On Jeopardy!, It Pays to Know Your Trivia

Whether you’re a casual game show watcher or a dedicated trivia buff, you’ve probably heard the name James Holzhauer by now.

The professional sports gambler has dominated Jeopardy! for weeks now, increasing viewership and sparking debate with his aggressive play style and confident wagering. By going after the highest-value questions first and purposely bouncing around the board in search of Daily Doubles to pad his bankroll, he appears to have “cracked” the Jeopardy! code unlike any other contestant in history.

Holzhauer has amassed 20 consecutive victories as of last night, becoming only the second contestant in history to pass the million-dollar mark on the show. His winnings currently stand at $1,528,012.

But his single-game performances are just as impressive. Not only does he hold the top score for most money won in a single game — $131,127 — but he holds the top ten positions on the board for single-game winnings. (The amounts in the top ten range from his top score of $130k to $80,006.)

He is the only person to earn more than $100,000 in a single game. In fact, he has done so on FIVE separate occasions. (For some context, the previous single-game record was $77,000, a record which stood for nine years before Holzhauer obliterated it.)

How do I know all this? Easy. Jeopardy! has launched an official tracker to keep viewers up-to-date on his stats.

With an impressive amount of knowledge behind him, the guts to wager big money, and the rapid-fire reaction time to buzz in first more often than not, he is a Jeopardy! triple threat, a juggernaut that shows no signs of slowing down.

In an interview with The New York Times, he credited his profession with preparing him for game-show dominance:

The fact that I win and lose money all the time helps desensitize me, so I can write down $60,000 as the Final Jeopardy wager and not be trembling at the thought of losing that money.

But it’s not always big money that makes the difference. On Monday’s show, he won by a mere $18 in a heartstopper of a Final Jeopardy.

And, despite his mind-blowing performance thus far, he has awhile to go before he surpasses Jeopardy!’s top money earner, Ken Jennings.

Jennings holds the all-time record with $2,520,700, which he amassed over the course of 74 victories in 2004. But Jennings was more conservative in his wagering than Holzhauer, who has closed the gap between them to less than $1 million dollars in just 20 days. Statisticians postulate that he is on track to pass Jennings’s total after 34 games. (Fewer than half the number of games won by Jennings!)

What does host Alex Trebek think of all this? According to reports, he’s not a fan of Holzhauer’s Daily Double hunting and aggressive betting, but I suspect he’s more than pleased with the boost in ratings and notoriety for the long-running game show.

Of course, Alex might be miffed for another reason. On average, Holzhauer is making more money than the estimated $50,000 per episode that host Alex Trebek earns.

Holzhauer might want to start tipping the host from time to time, just to keep him happy.


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Delving into the 2019 ACPT Puzzles!

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One of the highlights of the puzzle year is the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. 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: And We’re Off! by Kathy Wienberg

The opening puzzle in this year’s tournament was a good smooth solve, easing solvers into the tournament experience. The theme of the word BATON being “passed” over a black square between longer entries was clever and accessible, easily cracked by tournament-puzzle standards, and the related phrases like FINISH LINE really sold the theme well.

Interesting grid entries included KOMBAT, ZAGAT, MAORI and AMOCO, and my favorite clues were “15 things in this puzzle” for ROWS and “Necessity for a farm team” for YOKE.

Puzzle 2: Following Orders by Joel Fagliano

Joel’s contribution to to the tournament was a fun reinterpretation of a song by The Doors, BREAK ON THROUGH TO THE OTHER SIDE, splitting up the theme entries so that the second part of the answer was a food. (Example: CAPRICORN becomes CAPRI CORN.) It was surprising to have two puzzles in a row that involved answers spanning black-square breaks between entries, but the revealer with The Doors added an extra touch to this one.

Interesting grid entries included UNHANDY, MY OH MY, SCHTICK, RICOH, and APOGEE, and my favorite clue was “Inspiring halftime speech, for a sports movie” for TROPE.

Puzzle 3: Added Time by Patrick Berry

The hook for Puzzle 3 was simple, but deftly executed, as the word AGE was added onto the end of established phrases like DOG POUND and CLASSIFIED AD to form new answers. But this was balanced by harder-than-expected fill, which definitely kept me guessing and ate up a great deal of the given time for solving.

Interesting grid entries included MAHLER, BIG DEAL, COLUMBO, MARS BAR, and MESMER, and my favorite clues were “Name-dropper abbr.” for ETAL and “Time or Money” for MAG.

