Delving into the 2019 ACPT Puzzles!

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One of the highlights of the puzzle year is the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. The impressive, challenging, and well-constructed puzzles awaiting solvers there rank among the craftiest you’ll ever see.

So let’s put them under the microscope and see how I did!


Puzzle 1: And We’re Off! by Kathy Wienberg

The opening puzzle in this year’s tournament was a good smooth solve, easing solvers into the tournament experience. The theme of the word BATON being “passed” over a black square between longer entries was clever and accessible, easily cracked by tournament-puzzle standards, and the related phrases like FINISH LINE really sold the theme well.

Interesting grid entries included KOMBAT, ZAGAT, MAORI and AMOCO, and my favorite clues were “15 things in this puzzle” for ROWS and “Necessity for a farm team” for YOKE.

Puzzle 2: Following Orders by Joel Fagliano

Joel’s contribution to to the tournament was a fun reinterpretation of a song by The Doors, BREAK ON THROUGH TO THE OTHER SIDE, splitting up the theme entries so that the second part of the answer was a food. (Example: CAPRICORN becomes CAPRI CORN.) It was surprising to have two puzzles in a row that involved answers spanning black-square breaks between entries, but the revealer with The Doors added an extra touch to this one.

Interesting grid entries included UNHANDY, MY OH MY, SCHTICK, RICOH, and APOGEE, and my favorite clue was “Inspiring halftime speech, for a sports movie” for TROPE.

Puzzle 3: Added Time by Patrick Berry

The hook for Puzzle 3 was simple, but deftly executed, as the word AGE was added onto the end of established phrases like DOG POUND and CLASSIFIED AD to form new answers. But this was balanced by harder-than-expected fill, which definitely kept me guessing and ate up a great deal of the given time for solving.

Interesting grid entries included MAHLER, BIG DEAL, COLUMBO, MARS BAR, and MESMER, and my favorite clues were “Name-dropper abbr.” for ETAL and “Time or Money” for MAG.

[Image courtesy of How Stuff Works.]

Puzzle 4: It’s the Law by Jeff Stillman

My favorite puzzle from the tournament, Puzzle 4 employed a brilliantly visual gimmick where two circles represented an apple and a head, with a series of I’s (and one V) forming an arrow between them. With themed entries ISAAC NEWTON, ROBERT HOOKE, and GRAVITATION, you’ve got all the ingredients for a science-themed puzzle with a very fun twist.

Interesting grid entries included GO BAG, PC GAME, TUBULAR, and ARTOO, and my favorite clue was “One who gets asked a lot of questions” for SIRI.

Puzzle 5: Trade Names by Evan Birnholz

Puzzle 5 is infamously the most difficult of the tournament, and this year’s entry was no exception.

I figured out the gimmick pretty quick — themed entries in the same row would swap words that were also names, so the answers LANDMARK and GRANTING were actually LAND GRANT and MARKING — but the tough cluing and crafty fill entries made this a challenging solve. It was definitely the puzzle I struggled with the most. Puzzle 5, you’ve done it again.

Interesting grid entries included SPEEDO, ORVILLE, OFF NIGHT, and NOOGIE, and my favorite clue was “1986 #1 hit ‘On My Own,’ e.g., ironically” for DUET.

Puzzle 6: Playing the Field by Lynn Lempel

The first day of tournament puzzles wrapped up with this smooth, well-constructed closer loaded with delightful football puns. It was the perfect palate cleanser after the battle I had with Puzzle 5, and Lempel once again displayed her impressive skill mixing interesting fill words and balanced grid work to create puzzles with terrific flow. Blazing through this puzzle was a nice confidence boost after some tough earlier puzzles.

Interesting grid entries included CITIZENRY, ARAL SEA, MULAN, and DAUPHIN, and my favorite clues were “Adams who got the picture” for ANSEL and “Helpful feature of a crossword solver’s pencil?” for EXTRA POINT.

Puzzle 7: Politically Correct by Mike Shenk

Day Two of the tournament kicked off with this diabolical entry where the letters PC were added to established phrases to form new entries. (For example, LOW RANKING became PLOW CRANKING, which was clued as “Starting up a farm machine by hand?”)

The theme entries made sense, but weren’t immediately intuitive, so I found them tough to come up with, even though I cottoned onto the hook pretty quickly. Combine that with creative fill entries and you’ve got a well-constructed obstacle before the tournament’s final puzzle. Devious Mr. Shenk strikes again.

