or two other puzzlers, but they hadn’t had the chance to reply by press time, so we’ll probably revisit this topic in the future (especially if Lloyd offers an updated version).

But in the meantime, I want to give some well-deserved kudos to Lloyd for this marvelous resource for new solvers. Not only does it include a lot of terrific outlets, but it offers a terrific stepladder of difficulty for them to find ever-increasing challenges whenever they’d like!

Thank you to Lloyd, as well as the marvelous constructors and puzzly folks who offered their thoughts. You’re all part of a brilliant, vibrant, and welcoming crossword community.


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Ask a Puzzler: What’s your puzzly pet peeve?

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Originally this post was going to be a nitpicky little thing where I focused on one of my puzzly pet peeves.

But it occurred to me that this might not just be a pet peeve of mine. It might similarly irk other puzzle people I know.

I then reached out to some of the constructors I know to ask what their puzzly pet peeves are. And, as it turns out, there are lots of silly little things in crosswords and other puzzles that catch the ire of constructors and puzzle-minded folks.

So please join us as we kvetch and complain a little bit and let off some steam about one of our favorite pastimes.

Welcome to Ask a Puzzler: What’s one of your puzzly pet peeves?


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Constructor Joanne Sullivan:

The myth that solving in pen is the highest achievement.

Winners of the ACPT have told me that they never solve in pen. Almost all solvers (including the expert speed-solvers) use pencils at crossword tournaments. You could write a whole article on serious crossword solvers’ pencil preferences–wood vs. mechanical, .5 mm vs. .7 mm lead, disposable vs. refillable, etc.

When I’ve worked as a judge at crossword tournaments, I’ve been irked by solvers who solve in pen and then wrote over their original answers when they made mistakes because they couldn’t erase them. If they insist on using pens, at least they should use ones with erasable ink. Sloppy handwriting in tournament puzzles is also a pain for judges. What’s worse than mere sloppy handwriting is inconsistency. If a contestant always uses the same squiggle to represent a certain letter, it’s easier to determine their intent, but if they form the same letter different ways in different squares, it can be maddening for judges.


Washington Post Crossword editor Evan Birnholz:

A pet peeve of mine is the tendency to refer only to classical or Romantic-era music pieces when writing clues about keys (A MINOR, C MAJOR, etc). Mozart and Beethoven and Chopin are great, but there are other genres and musicians who used those keys, too.


Universal Crossword editor David Steinberg:

I’d say my puzzly pet peeve is when a crossword has too many cross-reference clues (like “See 19-Across”), since it’s always sort of frustrating to be sent all over the grid.


Constructor Doug Peterson:

Clues that want me to think the answer is a “good name” for a certain profession.

For example STU as a [Good name for a cook?] or SUE as a [Good name for a lawyer?]. OTTO for a chauffeur, OWEN for a debtor, PHILIP for a gas station attendant. The list goes on and on. I love third grade riddles as much as anyone, but for some reason these stick in my craw. =)

In my opinion, this sort of thing only works for pets. OREO is a great name for a black-and-white kitten!

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Fireball Crosswords constructor Peter Gordon:

The best I can come up with is when someone feels the need to cross off the clue number after filling in the answer. Why bother doing that?

[PN Blog: I confess. I do this.]


Wordplay blogger Deb Amlen:

It took me a really long time to understand when there was a rebus element in a puzzle. I spent a lot of time cursing at my empty grid before I realized that something must be up.


Daily POP Crosswords constructor Robin Stears:

Puzzle books for little kids, particularly the ones in the dollar stores.

Very often, they’re nothing more than scaled-down grids with clues written for adults. And for some reason, they all contain the word ARIA, which I doubt children even know, unless Peppa Pig has a friend named Aria. I actually saw one with a Blackjack clue for ACE! Are these kids today playing poker on the playground? At my school, we didn’t learn how to count cards until the eleventh grade. 😉


Constructor Neville Fogarty:

My biggest pet peeve in the world of puzzles is actually in the world of cryptics — indirect anagrams! I can’t stand when a clue involves rearranging letters that you aren’t given. That’s just not fair; there are too many possibilities!