[Image courtesy of How Stuff Works.]

Puzzle 4: It’s the Law by Jeff Stillman

My favorite puzzle from the tournament, Puzzle 4 employed a brilliantly visual gimmick where two circles represented an apple and a head, with a series of I’s (and one V) forming an arrow between them. With themed entries ISAAC NEWTON, ROBERT HOOKE, and GRAVITATION, you’ve got all the ingredients for a science-themed puzzle with a very fun twist.

Interesting grid entries included GO BAG, PC GAME, TUBULAR, and ARTOO, and my favorite clue was “One who gets asked a lot of questions” for SIRI.

Puzzle 5: Trade Names by Evan Birnholz

Puzzle 5 is infamously the most difficult of the tournament, and this year’s entry was no exception.

I figured out the gimmick pretty quick — themed entries in the same row would swap words that were also names, so the answers LANDMARK and GRANTING were actually LAND GRANT and MARKING — but the tough cluing and crafty fill entries made this a challenging solve. It was definitely the puzzle I struggled with the most. Puzzle 5, you’ve done it again.

Interesting grid entries included SPEEDO, ORVILLE, OFF NIGHT, and NOOGIE, and my favorite clue was “1986 #1 hit ‘On My Own,’ e.g., ironically” for DUET.

Puzzle 6: Playing the Field by Lynn Lempel

The first day of tournament puzzles wrapped up with this smooth, well-constructed closer loaded with delightful football puns. It was the perfect palate cleanser after the battle I had with Puzzle 5, and Lempel once again displayed her impressive skill mixing interesting fill words and balanced grid work to create puzzles with terrific flow. Blazing through this puzzle was a nice confidence boost after some tough earlier puzzles.

Interesting grid entries included CITIZENRY, ARAL SEA, MULAN, and DAUPHIN, and my favorite clues were “Adams who got the picture” for ANSEL and “Helpful feature of a crossword solver’s pencil?” for EXTRA POINT.

Puzzle 7: Politically Correct by Mike Shenk

Day Two of the tournament kicked off with this diabolical entry where the letters PC were added to established phrases to form new entries. (For example, LOW RANKING became PLOW CRANKING, which was clued as “Starting up a farm machine by hand?”)

The theme entries made sense, but weren’t immediately intuitive, so I found them tough to come up with, even though I cottoned onto the hook pretty quickly. Combine that with creative fill entries and you’ve got a well-constructed obstacle before the tournament’s final puzzle. Devious Mr. Shenk strikes again.

Interesting grid entries included ASADA, SCHIRRA, KIM NOVAK, CAT LADY, and MONADS, and my favorite clues were “Dial in your home, perhaps,” for SOAP, “Welcoming sign” for OPEN ARMS, “They’re just over two feet” for ANKLES, and “Volume setting?” for SHELF.

Puzzle 8: Troublemaker by Robyn Weintraub

The finals puzzle for the tournament boasts a different set of clues for each of the three divisions — A, B, and C — where the competitors solve the puzzle live on stage, and Weintraub constructed a puzzle with loads of intriguing entries and personality to spare. When the puzzle both apologizes to you (2 Down was I AM SO SORRY) and checks up on you while you’re solving (50 Across: HOW DID IT GO), you’re in for a unique puzzling experience.

Confession: I attempted the A-level clues, but I struggled with some of them. I did successfully solve the puzzle with a mix of A- and B-level clues.

Interesting grid entries included CHANDELIERS, ICAHN, IT GIRL, and IN RETROSPECT, and the B-clues were undoubtedly my favorite, boasting gems like “Joins a union?” for WEDS, “Darn it!” for HOLE, and “One with a talent for hitting low pitches” for BASS.


Overall, I think this year’s tournament puzzles were not as consistently hard as in previous years, though a lot of individual fill entries were fairly obscure. I did get stuck on several puzzles, frequently outwitted by cleverly misleading clues or my own inability to come up with what would later feel like obvious answers. But, as always, I relish the challenge of trying my hand at these puzzles, even if it’s not under tournament conditions.

The ingenious and creative constructors once again brought their A-game to the table with this year’s 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 2019 Wrap-Up!

The 42nd 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, arriving with plenty of time to spare to prep our spot in the puzzle marketplace and say hello to friends and puzzly acquaintances. This year, I was joined at the Penny Dell Puzzles booth once again by my friend and partner-in-promotion Stacey Scarso.

