ACPT Wrap-up!

The 38th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was this weekend, and puzzlers descended on the Stamford Marriott Hotel in the hopes of putting their puzzly chops to the test in what has been dubbed “the Nerd Olympics.”

The tournament takes place over two days — with six puzzles to solve on Saturday, followed by one on Sunday — and then the championship puzzle, which the top 3 solve 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.

I ventured down to Stamford myself Saturday morning amidst some unexpected snow flurries and sat in with my friends from Penny/Dell Puzzles at their booth.

They were armed to the teeth with tote bags, magazines, pencils, and freebie copies of The Crosswords Club, The Uptown Puzzle Club, Will Shortz’s Sudoku, and some of the tougher Penny Press and Dell Magazines titles. It was a sumptuous buffet of puzzly goodness, to be sure.

Joining me behind the tables were Penny Press proofreader and puzzler Debra Yurschak Rich and PuzzleNation‘s very own Director of Game Development, Fred Galpern, who was on hand to show off the Penny Dell Crosswords App.

We had a few hours before Puzzle #1 would kick off the tournament, so I wandered around, checked out the ballroom where the competition would take place, surveyed the other booths, and chatted with many tournament competitors and puzzlers.

Not only did I get to see friends of the blog like Uptown Crossword Club editor Patti Varol, author and puzzler Eric Berlin, constructor Ian Livengood and Penny Press variety editor Keith Yarbrough, but it was a great opportunity to match names and faces, since I’d had the chance to tweet, email, and otherwise interact with many of them online over the last few years, but never actually met them in person.

Among the folks I got to meet were crossword gentleman Doug Peterson, 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, Los Angeles Times crossword editor Rich Norris, constructor Alan Olschwang, Evan Birnholz of Devil Cross, top competitor and former champion Tyler Hinman, and New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz.

[Will stops in at the Penny/Dell Puzzles booth, and poses with his namesake titles.]

One of my favorite things about the tournament is the absolute and unabashed puzzle love shown by so many competitors. I saw crossword-patterned sweaters, ties, shirts, and earrings, as well as punny t-shirts of all kinds. One guy even dressed up in full papal regalia, but with a crossword theme!

[Fred poses with the eye-catching Puzzle Pope. In nomine puzzle…]

Finally, it was time for the tournament to begin, so the competitors filed into the ballroom where Will Shortz introduced Puzzle #1, created by Tracy Bennett, which would be a Monday difficulty puzzle.

It’s an excellent warm-up puzzle for competitors, and rarely one that poses a significant challenge. Dan Feyer, reigning five-time champion, set a new tournament record by completing Puzzle #1 in under two minutes. WOW.

But, as it turns out, there was a bit of a kerfuffle surrounding the first puzzle. From the Puzzle Brothers blog:

A weird scoring anomaly took place when the Puzzle 1 results were announced, when a solver named William Hall appeared to have solved Puzzle 1 a full four minutes before Dan Feyer did. Since Dan solved the puzzle in less than two minutes – believed to be an ACPT first – that meant that Hall would have had to do some serious messing with the time-space continuum to finish the puzzle TWO MINUTES BEFORE HE EVEN STARTED.

[I believe I met a third of the names on this list over the course of the day.]

The glitch was soon resolved and Dan Feyer returned to his proper spot at the top of the leaderboard.

Puzzles #2 and #3 (constructed by Joel Fagliano and Merl Reagle, respectively) proceeded without any scoring scandals, and throughout the day, I was getting great insight into the puzzles themselves and the energy of the room with post-puzzle updates from Keith, Patti, Doug, and some of the other competitors.

After a break for lunch, the ballroom filled once more for Puzzle #4, Paula Gamache’s contribution to the tournament. And then, it was time for Puzzle #5.

If you recall my report from last year’s tournament, Puzzle #5 is routinely the toughest puzzle in the tournament. While Brendan Emmett Quigley’s puzzle last year was widely regarded to be a brutally challenging one, Will Shortz said this year’s entry (constructed by Jeff Chen) was “easy for Puzzle #5.” Which is akin to calling something “the friendliest volcano” or “the warmest Eskimo.”

