5 Questions with Crossword Constructor Joanne Sullivan

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 Joanne Sullivan as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

[Joanne stands beside fellow constructor Tracy Bennett at this year’s Indie 500 tournament.]

Joanne is a terrific constructor whose puzzles have appeared in The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and numerous other outlets. One of her puzzles is now featured on The New York Times‘ Wordplay Blog as one of their 11 Remarkable Crosswords for New Solvers (each hand-picked by Will Shortz). Her puzzle with Erik Agard at the 2016 Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, “Do I Hear a Waltz?”, was one of my favorite crosswords last year.

She often spends her time teaching crossword classes, spreading not only the love of crossword construction and wordplay to others, but hard-won knowledge and experience from a fun and innovative constructor.

Joanne 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 Joanne Sullivan

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I’ve enjoyed a variety of puzzles and games ever since I can remember, but I had avoided crossword puzzles for decades. When I was a young adult, I would occasionally take a stab at The Sunday New York Times crossword and would manage to get only a couple of answers after reading every single clue. I was amazed that my father could routinely complete the whole puzzle. I didn’t aspire to match his achievement because I thought that crosswords were filled with useless, arcane information.

When I subscribed to GAMES Magazine, I solved all the puzzles in it except for the crosswords because I had the mistaken assumption that all crosswords were dry and boring. I now realize that I missed out on a lot of fun. The high-quality crosswords in GAMES were part of the new wave of puzzles that were filled with current references and lively phrases.

Many years later an office mate encouraged a group of our fellow coworkers to solve The New York Times crossword together each weekday. I never really enjoyed the computer programming work that I was supposed to be focusing on so I welcomed the diversion. I immediately was surprised at how clever and entertaining the crosswords were.

Like the character in Green Eggs and Ham, I learned that I actually liked the nourishment that I had assumed would be distasteful. In the beginning, my coworkers would pass around the newspaper, and we’d each fill in an answer or two until we managed to complete the whole puzzle. We relied heavily on Google by the time we got to Friday. Solving late week puzzles without help seemed like an impossible dream, but before long that dream became a reality.

[One of Joanne’s New York Times-published puzzles. This one makes excellent use of the black squares by incorporating some of them into the themed entries.
Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

2. What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle?

I personally love puzzles with inventive, tricky themes and clues. Crosswords have been around for a long time so it’s hard to come up with a new theme or a tricky clue that misdirects the solver in a different way. Even new themes and clues tend to be variations on something that has been done before so I appreciate crosswords that are truly original.

What do you most enjoy — or most commonly avoid — when constructing your own?

Here are crossword constructing tasks in descending order of my preference:

  • Coming up with a theme and finding answers that fit it.
  • Writing clues / Arranging the black and white squares in the grid. (Two very different tasks that I find equally enjoyable.)
  • Filling the grid with non-theme answers.
  • Adding new words to my database of potential crossword answers and rating those words in order of desirability.

Maintaining a good database of potential crossword answers can greatly facilitate crossword construction, but I find database maintenance time-consuming and dreary so I avoid it. I try to rationalize my negligence by telling myself that it’s impossible to add words and assign values to them that will be valid for all audiences.

For example, the word UGLY would be a perfectly fine answer in any mainstream newspaper, but I would try to avoid including it in a personalized puzzle that I was making as a birthday gift because I wouldn’t want the recipient to interpret it as an insult. But deep down I know that my rationalization isn’t valid, and I’m just too lazy to properly maintain my database.

What do you think is the most common pitfall of constructors just starting out?

I think some new constructors might settle for mediocrity instead of pushing themselves to achieve more. I’ve heard that some constructors are afraid to arrange the black and white squares in a grid from scratch. They’ll only use sample grids that they copy from a crossword database. It might take a lot of trial and error, but you’ll probably come up with a better grid if you try to arrange the squares in a way that best suits your theme answers instead of grabbing a prefab grid. I’ll often experiment with dozens of different grid designs before choosing one that fits my theme answers best.

Constructors might also be satisfied with so-so fill (which are the non-theme answers) or clues. I can understand the urge to leave well enough alone, especially when submitting puzzles on spec. It can be really frustrating to spend a lot of time coming up with stellar fill and clues only to be told that your puzzle was dead on arrival because the editor didn’t like the theme. Instead of compromising their standards, constructors might try to seek out the few editors who are willing to preapprove themes. Or they may emulate the many excellent indie constructors who publish their puzzles on their own websites.