The Penny Dell crew 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. They were also running a kickass promotion offering half-price on a year’s subscription to Crosswords Club, which is a great deal.

The Penny Dell Store also returned for the first time in a few years, as puzzle books (including a collection of Daily POP Crossword App puzzles!), tote bags, travel mugs, and coffee mugs were for sale. The Word Nerd mugs were a big hit!

PLUS we held a contest to win a bundle of PDP puzzle swag, including a mug, a tote bag, coffee fixin’s, and a bunch of puzzle magazines! All you had to do was solve a marvelous crossword variant puzzle cooked up by Eric Berlin.

And, yes, in their downtime between tournament puzzles, many competitors DO solve other puzzles.

At 9 AM, the tournament was two hours away, but the marketplace was up and running.

There were puzzle books galore from Will Shortz and Merl Reagle, ACPT shirts and cards from Elena Powell Abrahams, and a massive uber-crossword from T. William Campbell, which definitely caught the eye of some solvers:

Our friends from Lone Shark Games also had a booth at the tournament, staffed by either a very good hologram or an impressive doppleganger of Gaby Weidling. There were The Maze of Games books for sale and a puzzle card for their ongoing Maze of Games Omnibus Kickstarter campaign!

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, 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 200 first-time attendees and enthusiastic rookies, mixing with current and former champions, and all sorts of puzzle enthusiasts of all ages.

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, puzzle ties, and other grid-heavy accoutrements.

One of the attendees even offered to buy the Crossword Puzzle Junkie shirt off my back! I assured him that that would work for him and literally no one else in attendance.

But I digress.

Many of the top constructors in the business were there, names like David Steinberg, Evan Birnholz, Joon Pahk, Erik Agard, Peter Gordon, and more, along with former champions and first-rate competitors like Dan Feyer, David Plotkin, 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 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.

Attendance jumped again this year, which meant not only was the main ballroom absolutely jam-packed with competitors, but an overflow room was once again needed to accommodate the more-than-700 solvers in Stamford!

When Puzzle 1 arrived, most competitors found Kathy Wienberg’s puzzle to be quick and fair, on par with Monday NYT puzzles.

Although there was no sub-2-minute time like last year, the top solvers still blasted through this one.

Puzzle 2, constructed by prolific puzzler Joel Fagliano, surprised some solvers with a clever little trick at its core. This is consistent with the last few years, where Puzzle 2 has surprised the competitors. I think many solvers forget that, given how legendarily difficult Puzzle 5 is every year. It’s easy to forget other puzzles can offer quite a challenge along the way.

About this time, scores started trickling out for Puzzle 1, and many of the expected names were at the top: Feyer, Pahk, Plotkin, Zawistowski, Sanders, Kravis, Ryan… but two big names were missing.

Former 5-time champion (and perennial top contender) Tyler Hinman was not attending the tournament this year, and Erik Agard, last year’s champion, had a mistake in Puzzle 1, which would seriously hamper his efforts to repeat last year’s success.

Puzzle 3 was constructed by Patrick Berry, and served as a well-received, smooth-solving palate-cleanser before the lunch break.

          [Even empty, all the dividers make the room feel packed…]

Solvers scattered to the four winds in order to grab a bite to eat before returning by 2:30 for Puzzle 4, while the tournament officials were still hard at work tabulating scores:

After 3 puzzles, Dan Feyer was on top of the rankings, followed closely by Pahk, and then a three-way tie among Kravis, Plotkin, and Zawistowski for third.

But it was time to kick off the second half of the day with Puzzle 4.

Last year’s fourth puzzle had a visual element that tripped up some of the competitors, and this year’s Puzzle 4 (by constructor Jeff Stillman) was also harder than expected. The fill featured more obscurities than solvers anticipated, and several competitors commented on it on Twitter:

Oh, and by the way, thanks to his puzzly skills and blistering speed, Erik Agard had worked his way back up to 7th place after completing Puzzle 4. Amazing.

Finally, it was time for Puzzle 5. This year, constructor Evan Birnholz (not Birnholtz, as it was misprinted on his name tag) 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.

Even the officials noticed:

After the diabolical Puzzle 5, it was Dan Feyer, Joon Pahk, David Plotkin, Stella Zawistowski, and… Erik Agard.

Competitors closed out the day with Puzzle 6, constructed by Lynn Lempel (she also contributed Puzzle 6 last year), 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 after Puzzle 6. Erik has worked his way back to 4th. Was a comeback story in store for Day 2?]