I happened to bump into Dan Feyer outside the ballroom after he completed Puzzle #5, and he jokingly inquired, “Where is everyone?” I looked at him point-blank and replied, “You know exactly where everyone is, Dan!”

Not long after, I received the following text, from another competitor: Puzzle 5. *sad trombone*

The day’s puzzle wrapped up with Puzzle #6, a Lynn Lempel creation that helped set the stage for Sunday’s remaining two crosswords: Patrick Berry’s Puzzle #7 and Byron Walden’s championship closer.

And although I wasn’t present for Sunday’s tournament finale, I continued to get updates from friends and fellow puzzlers throughout the day. When it came time for the top three to solve on their white boards in front of their fellow competitors, a familiar trio of names were listed: Dan Feyer, Tyler Hinman, and Howard Barkin.

Due to his performance over the previous seven puzzles, Dan began with a 5-second head start over Tyler. And that made all the difference.

Watch as Dan and Tyler race to the finish:

Only a half-second separated Dan and Tyler’s times, a nail-biter in ANY competition, but Dan Feyer locked up his sixth straight ACPT championship!

Not only did he top Tyler’s streak of 5 straight wins, but he’s put himself in contention to match Jon Delfin’s record of seven tournament victories next year! Names like Anne Erdmann, Francis Heaney, Joon Pahk, and Al Sanders were not far behind.

And out of more than 560 competitors, friends of the blog had a strong showing themselves! David Steinberg ranked 36th overall, and was named the Division C champion, the youngest ever!

Patti Varol placed 109th, and only a few steps behind her was Eric Berlin at 112th! Keith Yarbrough placed 177th, and Doug Peterson was the top performer in our little cabal of puzzlers, delivering some outstanding solves and placing 14th overall!

(In case anyone was curious, the Puzzle Pope placed 463rd.)

I’ve never experienced anything quite like the ACPT, but I’m definitely going back next year. Congratulations to all the competitors!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!

It’s Follow-Up Friday: ACPT Eve 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.

And in today’s post, I’m returning to the subject of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament!

The 38th annual tournament kicks off tomorrow, and I’m definitely excited to be attending for the very first time! I’ll be sitting in with my pals at the Penny Press/Dell Magazines booth, offering some great puzzles and meeting topnotch competitors and constructors alike.

How many PuzzleNationers and fellow puzzle fiends are attending? Come by, I’d love to meet you!

Not only that, but Fred, our Director of Game Development, will be on hand to show off the Penny Dell Crosswords App!

This week, the names of the constructors contributing puzzles to the tournament this year were revealed, and it’s a terrific mix of first-class constructors. Some you may know, some you may not!

Merl Reagle (who masterminded Google’s 100th Anniversary of the Crossword puzzle) is contributing, along with prolific puzzlers Lynn Lempel, Joel Fagliano (currently Will Shortz’s assistant at The New York Times), and Jeff Chen (XWordInfo‘s webmaster)!

They’re joined by constructors Tracy Bennett, Paula Gamache, Patrick Berry, and Byron Walden (a Saturday NYT regular known for some seriously tough puzzles)! It’s entirely possible that the diabolical Puzzle #5 at this year’s tournament will be a Walden original.

Not only that, but several friends of the blog will be in attendance, like Penny Press variety editor Keith Yarbrough, constructor Ian Livengood, puzzler and author Eric Berlin, crossword gentleman Doug Peterson, and Uptown Puzzle Club editor Patti Varol!

Tuesday’s blog post will be a recap of the tournament, complete with pictures, but stay tuned to Twitter and Facebook this weekend for bonus posts and previews!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!

Crosswords, Cryptics, Constructors, and… Setters?

One of the privileges of writing two or three posts a week for this blog is that it pushes me to expand my own horizons when it comes to puzzles. I reach out to puzzlers, game designers, and pop culture personalities of all sorts; I try out new games and puzzles; I obsessively scour the Internet for new projects, new products, and new stories that involve puzzles.

