Celebrity Constructors Galore!

[Bill Clinton enjoys a puzzle and a snack. Image courtesy of The New York Times.]

The New York Times Crossword celebrated 75 years of puzzles back in February, and ever since, they’ve been commemorating that puzzly milestone with a series of collaborations between established constructors and celebrity guests to create special monthly puzzles.

It started on February 15th, the 75th anniversary, with a collaboration by Patrick Blindauer and actor Jesse Eisenberg offering some food for thought with culinary wordplay.

On March 20th, astronomer and affable Pluto slayer Neil deGrasse Tyson joined Andrea Carla Michaels in creating a punny look at the stars.

Classical pianist Emanuel Ax teamed up with Brad Wilber to pen a music-minded puzzler on April 19th.

None other than former president Bill Clinton tried his hand at creating a crossword alongside judge and constructor Victor Fleming for the May 12th edition of the puzzle.

Tuesday, June 6th saw musician Lisa Loeb duet with crossword gentleman and friend of the blog Doug Peterson. Their theme involved concealing one-word #1 hit songs (including one of Loeb’s!) in larger phrases, leading to a Rihanna reference with UMBRELLAPOLICY, for instance.

And big names continue to appear.

Comedian and Tails of Joy pet advocate Elayne Boosler teamed up with Patrick Merrell for the July 12th puzzle, where they did modern day versions of classic films. For instance, Taxi Driver became UBERDRIVER and Holiday Inn became HOLIDAYAIRBNB. It was an excellent collab that made the most of Merrell’s gift of grid fill and Boosler’s wit and wordplay.

Clothing designer and television host Isaac Mizrahi joined forces with constructor David J. Kahn for the July 30th puzzle, employing crafty clues to put a spin on DIY construction phrases like “Cut and dried” and “On pins and needles.”

Tying a given puzzle’s theme to the guest constructor has been a recurring theme with the 75th anniversary puzzles, and the duo of Mizrahi/Kahn produced arguably the best examples thus far this year.

Most recently, constructor David Steinberg paired off with host, comedian, magician, and performer Neil Patrick Harris for the August 24th edition of the puzzle. Their magic-themed puzzle not only incorporated different parts of a standard magic show, but it concealed the name of a famous magician by hiding him among the down answers. (Or it would have, if he hadn’t escaped!)

Brilliant execution makes for a clever puzzle that Jeff Chen of XWordInfo declared one of his favorite puzzles of the year. (Of course, readers of the blog shouldn’t be surprised after solving the crossword Neil included in his autobiography.)

With more celebrity constructors still to come, including “a venerable TV journalist, a morning TV host, a six-time Emmy-winning actor, and a sitting U.S. senator, among others” (according to Will Shortz), I am definitely looking forward to seeing what other tricks these constructor/celeb duos have up their sleeves.


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ACPT 2017 Wrap-Up!

acptlogo

The 40th 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.

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I made the journey down to Stamford myself Saturday morning. As I arrived at the hotel, I was unexpectedly greeted by an enthusiastic marching band and cheering fans!

As it turns out, they weren’t there for me (or any of the other puzzlers), as the Oregon women’s basketball team was also in attendance. But that was a pleasant, and slightly raucous, surprise. Go Ducks!

Once I had sidestepped the band and revelers and made my way into the hotel, I sat in with my friend Stacey Scarso at the Penny Dell Puzzles booth.

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Our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles 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.

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 Weaver Words puzzle. (And, yes, in their downtime between tournament puzzles, many competitors DO solve other puzzles. Madness!)

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At 9 AM, the tournament was two hours away, but the marketplace was up and running. There were puzzle magazines galore (including a table of Merl Reagle’s puzzle books), developers showing off their puzzle app Word Squares, and ACPT-themed jewelry, key chains, and other items from All of the Things.

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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, constructor Ian Livengood, 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, like the two lovely ladies wearing “Monday Puzzlers” t-shirts.

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.

And there were icons of the puzzle community, like NYT Wordplay blogger Deb Amlen, event organizer and made man in puzzles Will Shortz, and programmer Saul Pwanson, who helped reveal the USA Today/Universal Uclick crossword plagiarism scandal last year.

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 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.

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A jump in attendance from last year saw the room absolutely packed with competitors. Will Shortz joked that there were 624 solvers and 625 chairs. I’ve certainly never seen the room that crowded.