And although I wasn’t present for Sunday’s tournament finale, I continued to get updates from friends and fellow puzzlers.

Puzzle 7, constructed by Mike Shenk, was what you might expect from a constructor of his caliber: elegant fill, little crosswordese, and great fun.

But Shenk’s name being announced for Puzzle 7 also meant a puzzly milestone for the Finals:

Yes, Robyn Weintraub’s tournament constructing debut would be the final hurdle for the competitors! Fantastic news!

Dan Feyer remained at the top of the leaderboard, having maintained a great solving pace, followed closely by Joon Pahk and David Plotkin.

But it was not meant to be, and the final three came down to Dan Feyer (7-time champ, looking for a record-breaking 8th title), Joon Pahk and David Plotkin (two familiar names in the top ten).

[Image courtesy of Dave Mackey.]

The top three competitors for each live-solving division were:

  • A: Dan Feyer, Joon Pahk, David Plotkin
  • B: Matthew Gritzmacher, Brian Fodera, Arnold Reich
  • C: Brian Kulman, Lily Geller, Claire Rimkus

Lily Geller won the C division, and Brian Fodera won B. Congrats to the winners!

And, finally, it was time for the A Block.

You can watch the final puzzle being solved below, courtesy of Ben Zimmer:

Dan Feyer crushed the A clues in under 7 minutes. Joon Pahk was a strong runner-up at 9:05, and David Plotkin placed third with a very respectable showing of 11:13.

[Image courtesy of ACPT.]

As he had done all tournament, Dan solved with undeniable speed and precision, claiming his eighth tournament victory!

And it was a strong showing for many other familiar names! Doug Peterson placed 21st, David Steinberg placed 26th, Angela Halsted placed 94th, Vega Subramaniam cracked the top 100 with 98th, and Patti Varol placed 113th out of a field of 741 participants. (And even with one eye tied behind his back, Keith Yarbrough managed an impressive performance as well!)

There were also some wonderfully heartwarming stories to emerge from the tournament, like this multi-generational solving success story:

In the end, Jenna LaFleur (aka daughter) placed 33rd! Awesome job!

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.

Of course, everyone should make sure to check their puzzle vaults when they get home:

We’ll see you next year!


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The ACPT Returns This Weekend!

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The 42nd edition of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is this weekend!

Puzzlers from all over are sharpening their pencils and their wits as they gear up for what is affectionately known as the Nerd Olympics, and we here at PuzzleNation wish all of the competitors the best of luck!

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Here’s hoping Puzzle #5 isn’t as diabolical as it has been in previous years!

There is a topnotch lineup of constructors to challenge this year’s competitors. Not only do we have Patrick Berry and Mike Shenk — perennial contributors to the tournament — but there will also be puzzles from ACPT stalwarts like Lynn Lempel and Joel Fagliano, as well as tournament puzzle debuts for Evan Birnholz, Robyn Weintraub, Jeff Stillman, and Kathy Wienberg! I can’t wait to see what they’ve concocted for this year’s tournament!

Good luck to everyone competing! And hey, if you need a pencil sharpener — or you’d like some terrific puzzly merch, contests, and a few freebies — we’ll be hanging out with our pals at the Penny Dell Puzzles table again this year! Be sure to stop by!


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Crossword Solving Advice, Tournament-Style!

With the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament looming large, newcomers to the tournament and experienced puzzlers alike are trading advice, looking for ways to improve their solving, and gearing up for the latest edition of the Nerd Olympics.

In a similar vein, Lifehacker recently shared a post with advice for how to get better at crosswords. And I thought, with the tournament a little more than a week away, we’d analyze Lifehacker’s suggestions for sharpening your solving game.

1.) Do puzzles every day.

According to article author A.A. Newton, “the only way to improve at crosswords is to do lots of them, and the best way to do that is to work them into your daily routine.” Now, since there is more than one entry in her list, clearly that’s not THE ONLY way to improve.

But this is still valuable advice, especially with the tournament coming up. You see, a fair number of crossword solvers solve them online, either through apps or website interfaces, rather than on paper. But since the tournament puzzles are solved on paper, it’s a good idea to practice the old-fashioned way for a few weeks before the competition, especially if solving time is a priority for you.

2.) Use an app.

Like I said, access to puzzles is a great thing; being able to solve crosswords for all sorts of skill levels at the touch of a button… you can’t beat it. It exposes you to different cluing styles, theme ideas, and all sorts of clever wordplay.