Oftentimes, that continuous search takes me beyond the borders of the United States, allowing me to explore what puzzles mean to other countries and cultures. And I am forever intrigued by the differences in crossword puzzles between America and the UK.

The world of cryptic crosswords (or British-style crosswords, as some call them) is a bit different from the world of American crosswords. Instead of constructors, they have compilers or setters, and while constructor bylines and attributions were a long time coming on this side of the Atlantic, setters in the UK have been drawing loyal followings for decades, thanks to their unique and evocative pseudonyms.

While Will Shortz, Merl Reagle, Patrick Blindauer, Brendan Emmett QuigleyPatrick Berry, Trip Payne, Matt Gaffney, and Bernice Gordon represent some of the top puzzlers to grace the pages of the New York Times Crossword, names such as Araucaria, Qaos, Arachne, Crucible, Otterden, Tramp, Morph, Gordius, Shed, Enigmatist, and Paul are their word-twisting counterparts featured in The Guardian and other UK outlets.

In fact, beloved setter Araucaria will soon be the subject of a documentary. For more than 50 years, he challenged and delighted cryptic crossword fans, amassing a loyal following. In January of 2013, he even shared his cancer diagnosis with the audience through a puzzle in The Guardian.

While the Wordplay documentary, as well as interviews on PuzzleNation Blog and other sites, have given solvers some insight into the minds and lives of constructors and setters, it’s wonderful to know that the life of a fellow puzzler will be chronicled in so intimate a format.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out our library of PuzzleNation apps and games!

United we solve…

[President Bill Clinton and Brit Hume team up to tackle one of Merl Reagle‘s crosswords.]

A while back, I wrote a post about some of the many puzzle competitions and tournaments that are hosted around the world. But ever since then, I’ve been pondering how odd it is that puzzle competition is so prevalent when puzzles themselves have always been a collaborative effort.

Think about it. Jigsaw puzzles can be solved alone, but aren’t your memories of previous jigsaw puzzles always the ones you solved with others? When you get stuck on a crossword, what’s the first thing you do? You ask someone nearby. I know plenty of couples that solve crosswords and other puzzles together.

[How great is this stock photo I found? It makes me laugh every time I look at it.]

Paradoxically, most group puzzle games are competitive, like Boggle or Bananagrams. Even the games where you build something together, like Words with Friends, Scrabble, Jenga, or Castellan, are all competitive games.

Board games follow the same pattern. The vast majority of them pit players against each other, encouraging adversarial gameplay that leaves a single winner.

[Let the Wookiee win…]

But thankfully, there is a small (but growing!) number of board games that have the same cooperative spirit that pen-and-paper puzzles often do. These cooperative games encourage the players to strategize together and help each other to accomplish tasks and achieve victory as a team. Essentially, instead of playing against each other, they’re playing against the game.

Whether you’re defending your castle from monsters (Justin De Witt’s Castle Panic) or trying to stop a monstrous evil from conquering the world (Arkham Horror), you succeed or fail as a team. It’s a wonderful gameplay experience either way.

One of the top names in cooperative board games is Matt Leacock, creator of Pandemic and Forbidden Island. His games are exceedingly challenging but an immensely good time, even if you fail to stop the viruses or the island sinks before you can gather up all the treasures. It just makes you more determined to play better next time. (This is a wonderful counterpoint to the disillusionment that can crop up when one player trounces another in standard board games.)

There are some cooperative games, like Shadows Over Camelot or Betrayal At House On The Hill that have it both ways, serving as a team game until one player betrays the others, and then it becomes a team vs. spoiler game.

While competitive gameplay certainly does have its advantages, sometimes it’s nice to take some time out and win or lose as a team.

What do you think, PuzzleNationers? Do you prefer games with a winner, or do you enjoy cooperative games? Are there any great cooperative games or puzzles I missed? Let me know!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!

5 Questions with Constructor Matt Gaffney!

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.