When Puzzle 1 arrived, several competitors I spoke to were surprised at its difficulty. There would be no cracking this puzzle in under 2 minutes, as former champion Dan Feyer did in 2015. Most of the top competitors hovered around the 4 minute mark. And this wouldn’t be the only puzzle that kept solvers on their toes.

Puzzle 2, constructed by veteran puzzler Patrick Berry, received rave reviews for its cleverness and elegant fill, providing a nice counterpoint to Puzzle 1.

25acpt2017-puz2rankings-master768

[The rankings after Puzzle 2 (posted as competitors were heading into Puzzle 4)]

Puzzle 3 was constructed by Brendan Emmett Quigley, and following the path set Puzzle 1, proved far more challenging than expected. At this rate, the always-dreaded Puzzle 5 was still looming, and some solvers were more apprehensive than usual about tackling it later in the day. That being said, several competitors were impressed with Quigley’s constructing. (Not a surprise, his puzzles are always excellent.)

puzzle3

Puzzle 4 was constructed by relative newcomer Julie Berube, who was in attendance and super-excited to see competitors tackle her puzzle. The general consensus of competitors was that this puzzle should have been Puzzle 1.

Finally, it was time for Puzzle 5. This year, constructor Mike Shenk 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.

pdp5.jpg

[One of the puzzly keychains offered by All of the Things. I suspect making it
“I finished Puzzle 5 in the time allotted” would limit the possible customer base.]

After the diabolical Puzzle 5, competitors closed out the day with Puzzle 6 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.

acptpuz6

[The standings at the end of the day on Saturday.]

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

Going into Puzzle 7, constructed by Joel Fagliano, former champion Dan Feyer was on top of the leaderboard, followed closely by constructors Erik Agard and Joon Pahk, both of whom were chasing their first tournament victory, as well as former champion Tyler Hinman, who shared third place with Joon.

Not far behind them were familiar names like David Plotkin, Al Sanders, Francis Heaney, Stella Zawistowski, and last year’s winner, Howard Barkin.

acptswimsuit

Puzzle 7 was smooth, a good capper to the official tournament puzzles. But it would prove to be a heartbreaker for one solver in particular. An error by Erik Agard dropped him out of finals contention, opening the door for a former champion who missed out on the finals last year.

It would be Dan Feyer (6 time champion), Tyler Hinman (5 time champion) and Joon Pahk in the finals.

acptfinals

But first, there would be an Oscars-style flub for the B-level finalists, as they were given the A-level clues for the final puzzle.

A quick rundown of the finals: there are three sets of clues written for the final puzzle, labeled A, B, and C. The A-level clues are the hardest, and the C-level clues are the easiest. So the B-level contenders were given much harder clues than intended.

But guess what? All three competitors (including one rookie solver) completed the final, even with the harder clues! That is some impressive solving!

Naturally, this led to some discussion of how to make things tougher for the A-level competitors. I suggested that all their clues should be written in Esperanto, but perhaps the best suggestion came from Ophira Eisenberg, who suggested that we don’t give them any clues, and only reveal the Zs in the grid as hints. Fiendishly clever!

You can watch the final puzzle being solved below:

Tyler Hinman would complete the puzzle first, and by a fairly wide margin, but unfortunately he had an error in the puzzle.

In the end, Dan Feyer would reclaim the crown, tying Jon Delfin for most tournament wins with 7!

danfeyer_2015

And it was a strong showing for many other familiar names! Doug Peterson placed 18th, David Steinberg placed 28th, Patti Varol placed 103rd (up from last year’s showing!), Kathy Matheson 228th (also up from last year’s performance!), and Keith Yarbrough 238th (again, up from last year!) out of a field of over 600 participants.

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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My Favorite Crosswords and Clues for 2016!

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the crossword — the one hundred and third, to be precise — and I thought I would celebrate the day by sharing some of my favorite crossword puzzles and clues from this year.

I solved more crosswords this year than any other year I can remember. From The New York Times, The LA Times, and The Washington Post to Peter Gordon‘s Fireball Newsflash Crosswords and our own Free Daily Puzzle on the Penny Dell Crosswords app, I tried to sample as many constructors and outlets as I could.