Interesting grid entries included ASADA, SCHIRRA, KIM NOVAK, CAT LADY, and MONADS, and my favorite clues were “Dial in your home, perhaps,” for SOAP, “Welcoming sign” for OPEN ARMS, “They’re just over two feet” for ANKLES, and “Volume setting?” for SHELF.

Puzzle 8: Troublemaker by Robyn Weintraub

The finals puzzle for the tournament boasts a different set of clues for each of the three divisions — A, B, and C — where the competitors solve the puzzle live on stage, and Weintraub constructed a puzzle with loads of intriguing entries and personality to spare. When the puzzle both apologizes to you (2 Down was I AM SO SORRY) and checks up on you while you’re solving (50 Across: HOW DID IT GO), you’re in for a unique puzzling experience.

Confession: I attempted the A-level clues, but I struggled with some of them. I did successfully solve the puzzle with a mix of A- and B-level clues.

Interesting grid entries included CHANDELIERS, ICAHN, IT GIRL, and IN RETROSPECT, and the B-clues were undoubtedly my favorite, boasting gems like “Joins a union?” for WEDS, “Darn it!” for HOLE, and “One with a talent for hitting low pitches” for BASS.


Overall, I think this year’s tournament puzzles were not as consistently hard as in previous years, though a lot of individual fill entries were fairly obscure. I did get stuck on several puzzles, frequently outwitted by cleverly misleading clues or my own inability to come up with what would later feel like obvious answers. But, as always, I relish the challenge of trying my hand at these puzzles, even if it’s not under tournament conditions.

The ingenious and creative constructors once again brought their A-game to the table with this year’s puzzles, and I never cease to be amazed at how fast and how clever so many of my fellow puzzle solvers are, blasting through these crosswords at unbelievable speeds.

ACPT, I’ll see you next year.


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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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The ACPT Returns This Weekend!

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The 42nd edition of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is this weekend!

Puzzlers from all over are sharpening their pencils and their wits as they gear up for what is affectionately known as the Nerd Olympics, and we here at PuzzleNation wish all of the competitors the best of luck!

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Here’s hoping Puzzle #5 isn’t as diabolical as it has been in previous years!

There is a topnotch lineup of constructors to challenge this year’s competitors. Not only do we have Patrick Berry and Mike Shenk — perennial contributors to the tournament — but there will also be puzzles from ACPT stalwarts like Lynn Lempel and Joel Fagliano, as well as tournament puzzle debuts for Evan Birnholz, Robyn Weintraub, Jeff Stillman, and Kathy Wienberg! I can’t wait to see what they’ve concocted for this year’s tournament!

Good luck to everyone competing! And hey, if you need a pencil sharpener — or you’d like some terrific puzzly merch, contests, and a few freebies — we’ll be hanging out with our pals at the Penny Dell Puzzles table again this year! Be sure to stop by!


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How Far Away Are Computer-Generated Crosswords?

[Image courtesy of ESLTower.]

There’s no denying that computers play a large role in the world of crosswords today.

Some companies use computer programs to generate their unthemed crosswords, no human intervention necessary. Computer programs like Crossword Compiler aid constructors in puzzle design and grid fill, allowing them to build and cultivate databases of words with which to complete their grids.

And, of course, with those little computers in your pocket, you can solve all kinds of crosswords (like those in our Daily POP Crosswords and Penny Dell Crosswords apps).

Heck, computers are even getting pretty good at solving crosswords — just look at Matt Ginsberg’s evolving crossword program, “Dr. Fill.

An article in Smithsonian Magazine posed the question, “why haven’t computers replaced humans in crossword creation?”

The answer, as you’d expect, is simple: computers are just fine at plugging words into established grids and generating basic, unthemed crosswords.

But unthemed is the key word there.

When people think of The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The American Values Club, The Crosswords Club, or any of the other well-respected crossword outlets in the market today, I doubt unthemed puzzles are what comes to mind.

And when it comes to creating themes, innovating, and playing with the conventions of crosswords in order to create puzzles that surprise and challenge solvers, computers simply don’t have the chops.

They might be able to solve puzzles, but as far as I can tell from my research, there’s no program out there capable of generating and executing a theme with any sort of wordplay element involved.

[Image courtesy of Crossword Compiler.]