Fortunately, most publishers of cryptics edit these out, but I still see these on occasion from newer setters and indie sites. Yikes!


Oh, and what was the pet peeve that inspired this entry in the first place?

When people call things crosswords that aren’t crosswords.

I get it. You see a clued puzzle where words cross, and you think crossword. But it’s not. It’s a crisscross. It’s a perfectly valid puzzle, but it’s not a crossword.

Perhaps the most egregious example recently was featured on the Hallmark website page for the Crossword Mysteries series of films. They advertise a crossword tie-in to each show. And when you click on it, you get this:

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That’s not a crossword. And this happens all the time. a blog page or an activity book or a tie-in product related to some pop culture property, you’ll be told there’s a crossword to solve…

And you get a crisscross instead.

Several of my fellow puzzlers chimed in on this topic when I mentioned it as my example of a puzzly pet peeve.

Joanne Sullivan: Oh, don’t get me started! Criss-crosses being passed off as crosswords are bad enough, but I think it’s even worse when clueless designers try to emulate real crosswords but make all kinds of mistakes like lack of symmetry, noncontiguous white squares, unchecked squares, and worst of all, nonsensical numbering. I can’t stand it when fake crosswords in cartoons or fabrics have numbers thrown in them willy-nilly.

Robin Stears: Dang it, you stole my pet peeve. I was just complaining to someone the other day about a book cover with a pseudo-crossword grid that wasn’t really a crossword puzzle at all!

Oh, and puzzle books for kids very often try to pass off criss-crosses as crosswords, too. It’s not just Hallmark — that new People crossword game is not a crossword either. Six words that vaguely overlap do not a crossword puzzle make, and you can quote me on that.


Did you enjoy this fun little venting session, fellow PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below, and we might do another Ask a Puzzler post in the future! (But not too often. I don’t want them to start dreading emails from me.)

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Delving into the Lollapuzzoola 12 puzzles!

The twelfth edition of Lollapuzzoola arrived, as expected, on a Saturday in August, and it did not disappoint. The largest annual crossword tournament in New York (and the second largest in the world) has become not only one of the highlights of the puzzle calendar, but an institution at this point.

I was not in attendance, but I did sign up for the Solve At Home puzzle packet. Last weekend, I finally had a chance to sit down and try my hands at this year’s tournament puzzles, and I was not disappointed. Lollapuzzoola continues to push the envelope with inventive themes and unique spins on how to bring crosswords to life.

This year’s theme was “Be Part of the Future!” so every puzzle had something to do with time periods or the future in general, and the constructors were clearly inspired in all sorts of ways. Let’s take a look at what they came up with.


Warm-Up: Twinlets by Brian Cimmet

This puzzle felt more like hitting the ground running than warming up, but it definitely got the creative juices flowing. The solver is presented with two identical grids and two sets of clues, and you have to figure out which grid each answer applies to.

This was complicated by the fact that several of the clues were the same for multiple entries. For example, the clue to 1 Across for both grids was “Popular Nabisco cracker brand.” The grids themselves also made for a tough solve, since there were several sections only connected by a single word, so you had fewer ins to tell you which answer applied.

Overall, this was a tough but fair way to open up the tournament, despite a few oddball entries (like YES OR NO).

Interesting grid entries included SOFT TACO, SUDOKU, ZYGOTE, and RAGTIME, and my favorite clues were “Pace rival” for ORTEGA and “Actress Gadot who has done lots of great things, but listing them isn’t going to help you get the answer (which you’ve probably already written in anyway, so really what’s the point)” for GAL.

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[Image courtesy of Wrong Hands.]

Puzzle 1: Tense Situation by C.C. Burnikel

The competition puzzles kicked off with this gem, a terrific 15x opener that properly set the tone for the rest of the day’s puzzles with a fun hook and solid fill. The themed entries all involved verbs where the tense had changed from the traditional phrasing, so TURKEYSHOOT became TURKEYSHOT (“Picture of a Thanksgiving entree?”) and NANCYDREW became NANCYDRAW (“Command to Mrs. Reagan to use a crayon?”).