[A puzzle, mid-construction. Images courtesy of Crossdown.]

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

It’s hard to pick favorites because I’ve solved so many great puzzles and clues over the years so I’ll be self-centered and mention three of my own puzzles.

My Tuesday, February 23, 2010 New York Times crossword will always be close to my heart because it was my first published puzzle. Will Shortz picked it as one of the “11 Remarkable Crosswords for New Solvers,” but novices shouldn’t feel bad if they find it difficult. Most solvers found it harder than an average Tuesday puzzle.

Another special crossword is “Contents Redacted,” which The Chronicle of Higher Education published on October 16, 2015. I’m very grateful to Brad Wilber and Frank Longo for polishing it and working hard to present it in a way that stayed true to my vision. I also appreciate pannonica whose review on the Crossword Fiend blog was clearer and more insightful than any description that I could have written.

(Speaking of blogs, kudos to PuzzleNation Blog, CrosswordFiend, and similar blogs for helping us appreciate puzzles! Thanks for helping us understand the strengths and weaknesses of puzzles you review, explaining tricky themes and clues, and keeping us informed of news such as puzzle tournaments.)

One of my most satisfying experiences was co-writing “Do I Hear a Waltz?” with Erik Agard for the 2016 Indie 500 Crossword Tournament. Working with Erik was a joy. He’s brilliant and extremely kind. You should interview him next!

One great thing about making a puzzle for a tournament was having the flexibility to make an odd-sized grid that best suited our theme. I find that tournament puzzles are often very creative, perhaps because the constructors don’t have the same editorial and size constraints that they do at most other venues. Some of my favorite puzzles came from The Indie 500 and Lollapuzzoola crossword tournaments.

As a solver, my favorite clues are the ones that make me think, “What on earth can this mean?” One recent clue that gave me that reaction came from Brendan Emmett Quigley’s 9/20/17 AV Club crossword (which is titled “The Lay of the Land”). At first, I couldn’t make sense of the clue [Like slightly firm elbows, e.g.] When I read it, I thought, “What the heck is a slightly firm elbow? … Hmm … AKIMBO doesn’t fit … Hmm …” Eventually I achieved a great aha moment — AL DENTE!

I also love clues that put a fresh spin on old crosswordese or teach me interesting pieces of trivia. I find that The Chronicle of Higher Education and Peter Gordon’s Fireball Crosswords are particularly strong in that regard.

[Joanne poses with members of a crossword seminar,
showing off prizes from our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles.]

4. What’s next for Joanne Sullivan?

I’m currently focusing on giving crossword puzzle seminars. For years I had mistakenly assumed that crosswords were boring and impossible to solve. Now I enjoy showing skeptics how fun crosswords can be and giving people tips that help them improve their solving skills. I love hearing from novices who tell me that I inspired them to start solving crosswords and veteran solvers who say that my tips helped them tackle more difficult puzzles.

I recently taught my first children’s classes and was blown away by the kids’ intelligence and enthusiasm. I’m so glad those children caught the puzzle bug early and didn’t waste decades avoiding crosswords as I did.

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

Read Patrick Berry’s PDF publication Crossword Constructor’s Handbook. The former print version of that book (Crossword Puzzle Challenges for Dummies) taught me more about constructing crosswords than any other source.

Cruciverbalists might find the information about crossword construction interesting even if they don’t aspire to create puzzles themselves. The book includes 70 crosswords by Patrick Berry (who many crossword aficionados consider the preeminent crossword constructor) so it’s worth the $10 for the puzzles alone.


A huge thank you to Joanne for her time. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her puzzles and her crossword seminars!

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Delving into the BosWords puzzles!

I finally had a chance to sit down and try my hands at the puzzles from the BosWords Crossword Tournament earlier this month. Given the talent involved, I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

So let’s put them under the microscope and see what’s what!


Homeroom: Circles of Friends by John Lieb

The unscored opening puzzle in this year’s tournament was a warm-up to get everyone in the mood to solve. Its theme was simple and accessible: The circled letters in each long answer — the first two letters and the last two letters — spelled a synonym for “friend” (DU and DE in DUAL ACTION BLADE).

Interesting grid entries included OLD ELI, TREVOR NOAH, LEMUR, and PONY UP, and my favorite clues were “One taken for a ride” for SAP and “Luke Skywalker saw two from Tatooine” for SUNS.