There is an art to creating an exciting grid, an intriguing theme, or a new puzzle mechanic that solvers have never seen before. The creativity of constructors is truly boundless.

And, it seems, the potential for crossword grids is just as boundless.

Recently, Oliver Roeder of FiveThirtyEight challenged the puzzle fans in his readership to calculate how many different crossword puzzle grids were possible.

He offered the following conditions:

  • They are 15-by-15.
  • They are rotationally symmetric — that is, if you turn the grid upside down it appears exactly the same.
  • All the words — that is, all the horizontal and vertical sequences of white squares — must be at least three letters long. All the letters must appear in an “across” word and a “down” word.
  • The grid must be entirely connected — that is, there can be no “islands” of white squares separated from the rest by black squares.

Now, obviously, all of those rules can be violated for the sake of an interesting theme. We’ve seen grids with vertical symmetry, islands of white squares, and more. Heck, plenty of grids allow words to go beyond the grid itself, or allow multiple words to share puzzle squares.

[“Cutting Edge” by Evan Birnholz. A puzzle where answers extend
beyond the grid. Image courtesy of The Washington Post.]

But assuming these rules are standard, what total did solvers come up with?

None. They couldn’t find a total.

One solver managed to calculate that there were 40,575,832,476 valid 13-by-13 grids following the above conditions, but could not apply the same technique to 15-by-15 grids.

40 billion valid grids. For a comparison, there are 5,472,730,538 unique solutions for a 9×9 Sudoku grid, and I previously calculated it would take 800 years to use every possible 9×9 Sudoku grid.

Of course, that’s 40 billion 13-by-13 grids. The number of possible 15-by-15 grids must be orders of magnitude larger.

Consider this: There were 16,225 puzzles published in The New York Times before Will Shortz took over the NYT crossword. The current number of NYT crosswords in the XWordInfo database is somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 puzzles.

And they’re one of the oldest crossword outlets in the world. Even when you factor in the number of newspapers, magazines, subscription services, and independent outlets for crosswords there are these days, or have been in the past, we barely scratch the surface of a number like 40 billion.

Maybe by the time we’ve run through that many, AI constructors will have caught up.


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Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords: The Sequel

It’s a new year, and many folks treat the new year as a clean slate, a jumping-off point from which to launch efforts at self-improvement. They embark on new endeavors, hoping to complete resolutions made in earnest.

Others use the first few days or weeks to try to set the tone for the rest of the year by establishing new routines or breaking from old routines.

Unfortunately, The New York Times crossword is not off to a good start.

We’ve discussed in the past how The NYT crossword has a less-than-stellar reputation for cultural sensitivity, and Tuesday’s puzzle was, for many solvers, more of the same.

Here’s the grid from January 1st:

[Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

One of those entries, 2 Down, leapt out at many solvers. Yes, it was clued innocently as “Pitch to the head, informally.” But, for millions of people, that word has a far more unpleasant, insulting, and flat-out racist meaning.

It’s natural for people to want to explain this away as unintentional. That becomes harder to accept when it has happened before.

Will Shortz had the following to say in The New York Times Wordplay blog from 2012, after a similar incident involving the answer word ILLEGAL:

Thanks for your email regarding the clue for ILLEGAL (“One caught by border patrol”) in the Feb. 16 New York Times crossword.

At the time I wrote this clue (and yes, it was my clue), I had no idea that use of the word “illegal” in this sense (as a noun) was controversial. It’s in the dictionary. It’s in widespread use by ordinary people and publications. There is nothing inherently pejorative about it.

Still, language changes, and I understand how the use of “illegal” as a noun has taken on an offensive connotation. I don’t want to offend people in the crossword. So I don’t expect to do this again. Fortunately, there are many other ways to clue the word ILLEGAL.

At the end of the post, Deb Amlen stated:

Should Mr. Shortz have been more aware of the current usage of the word? Sure, but no one is infallible, and I will give him points for stepping up. He is the captain of the New York Times crossword ship, and he owned his mistake. Not only that, but he has assured us that it will not happen again.

That’s evolution.

Well, it’s happened again.

And this time, being unaware is not an excuse. In Shortz’s apology for this latest mistake, he mentions not only discovering the pejorative meaning of the word in his own research, but that the issue was raised by fellow constructor and XWordInfo archivist Jeff Chen.