Packing 6 themed entries into a relatively small grid didn’t hamper the grid construction at all, making for relatively little crosswordese and a smooth solve overall.

Interesting grid entries included STONE COLD, BYZANTINE, and BYRDS, and my favorite clue was “Prepares to sing an anthem” for RISES.

Puzzle 2: Wormholes by Stella Zawistowski

The difficulty increased with Puzzle 2, as Zawistowski tested solvers with an enjoyable swapping puzzle. In this puzzle, the theme entries each mentioned a unit of time, but it was swapped with another theme entry’s unit of time. So GLORYDAYS and MODELYEAR became GLORYYEAR and MODELDAYS. These unfamiliar phrases, when paired with straight-forward cluing, made for a solve that keeps you on your toes.

When paired with some tough fill — entries like OPCIT, SYLPH, and UNAGI — you’ve got a recipe for a puzzle that probably slowed a few puzzlers down in competition.

Interesting grid entries included EL CAPITAN, LAYLA, ON A BREAK, and MARILU (plus a nod to the absolutely horrible B-movie THE CAR), and my favorite clues were “Ran in the rain, say” for BLED and “Many a Comic-Con event” for PANEL.

Fountain of youth concept.

[Image courtesy of Burke Williams Spa.]

Puzzle 3: “If I Could Turn Back Time” by Paolo Pasco

At the halfway point for the regular tournament puzzles, our constructor took our time gimmick into the future in a delightfully fun way. In Puzzle 3, all of the celebrity names in the themed entries really needed the revealer (FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH), because they’d aged in punny fashion. JULIA CHILD became JULIA ADOLESCENT, HARVEY MILK became HARVEY CHEESE, JOEY FATONE became KANGAROO FATONE, and so on.

Six themed entries plus a revealer made for a very busy grid, but the fill complemented the puzzle nicely, making for one of the quickest and smoothest solves of the day.

Interesting grid entries included XANAX, FIJI, THE CURE, STIMULI, and OH HELL, and my favorite clues were “Musical key dreaded by racecar drivers?” for AFLAT, “Redding who made lots of green singing the blues” for OTIS, and the pairing of “Length of your friend’s one-man version of ‘Cats,’ seemingly” for EONS and “Casual answer to ‘Do you want to see my one-man version of ‘Cats’?” for NAH.

Puzzle 4: Saving Face by Maddie Gillespie and Doug Peterson

Although Puzzle 3 was the most fun to solve, Puzzle 4 was my favorite when it came to the grid construction and overall concept for the puzzle. You see, many of the across entries had letters missing, letters that had been shoehorned into their clues (and fit between the other letters in broken grid boxes).

So while DENALI was spelled DEALI in the grid, the missing N found its way into the clue “Alaskan national park with many nice walls for climbers.” [Bolding is my own to highlight the added letter.]

The missing/repurposed letters spelled out three words reading down — WATCH, SUNDIAL, and CLOCK — all time-keeping artifacts hidden between the lines. A completed grid also reveals the instructions for the solver to follow, reading GATHER THE PIECES and FIX THE TIMELINES down the grid.

There’s a lot going on in this puzzle, and it all works together nicely. Not unlike some of the missing artifacts, when properly maintained.

Interesting grid entries included ECSTASY, LIME WEDGE, XBOX, AMBASSADOR, and IDEA MEN, and my favorite clues were “Group with an electrifying stage presence” for ACDC and “Gendered term that 26-Down should be able to improve upon” for IDEA MEN. (This was, naturally, 26-Down.)

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[Image courtesy of The Verge.]

Puzzle 5: Movie Theater Time Machine by Robyn Weintraub

The regular tournament puzzles wrapped up with this 21×21 puzzle, which expanded on the time-shifting gimmick of puzzle 3 with movie titles as the themed entries. For instance, instead of SUNSET BOULEVARD, we had SUNRISE BOULEVARD. Instead of BOOGIE NIGHTS, it was BOOGIE AFTERNOONS. With entries shifting backward and forward in time, there was plenty of opportunity for some fun wordplay.

The larger grid allowed for longer themed entries and longer fill entries as well, adding loads of clever vocabulary to a well-constructed grid. This was the perfect capper to the traditional tournament puzzles, making for a fair and engaging solve to close out the day.

