ACPT 2017 Wrap-Up!

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.

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.

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!)

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.

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.

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.

[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.)

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.

[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.

[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.

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.

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!

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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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Indie 500 Puzzle 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.

June 4 marked the second annual Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, hosted in Washington, D.C., by constructors Erik Agard, Peter Broda, Andy Kravis, and Angela Olsen Halsted. And instead of last year’s racing theme, this year was prom-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, after a few weeks’ reflection, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on those puzzles, for any interested PuzzleNationers who might be considering participating in the future.


[Image courtesy of Teen Vogue.]

Puzzle 1: Canned Music by Peter Broda and Lena Webb

The opening puzzle got solvers off to a playful start with three themed song titles tied together by the phrase “That’s my jam,” highlighting the love of wordplay that typifies the Indie 500 puzzles.

Broda and Webb’s partnership was a fruitful one, giving us a nicely constructed grid with very little crosswordese (and a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference to boot!).

Interesting grid entries included PHONES IT IN, BUPKIS, WATERWORN, and BIKER BAR, and my favorite clue was either “Server error?” for LET or “Cans of Prince Albert, for short?” for WCS.

[Image courtesy of TheChive.com.]

Puzzle 2: A Modest Promposal by Andy Kravis and Neville Fogarty

Five prom-themed puns awaited solvers in this 17x effort, making it quite a bit easier than last year’s Puzzle #2 (which involved shared boxes and some diabolical letter swaps), but remained a very fun and engaging solve. The punny entries were colorful, definitely bringing back memories of forgotten prom tropes from my own high school days.

I was surprised to see a little grid repetition with the word OUT in two different entries, but given the tight construction and fun vocabulary overall, that’s easy to overlook.

Interesting grid entries included EDWARD V, HOTWIRE, and R.L. STINE, and my favorite clues were “Wilson that Tom Hanks talks to a lot” for RITA, “Coastal retreat?” for EBB, and “Bird that’s a real head-turner?” for OWL.

Puzzle 3: I Now Pronounce You… by Sam Trabucco

Last year, Puzzle 3 was guest constructor Finn Vigeland’s time to shine, and this year, guest constructor Sam Trabucco ably stepped up to join the topnotch puzzlers that organized this year’s event. Sam’s puzzle interrupted the prom theme and centered around a bad cell phone connection, allowing tongue-in-cheek misheard words to populate his grid (like CORPSE for “Military subdivision”).

Interesting grid entries included DO THE MATH, SKYPE DATE, and HOT SECOND, and my favorite clues were “Characters often found to be up in arms?” for YMCA and “Apostrophe, in emoticons” for TEAR. (And points for effort should definitely go to the clue “El numero de Fibonacci despues de cinco” for OCHO. It’s not often that Spanish and math cross over in a clue like that.)

[Image courtesy of Freeway Dance Studios.]

Puzzle 4: Do I Hear a Waltz? by Erik Agard and Joanne Sullivan

Without a doubt my favorite puzzle from this year’s tournament, Puzzle 4 hid its theme in its cluing rather than a series of themed entries. (One entry in the center hinted at the clever cluing construction). Instead, 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.

None of the clues feel forced at all, and the fun fill of the grid allowed for a lot of interesting grid entries, like OH C’MON, TRUST ME, ART THIEF, T-REX, and FEMINIST.

My favorite clues were “Cafeteria trays, sometimes” for SLEDS, “Had a few spare moments, perhaps?” for BOWLED, and “High point on a mattress?” for CLIMAX (especially when “Low point on a mattress” for SAG was the previous clue).

[Image courtesy of Celebrity Radio DJs.com.]

Puzzle 5: Group Dance by the Indie 500 Team

For the penultimate puzzle, all of the organizers collaborated on a puzzle that utilized all of the previous themes, as well as having its own twist: two different hidden links. (The circled letters in the theme entries all spell out words that can follow the word WATER, as in WATERLOO or WATERSPOUT, while the shaded words can all follow the phrase LET IT, as in LET IT GO or LET IT RIDE.)

It’s an impressive way to tie all of the puzzles together and include the voices of all of the collaborators. (The clues themselves are even credited to different speakers.)

With interesting grid entries like PIT STAINS, EWOK, and NEAR YOU (along with some odd ones, like TEA BARS and SALARY LIMIT), the puzzle was challenging without being daunting or unfair.

My favorite clues were “Gatorade showers?” for ADS and “Really, really, really not look forward to” for DREAD.

[Say, since we’re talking crosswords, have you checked out the Penny Dell
Crosswords App for both iOS and Android devices? /shameless plug.]

Puzzle 6: The Dance-Off by Angela Olsen Halsted and Kameron Austin Collins

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.

This themeless closer was the toughest puzzle of the day, as you might expect, with tough, conversational entries like OH COME NOW and IT’S SO EASY all over. But, despite the many long entries and tight construction, there was very little crosswordese or obscurity to throw you off-track. It’s a great grid with some brutal cluing.

My favorite grid entry was easily MWAHAHAHA, though SILENT A and HOT DAMN were close runners-up, and my favorite clue was “Person who tunes in on Sundays and sees a bunch of spoilers” for NASCAR FAN. Great stuff.


Overall, I thought this year’s Indie 500 was more accessible than last year’s, an engaging and worthy series of puzzles to delight and challenge solvers in equal measure. The prom theme was brilliantly executed, and the cluing surpassed last year in both cleverness and style.

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


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