I’d recommend an app that tracks your solving. Several apps like our very own Daily POP Crosswords app track data like your solving times, themes or categories you excel in, and even streaks of days gone without missing a daily puzzle!

3.) Know when — and how — to cheat

Now, this one is a little bit clickbait-y, since it’s only cheating if you look up answers during actual competition. I don’t consider it cheating to admit defeat on a clue you can’t get or a reference you don’t know, and looking it up in order to educate yourself.

Many apps offer hints — either by offering additional letters or entire words that are stumping you — which allows you to continue solving and get past a roadblock in your crossword knowledge.

And if you’re solving a paper puzzle, there are numerous crossword clue sites on the Internet with databases of previously used clues for you to peruse. Not only does this help you with the troublesome clue at hand, but it shows you the different variations of clues you might see for a given entry, which is helpful in the long run.

Of course, you can’t actually do this sort of thing at the ACPT. (Though you can utilize “Google tickets” at other tournament events like Lollapuzzoola, where instructors will silently provide an answer for you so you can keep solving.)

4.) Study up

There are all sorts of crossword resources out there. The article namedrops a few, like Rex Parker’s blog, XWordInfo, and several online guides to crosswordese.

I would also recommend Wordplay, the companion blog to The New York Times crossword. Not only does Deb Amlen break down each day’s puzzles, but there are articles collecting words that will help you become a better solver. Musical terms, authors, plants, opera terms, French rivers, characters from Greek mythology… the whole series is packed with common crosswordese and little obscurities that crossword solvers have come to know and, if not love, then at least tolerate.

But there is other tournament-specific advice I would offer:

  • Have pencils and erasers handy. Maybe a sharpener as well, though there are a few scattered around the competition space. (And we always have one available for use at the Penny Dell / PuzzleNation table in the marketplace!)
  • Bring a clipboard or other writing surface, since the solving space is often tableclothed, which can interact poorly with sharp pencils and paper puzzles.
  • Talk to fellow puzzlers. There’s nothing better than the experience of other solvers, many of whom are also constructors or tournament regulars.
  • Everyone approaches the actual solving process differently. Some people scan the clues for fill-in-the-blank clues or people’s names and fill those in first. Others read through the clues sequentially and fill in what they can. Some solvers even try to solve using only the Down clues, and then double-check their solve with the Across clues. My advice is to try different techniques and see what works best for you.

Whether it’s your first time attending a tournament or you’ve got a few seasons under your belt, there are always new tricks to learn and new techniques to try out.

Do you have any solving advice we missed? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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PN Review: Crossword Mysteries: A Puzzle to Die For

In January of 2018, it was announced that Hallmark Movies and Mysteries would be teaming up with Will Shortz of The New York Times Crossword fame to produce a mystery film with crosswords at the heart of the story.

This past Sunday, the film finally made its debut on cable television, starring Hallmark Mysteries stalwarts Lacey Chabert and Brennan Elliott in their fourth outing together, but the first under the Crossword Mysteries brand, collaborating to solve a twisty mystery worthy of the channel.

I’ll recap the story below, and then give my thoughts on the whole endeavor. If you’d like to read my conclusions but skip the spoilers, scroll down to the next solid black line.

Ready? Okay, let’s do this!


FILM RECAP

The film opens with a stealthy thief sneaking into an art gallery via the skylight, then focusing on one particular painting. A man walks into the room, interrupting the robbery in progress, and smiles, seemingly recognizing his attacker. He then gets shot for his trouble.

Cut to Tess Harper (Lacey Chabert), a crossword editor strolling through New York City on her way to work at The New York Sentinel newspaper. She is accosted by no less than three people en route to her desk, which is obviously routine. (Ask any constructor. They’re practically mobbed in the streets by eager solvers looking for hints.)

Tess, our intrepid puzzler, meets her mentor Pierre at the elevator, and they discuss the Sentinel’s upcoming crossword puzzle tournament.

We then return to the scene of the crime, where detective Logan O’Connor (Brennan Elliott), briefs the police chief on the scene. The only clues are a single shell casing (whereas the victim was shot three times) and an unfinished crossword in the victim’s back pocket.

Tess looks around the room for ideas in order to complete her crossword, as she’s one 8-letter word shy of finishing. In a quick chat with the newspaper’s editor, Tess is credited with an uptick in online readers thanks to her puzzle editing.

She shares a desk with the paper’s crime beat reporter, Harris, and he briefs her on the murder at the art gallery. It turns out the victim was friends with Tess’s aunt, and she’s about to have lunch with her. Quel coincidence!