Interesting grid entries included GENERATION X, SPIDER-SENSE, LET’S DANCE, JETTY, and ONE-ACT PLAY, and my favorite clues were “It’s frequently in a sonnet?” for OFT and the clever trio of “Go with the flow, figuratively” for ADAPT, “Go with the flow, e.g.” for IDIOM, and “Go with the flow, literally” for DRIFT.

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Puzzle 6: Finals by Mike Nothnagel

As always, there were two sets of clues for the Finals puzzle, the Local and the more difficult Express clues. No matter which clues you were working with, you were in for a terrific tournament finale.

With a pair of 10-letter entries mentioning time as anchors for the puzzle — FINEST HOUR and MINUTE MAID — Mike delivered a tight grid with some terrific filler entries and impressive stacks of 7- and 8-letter words in the corners.

This was a final puzzle worthy of a tournament built around clever hooks, top-notch construction, and delightful cluing, and it delivered in spades. I certainly had to jump all over the grid to find places to get started, whereas the top solvers no doubt powered through with staggering speed.

Interesting grid entries included WAR DANCE, BEGUILES, YULETIDE, GROUP HUG, and AVALON, and my favorite clues were “Road trips to the big game?” for SAFARIS and “They may send your spouse to another room” for SNORES.

There was also a tiebreaker themeless by Brian Cimmet which was a quick and satisfying solve, and seemed to be going for the record for clue length with examples like:

  • “Actress Ronan of ‘Lady Bird,’ whose name has four vowels in it and is pronounced SEER-shuh, if that’s any help” for SAOIRSE
  • “Mother of the most famous television character played by 20-Across” for ELYSE (20-Across was, appropriately, MICHAEL J. FOX)
  • “It precedes Alaska in a horrible dad joke I learned as a kid” for IDAHO

The puzzles at Lollapuzzoola always impress, and this year was no exception. The grids were tight, there was little crosswordese, and the creative themes and puzzle mechanics — from hiding entry letters in clues to switching verb tenses and ages on the solver — ensured that not only would fun be had by all, but that the unique puzzles would linger in your memory.

Mission accomplished, and congratulations on the competitors and the organizers who made it all happen. Lollapuzzoola is only getting more creative, more groundbreaking, and more clever with each passing year.

I can’t wait to see what they come up with next year!


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Lollapuzzoola 12 Lands This Weekend!

This Saturday, August 17, marks the twelfth edition of the Lollapuzzoola crossword puzzle tournament!

If you haven’t heard — and seriously, how have you not heard by now?! — Lollapuzzoola is an independent crossword tournament run by constructors and puzzle aficionados Brian Cimmet and Patrick Blindauer. The tournament features puzzles constructed with a more freewheeling style than those found at the more traditional American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

As they say, it’s “the best tournament held in New York on a Saturday in August.”

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

With a warm-up puzzle, the five official tournament puzzles, and the championship finale puzzle, you’re guaranteed to get your money’s worth as you solve. These puzzles crackle with style, both fun and befuddling in how often they revitalize and reinvent classic crossword tropes.

And for those who reach the top of mountain, “winners in each division are awarded prizes, which could range from a box of used pencils to a brand new car. So far, no one has ever won a car.

Although registration is closed for actually attending the tournament — though there is a waiting list — fret not!

The At-Home Division is open for any and all solvers to enjoy from the comfort of your home. For $15, you’ll receive the tournament puzzles the next day for your enjoyment (or frustration, depending on the difficulty).

Just look at the constructors involved in this year’s tournament! Stella Zawistowski, Mike Nothnagel, C.C. Burnikel, Maddie Gillespie, Paolo Pasco, Robyn Weintraub, and Doug Peterson. I can’t wait to see what they cook up for the competitors!

It should be a great time, either in person or for solvers at home. Lollapuzzoola is truly one of the highlights of the puzzle calendar.

You can click here for all things Lollapuzzoola, and to check out last year’s tournament puzzles, click here for our in-depth review!

Are you planning on attending Lollapuzzoola 12 or solving from home? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you!


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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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