And I’m overjoyed to have Matt Gaffney as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Matt Gaffney is a puzzle constructor, and over the last twenty-five years — fifteen as a full-time constructor! — he has made a name for himself as one of the most innovative names in crosswords. Whether it’s his signature Weekly Crossword Contest puzzles or the crossword murder mystery he launched on Kickstarter, he’s become synonymous with puzzles that contain a little something extra.

In addition to puzzle books and books about puzzles, he’s been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate Magazine, and GAMES Magazine, among numerous others. All told, he estimates he’s created more than 4,000 puzzles in his career!

Matt 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 Matt Gaffney

1.) How did you get started with puzzles?

My older sister starting bringing home Dell and Penny Press puzzle magazines when I was about 8 or 9. I have a hypercompetitive personality with certain things, and puzzles turned out to be one of them, so I starting submitting crosswords to Dell Champion. They ran my first two published puzzles when I was 13.

2.) In addition to your daily crossword puzzles, you host a Weekly Crossword Contest, featuring crosswords with a puzzle-within-a-puzzle lurking inside. These “metapuzzles” have grown in popularity over the years. What separates a quality metapuzzle from a bonus answer that simply feels tacked on? What are some of your favorite past metapuzzles?

Ideally a metapuzzle is like a good hiding place in hide-and-go-seek. The seeker shouldn’t find you right away; they should overlook you a couple of times, walk past you a couple of times, and only later say, “Ah, I should’ve found you sooner.”

My favorite meta that I myself wrote in the past year is called “Corporate Structure” and can be found here.

My favorite meta that someone else wrote is called “Seasonal Staff” by Francis Heaney and you can buy it for $1 here (under “Puzzle” scroll down to 2013-12-18).

[Just one of many puzzle-themed titles Matt has authored.]

3.) When you celebrated 5 years of your Weekly Crossword Contest, you stated that MGWCC will run for 1,000 weeks, which would put the final edition around August 6, 2027. Do you have any predictions for how crosswords might have changed by then?

I think by then individual crossword writers will be more brandable than we are now. With a few exceptions like Merl Reagle, familiar crossword brands are still usually publications or, in the case of Will Shortz, an editor.

The Web has allowed constructors like myself, Brendan Quigley, Liz Gorski, Erik Agard, and many others to get our work out independently, so I think solvers will move more towards seeking out their favorite individual constructors rather than solving newspaper puzzles. Sort of like how you can buy an album by your favorite artist instead of waiting for them to play on the radio.

4.) What’s next for Matt Gaffney?

I’m going to market my Daily Crossword this summer. I’ve been too busy to find a good home for it but the number of hits it gets, with zero marketing on my part, is amazing to me.

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

I would encourage people to explore the indie crosswords. If the newspaper dailies are ABC, NBC, and CBS, then the independent puzzle writers are HBO and Showtime. Go here and click on any of the names on the bottom-left sidebar and see what’s good.

Not all of them are indie crossword sites (some are crossword critique sites, some are other crossword-related stuff) but about half of them are personal sites of independent crossword writers.


Many thanks to Matt for his time. Check out his Daily Crossword, his Weekly Crossword Contest, his blog about crosswords, and his website, and be sure to follow him on Twitter (@metabymatt) for the latest updates on all his projects. I can’t wait to see what other puzzly tricks he has up his sleeve.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!

5 Questions with Constructor and Puzzle Archivist David Steinberg

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

We’re reaching out to puzzle constructors, video game writers and designers, writers, filmmakers, 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.

And I’m excited to have David Steinberg as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

With crosswords published in both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times by the age of 15, David practically has crosswords in his DNA. He’s the crossword editor for The Orange County Register’s numerous publications, as well as the founder of the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, an ongoing effort to digitize every New York Times crossword from before Will Shortz took over as editor. And he’s accomplished all of this before the age of 18!

David 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 David Steinberg

1.) How did you get started with puzzles?

I started doing puzzles when I was very young — in early elementary school, maybe even kindergarten, I was doing puzzles in books my parents bought me. I was really into Jumble puzzles — I remember that one year, my elementary school had congratulatory “graduation” ads parents could buy to help support the school, and my mom designed one for me that was a Jumble puzzle.