Our two protagonists have a meet-awkward while waiting in line for coffee. And then cross paths again when Logan talks to Harris. Tess is peppy and interested, while Logan is dismissive. He’s polite enough to ask what a crossword editor does, then proceeds to be a mild jerk about her explanation.

He does mention the crossword in the victim’s pocket, which has only sporadic across clues filled in. In pen. In cursive writing. She explains that the crossword clue he has is weird, because no one solves puzzles like that.

After their less-than-pleasant exchange, Tess classifies Logan as a Monday puzzle, “the simplest one of the week.” Ouch.

Back at the police station, Logan comes up with footage of the suspect, but there’s a discrepancy between the footage of the intruder and the coroner’s estimated time of death.

Tess, preoccupied with the crime, looks over a crossword puzzle from a week before, and thinks she sees clues pointing toward the murder.

COMMERCIAL!

Tess brings her theory to the detective, and gets brushed off rather abruptly. To be fair, her “clues” are very specious. (She points out that the word BIRD could mean Nightingale, the last name of the victim, and CINDERELLA could point toward midnight, when the crime occurred.)

We learn that the puzzle wasn’t one of Tess’s. Instead, it was a submitted puzzle from a regular constructor named Abigail Krebs. But when she tries to contact the constructor, the phone number traces back to a bar, and nobody there had ever heard of hers. When she and Harris visit the constructor’s address on file, it’s a funeral home. Another suspicious dead end.

That night, Tess attends a memorial service for the victim at his art gallery. She and her aunt meet an art dealer who worked with Alan, who is brutally rude and says Alan got his just desserts. Not the usual sort of talk at a memorial service.

Logan shows up, continuing his investigation, and continues to be kind of a jerk to Tess.

As we follow both his and Tess’s conversations with various characters, the suspects begin piling up. We have the art dealer, the person in charge of security at the art gallery (who was conveniently on vacation the night of the murder), the victim’s ex-wife who is constantly mentioned, and Tess’s two odd helpers for the tournament, Elizabeth and Alexander, who flub the name of a beach near their supposed Newport abode.

COMMERCIAL!

Logan talks to Carmichael, the security guy, who mentions how cheap the victim was, skimping on everything from employee pay to the security system. Tess continues to push her theory about the crossword constructor, but gets nowhere with the detective.

She does, however, upgrade him from a Monday puzzle to a Thursday puzzle: “difficult, but full of surprises.”

Later, in her apartment, Tess looks over more of the mysterious constructor’s previously published puzzles, and spots a pattern. She calls Logan, but gets no response. (Though she does get encouragement from Harris, who thinks she’s onto something.)

Tess and the detective cross paths AGAIN at the ex-wife’s bakery, and he accuses her of interfering with the investigation. Tess rebuffs his argument by continuing to point out specious clues (like boxes of frozen pies suggesting that the ex-wife lied about her alibi, which was working late baking fresh pies for the morning rush).

When Tess mentions something shady going on with Alan (he’s only half the story, according to something Veronica, the ex-wife, said to Tess), for the first time, the detective seems receptive to her help.

COMMERCIAL!

In a meeting with Logan and his police chief father, Tess presents her theory, revealing a pattern of puzzles and art heists she believes are connected. (As she explains, the chief hilariously pilfers several treats Tess brought back from the bakery.)

According to Tess, the constructor always places certain keywords in the same parts of the grid. The location is always 1 across, the point of entry is always 22 across, the time to strike is always 44 across, and the target is always 53 across. If you know what you’re looking for, you’d have everything a thief would need to know.

Although skeptical, the two cops agree to pursue the theory, and all three begin referring to the mysterious constructor as the Phantom. Which is very silly. (Unless it’s your pseudonym for cryptic crosswords in the UK, that is.)

Tess claims she can profile any constructor through their puzzles, since someone’s word choices are distinct, a personal fingerprint. She also mentions that, if the pattern is correct, there will be a robbery tomorrow, since the Phantom had a puzzle published last week.

She gets a call from Pierre that Channel 4 is waiting to interview her about the tournament, and leaves the two detectives to their work.

After an interview at the hotel, she gets a call from Harris, who has turned up something in his background research on the victim, Nightingale, and he warns Tess to be careful. As soon as she’s done with tournament stuff, she plans to meet up with him. But before photos can be taken with the interviewer, Elizabeth and Alexander find an excuse not to be photographed, which is very suspicious. Pierre offhandedly mentions to Tess that the pair have a nice collection of antiques.