I want to start with Ben Tausig’s “Gender-Fluid” quantum puzzle from The New York Times in September. In a year that saw the Times called out several times for tone-deaf and insensitive cluing, to have a puzzle dedicated to the increasing awareness of other gender options was great.

And it certainly didn’t hurt that Ben’s grid was tightly constructed and each of the variable M or F entries worked well. (You can check out my full post on the puzzle here.)

“Eliminating the Competition” by Barany and Friends was another strong crossword with clever letterplay involved. The puzzle paid tribute to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament by dropping the letters A, C, P, and T, respectively from the four theme entries in the grid.

Not only that, but there were no As, Cs, Ps, or Ts to be found anywhere else in the puzzle grid, which I thought was not only clever, but impressively challenging as a constructing gimmick. It was one of the most ambitious grids I saw all year. (You can check out my full post on the puzzle here.)

On the flip side — a puzzle that was more about the clues than the grid — there was the cryptic crossword from Neil Patrick Harris’s Choose Your Own Autobiography.

With clues like “Sounds like an assortment of taxis in which you were the MC (7)” (for CABARET) and “Costar a large, fake amount of money? (7)” (for FILLION), this puzzle not only rewarded attentive readers, but it severely taxed my (admittedly less-than-daunting) skills at unraveling cryptic clues. (You can check out my full post on the puzzle here.)

Oh, and on the topic of cryptic clues, I asked some constructors if there were any clues or puzzles that caught their eye this year, and David Kwong mentioned a doozy of a cryptic clue by master constructors Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon that he considered the most diabolical he’d ever seen.

The clue? “Emphatically, the key to making bozos boss? (9)”

The answer? SFORZANDO, which parses as “S for Z and O.”

That’s awesome. Doug Peterson did a variation on that in this year’s Lollapuzzoola tournament, “What Happened?”, which featured words or phrases where the letter H had been replaced with either a T or a Y. He revealed this with the entry “HISTORY” breaking down “H is T or Y.” I really dug this puzzle.

And speaking of Lollapuzzoola, I absolutely loved Francis Heaney‘s “Quote Boxes” puzzle from this year’s tournament. It was an 18×18 grid jam-packed with entries, and he used an interesting mechanic to fill the grid.

There were five 2×2 boxes shaded with different shapes, and each of the four cells in those 2×2 boxes contained a word from a famous four-word movie quote, allowing him to place longer entries in the grid. It was the highlight of Lollapuzzoola for me this year. Great stuff.

But before I get to the final crossword on my list, I’d like to run down some of my favorite crossword clues from this year.

  • “Island country that becomes a geometric solid if you change its last letter to an E” for CUBA (from Patrick Blindauer‘s Piece of Cake Crosswords. A super-long clue, but very fun.)
  • “Struggle with hopelessness?” for LISP (from Brendan Emmett Quigley)
  • “The Sky, Sun, and Stars play in it” for WNBA (from Peter Gordon)
  • “Answers, on ‘Jeopardy!'” for ASKS (I don’t recall where I saw this one. Let me know if you know, so I can correct this!)
  • “Some people do it for kicks” for KARATE (Again, no idea where I saw this one. Let me know if you know, so I can correct this!)
  • “Characters often found to be up in arms?” for YMCA (from Sam Trabucco’s Indie 500 puzzle)

And cluing tied into my final choice for favorite crossword of the year with Erik Agard and Joanne Sullivan’s puzzle “Do I Hear a Waltz?” from the Indie 500 tournament.

In this puzzle, the words ONE, TWO, and THREE were missing from sequential clues, providing a hidden one-two-three count for the puzzle’s titular waltz. For instance, 36-Across clued TRUMP as “Up,” 37-Across clued BIKINI as “Piece, say,” and 38-Across clued TITLES as “Peat makeup.” As you’d expect, those clues make much more sense when you add the hidden one-two-three: One-up = TRUMP; Two-piece, say = BIKINI; Threepeat makeup = TITLES.

Hiding the beat within the cluing was absolutely brilliant, and one of the highlights in crosswords for me this year.

Now I’m sure there were great clues or puzzles that I missed, since I’m hardly a prolific solver. Let me know which puzzles and clues from 2016 were your favorites! I’d love to hear from you!