In his own take on the puzzle on XWordInfo, Jeff was incredibly kind regarding Shortz, stating:

I generally think Will does a great job in editing the NYT puzzle — hard to argue with results, with solvership exploding into the hundreds of thousands under his helm. This is one of the less than 5% of things that I strongly disagree with, though.

(Jeff then offers two easy fixes to remove the word from the puzzle, because Jeff is a pro.)

Again, unfortunately, we don’t know if this will lead to any changes at The New York Times. Shortz stated:

My feeling, rightly or wrongly, is that any benign meaning of a word is fair game for a crossword. This is an issue that comes up occasionally with entries like GO O.K. (which we clued last April as “Proceed all right,” but which as a solid word is a slur), CHINK (benign in the sense as a chink in one’s armor), etc. These are legitimate words.

That’s certainly one way to look at it. Of course, it’s not great that one of his examples was employed as part of a misunderstanding in an episode of Scrubs fifteen years ago to similarly unpleasant effect:

Shortz followed up by saying, “Perhaps I need to rethink this opinion, if enough solvers are bothered.”

In response, I think constructor Eric Berlin summed up the issue perfectly:

Perhaps a good rule for this sort of thing is, if you were looking *only at the completed crossword grid* and not at the clues, what would CHINK or GOOK call to mind first?

That’s what I thought, and that’s why I would never dream of using either word in a puzzle.

At least it’s still early in the year. Plenty of time to go onward and upward from here.


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ACPT 2018 Wrap-Up!

The 41st annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was this weekend, and puzzlers descended on the Stamford Marriott Hotel once again to put their puzzly skills to the test in what is lovingly known as “the Nerd Olympics.”

The tournament takes place over two days, with six puzzles to solve on Saturday, followed by one on Sunday. Then the top three finishers in the A, B, and C brackets solve the championship puzzle on whiteboards in front of the audience.

On Friday and Saturday night, there are often puzzle events, demonstrations, and panels by top puzzlers and figures in the puzzle world as well.

I made the journey down to Stamford myself Saturday morning, arriving with plenty of time to spare to prep our spot in the puzzle marketplace and say hello to friends and puzzly acquaintances. This year, I was joined at the Penny Dell Puzzles booth once again by my friend and partner-in-promotion Stacey Scarso.

The Penny Dell crew had a terrific setup as always, with a metric buttload of magazines to give away, including copies of The Crosswords Club and several flavors of Tournament Variety, Master’s Variety, and Dell Sunday Crosswords. They were also running a kickass promotion offering half-price on a year’s subscription to Crosswords Club, which is a great deal.

Plus we had a terrific sample puzzle for the Daily POP Crosswords app, constructed by the marvelous Angela Halsted! You can click this link for the answer grid AND a bonus offer for anyone who missed our ACPT tournament puzzle!

PLUS we held a contest to win a bundle of PDP puzzle swag, including a mug, a tote bag, an umbrella, and a bunch of puzzle magazines! All you had to do was solve a marvelous crossword variant puzzle cooked up by the folks at Penny Dell. (Though I did have a hand in writing some of the clues.)

And, yes, in their downtime between tournament puzzles, many competitors DO solve other puzzles.

At 9 AM, the tournament was two hours away, but the marketplace was up and running. There were puzzle magazines galore from the Village Bookstore (as well as a table of Merl Reagle’s puzzle books), a booth loaded with Nathan Curtis’s various puzzly projects, and ACPT-themed jewelry, key chains, teddy bears, magnets, and other items from All of the Things.

As competitors readied themselves for the day’s solving, I had plenty of time to see friends of the blog like Crosswords Club editor Patti Varol, crossword gentleman Doug Peterson, constructor Joanne Sullivan, and Penny Press variety editor Keith Yarbrough!

Perhaps the best part of attending the tournament is getting to chat with so many members of the puzzle community in one place. There were first-time attendees and enthusiastic rookies; apparently, contestants ranged in age from 17 to 92(!), and there was a 90-year-old rookie competing this year!

There were long-time puzzle fans who have been competing at ACPT for years, if not decades, many of whom were decked out in puzzle shirts, puzzle scarves, and other grid-heavy accoutrements.

One of the attendees even offered to buy the Crossword Puzzle Junkie shirt off my back! I assured him that that would work for him and literally no one else in attendance.

But I digress.

Many of the top constructors in the business were there, names like David Steinberg, Evan Birnholz, Joon Pahk, Peter Gordon, and more, along with former champions and first-rate competitors like Dan Feyer, Tyler Hinman, Howard Barkin, Ellen Ripstein, and Stella Zawistowski.