Returning to the office later that night, Tess finds Harris lying on the floor, bloody and non-responsive. He’s been shot.

COMMERCIAL!

Unfortunately, Tess was too late, and Harris is gone. Logan meets her at the scene, and she mentions the possible connection between Harris’s murder and the Nightingale case. The detective is interested enough about the crossword connection to join Tess at the tournament, asking for a list of attendees and volunteers, which Pierre helpfully provides.

In the meantime, Logan corners one of the sketchy art dealer’s employees, who explains that she brokered a deal for one of Nightingale’s paintings, but it turned out to be stolen. He also claims she “got even” with Nightingale.

Tess badgers Logan into posting someone at the gallery she suspects will be the next crime scene, and explains that a work by an artist with two S’s will be stolen. Tess believes the next crime will be a stolen Picasso.

COMMERCIAL!

Tess and Logan meet for dinner across the street from the potential robbery site. Tess talks about her crossword profile of the constructor, mentioning a penchant for sailing terms and British slang. It is revealed that Tess’s love of puzzles comes from her dad and how they would solve crosswords together. She likes that crosswords, no matter how tricky, always have one answer.

Well, almost always. She namedrops the famous 1996 Election Day puzzle where both “BOB DOLE ELECTED” and “CLINTON ELECTED” were possible solutions, then realizes last week’s puzzle — the one that led to this stakeout — could also have two answers. After all, MATISSE is another 7-letter painter with two S’s.

Logan and Tess race to the Matisse gallery in time to see two suspects fleeing. Logan catches one, who turns out to be the security guy Carmichael from Nightingale’s place. He confesses to disabling the security for both the Matisse gallery and Nightingale’s gallery.

Carmichael’s accomplice — who he only met twice and knows nothing about — had chalk on his hands. Logan connects that to the rope left behind at the Nightingale murder scene, which leads them to the climbing gear store that sold the rope. The only person who bought that kind of rope recently AND has a criminal record becomes their prime suspect.

As Logan interrogates the suspect, he confirms Tess’s theory about the crosswords, claiming he doesn’t know who hired him or about the murders of Harris and Nightingale. His job was to complete the theft, then drop off the stolen goods at a secure location. That’s all.

Logan realizes that, if the murderer and the thief are two different people, that would explain the two-hour discrepancy in the video footage mentioned earlier.

COMMERCIAL!

With the tournament starting the next day and a killer still on the loose, tensions are high. Logan meets Tess at ping-pong, where she plays to de-stress. As she and Logan go over some of the constructor’s other puzzles, Tess points out that two of the answer words point toward the shady art dealer.

We also get a Will Shortz sighting in the background, followed by a Will Shortz cameo, as he banters with Tess about vocabulary and retrieves a wayward ping-pong ball from under their table.

Leaning on Tess’s constructor profile, the duo set a trap for the Phantom: a practice puzzle for the tournament loaded with Phantom-friendly words. Whoever does well on the puzzle is a likely suspect. But then Tess is nearly run down by an SUV that races out of the alley!

Logan calls in a description of the vehicle and a partial license plate number, then offers Tess a ride to her aunt’s apartment, where she’s spending the night. Along the way, we get a little backstory on Logan, humanizing him a bit. (His jerkiness, by this point, has mostly tapered off, thankfully.)

Later on that night, Tess laments to her aunt that she can’t solve this particular puzzle, and lives hang in the balance. Man, is she earnest or what?

The next day, Logan adds a few more wrinkles to the story. A background check on volunteers Elizabeth and Alexander turns up nothing, absolutely nothing, which is peculiar. Also, Harris’s Fitbit was GPS-enabled, so he’ll be able to track Harris’s movements from the day he died, which will hopefully point to a suspect.

COMMERCIAL!

It’s tournament time in the grand ballroom of some fancy schmancy hotel, and man, ACPT contenders would be jealous of the elbow room afforded to competitors at The NY Sentinel’s 17th annual crossword tournament, because they’ve got plenty of personal space.

Tess hands out the practice puzzle, and the solvers begin. (Side note: it’s weird that the volunteers Elizabeth and Alexander are solving the practice puzzle. Shouldn’t they be working?)

Complications start piling up at a record pace. The art dealer’s SUV is a match to the one that tried to run Tess down. Harris’s Fitbit had him at Veronica’s bakery on the day of the murder. And Pierre excels at the practice puzzle, while Elizabeth and Alexander struggle.