But I didn’t really get into crosswords until I was twelve. My dad had been trying to do the crosswords in The Seattle Times, and I liked watching him and trying to help. My mom noticed my interest and thought I might like seeing the documentary Wordplay, so we checked it out of the library. I saw how Merl Reagle built a puzzle by hand and thought maybe I could do one, so the next day I did. And that was how I got started.

2.) With the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, you’ve established yourself as one of the key preservers of Puzzle History. Can you give the PuzzleNation readership an update on where the project stands right now and your projections for the future?

Thanks! As I write this, more than 12,100 puzzles have been digitized, or “litzed.” [Glenn’s note: As of publication today, the total is over 12,900.] We’re working backwards in time — we started in 1993 and are now litzing puzzles from 1961. We’re currently proofreading puzzles from 1980; all the pre-Shortzian puzzles from 1981 through November 20, 1993, are posted on XWord Info.

We’re in the middle of our third litzing contest, “Litzstarter,” and the goal is to reach 13,000 puzzles by the end of October. I’m hoping we finish litzing all the available puzzles by the end of 2014. I say “available,” because quite a few puzzles that were scheduled for publication in The New York Times were never published because of newspaper strikes. They likely appeared in other publications, however, and after all the puzzles we have are litzed, I’ll be launching an effort to track down the missing puzzles.

The proofreading is progressing at a slower pace because we only have a few proofreaders. My hope is that after the litzing is done, some of the litzers will become proofreaders. Finishing all the proofreading will probably take several more years, but I want the litzed puzzles to have as few mistakes in them as possible.

(Interestingly, many pre-Shortzian puzzles contain editorial errors — in most cases, we’re leaving those in, sometimes with notes that will be added later, so that the litzed puzzles will be accurate representations of what originally appeared in the paper. When the errors appear to be simply typesetting mistakes, we usually correct them.)

One other thing that’s happened recently is that I won a Davidson Fellows Scholarship for the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project. This award was very gratifying, because it demonstrated that the project is of value to a wider community, not just to cruciverbalists.

3.) The hundredth anniversary of the crossword is fast approaching. Given your familiarity with puzzles both past and present, what does the hundredth anniversary mean to you? And what are the odds people in the future will be celebrating the crossword’s bicentennial with similar gusto?

The hundredth anniversary of the crossword puzzle means a lot to me — it shows just how long patterns of black and white squares have fascinated solvers. It’s amazing how much the crossword puzzle has evolved since Arthur Wynne’s first construction in 1913 — from crossing a bunch of words in the dictionary to symmetrical grids and entries from the news to complex themes like rebuses and entries reading backwards!

I wonder how crosswords will continue to evolve as new terms become in-the-language and new theme types become more widely used — perhaps they’ll be superseded by some completely different puzzle type. Either way, I think the 200th anniversary of the crossword puzzle will be very significant!

4.) What’s next for David Steinberg?

Between running the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, editing crosswords for the Orange County Register’s associated newspapers, constructing my own crosswords, and going to school, I don’t have much time to look ahead! But I do plan on going to college in a couple of years and hope to eventually become a software engineer. I plan on continuing to construct and edit crosswords, though, for the rest of my life!

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

One piece of advice I have for puzzle solvers is never to get too locked into answers you fill in that aren’t flat-out gimmes. Crossword constructors like to use a lot of misdirection — at times, I’ve had to erase five or six answers in a single corner before being able to finish! Erasing guesses and starting a puzzle with a clean slate can also be very helpful.

Similarly, crossword constructors shouldn’t get too locked into a particular fill and should explore all options — you never know what possibilities are out there until you explore everything!

Many thanks to David for his time. You can follow the progress of the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project on their website, as well as David’s editorial efforts on the Orange County Register website. David continues to set records (most recently for the greatest age difference between collaborating constructors, when he worked with 99-year-old Bernice Gordon), and will no doubt be influencing the puzzle world for a long, long time to come.

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Classic Word Search iBook (recently featured by Apple in the Made for iBooks category!), play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!