Getting to connect faces and personalities with names I know from tournaments like the Indie 500 is a real treat, and so many of the people in the puzzle world are genuinely nice, funny individuals. Not only that, but I also got to meet several fellow trivia fiends from the Learned League community!

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

Attendance jumped again this year, which meant not only was the main ballroom absolutely jam-packed with competitors, but an overflow room was needed to accommodate the nearly 700 solvers in Stamford!

When Puzzle 1 arrived, most competitors found Tracy Gray’s puzzle to be quick and fair. One solver in particular, constructor Erik Agard, delivered an absolutely blistering time, solving the puzzle in under 2 minutes! (A feat not seen since Dan Feyer did so in 2015.) It immediately rocketed Erik to the top of the leaderboard in impressive fashion.

Puzzle 2, constructed by prolific puzzler Zhouqin Burnikel, surprised some solvers with its difficulty. Then again, Puzzle 2 has been on the tougher side for at least the last few years, but I think many solvers forget that, given how legendarily difficult Puzzle 5 is every year. It’s easy to forget other puzzles can offer quite a challenge along the way.

Puzzle 3 was constructed by Mike Shenk, and served as a well-received palate-cleanser before the lunch break. Solvers scattered to the four winds in order to grab a bite to eat before returning by 2:30 for Puzzle 4.

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

And what a Puzzle 4 it was. Constructed by Damon Gulczynski, this puzzle had a visual element that tripped up several top competitors. (An unclear blurb “explanation” didn’t help matters, and several competitors told me they would’ve been better off with no blurb at all.)

The judges were forced to actually explain the puzzle before competitors began Puzzle 5. It was a disappointing way for the second half of the tournament day to kick off.

Not only that, but one solver was mistakenly given Puzzle 5 to solve INSTEAD of Puzzle 4. He managed to solve it in the shorter time allotted, but couldn’t fairly solve Puzzle 4 afterward because of the explanation. I haven’t been able to follow up and find out what exactly happened to his score.

Finally, after the unexpected drama of Puzzle 4, it was time for Puzzle 5. This year, constructor Joel Fagliano did the honors, and according to competitors, it was as challenging as expected, really putting the craftiness and keen wits of the solvers to the test. (Apparently, computer solving program Dr. Fill failed to complete puzzle 5, one of its few slip-ups in an otherwise impressive year for the program.)

After the diabolical Puzzle 5, competitors closed out the day with Puzzle 6, constructed by Lynn Lempel, and declared it both fun and fair. The competitors dispersed to rest their brains (or solve more puzzles). We packed up the Penny/Dell table and headed for home.

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

Puzzle 7, constructed by Patrick Berry, was what you might expect from a constructor of his caliber: elegant fill, very little crosswordese, and great fun.

Erik Agard remained at the top of the leaderboard, having kept a great solving pace after his outstanding performance on Puzzle 1 — a nice redemption for him after a heartbreaker last year, when an error dropped him out of finals contention after a strong performance overall.

So the final three would be Erik, Dan Feyer (7-time champ), and David Plotkin (a familiar name in the top ten).

Thankfully, this year, there was no repeat of last year’s flub where the B-level finalists got the A-level clues or anything like that. And there were no distinct time advantages among the top solvers.

It was simply a match-up of some of the fastest, sharpest puzzlers. (Including 2 rookies in the C-level final!)

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

Erik Agard would complete the puzzle first, solving it in under 5 minutes. By comparison, huge swathes of Dan and David’s grids were still empty at this point. It was a stunning showing for a very well-liked member of the puzzle community!

Dan Feyer would wrap the puzzle up in 9 minutes, with David Plotkin following at around 13.

As he had done all tournament, Erik solved with incredible speed and precision, claiming his first tournament victory!

And it was a strong showing for many other familiar names! Doug Peterson placed 14th (up from 18th last year!), David Steinberg placed 23rd (up from 28th!), and Patti Varol placed 74th (up from 103 last year!) out of a field of almost 700 participants. (And even with one eye tied behind his back, Keith Yarbrough managed an impressive performance as well!)

[I wonder how many competitors this tweet applies to…]

It’s always great fun to spend time with fellow puzzlers and wordplay enthusiasts, immersing myself in the puzzle community and enjoying all the charm and camaraderie that comes with it.

We’ll see you next year!


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