As Logan departs to pursue the bakery angle, Tess’s assistant stumbles upon some of Harris’s background research on Nightingale, which was left behind on the photocopier and mixed in with copies of the tournament puzzles.

It’s a photocopy of an article about the Nightingales, complete with a photo and a caption mentioning Alan and Chesley Nightingale.

As Tess gives her opening speech before the tournament begins, Logan confronts Veronica about Harris’s visit on the day of his murder. She says that someone wants her to keep quiet, and by doing so, she’s preventing a third murder from happening.

As round one of the tournament wraps up and the contestants file out, Tess checks out Pierre’s bag, and finds something inside a small plastic owl trinket that alarms her.

FINAL COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Two shell casings tumble into Tess’s hands, the contents of the plastic owl. She puts them back, but not before Pierre spots her near his bag. She conjures up a quick excuse for why she was handling his things, then grabs her phone, saying she’ll be right back.

She calls Logan and tells him what she found, which confirms what he learned from Veronica: that Pierre is secretly Alan’s brother AND the constructor of the puzzles.

Logan says he’s on the way with backup and he’ll be there soon. But when Tess hangs up, Pierre has her cornered, pistol in hand!

He confirms the clues about the art dealer were a red herring, an insurance policy. And all his distractions (as well as the attempt on her life with the SUV) were intended to scare her away from investigating. [Side note: Most of his distractions were simply requests for Tess to fulfill her tournament responsibilities. But she was too busy playing detective. If I was Pierre, I’d be mildly miffed myself.]

Pierre escorts Tess to the roof to kill her, but she manages to keep him talking until Logan arrives, saving her life.

As it turns out, Elizabeth and Alexander are in witness protection, explaining their secretive nature and camera-shy ways. They also explain away the art dealer’s suspicious dealings, wrapping up the loose ends nicely.

Now that the case is closed, Tess upgrades Logan once more, now to a Saturday puzzle: “sometimes so exasperating, but the smartest one of the week.”

And the story ends as they part ways, both turning back to look at the other at different times, something left unfinished between them.

THE END!


ONE FINAL SPOILER-Y NOTE

We never find out why Alan was carrying the crossword in his pocket in the first place, though I have a theory.

I suspect Alan was a willing participant in Pierre’s thefts and schemes, but didn’t know exactly how Pierre contacted the thieves he employed. The small smile Alan gives before he’s murdered, after noticing the painting is missing, makes me think Alan had just recently figured out the crossword angle, and the missing painting confirmed it. (The brief glimpse of the crossword we get shows that he filled out all of the relevant across entries in the pattern Tess reveals later.)

Of course, that satisfaction turns to shock when he sees the gun and is murdered. Pierre said that Alan’s incompetence endangered their enterprise, and it turns out, he’s right. Because without Alan having that crossword in his pocket, Tess would never have gotten involved and cracked the code.

That’s my theory anyway.


CONCLUSION

I know, I know, we never actually get to see any puzzles, and we don’t know who won the tournament. But other than that, how was the movie?

All in all, it’s a very competently put together mystery. Lots of small details are important, and nothing feels terribly extraneous. The plot builds nicely, the stakes increasing as both Tess and Logan delve deeper into the mystery of Nightingale’s murder. The commercial breaks are also exquisitely timed to maximize the dramatic effect of several plot reveals and tense moments.

As for the characters, Tess is immensely likable. The detective starts off a little dry for my tastes, but is slowly worn down by the earnest charm of Lacey Chabert’s character. Not that I was surprised. After all, who can resist an intelligent woman with mad puzzle skills, I ask you?

A few of the characters are cartoonish — the art dealer, in particular, was a little too gleeful in her pseudo-villainy — but for the most part, everyone plays their parts well. John Kapelos as the police chief was a delight, stealing many of his scenes with loving fatherly regard, playful chiding, and a knack for sneaking extra baked goods when he thought no one was looking.

In the end, it’s all a bit of harmless fun, a cozy mystery with some puzzly trappings.

During the final commercial break, the network confirmed that three more Crossword Mysteries will be aired in October. (IMDb has the 6th, the 13th, and 20th listed as potential air dates for these three follow-ups.)

I’m definitely curious to see where they take the series from here, and how crosswords and criminal mischief will cross paths again. Now that the initial pairing obstacles are gone, I look forward to seeing how Logan and Tess work as a team in future investigations.

Did you watch the film? What did you think? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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