Puzzle 1: Summer Vacation by Laura Braunstein

A very smooth, very fair solving experience, Puzzle 1 is exactly what the first scored puzzle of a tournament should be. It sets the tone, the difficulty, and whets your appetite for more. The clever use of SCHOOL’S OUT as a revealer for the game — phrases where SCHOOL has been swapped for OUT, as in SECONDARY OUT — even has the pleasant side effect of getting the song stuck in your head.

Interesting grid entries included TROTSKY, CAT SCAN, and X FACTOR, and my favorite clues were “‘Ghostbusters’ vehicle, before it was Ecto-1″ for HEARSE and “They might get smashed at parties” for PINATA.


I have no notes for Puzzle 2, because it wasn’t included in my Solve at Home packet. The puzzle, constructed by Andrew Kingsley and John Lieb, was used in the tournament with Will Shortz’s permission (as it was already earmarked for The New York Times).

The puzzle was published on Wednesday, August 16, if you’re interested.


Puzzle 3: Trade Schools by Brendan Emmett Quigley

It appears that Puzzle 3 will be BosWords’s version of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament’s infamous Puzzle 5, as this was the toughest themed puzzle in the set. However, as you’d expect from a Quigley puzzle, there was lots of intriguing fill, and a diabolical theme: long phrases that included the name of a college, but the college was swapped with the name of another college in another themed entry.

For instance, the answer THIN WHITE RICE would normally read THIN WHITE DUKE, but Duke was transferred to another line, where instead of BROWN-EYED GIRL, the answer was DUKE-EYED GIRL. All four theme entries had the name of a different college substituted in for the college that would normally appear in that phrase.

I confess, it took me a while to unravel just how this theme worked. Factor in the longer fill entries crossing those themed entries, and you’ve got a tough, topnotch puzzle.

Interesting grid entries included MALFOYS, DAME EDNA, CASSINI, DEEP FRYER, and EPONYM, and my favorite clues were “Egg foo yung, essentially” for OMELET and “It may be used by Colonel Mustard” for ROPE.

Puzzle 4: Why You Failed English by Joon Pahk

This puzzle, which played on those books we were all required to read in school, was lighter than Puzzle 3, but still kept solvers on their toes with engaging fill. (Likening “Of Mice and Men” to “Stuart Little” is hilariously audacious.)

Interesting grid entries included MONSANTO, FAN MAIL, BANFF, and HOHOS, and my favorite clues were “Paper tigers, perhaps” for ORIGAMI and “Long line at a wedding reception?” for CONGA.

Tiebreaker by Andrew Kingsley

This themeless puzzle — intended to settle any ties going into the final — had some impressively long entries crossing at the corners, making for a great solve overall.

Interesting grid entries included CRAPSHOOT, RECHERCHE, PLOT TWIST, EVANESCE, POKEMON, and ARIGATO, and my favorite clues were “Paris was too much for him” for ACHILLES and “Set back?” for SCENERY.

Championship: Final Exam by David Quarfoot

A themeless challenging enough to rival Quigley’s themed Puzzle 3, this tournament closer was well constructed and engaging, really testing solvers’ creativity, wordplay, and vocabulary. I don’t think I would have completed it in the time allotted, let alone fast enough to do well against fellow solvers.

Interesting grid entries included BINGE WATCH, IN LALALAND, DADBOD, TRUMP U, and TEA CADDY, and my favorite clues were “Eventful activities?” for DECATHLONS, “Common note designee” for SELF, and “Floral drawing?” for NECTAR.

There was also a fun, themed bonus puzzle, You’ll Have to Be There by John Lieb, included for At Home solvers, which serves as either a nice closer to the day’s solving or a second warm-up puzzle.


Overall, I was fairly impressed by the puzzles offered at BosWords. They weren’t as freewheeling as the ones typically offered at The Indie 500 or Lollapuzzoola. But they were a little bit easier than the offerings at The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which makes this a wonderful intermediate-difficulty event to introduce new solvers to a timed, tournament environment.

It seems like the right mix of challenge and creativity for solvers accustomed to NYT-style solving, and I think the constructors and organizers did one heck of a job putting together the tournament.

Here’s hoping next year’s BosWords is an even greater success.


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Tackling the 2017 Indie 500 Puzzles!

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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.

June 3 marked the third annual Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, hosted in Washington, D.C., by constructors Erik Agard, Neville Fogarty, Andy Kravis, and Angela Olsen Halsted. The first tournament had a racing theme, the second had a prom theme, and this year was time-themed!

