Delving into the 2017 ACPT puzzles!

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

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


Puzzle 1: Mystery Initials by Bruce Haight

The opening puzzle in this year’s tournament was certainly an interesting way to kick off the event. Puzzle 1 usually eases solvers into the experience, but this time around, it was more challenging than I think anyone expected. The theme of MI phrases (MORE INFO, MENU ITEM, etc.) was accessible and clued in a straightforward manner.

Interesting grid entries included MWAHAHA, DASH CAM, UHURA, and HI MOM, and my favorite clues were “Option from a list” for MENU ITEM and “’All ears’ or ‘lay eyes on’” for IDIOM.

Puzzle 2: One Dozen by Patrick Berry

Berry’s contribution to the tournament was a very smooth puzzle with great fill and fun wordplay. The theme of sound-alike phrases, but where the T is dropped (AMBIEN NOISE instead of AMBIENT NOISE) was very clever. My only issue with the puzzle was that the two long down entries didn’t adhere to the theme, so I found them tougher to unravel than expected. Otherwise, this was a great hook executed nicely.

Interesting grid entries included LAB RAT, ONESIE, COOLIO, and FABIO, and my favorite clues were “Scientific subject” for LAB RAT and “Shipping order?” for AVAST.

Puzzle 3: On the Table by Brendan Emmett Quigley

Much like Puzzle 1, Puzzle 3 was more challenging than many solvers expected, but the theme — common items or phrases where the initials are swapped for the element on the Periodic Table using that abbreviation (like PLATINUM CRUISER for PT CRUISER) — was really tough, but pulled off with great style.

With elements like Erbium, Moscovium, and Praseodymium getting namechecked, your knowledge of high school chemistry was really put to the test here. That being said, one or two fill entries really flummoxed me, particularly DO TO A TEE, which I had a hard time parsing out even with the section filled in.

Interesting grid entries included ASTARTE, OY VEY, MR. ROARKE, and ABSENTIA, and my favorite clues were “Makes calls” for REFS, “Title that’s shortened by removing its middle letter” for MADAM, and “It takes the edge off” for EMERY.

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Puzzle 4: Body Doubles by Julie Berube

This was a nice break after the challenge of Puzzle 3, and several tournament competitors suggested that this should have been Puzzle 1. A relatively smooth solve with body parts hidden in larger entries (revealed by black boxes in the grid), there was one crossing that gave me pause, as ALII crossing ERIE PA was much tougher than any other crossing in the puzzle.

I was also surprised at allowing two phrases starting with “I’m” both reading down in the same corner, with I’M GONE and I’M A LOSER together. But other than that, this was a quick solve with plenty of French offering an international flavor.

Interesting grid entries included ANTIMATTER, ASAHI, and EYE CHART, and my favorite clues were “Prepare to race” for GET SET and “Apple standard” for IOS.

Puzzle 5: Splice of Life by Mike Shenk

At last, the always daunting Puzzle 5 arrived, and this one did not disappoint. Once you’ve figured out that each themed entry has the letters DNA stuffed into a single box, you really start rolling on the puzzle.

But not long after that, you realize there’s something else at work here as well, since parts of the themed answers are jumbled with each other. Instead of BORIS AND NATASHA, you get BORIS AND NAMES, since NATASHA is paired with UNITED in another entry. (This is confirmed by the revealer RECOMBINANT in the lower left corner.)

The two-step hook makes for a challenging solve, but a very satisfying one, once you’ve sussed out Shenk’s tricks.

Interesting grid entries included ZAPPA, SUSPENSE FILM, OVIEDO, and SUN RA, and my favorite clues were “Hit close to home” for BUNT, “One might be responsible for a reduced sentence” for EDITOR, “Dressing for bowties, e.g.” for SAUCE, and “Give up possession of, in a way” for PUNT.

Puzzle 6: Field Trip by Lynn Lempel

The final puzzle on Saturday was a nice palate cleanser after Puzzle 5, employing a hook based more on cluing wordplay than any trickery in the grid. All of the clues played with baseball terminology: “One touting pain pills?” clued RELIEF PITCHER, for instance. This was a solid way to close out the day’s solving, with very little crosswordese and a balanced fill.

Interesting grid entries included SOIREE, IRON MAN, CORONET, and KANSAN, and my favorite clues were “Apple on a teacher’s desk” for IMAC and the themed clue “Two square dancing needs?” for SWING AND A MISS.

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Puzzle 7: Rebranding by Joel Fagliano

Sunday morning’s puzzle was all about the cluing as the constructor peppered the grid with the names of famous companies and offered alternate sales pitches for them in the clues. (For example, “Now we sell chess pieces!” was new advertising for WHITE CASTLE.) The associative cluing style felt different from all of the other puzzles in the tournament, giving this one a fun energy and making for an enjoyable solving experience.

Interesting grid entries included I’LL PASS, CARNITAS, ROGER MOORE, NBA TEAMS, and SENESCED, and my favorite clue was “Woman’s name that sounds like two letters of the alphabet” for EVIE.