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5 Questions for Constructor Doug Peterson

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to welcome Doug Peterson as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Crossword gentleman and constructor Doug Peterson is a regular in the Los Angeles Times and many other outlets, offering topnotch grids and brilliantly fun, pop-culture-savvy cluing. Doug was also one of the constructors in this year’s Lollapuzzoola crossword tournament and a winner at this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Anytime you encounter one of his puzzles, you’re guaranteed a great solve.

Doug was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for Doug Peterson

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

Like many others, I caught the puzzle bug from older family members, specifically my dad and maternal grandmother. I’d spend summers at my grandparents’ house, and my grandma always had a stack of Dell puzzle books on hand. My favorite thing was to tackle one of the huge 21×21 crosswords, which would literally take me days to finish. And that was great, because I had a lot of long, boring days to get through.

2. What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle? What do you most enjoy — or most commonly avoid — when constructing your own? What do you think is the most common pitfall of constructors just starting out?

I think the most important element in a puzzle is craftsmanship, meaning that significant effort has gone into making that puzzle as enjoyable as possible. I realize that’s a little vague, but it’s like the old line about pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Basically, the theme, fill, and clues should all demonstrate care and a personal touch.

I’m not the best at coming up with themes, so I strive to make my fill and clues pick up the slack, so to speak. There’s plenty I avoid in my grids, and I’m getting pickier all time. For the record, I’ve never used ÉTÉ in a grid. I don’t trust three-letter words with two accent marks. Also on my “banned list” are IDI, AMIN, and ULEE. I’m not going there. I hate brutal dictators, and bees kinda scare me.

The most common pitfall I’ve found among newbies is trying to do too much right out of the gate. My advice is to get a few 15×15’s under your belt before trying to construct that 21×21 triple rebus with five meta-answers and a tribute to your favorite band hidden diagonally. My first published puzzles are embarrassing to look at now. I used PATLY in my debut puzzle. PATLY? That barely resembles a word that a human would use. But I got better, and by the time I was ready to tackle something truly challenging, I had some constructing chops.

Teaser: I’ll give my best advice to newbies (and all constructors) in my answer to Question 5.

[Two of Doug’s books currently available on Amazon: Sit & Solve© Brain-Straining Crosswords and Sit & Solve© Lickety-Split Crosswords.]

3. Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others?

We’re living in a golden age of crosswords, and there are so many superb themes and clues out there, and of course I can’t think of anything specific off the top of my head right now… I solve a crapload of puzzles, more than 20 per week, so honestly it’s hard to single out themes or clues that made me say “Oooh!”

Constructors whose themes I admire include Brendan Emmett Quigley, Andrew Ries, and Erik Agard. They’re at the top of my “why the hell didn’t I think of that?” list. BEQ publishes two free high-quality puzzles a week, which boggles my mind. And he used to do three a week! Just recently, he posted puzzle #900. I would have burned out years ago. BEQ’s puzzles are a blast to solve, and they’re hip without being eye-rolly.

Andrew Ries publishes a weekly crossword (www.ariesxword.com) that’ll run you $12 bucks a year (a steal!) and consistently features fresh themes and clues. It’s often my favorite puzzle of the week. And then there’s Erik Agard over at gluttonforpun. Mind-bending, multi-level themes and clues that make me laugh out loud. This dude is the next wave of crossword puzzles.

The best venue for stand-out themes by a variety of constructors is Fireball Crosswords, edited and sometimes constructed by Peter Gordon. Shameless plug: I constructed the first Fireball puzzle of 2017, which will hit solvers’ in-boxes in January. It’s a theme that’d been bouncing around in my brain for over two years, and I finally got off my lazy butt and made the puzzle.

Cool entries do tend to stick in my head, and a couple recent entries I loved (and wish I’d thought to use myself) were BEER O’CLOCK and DC UNIVERSE. Both were in puzzles by another of my favorite constructors, C.C. Burnikel. She turns out quality puzzles on a regular basis. In fact, on a more-than-regular basis. C.C. is remarkably prolific. Nary a week goes by that I don’t solve a well-crafted Burnikel puzzle in one of the major outlets.

4. What’s next for Doug Peterson?

On the constructing front, I’d like to branch out a little and create more non-American style crossword puzzles. I love constructing cryptic crosswords. I had a couple published in the New York Times ages ago, and then I drifted away from them. I got my start writing cryptic clues back in the Dark Ages in the rec.puzzles.crosswords Usenet group. (Psst, constructors. No one remembers USENET anymore, so stop putting it in your grids. SYSOP, too.) And maybe I’ll try my hand at constructing a Rows Garden or a Marching Bands puzzle. Something outside my comfort zone.