While I couldn’t attend the tournament, I did download the tournament puzzles, and after a few weeks, I had the opportunity to sit down and tackle the six puzzles prepared for the event. And today, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on those puzzles, for any interested PuzzleNationers who might be considering participating in the future.


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[Image courtesy of IW Magazine.]

Puzzle 1: Before and After by Angela Olson Halsted

The opening puzzle got solvers off to a quick start with a well-constructed grid and some very accessible cluing. The theme had phrases where both words were connected when the word “TIME” was placed between them. For instance, HAMMER BANDITS combined HAMMER TIME and TIME BANDITS.

The hook made for a terrific introductory puzzle, setting the stage for more challenging crosswords to come. It was an excellent way to set the pace.

Interesting grid entries included SLIM JIMS, LAPDOG, and FAJITA, and my favorite clue was “Fourth name on a typical list of Santa’s reindeer” for VIXEN.

Puzzle 2: Jam Session by Paolo Pasco

The second puzzle of the day was all about CRUNCH TIME (as the revealer explained), and solvers had to figure out how to “jam” the correct theme answers into the limited grid space. Savvy solvers glommed onto the fact that each compressed entry (placing two letters in a single grid box) included a period of time (WEEK for FASHION WEEK, DECADE for THE ME DECADE, etc.).

Pasco’s CRUNCH TIME wordplay was well-represented in the cluing as well, as the last ten down clues were “rushed” — printed with spelling errors and other shortcuts. It was a fun way to reflect the theme further, and added a lot of personality to the cluing.

Interesting grid entries included NOT SO FAST, ALL THAT, LAUTRECA, and ALI PASHA, and my favorite clue was either “Connecting words?” for I DO or “The few, the proud (and the abbreviated)” for USMC.

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[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Puzzle 3: This Mashup’s for the Byrds by Tracy Bennett

Tracy Bennett brought a lyrical touch to the proceedings with this puzzle which not only namedropped a few time-based song titles, but also had punny themed clues written in the style of The Byrds’ song Turn Turn Turn. For instance, the clue “a time to be borne” led solvers to THE RAPTURE.

There was also a very impressive bit of wordplay involving how the 4 themed clues were written. Each was modified with a single letter — “a time to trend” instead of “a time to rend,” for example. These extra letters spelled out the answer RENT in 80-down (which was cited in another down clue). That’s some quality construction right there.

Interesting grid entries included BROAD CITY, TOE TAP, ISSA RAE (across two answers) and FEMINISTA, and my favorite clue was either “Cheap but inviting letters” for BYO, “Change one’s locks?” for DYE, or “Norman patronymic with ‘Gerald’ or ‘Hugh'” for FITZ.

Puzzle 4: Non-Linear Narratives by Erik Agard featuring Allegra Kuney

The toughest puzzle of the tournament thus far, Puzzle 4’s theme entries involved phrases which included animals, but not only were the animals replaced with their younger or older versions (KANGAROO for JOEY in PAL JOEY, for instance), but the animal portion of the phrase also read backward! So in the case of FROG IN ONE’S THROAT, the actual answer read ELOPDAT IN ONE’S THROAT.

Those entries were supported by the revealers GETTING UP THERE (for KANGAROO and RABBIT, since they were progressing from baby to adult) and BUTTONING UP (for TADPOLE and HATCHLING, since they were progressing from adult to baby like Benjamin Button). And all four were cited in the answer JUMPING AROUND IN TIME, offering a final touch of wordplay for solvers to enjoy.

Interesting grid entries included LENINIST, AM I HIGH, TIRAMISU, RING SIZE, and CHEERIO, and my favorite clue was either “Spot for a banjo” for KNEE or “Poet hidden (not very well) in this clue” for POE.

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[Image courtesy of tutsplus.com.]

Puzzle 5: In Search of Lost Time by Neville Fogarty

The manipulation of time and space continued in Puzzle 5, as the word ERA was removed from some themed entries and inserted in others, giving us answers like OP(era)TION DESERT STORM and (ERA)SURE THING.

The construction is topnotch and the fill interesting, making for a nice palate cleanser and a really fun solve after the more strenuous efforts of Puzzle 4.

Interesting grid entries included MR. MOTO, NABBIT, HEE HAW, and FIERI, and my favorite clue was easily “Word clued as ‘Modern messages’ in a 1995 New York Times crossword” for FAXES.