Puzzle 8: Last Words by Michael Shteyman

And then, we were down to one. The final puzzle of the tournament offered three sets of clue difficulties (A for the top performers, B for the solid performers, C for everyone else). And with no theme and plenty of long entries crossing in this grid, there were fewer giveaway words to get you started.

I attempted the A-level clues, but I struggled mightily with them. I did successfully solve the puzzle with the B-level clues, but honestly, that just gave me more respect for the B-level finalists who were mistakenly given the A-level clues at the tournament this year, because they all still managed to complete the puzzle! Wow.

With unusual entries like AQUAPLANE, INDOJAZZ, LEO VI, and FLESHPOT, Shyetman did an impressive job cramming all 26 letters of the alphabet into this pangram puzzle.

Interesting grid entries included PUZZLE MUG, MOON UNIT, and AL-JAZEERA, and my favorite clues were “50/50, e.g.” for ONE — very nice math cluing there — and “Knife handle?” for X-ACTO.


Overall, I think this year’s tournament puzzles were tougher than those in previous years. That being said, there was a lot of ingenuity and creativity involved in these eight puzzles, and I never cease to be amazed at how fast and how clever so many of my fellow puzzle solvers are, blasting through these crosswords at unbelievable speeds.

ACPT, I’ll see you next year.


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ACPT 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.

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[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.

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[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.

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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.

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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!

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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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Delving into the ACPT puzzles!

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

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


Puzzle 1: For Cooler Heads by Kristian House

The opening puzzle was an excellent introduction to tournament solving, well-constructed but not too challenging. The grid featured two shaded 2×2 blocks within the fill (containing the word CELL), as well as three themed entries and a revealer for those shaded squares (CELL BLOCKS). The theme entries themselves were jail-themed phrases punnily clued, and they were very accessible.

Interesting grid entries included SCOPE OUT, BILOXI, GAUSS, and my favorite clues were “Something done by a prisoner” for TIME, “Spade doing a lot of digging” for SAM, and “Place to find a spare tire?” for ABDOMEN. This was a very solid Puzzle 1.

Puzzle 2: “T” TIME by Patrick Blindauer

Patrick is a top name in puzzles, and he set himself quite a constructing challenge with Puzzle 2. Not only did every clue start with the letter T, but every entry, both across and down, included a T. Very impressive.

If you read my recap of the tournament, you’ll recognize this as the puzzle with the diabolical crossing of CONTE and CORTANA that flummoxed so many competitors, but honestly, I found the entire upper-right corner to be tough. Much tougher than the rest of the puzzle, comparatively. Otherwise it was a very accessible grid, but one that asked a bit more from solvers than Puzzle 1.

Interesting grid entries included SPIN ART, SANTANA, and CORONET, and my favorite clues were “‘That’s all folks,’ for Mel Blanc” for EPITAPH and “Trojan material” for LATEX.

Puzzle 3: Series Cancellations by Mike Shenk

This time around, each of the theme entries was a television show with one letter missing. For instance, “TV series about a driver rear-ending another motorist” clued BRAKING BAD. Together, the missing letters from each entry spelled the word CENSOR reading down in the lower-right corner. This was very clever construction, and the puzzle offered some fun wordplay with the “new” shows as clued.

But there was something else lurking in the grid. The lower-right corner featured a pretty diabolical crossing that could’ve misled solvers. The correct entries were ROMANI crossing CRIER at the I, but a solver could easily fill in those entries as ROMANY crossing CRYER. Pretty sneaky.

Interesting grid entries included BOSWELL, NO MAYO, and A TO Z (as well as the way-too-hard for this puzzle AZUSA), and my favorite clues from the puzzle were “River past Memphis” for NILE, “Sch. for fathers-to-be” for SEM, “Focus on the road” for CAR, and quite appropriately for the tournament, “Didn’t get the 150-point solving bonus, say” for ERRED.

Puzzle 4: Symbology by Zhouqin Burnikel

This was the toughest puzzle thus far, as some of the entries were simply clued with a symbol like “/” or “[ ]” and you had to come up with the theme answer that fit the symbol or symbols. For instance, CUT SHARPLY (slash) and TAX LEVELS (brackets) were the answers to the above clues. Very crafty.

Given the challenge level, this felt like a good warm up for the infamous Puzzle 5, which was looming next.

Interesting grid entries included C’EST LA VIE and NO FEAR ACT, and my favorite clues were “Set in stone, say” for ETCH, “Fails to finish a sentence?” for ESCAPES, and “Pound note?” for ARF.

Puzzle 5: Changing Lanes by Patrick Berry

There are two sounds I’ll always associate with the tournament. The first is the whoosh of everyone turning over their puzzles and beginning at the same time. The second is the groan that accompanies the timer running out during Puzzle 5.

Puzzle 5 is always a beast, and this year’s puzzle did not disappoint. (Well, it probably disappointed a few people, but not with the craftsmanship of the puzzle itself.)

I admit, this one melted my brain. I got that some of the entries would shift from reading down to reading across and back again (in a zigzag pattern), but it took me a long while to realize that those “lane changing” entries would share those unclued lines reading across, but in the other direction. Had I been competing in the tournament, there’s no way I would have completed this one within the 30-minute tournament deadline. Brutal.

