ACPT 2016 Wrap-Up!


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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5 Questions with Puzzler/Artist Hayley Gold!

Welcome to another edition of PuzzleNation Blog’s interview feature, 5 Questions!

We’re reaching out to puzzle constructors, video game writers and designers, board game creators, writers, filmmakers, musicians, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life, talking to people who make puzzles and people who enjoy them in the hopes of exploring the puzzle community as a whole. (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to have Hayley Gold as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

An enthusiastic puzzle solver as well as an accomplished artist, Hayley combines her interests with Across and Down, a weekly webcomic devoted to The New York Times crossword.

She combines humor and the keen eye of a long-time solver to not only entertain, but offer worthwhile insight into crosswords as a whole and individual puzzles in particular. Whether she’s punning on themed entries or proving her pop culture savvy with references galore, each Across and Down comic brings something unique to the table.

Hayley 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 Hayley Gold

1. Which came first for you: puzzles or art? How did you discover puzzles?

Well, I think art is rather intuitive. As soon as a child gets hold of a crayon their artistic career begins. A lot of people are miffed when artists comment that they’ve been drawing all their life, but I actually did more drawing in my youth than in my maturity, when pressure became attached to it.

That being said, I find doing puzzles much more relaxing and more natural for me. So, though one may have preceded the other doesn’t mean that it’s the dominant hobby.

2. When did you launch Across and Down, and has it evolved from your original vision?

I started the site in January 2014 as a project for my web comics class. The whole operation was rather hasty. We were told we needed to come up with a comic that’s updated weekly, the teacher said the content was completely up to us, though her web comic followed a linear narrative, as did the comics of most of the other students.

I needed something I could do without too much time lost, as the class was only an elective and I had other comics to complete, and something that focused on writing more than visuals as that has always been my strong suit. And of course I wanted it to be fun, and something that I cared about.

I never imagined it would become what it has. Okay, let me rephrase that. I have wild fantasies about it being much MORE than it is, what I never imagined is how much I would NEED it. I experience withdrawal if I go too long without making one.

[Strategy, a wonderful crayon-and-pencil piece, as featured on her portfolio site.]

3. Your comics offer a wonderful mix of humor, tongue-in-cheek wordplay, and savvy commentary from a clearly experienced solver. How have the constructors reacted to your comics? Do you think couching your critiques in this format allows you to say more than a straightforward review or blog post?

In general, I get a good response from constructors. I certainly never got any flak from anyone. Many have reached out to thank me actually, which is a very rewarding gesture. And I’ve never attempting real blogging to compare the reactions side by side, but I would guess that giving everything a lighthearted air does assuage some of the severity of critique.

But, at the same time, I am rarely totally critical and try to be balanced. And though I often address the constructor directly, I try not to make any serious personal attacks if I thoroughly rip something apart, though, by and large, I don’t do comics on puzzles that are completely horrendous. Partly because I don’t wish to be horribly cruel to anyone, and partly because I don’t think it’s very entertaining. At least in a comic, I think nitpicking about the usual crossword faux pas gets repetitive.

[A sample of one of her most recent webcomics.]

4. What’s next for Hayley Gold?

I’m working on a graphic novel, but no ETA on that. And for anyone who’s a fan of my site, I’ll warn you that it’s totally different, both graphically and narratively, so no guarantees that you’ll like it. I also need a job. Hey, anyone out there, hire me! Would love to do some custom crossword comics!

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

Er, I’m not really good with this. God knows, my life is a mess. But let’s try to narrow it down a bit. How about advice pertaining to webcomics? Make it about something you’re passionate about. Most of my peers quit their webcomic after the class finished. Now, my stick-to-it-iveness may be due to my uptight nature, but also because it really meant something to me.

Also, keep at it even if you think no one is reading. I hope to get more eyeballs as I go along, though my site still reaches relatively few readers. People may look over it once and then never come back instead of subscribing, or just never come across it even though they are ardent puzzle solvers.

When I go to comics events, so many people come up to me to tell me what a “great idea” my site is — but they personally don’t do the puzzle so it’s not for them. I’ve experienced a very small overlap in the fanbases. The way comics are promoted, as one big giant blob of content, is rather weird — as if readers would be attracted to all of it simply because of the medium, rather than it being placed into subcategories — but I digress.

Choose something you like, stick with it.

Many thanks to Hayley for her time. Check out for her comics and links to her other works, and to keep up on all things Hayley, follow her Across and Down Facebook page, her Twitter (@HayleyRabbit), and her Etsy page! I can’t wait to see what she has in store for us next.

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