Puzzle 6: Downs Only? by Andy Kravis

The closing puzzle of the tournament was offered in two difficulty levels: the Inside Track (designated for solvers who finished in the top 25% of the field in a crossword tournament with published standings in the past 5 years) and the Outside Track (designated for everyone else). I opted for the Inside Track, then looked over the cluing for the Outside Track.

The closing puzzle of the tournament is usually the most difficult, but this year, they threw a curveball at the competitors:

You will not receive all the clues at the start of this puzzle. Instead, you will start the puzzle with only the down clues. However, you may be able to figure out what happened to the rest of the clues while you are solving the puzzle. If you think you have figured out what happened to the rest of the clues, tell the official standing next to you. If you are correct, you will immediately be given the rest of the clues.

Some solvers make a habit of attempting to solve a crossword with only one set of clues, so using only the down clues wouldn’t trip up the most elite solvers. But for the rest of us, what a diabolical twist! (The theme entries spelled out that the missing Across clues were on the back of the whiteboard the competitors were filling in.)

The grid itself was packed long entries, but the tight construction left little room for crosswordese or obscurity to throw you off-track. It’s a great grid with some brutal cluing.

Interesting grid entries abounded in this one, including CAIMAN, MIND ERASER, YUCATAN, GESTAPO, and OSSO BUCO, and my favorite clues were either “The planets, e.g.” for OCTET (alas, poor Pluto), “Part of many a wedding toast” for ANECDOTE, or “Sea whose eastern basin dried up completely in 2014” for ARAL. (That area so often clued as a sea is in fact now referred to as the Aralqum Desert, and it’s nice to see crossworders picking up on that.)


Overall, this was the best Indie 500 yet. The puzzles mixed the inventiveness of the first two tournaments with a steadier hand and some really clever cluing. The constructors made the most of the time theme, resulting in some super-impressive wordplay and theme ideas. All in all, this was an engaging and worthy series of puzzles, designed to delight and challenge solvers in equal measure.

I look forward to its return next year, and hopefully some of you will join me in accepting the Indie 500 challenge!

Note: There were additional puzzles included in the puzzle packet, but since they were outside the regular tournament puzzles, I didn’t review them. But believe me, they are worth your time, particularly Tracy Bennett’s immensely fun “To Everything There Is a Season” companion puzzle.


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The Indie 500 Crossword Tournament returns tomorrow!

indie5002017

That’s right! Tomorrow, June 3rd, will mark the third annual edition of the tournament, and although registration is closed (because the event is full!), you can still participate from home for only $10! Click here for details!

Not only that, but once again they’ve whipped up a meta-suite of puzzles to boot, and you name your own price for it!

I expect great things from the immensely talented team of constructors and directors they’ve assembled: Tracy Bennett, Erik Agard, Angela Olson Halsted, Andy Kravis, Paolo Pasco, Allegra Kuney, and Neville Fogarty. With a curious time-centric theme, topnotch constructors, and pie (there’s always pie), you can’t go wrong!

You can click here for the Indie 500 home page, and click here for a rundown of last year’s puzzles!

Will you be competing? Or participating from home? Let us know in the comments below!


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The Indie 500 Crossword Tournament returns soon!

indie5002017

Two years ago, a new crossword tournament joined the ranks of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and Lollapuzzoola, immediately carving out its own niche in the puzzle world. The Indie 500 offered topnotch puzzles and a pie-fueled solving experience both live in Washington, D.C., and for solvers at home.

And it’s back! The third edition of The Indie 500 is happening on Saturday, June 3, and this year, the theme is Time.

This year’s tournament follows the same format as previous years: five preliminary puzzles of varying difficulty, plus a finals puzzle for the top three scorers in both divisions.

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[There’s also a fair amount of slapstick.]

Registration is open for the tournament, and if you can make it to D.C., it’s only $30 to compete! But don’t worry if you can’t, because solving from home is only $10!

Not only that, but there’s a time-themed meta suite that lets you name your own price, as well as access to the previous tournament bundles for $5 apiece. Those are super-affordable prices for some outstanding puzzles!

Andy Kravis, Erik Agard, and Neville Fogarty all make their third appearance as veteran constructors — understandable, since they’re also event organizers — and they’re joined by Angela Olson Halsted (who constructed last year) and tournament newcomers Tracy Bennett, Paolo Pasco, and Allegra Kuney!

And, of course, there will be pie.

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You can click here for the Indie 500 home page, and click here for a rundown of last year’s puzzles!

Will you be competing, or participating from home? Let us know in the comments below!


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ACPT 2017 Wrap-Up!

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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.

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[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.)

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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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