Interesting grid entries included CAR TALK, BOB VILA, TOLTEC, and LION CUB, and my favorite clues were “Drawing room?” for ART STUDIO and “Block lettering?” for LEGO.

Puzzle 6: I’ll Be There by Joel Fagliano

Rounding out Saturday’s competition was a nice mental palate cleanser after the diabolical Puzzle 5. In Joel Fagliano’s contribution to the tournament, the letter “I” added to standard phrases to make them comparative (like “Quaker State” becoming QUAKIER STATE comparing California to Nebraska). It’s a neat hook, one easily gettable for solvers already rundown by Puzzle 5.

Interesting grid entries included BBQ PIT, I RAISE, FOOD COMA, and RAZZIE, and my favorite clue was easily “Girl who’s coming back with something valuable?” for TESSA (asset backwards).

Puzzle 7: Page-Turners by Lynn Lempel

Sunday started off strong with this well-read entry by Lynn Lempel. As indicated by the title, the themed entries were novels with the last word in the title anagrammed. For instance, “Lord of the Flies” becomes LORD OF THE FILES and “Tender is the Night” becomes TENDER IS THE THING.

A solid closer with lots of accessible crosswordese, this puzzle was perfect for easing solvers out of tournament mode right before the big championship showdown.

Interesting grid entries included ALVIN AILEY, GANGSTA, ACOLYTE, and STEPS ON IT, and my favorite clues were “Soprano not known for music” for CARMELA and “Manhattan spot” for BAR.

Puzzle 8: The Low-Down (And Across) by Mark Diehl

And then, we were down to one. The final puzzle of the tournament offered three sets of clue difficulties (A for the top performers, B for the solid performers, C for everyone else). And there were a lot of longer entries crossing in this grid, so there were fewer giveaway words to get you started.

I found the solve to be pretty challenging, and I’m constantly amazed at how fast the finalists solve these puzzles. (For context, tournament winner Howard Barkin solved it in 8 minutes, using the A clues.)

I solved it with the B clues, and still with some difficulty. Interesting grid entries included PARLANCE, TOOK A HINT, and RARIN’ TO GO, and my favorite clue was easily “They have wings but never leave the ground” for SNOW ANGELS.


Overall, I was impressed with the quality and ingenuity of puzzles we saw in the tournament, and as always, it reminded me of just how quick, how cunning, and how clever many of the tournament solvers are. These puzzles were a real treat.

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5 Questions with Constructor Brendan Emmett Quigley

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 Brendan Emmett Quigley as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

A professional puzzle constructor for almost 20 years, Brendan is one of the top names when it comes to crosswords with strong craftsmanship and clever cluing. One of the most prolific contributors to The New York Times Crossword in the modern era, his puzzles have appeared everywhere from GAMES Magazine and The Los Angeles Times to Wired.com and The Crosswords Club.

In addition to the two puzzles he constructs every week for his website, he’s created many puzzle books of his own, and contributed puzzles to an American Red Cross fundraiser for Hurricane Sandy victims. (He also masterminded Puzzle #5 at this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the puzzle only a few dozen solvers managed to conquer in the time allotted.)

Brendan 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 Brendan Emmett Quigley

1.) How did you get started with puzzles?

I started making puzzles at a very early age. In Kindergarten art class, specifically. We were given 11×17 sheets of paper and told we could draw anything. I drew mazes. Shortly after that, I realized I could make the puzzles more complicated if I eschewed crayons and used finely sharpened pencils. When I discovered GAMES Magazine, sometime in second grade, I was hooked and became a puzzler for life.

I didn’t get into crosswords until much later. It was a way to while away the hours at a miserable summer job in 1995. After a whole summer of dutifully attempting (and not necessarily succeeding) at solving the Times crossword, I was determined to make and sell one. Which I did by January of 1996. I haven’t stopped since.

2.) What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle? (Other than your signature knack for stacking long entries.) What do you most enjoy — or most commonly avoid — when constructing your own? What do you think is the most common pitfall of constructors just starting out?

A good original and hopefully funny theme is all you need to make a great puzzle.

The most common pitfall for newbies is unoriginal themes, or ones that don’t employ enough wordplay. The English language is full of nuances, we should exploit them.

[Check out Brendan’s latest collection, Sit & Solve® Marching Bands!
For more information on marching band puzzles, click here!]

3.) Will Shortz has credited you with bringing some hipness to the New York Times Crossword with your cluing and entry-word choices. Do you have any favorite clues or entries that have appeared there, either in your puzzles or puzzles by other constructors?

Mike Shenk once wrote the clue “Strips in a club” for BACON, and well, that’s a classic.

4.) What’s next for Brendan Emmett Quigley?

I think I’m going to have a beer.

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

Don’t do drugs. Be drugs.


Many thanks to Brendan for his time. Check out his website for twice-weekly puzzles, and be sure to follow him on Twitter (@fleetwoodwack) for updates on all things Quigley. I look forward to solving whatever he cooks up next.

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