[A. A familiar Sudoku grid; B. A Kakuro (or Cross Sums) grid; C. A Nurikabe
grid, a variation on Minesweeper-style solving; D. A Hashiwokakero grid,
which readers might remember from this year’s UK Puzzle Championship.]

Speaking of comfort zones, on the solving front, I want to get much better at solving logic puzzles. And by “get much better at,” I mean “actually be able to solve.” I’m talking about Sudoku, Kakuro, Nurikabe, Hashiwokakero (yes, that’s an actual puzzle type I just found on Google), all the puzzles with Japanese names and little lines and boxes and circles. I’ve solved maybe ten Sudoku puzzles in my life, and it would be cool to stretch my brain in another direction or many other directions.

And hey, it will open up a whole new world of puzzles that I can print out and never quite get around to solving!

5. If you could give the readers, writers, aspiring constructors, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

To aspiring constructors, my best advice is: Solve puzzles! I cringe when I hear a constructor say that they don’t solve puzzles or “can’t” solve puzzles. Just looking at answer grids or reading reviews of puzzles isn’t enough. To me, solving is the only way to figure out what sorts of things make a puzzle enjoyable. There’s a reason I don’t use ULEE in my grids, aside from my slight apiphobia. It’s because it bugs me when I see it in a puzzle I’m solving.

Create the kinds of puzzles that you enjoy solving, and you can’t go wrong. (Unless you like solving really crappy puzzles for some reason.) And if you’re interested in being published and getting paid a few bucks for your hard work, it’s essential to solve puzzles from the venue you’re submitting to.

OK, I’ve rambled on long enough. Look for my été-free puzzles in all the usual places. Thanks for reading. Peterson out.


A huge thank you to Doug for his time. Be sure to follow him on Twitter for the latest updates on all his puzzly creations!

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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Lollapuzzoola Puzzles edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

August 13 marked the ninth annual Lollapuzzoola event, hosted in New York City by Brian Cimmet and Patrick Blindauer, and subtitled “It’s Hip to be Squared.”

While I couldn’t attend the tournament, I did download the tournament set and tackle the six puzzles prepared for the event. And today, after waiting a few weeks out of respect for the constructors and solvers-from-home to avoid spoilers, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on those puzzles, for any interested PuzzleNationers who might be considering participating in the future.


WARM-UP: Twinlets by Brian Cimmet

Before the tournament proper started, solvers tackled a pair of identical 9×9 grids, having to figure out which of the two clues given for each Across and Down coordinate applied to which grid. Intended as a tribute to the tournament’s ninth year, this was a strong, fun opener that used the dual grids to the fullest.

Several clues were repeated, allowing for some clever wordplay. For instance, both 5 Down clues were “Sweet”, cluing DELICIOUS and SCHMALTZY respectively.

Interesting grid entries included ZZ TOP, KANYE, and USER ID, and my favorite clue was either “Catcher behind a plate?” for BIB or “You’ve got two on your head and four in your head” for LOBES.

[Image courtesy of The King of Babylon on Tumblr.]

Puzzle 1: Celebrity Chefs by Mike Nothnagel

The tournament kicked off with this enjoyable 15×15 grid where food phrases that featured a last name used the first name instead (so you had CHICKEN A LA LARRY instead of CHICKEN A LA KING, for instance).

Nothnagel’s cluing was topnotch — I circled more favorite clues on this puzzle than any other in the tournament — reinvigorating some tired old standard entries with unexpected spins.

Interesting grid entries included THINKPAD, DRY EYE, TB TEST, and X-AXES, and my favorite clues (I’m limiting myself to two) were “Hefty alternative” for GLAD and “House-monitoring network?” for C-SPAN.

[Tournament directors and constructors
Brian Cimmet and Patrick Blindauer]

Puzzle 2: Flipping Out by Patrick Blindauer

The next puzzle split a 16×15 grid down the middle into two 8×15 grids, each on its own page. The curious construction definitely slowed me down, even if the cluing and grid entries (including four different entries clued “FLIP OUT”) weren’t all that difficult.

This was easily the weirdest solve of the tournament. Amazing how one little change in presentation can throw you off.

Interesting grid entries included GI JOE, NO SIR, AMADEUS, and NADAL, and my favorite clues were “Writer Rice whose characters suck” for ANNE and the surprisingly intimate “Irish singer who my wife can’t stand” for ENYA.

[Image courtesy of The Odyssey Online.]

Puzzle 3: What Happened? by Doug Peterson

The difficulty of each puzzle’s theme began to ramp up here, as we had common words or phrases where the letter H had been replaced with either a T or a Y, and this was revealed with the highlighted entry HISTORY (literally spelling out “H IS T OR Y”).

Doug is a cleverboots, to be sure, and this 21×21 grid was a great test of wordplay and puzzly knowhow.

Interesting grid entries included HOLY GRAIL, ASIAGO, YUGI-OH, and ADORBS, and my favorite clues were “Leader of Ancient Troy?” for TAU and “Co. for surfers” for ISP.

[Image courtesy of Domestiphobia.net.]

Puzzle 4: Down in Front! by Evan Birnholz

We’re halfway through the tournament puzzles now, and the toughest puzzle in the set shows up, completing a one-two punch of really solid construction and crafty cluing. Six entries in this puzzle were missing letters, creating real words that were shorter than the actual words clued. (For instance, the clue “Person conjuring up spirits?” points to BARTENDER, but BENDER is all that fits into the grid. So each entry lost two or three letters after the first letter.)

This one had me skunked for a bit, I must admit, so it was immensely satisfying to crack the theme and complete the puzzle. Nicely done, Evan.

Interesting grid entries included HOBART, CARPS AT, ECOCAR, and CASSIO, and my favorite clues were “Places to see plays?” for ARENAS and “Delivery recipients” for PARENTS.

Puzzle 5: Quote Boxes by Francis Heaney

Heaney has five 2×2 boxes shaded with different shapes, and each of the four cells in those 2×2 boxes contains a word from a famous four-word movie quote.

For instance, in the upper left corner, there’s a shaded circle filling in a 2×2 box, and each of those four cells contains one of the words “snap,” “out,” “of,” and “it,’ which are incorporated into the across and down entries intersecting those individual boxes. (SNAP is part of OH SNAP and UNSNAP, OUT is part of STOUT and OUTRO, OF is part of POOF and OFFER, and IT is part of IT’S PAT and iTUNES. And SNAP OUT OF IT reads out on the line beside a shaded circle at the bottom of the page.)

This was a super-impressive grid that jammed a lot of entries into an 18×18 grid but never felt oversaturated, and it all flows nicely. This was the puzzle of the night for me.

Interesting grid entries included DELANO, ROBERT E LEE, HERE’S HOW, and HAVE-NOT, and my favorite clues were “Hillary’s claim to fame” for EVEREST and “Ball girl?” for DEB. (Though I must mention one more, simply for the confidence it betrays: “Garment a well-dressed man always wears and slovenly cretins do not (I may be biased here)” for TIE.)

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.]

Puzzle 6: Finals by Samuel A. Donaldson

This was the capper to a strong night of solving, and after Puzzle 5, it had a tough act to follow. There were two sets of clues: the Local for newcomers and the Express for established tournament puzzlers, and both had their stumbling blocks. Tight grid construction and some unexpected entries made for a pretty tough wrap-up puzzle, but one that challenged the solver rather than frustrating.

Interesting grid entries included MANSPLAIN, PUSS N BOOTS, SCAR-JO, TOOTSIES, and TESSERA, and my favorite clues from the Local set were “It covers all the bases” for TARP and “Present day visitor in France?” for PERE NOEL. My favorite clues from the Express set were “Sporty colleague” for POSH and “It can come between two friends” for OF A.


Overall, I thought this year’s Lollapuzzoola puzzles were very clever, and although some of the themes were tough to suss out, they provided a worthy challenge to solvers and plenty of outside-the-box thinking in both themes and cluing to keep your mind engaged.

There were so many great clues and all the personality and panache I’ve come to expect from the event and its constructors. Nine years in, and they’re only getting better.

I look forward to its return, and hopefully some of you will join me in accepting the Lollapuzzoola challenge. (Also, I really hope I can attend next year, or Patti might kill me for missing the tournament AGAIN. *laughs*)


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ACPT 2016 Wrap-Up!

ACPT LOGO

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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